Jilly: Celebrating 400 Years of Shakespeare

Celebrating 400Are you a Shakespeare fan?

Did you know that next Saturday is the 400th anniversary of his death?

To commemorate his life and works, the BBC and the British Council are curating an amazing celebration called Shakespeare Lives, a six-month festival of Shakespeare-related events, which will be available online globally (free!). Many of the UK’s finest arts organisations and performers will be part of the action. The fun starts next weekend with Shakespeare Day Live, which actually runs over two days next Friday and Saturday, 22 and 23 April.

Shakespeare Day Live will be available on a pop-up digital channel offering odes, Hamlet from Shakespeare’s Globe in Bankside, London, features, ballet, opera, songs, movies and best of all, from 10.30pm BST next Saturday (great timing for any Shakespeare fans across the pond), the Royal Shakespeare Company with David Tennant as Richard II.

Find out more about the overall Shakespeare Lives festival here.

Link to the Shakespeare Day Live schedule here.

Maybe you’re not a Shakespeare fan. Maybe now is the time to give the great man a try. He wrote popular comedy, tragedy, historicals and fantasy, and his stories live on today because the characters are so powerful and the emotions so strongly and clearly expressed. You’ll find love, hatred, jealousy, treachery, ambition, humor, bigotry, cross-dressing, spectacular Big Misunderstandings, lots of sex, filthy jokes, and if you’re willing to put in a little work to attune your ear to the language, vivid imagery, deeply pleasing rhythms and truly dazzling wordplay.

If you think that sounds rather OTT, I refer you to this brilliant piece of video gold on youtube – 1979 footage of Sir Ian McKellen picking apart and explaining Macbeth’s famous speech “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.” The clip is twelve minutes long and ends with the soliloquy itself. I found it moving and inspiring and I hope you do too (link here).

You probably know that Shakespeare gave us many sayings that are still in common usage today. Did you know that all of these are his (and there are many, many more):

  • The lady doth protest too much (Hamlet)
  • Love is blind (The Merchant of Venice)
  • The better part of valour is discretion (King Henry IV, Part I)
  • I’ll not budge an inch (Taming of the Shrew)
  • Cry “Havoc” and let slip the dogs of war (Julius Caesar)
  • I bear a charmed life (Macbeth)
  • I am a man more sinned against than sinning (King Lear)
  • I will wear my heart upon my sleeve (Othello)
  • The game is up (Cymbeline)
  • Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them (Twelfth Night)
  • The course of true love never did run smooth (A Midsummer Night’s Dream).

If you’re tempted to dip a toe in the water but think Richard II may not be the place to start, you could check out a movie instead, frex:

  • Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, or
  • Joss Whedon’s mafia-set Much Ado About Nothing, filmed in his own home, or
  • Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in Macbeth, or
  • Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus, set in present-day Eastern Europe (“Bloodied, brutal and brilliant”) or
  • Anything starring Kenneth Branagh, especially Henry V.

Still not convinced? What about a contemporary homage to the Bard? Maybe:

  • West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein’s musical version of Romeo & Juliet, or
  • Kiss Me Kate, the famous musical based on The Taming of the Shrew, or
  • Return to The Forbidden Planet, musical comedy based on The Tempest, or
  • Warm Bodies, the heart-warming (literally) zombie Romeo & Juliet.

I could go on and on, but I won’t.

Are you a Shakespeare fan?

If not, why not?

If you are, what’s your favorite, traditional or modern?

12 thoughts on “Jilly: Celebrating 400 Years of Shakespeare

    • I’m glad you’re a fan, though have to say of all the Shakespeare heroines I think would suit you, I don’t think Ophelia would make my list 😉 .

      Love that link, thank you! Hope you enjoy Ian McKellen.

  1. Hello Jilly – I’ve just watched that Macbeth lecture; fascinating and, as you said, moving.

    What you say about Shakespeare is interesting. I was the typical person turned off Shakespeare at school and have basically avoided him for years and years (though my partner loved him). But just recently, I went with my mother to watch A Winter’s Tale (we were lucky enough to see Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench when they were in the West End recently) and it was a revelation to me. I absolutely loved it. I just had to make the mental shift to view it in a similar light to opera – as in, it didn’t matter if I got every word, but it was about the sheer the beauty of the whole thing (in this case, the beauty of the patterns and rhythms of the language, as well as the sense of the words). We had such a good time, that we’re going to see Romeo and Juliet (another Kenneth Branagh production, though I don’t think he’s in this one) next month.

    So, I’ll be looking out for Shakespeare Day Live – thanks for blogging about it. 🙂

    • I hear what you say about school. I was fine with Shakespeare, and Chaucer, but many of my friends weren’t, and my husband was like you – school spoiled it for him and it took him years and years to come around though he loves it now. I wish there was a way for schools to get students to enjoy the stories without beating them to death for exam grades.

      Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench – wow. I saw Kevin Spacey as Richard III a couple of years ago and he was amazing – so charismatic you could believe him getting away with murder 🙂 . As you say, the patterns and rhythms of the language in the hands of a really good actor are a joy, even if you don’t catch every word. I think Kenneth Branagh has a real knack for Shakespeare – his films are excellent – so I bet Romeo & Juliet will be a very good night out. Take tissues!

        • Well, somebody certainly disposed of those poor boys, and Will says Richard did it, so it must be true. And he killed Lady Anne’s husband and father, then seduced and married her. And had poor Clarence dumped head-first in a butt of Malmsey. Plus removing other assorted hapless bodies that might have obstructed his path to the crown.

          Kevin definitely made me think he did it 😉 .

  2. I totally recognize the debt all of us English-speakers have for Shakespeare, and I would like to like him a lot more than I do. I have to admit, though, that it can be hard work mining for the beautiful gems that are hidden in 16th-17th century syntax.

    Still, I have bits of my high school memorization assignments float through my head almost every week. And whenever the north winds blow, I can’t help but cry out, “Blow, blow, thou winter wind. Thou art not so unkind as man’s ingratitude.” We learned that one in choir.

    I think Shakespeare is much better when it’s on the stage. We had a group from the UK who brought Romeo and Juliet (in English) to one of the local town halls — so amazing!

    For me, though, it isn’t so much a matter of liking or not liking. He just IS a big part of the English language. It’s like liking the sky. Impossible to imagine the world without the sky or without Shakespeare.

    • I agree it’s much better on stage, or on film, and I’m really glad that powerful actors and directors like Michael Fassbender and Joss Whedon make movie adaptations (Joss Whedon made Much Ado as a holiday treat, between big-budget blockbusters).

      I love your comment about the sky. I never thought of it that way, but it’s true – and natural that we take it for granted. Maybe every now and again we need a reminder to look up 🙂 .

  3. I’ve seen a couple of big-name productions lately—one a filmed version of Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch that was amazing. And while I agree about the power and universality of Shakespeare’s work—honestly, he could use an editor sometimes. A brutal one. Four hours! You’d think he was paid by the word. A million years ago I saw Ian McKellon in something (MacBeth, maybe?)—the play doesn’t matter as much as the memory of the fear, amazement, and fury on the stage. As you say, strong emotions. And one of my favorite productions was a local staging of The Tempest, when the actors wore goofy costumes and accessed the stage by riding bicycles through the audience. Still great after 400 years.

    • I hear you about the editing. Though at the other end of the spectrum there’s the Reduced Shakespeare Company – his entire works in about 90 minutes. We saw them perform it live many years ago but I believe they’re still going strong and easily found on youtube.

      The production of The Tempest sounds fab. I love, love, love Return to the Forbidden Planet, billed as Shakespeare’s forgotten rock n roll masterpiece. It’s a mash-up of The Tempest and the 1950s sci-fi movie Forbidden Planet, with classic rock n roll songs and some truly terrible puns. Genius.

      As you say, still great after 400 years.

  4. I was never a big Shakespeare fan (though we had to read plenty of it in school) but two things changed my mind. The first was Joss Whedon’s Much Ado and the second was seeing a live performance of Hamlet the last time I was in Oxford. I’m still not a super-fan, but seeing the stories staged rather than just reading them made a big difference.

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