Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Red Letter Day

Calendar-wise, today is the Big One for us Englishmen and women - St George's Day, and the traditionally accepted birth date of William Shakespeare (baptised April 26th) and his undoubted death date. There will always be those who, for one reason or another, look down on Shakespeare - Tolstoy and Bernard Shaw among them - or question his authorship of his works, or, reasonably enough, whether he deserves his prime position in the literary pantheon. Only the other night on Radio 3, the playwright Mark Ravenhill asked if Shakespeare's genius is beyond question. My answer would be, well, yes actually it is, if anybody's is ('Others abide our question. Thou are free,' as Matthew Arnold put it). Not only did Shakespeare give us reams of the most beautiful English poetry ever written; he also wrote at least a score of the greatest plays in any language. What's more, I would contend that all we need to know of human nature and the workings of the human mind is to be found in Shakespeare.
  This is the 450th anniversary of his presumed birth date. The last Big One, the 400th, was marked, rather reluctantly, by a special issue of postage stamps (then an infrequent event), designed by the brilliant David Gentleman. At the time they were highly controversial. Not only were these the first British stamps to feature an image of a commoner - that commoner's head was the same size as the Queen's. 'This caused a fuss that would be unimaginable now,' Gentleman wrote later, 'and there were jokes in Parliament about the proximity of the Queen's head to Shakespeare's Bottom.' How times change. But the greatness of Shakespeare does not.