Image: Shakespeare's Words by Meg, under a Creative Commons licence
I will now take the chance to repeat my contention that the drama is handily inferior to the novel and the poem. Dramatists who have lasted more than a century include Shakespeare and – who else? One is soon reaching for a sepulchral Norwegian. Compare that to English poetry and its great waves of immortality. I agree that it is very funny that Shakespeare was a playwright. I scream with laughter about it all the time. This is one of God’s best jokes.
Experience, Martin Amis
Martin Amis may well have been somewhat combative in his belief that drama isn’t in the same league as the novel or poem, but his point about Shakespeare stands. Yes, he was a dramatist of genius, but his talent begins and ends with language. He was a poet, our greatest. No surprise then that the Scottish Poetry Library wants to join in the celebrations marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
Shakespeare’s death is recorded as having taken place on 23 April 1616. The first major celebration of his life and work came in September 1769. The 18th century actor David Garrick put on a three-day festival in Stratford-upon-Avon to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. There was much about the event that was risible, not least that it took place five years after the 200th anniversary had passed. That, and the fact that no Shakespeare was performed during the festival, only a parade of people dressed as Shakespeare’s characters (which rain ruined) and an ode written and performed by Garrick himself. Laughable as the festival appeared even at the time, it began the nascent Shakespeare industry, placing Stratford-upon-Avon at its heart.
Fast-forward to the present, and we find a deluge of rather more professional number of events around the world marking the four centuries that have passed since the bard shuffled off his mortal coil (see what I did there?). They range from the Royal Mail issuing ten first class stamps featuring quotes taken from Shakespeare’s plays to the Queen displaying family heirlooms that have a Shakespearean theme at Windsor Castle. The BFI is launching its largest ‘Shakespeare on film’ programme to date, while the musician Rufus Wainwright releases a new album, Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets, that sets the bard’s poems to music with help from opera singer Anna Prohaska, singer Florence Welch and actor William Shatner (who some may recall has form with setting Shakespeare to music).
The culminating event of the weekend takes place on Saturday evening, Shakespeare Live! From the RSC, a veritable luvvyfest featuring Simon Russell Beale, Benedict Cumberbatch, English National Opera, the cast of Horrible Histories, Ian McKellan, Helen Mirren, the Royal Ballet, Judi Dench and Meera Syal, and which is hosted by oor ain David Tennant. This kicks off the BBC’s Shakespeare Festival (the highlight of which, we don’t doubt, will be Cunk on Shakespeare, a 30 minute special where Charlie Brooker’s clueless reporter goes in search of you-know-who.
You can of course find all kinds of Shakespeariana at the Scottish Poetry Library, from books by and on him on our shelves to resources on our website. We will be tweeting lines from Shakespeare through the day on Twitter too. We’ll leave the last word to Edwin Morgan, whose birthday fell on the same date as Shakespeare died upon. Morgan’s poem ‘Shakespeare: a Reconstruction’ reminds us that for all the love and hoo-ha that will be show this weekend, there remains something unknowable about the man himself:
Others are open. You give a high smile
as you win the Prospero stakes, and silently
bury your books deeper than any auditor
could find them sound or unsound.