He was born April 23, 1564, this much we seem to know.
Whoever he was, he is our patrimony, the synthesist of the English language, creator not just of Lady Macbeth and Falstaff but of Emma Thompson and Monty Python, Margaret Thatcher and Boris Johnson. He saw it all coming.
I was introduced to Shakespeare in the late winter of 1956-57, the tail end of the basketball season, when I was the student publicist at Hofstra College. The gym was commandeered by a new cast of characters. Instead of housing Butch Van Breda Kolff and his motley band, the gym now held Shakespeare and his rollicking crew.
The annual Shakespeare Festival forced gym classes outdoors or into the Quonset Hut, and caused Butch’s basketball team to finish on the road.
Workers began to assemble what looked like a mix between a Lincoln Log and Tinker Toy construction. Beams and pillars and floors and balconies were lugged into the gym, and put together like a giant puzzle.
The Globe Theatre was the pride of President John Cranford Adams, a Shakespearean scholar, a trim older man with a vaguely British accent and wardrobe somewhat out of place in this informal suburban world. (The next year the festival moved into the new John Cranford Adams Playhouse, still the secular temple of my alma mater and soon to be refurbished, thanks to a benefactor.g)
One of the 1957 stagehands was a fellow freshman – Franny, he was called, in those days, not Francis Ford Coppola. He was a legend for not wearing the ratty gym outfit or olive-green ROTC outfit (years later he told me he had polio as a child and was excused from both.) Instead he wore a workman’s overalls, baggy, with pockets containing hammer, screwdriver and other implements of construction, preparing not just the featured play, “As You Like It,” but also odd little morality plays and musical concerts.
One afternoon I watched a performance, as students I had seen on campus wore gaudy ruffles and low-cut gowns, speaking a language so easy to parody, indecipherable at first but as the ear became accustomed to the cadence, perfectly clear, the wit, the drama, the poetry.
I cannot claim I loved it, had some kind of metamorphosis, but this was as good a reason as any to attend a college heavy on the liberal arts. Out of nowhere, William Shakespeare became my boot camp for language, my basic training for the mind.
Shakespeare has lasted this long, as I follow the academic debates about his journey from Stratford to the South Bank to everywhere in the world. In my years covering Wimbledon – all right, now I will admit it – I would sometimes find a way to join my wife at the National Theatre or the dismal claustrophobia-inducing Barbican.
And one wet June evening in 1997, after I had typed fast at Wimbledon, we bought groundling tickets and stood in the solstice downpour at the new Globe Theatre, watching Henry’s troops heading into battle, and we understood our job was to hiss and whistle at the French soldiers, and maybe toss the odd packet of crisps at them.
Years ago, we wandered into the National Portrait Gallery and spied a man with an earring smirking out at the world. It is the so-called Chandos Portrait (for a previous owner) and the artist may have been John Taylor. The subject is said to be young Will Shakespeare, down from Stratford, to write and drink with his buddies and snag as many women as possible. I take the young man to be Shakespeare because his leer matches the knowing lilt of the plays and sonnets.
Whoever and whatever he was, he doth endure.
Happy Birthday, Dude.