I will take a break from Tree House related news to post in honour of William Shakespeare, whose birthday is celebrated today. We don’t know that he was actually born on this day; we have his baptism date recorded (26 April 1564), and we know that the date of his death was 23 April, and the birth date of 23 April goes back to the 18th century; whether it was given because it also happens to be St George’s day as well as the date of his death seems plausible, but who really cares – today is a day to celebrate the greatest writer in the English language (and surely one of the greatest writers in any language), who is also a local hero – born and bred in Warwickshire, even if he did spend much of his adult life producing plays in London. Kenilworth shares in the celebrations of its near-neighbour Stratford-upon-Avon in paying homage to this local literary hero.
I know a lot of the stories to his plays are a bit silly; this is also true of opera, which has produced some of the most sublime music of all. In both cases, the stories are a vehicle – in Shakespeare’s case, a vehicle to explore the human condition (he was born in the year that Michelangelo died, into a Renaissance culture obsessed with studying man and his place in the cosmos) and to explore, develop, enjoy, alchemise (it may not be a word but I don’t care!) the English language. That we still use countless phrases from Shakespeare in everyday speech shows something of the power of this language – it’s beautiful but it’s profoundly meaningful.
Growing up near Stratford, I was lucky to see several plays by the RSC. I have wonderful memories of a young Patrick Stewart virtually naked as Oberon (not something I’m likely to forget!), to a Titania I can’t remember but whose gossamer cloak filled the stage. Of Ben Kingsley as Brutus when we were studying Julius Caesar for O Level, and being told to take note of him as he was an actor tipped for stardom (this was 1979 or 80) – I later saw him as Othello too. Of Derek Jacobi as Prospero in a Tempest that also incluced Mark Rylance, Alice Krige, Bob Peck and Michael Maloney in a visually stunning representation. My one regret is not having seen Kenneth Branagh’s hugely acclaimed performance as Henry V at the age of 23, the part that made his name. I always love going there, and while they produce plays by other playwrights too (modern as well as Early Modern), it is Shakespeare who still thrills the most. Lately they have been doing lots of interesting things, including commissioning music from contemporary musicians – Jon Boden has provided music for The Winter’s Tale, Laura Marling for As You Like It, in their most recent productions. They do a lot with schools and education – Warwick University now has a Masters degree for teachers specifically in teaching Shakespeare.
We should be very, very proud of Shakespeare as a Warwickshire lad (and of that other literary luminary, George Eliot, also Warwickshire-born). We hear a lot about children forced to read his plays and not understanding them, I sometimes here contemporary actors dismissing him as too difficult to understand, but it just takes a little effort, a little time, a little patience, a little thought and concentration, and the rewards are vast. He was a genius, despite being a down to earth sort by all accounts, not a saint, not beyond criticism, but the greatest writer this country has produced. A writer who contained all the world in his plays, however far-fetched the stories sometimes seem, and in his poems, who gave us words to live by and words to think by, who understood humanity completely and had the ability control and create language to express the depths of what it is to be human.
So happy birthday Will. The Tree House will celebrate his birthday every year, in much more concrete ways than this once we are better established. Were it not early in the day and me in need of breakfast, I would have peppered this post with Shakespearean phrases, that would have made it all a bit wittier.
My catchphrase as I try to lose some weight is ‘Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt…’ – which may seem a trivial way to end a post about this great man, but just shows how his great language encapsulates very ordinary human issues and concerns!
The Tree House needs will power if it is to come to reality, and Will power if it is to be all it truly can be. He can be our guiding spirit.