Published: 23 April 2016

William Shakespeare’s 400 year legacy

midsummer hamlet lear image

School of the Arts student, Catherine Tully, examines the enduring fascination with William Shakespeare on the day that the world marks 400 years since his death.

“Today is the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. Considered to be England’s ‘national poet’ or the great ‘Bard’, Shakespeare’s treasure trove of 37 plays and 154 sonnets still delight and capture audiences and readers around the world.

William Shakespeare is a British icon, not only for his numerous acclaimed works but for his influence on language and the way we speak today. Common phrases from our lexicon are derived from the playwright and bard’s creativity, such as ‘Mum’s the word’ from Henry VI Part II, ‘Own flesh and blood’ from Hamlet and ‘For Goodness sake’ from Henry VIII.

Professor Nandini Das, from the University of Liverpool’s Department of English, said: “The point is not so much that Shakespeare radically transformed English language, but that he was a radical user, he showed how words can be adopted, adapted, bent and twisted into meaning exactly what you want it to mean.”

“If he gives us Macbeth talking about how his blood-soaked hands would “the multitudinous seas incarnadine” on one end of the spectrum, on the other end is Lear’s heart-wrenchingly simple realisation that he will never see his daughter again: “Oh, thou’lt come no more, Never, never, never, never, never.””

Wide appeal

Shakespeare’s plays were mostly written between 1589 and 1613; they are now hundreds of years old yet still maintain the wide appeal they claimed at the time. Despite the dated and sometimes intimidating language, his plays are staged the world-over with most performances, especially those of his most popular tragedies, histories and comedies, selling out in theatres and outdoor stages.

His plays are constantly being reinvented by Directors, from Elizabethan to modern-day dress and dystopian sets, to performances without a single prop. Professor Das speaks of the continuous appeal of the plays: “Much of his plays may be lost on audiences today – the historical allusions, the complexity of the language, sometimes, the jokes. But his plays are very good at portraying the utter simplicity of the most complex of human emotions. Macbeth’s ambition, Lear’s grief – they are at once hugely complex and terribly simple, and Shakespeare is very good at showing how the same thing can be both.”

“Shakespeare himself famously plays fast and loose with place and time, so perhaps it is fitting that we continue to experiment, adapt his plays into our contemporary dress and settings and mix it with other historical tokens.

“A play is not a historical treatise, its task is to reach out to the audience, and if the way to do that is to use setting and costume to add a sense of immediacy, then we owe it to the play to explore those possibilities.”

Creative vision

Shakespeare’s plays have always inspired both academic and creative vision, for instance the Special Collections Archive at the University’s Sydney Jones Library houses multiple editions of his works dating back to the 1800s that feature interpretations of his plays, songs and sonnets with illustrations by artists such as Arthur Rackham and Charles Knight. These beautiful books can be viewed by making an appointment.

To celebrate Shakespeare’s quarter-centenary there are a wide variety of connected public performances, programmes, exhibitions and activities around the country.

Local events in Liverpool include ‘The Complete Walk’. The walk has been commissioned by Shakespeare’s Globe, comprising of a series of 37 short films, one film for each of the bard’s plays, which will be shown free throughout Liverpool City centre on the 23rd and 24th April. Venues include The Everyman and Playhouse Theatres, FACT, Central Library, The Bluecoat and Liverpool Town Hall. More information can be found on Culture Liverpool’s website.

Global entity

Further events included free ticketed Open Rehearsals of The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Everyman on Saturday. Also, as part of the St George’s Quarter festival this weekend, a free exhibition of early folio editions of Shakespeare’s plays at Liverpool Central Library and guided tours organised by St George’s Hall titled ‘Walking the Bard: The Shakespeare Experience’.

For those interested in live performances, the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse are hosting three of Shakespeare’s plays this year including The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merry Wives and The Merchant of Venice.

Professor Nandini Das states, “The curious thing is that Shakespeare is celebrated at once as a British icon and as a global entity. In many ways, Shakespeare’s iconic role incorporates a broad set of ideas and concerns that range from celebrations of nationalism, to a certain possibility of commensurability across national and cultural boundaries – that idea of Shakespeare as a figure for all ages and all times.””




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