William Shakespeare has gone from being British treasure to international phenomenon. The world observes his 450th birth anniversary on April 23.
A slew of festivities in his country of birth and inspiration will be rolled out in honour of William Shakespeare to mark his 450th birth anniversary. Much advance planning by the major Shakespeare centres of performance and heritage — the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, and the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London — has gone into creating a calendar of events that have been paced from early this year right up to 2016, which will mark the 400th year of his death.
Over this time Shakespeare’s life and legacy will be re-interpreted and re-imagined in an infinite variety of ways — in performance, music, and poetry; in pageantry and processions; in educational outreach programmes for schools and community centres; and in academic inquiry and research. In short, Shakespeare will be all around us.
And yet it would appear that the 450th celebrations are by no means a more-of-the-same offering, or a contemporary version of what the 400th birth celebrations may have looked like.
This is because the last 50 years have been profoundly transformatory for Britain. Over this period migration and historical circumstance broke the island nation’s isolation and radically altered its demographic profile and cultural mix. Today “diversity” is Britain’s most celebrated signature motif, one that can be seen, heard and felt in every sphere of life.
For the world of British culture — in which the Shakespearean constituency occupies a major space — social diversity has pushed the traditional frontiers of Shakespearean performance into new and uncharted areas, a process intensified by its rapid cultural globalisation. The plays have been rendered into dozens of languages and performed world wide in a myriad culture-specific art forms. Many of these have come back to Britain to be warmly embraced by the Shakespeare community here, a process of cultural cross-fertilisation that has yielded richer and richer harvests.
“I think this is an extraordinarily exciting moment,” said Tom Bird, Director of the Globe to Globe Festival at Shakespeare’s Globe. “The celebrations of Shakespeare’s 400th birthday would have been of him as a sort of national treasure, whereas the 450th celebrations are for an international phenomenon of whom we can be proud.”
The ambitious Globe-to-Globe project made possible by the “international currency of Shakespeare” will take Hamlet to every country of the world between now and 2016.
“You get these wonderful moments where different performance styles from all over the world have come to interweave with the plays we know so well — and with great new insights and new narratives running through which reflect those plays differently back to another culture,” he said, citing as an example the Chinese National Theatre’s production of Richard III, which used traditional Peking Opera techniques. “The scene when the murderers come to kill the Duke of Clarence in the play was almost lifted from a classic Peking Opera film. So everyone who knew Mandarin was watching it because they really, really knew that film. And so you had this wonderful situation where you had Richard III being performed in the Globe Theatre, and really the people who were in on the joke in a way were the Chinese people in the audience. So the whole thing was de-centred completely. And that process will go on and on.”
It is not surprising therefore that the Shakespearean legacy in multi-cultural Britain is the theme that imbues the events and celebrations planned around Shakespeare 450. How could it have been otherwise in a society where the influence of both Shakespeare and multi-culturism is so potent?
Even the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the prestigious guardian of the vast material heritage of Shakespeare, has in its plans for the year responded positively to the idea that the Shakespearean legacy is an international one to share.
“Initially we looked at the 450th year of Shakespeare as a good marketing opportunity, but then we realised that it could be also an opportunity to make a real step-change in the way that we present Shakespeare to the world,” said Diana Owen, Director. “Increasingly we are discovering that what makes Shakespeare so important today is that ability for people to come together through a shared knowledge and appreciation of his work.”
Central to the Trust’s 450th year fare is ‘Famous beyond words’, a new and permanent exhibition that illustrates how Shakespeare permeates our everyday world. “Whether it is the language you speak every day, the road and shop signs that you see, even the fashion brands, we almost unconsciously share this Shakespearean lexicon and imagery,” said Dr Owen.
The new exhibition charts the globalisation of Shakespeare, depicting how different cultures have sought to interpret and present him. It then narrows to focus on exhibits like the first folios, property deeds, and rare books, all from the Trust’s own collections. The Trust has over a million documents in its archives, and over 55,000 books, which includes translations of Shakespeare’s works in 90 languages.
Shakespeare Week was another resoundingly successful project by the Trust. A week-long outreach activity programme that introduced Shakespeare to children in primary schools, it was planned in 500 schools but ran in 3,500 schools, with more than half a million children participating, said Dr. Owen. Fifty schools from other countries, including India, also took part.
“Singing Shakespeare” is another innovative project by the Trust that will see 12 choirs commissioned by the Trust sing choral settings by the well-known composer Gary Carpenter. The programme will premier on April 24 at the Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon.
April 23, believed to be Shakespeare’s date of birth, will have the public participate in a colourful pageant in Stratford where Shakespeare’s characters will come alive in song, dance, speech and general merriment on the town’s street.
How would Shakespeare have taken to this cultural hybridisation of his life and works, I asked Tom Bird, half in jest.
“He would have been surprised I suppose but I am pretty confident that he would have embraced a multicultural England,” the director replied. The acting companies in Shakespeare’s time, and most probably his own, toured extensively, including abroad, “so we know that there was a real ambition among players of that period to involve themselves with the world. While reading or watching Shakespeare I don’t find it difficult to find something in there that seems to embrace the variety of humanity.”