Tuesday was Shakespeare’s “birthday”.
I put “birthday” in quotation marks because, much like most things Shakespeare, we don’t know precisely when the man was born. Early modern birthing and burial practices being what they were, we can hazard a guess. Since April 23 is as good a day as any, it pleases us to tell ourselves that this is the day upon which our Will was born and, as such, we should celebrate him on that day.
To celebrate, I was invited to speak on a panel by New Hampshire’s Seven Stages Shakespeare company. The panel was held in the most adorable little bookshop in Portsmouth (Riverrun books) and consisted of a wide array of experts: Hope Jordan, the first official slam poet master in New Hampshire; John-Michael Albert, Portsmouth’s outgoing poet laureate; myself; and a much more senior Shakespeare scholar, Dr. David Richman. Our conversation was focused on The Phoenix and the Turtle, the role of poetry throughout time and poetry in general, but what it really made me do was remember my roots as a Shakespearean.
I’m certain that by now anyone who follows this has 100% assurance of my devotion to Shakespeare as a lifestyle. This life choice is a debt that I owe to my amazingly brilliant Grandmother who decided that no grandchild of hers would be bad-mouthing the bard and made it her business to forcibly subject me to well-performed pieces until I learned to love them. Since then, I’ve used her method several times on others whom I’ve wanted to instill a similar Shakes-beat into and I’ve actually found that this is the best way to convert the unfaithful. There is, without a doubt, something about Shakespeare that touches us as human beings and, while reading it can be dull and unfulfilling, seeing it performed by anyone who has an ounce of sense and talent is something the human heart can’t forget. We’re beings of music and stardust, metaphor and poetry. We’re beings of emotion: love and anger, jealousy and hate, yearning and hope. It’s all in there; every last bit. Anything you could want or hope to feel as a human is something you will find in the canon, it’s simply a question of knowing where to look.
It would be strange of me to try and explain how Shakespeare has affected my life since I live every moment with the man. Would I have a life without Shakespeare? Well, sure, but it would be a completely different life. He’s managed to creep inside my soul and speak from the darkest places there. But here’s the thing: the more I learn about Will, the more I realize this fascination isn’t one I feel alone. Throughout history many great men and women have felt the same; I’m in the company of Goethe, Jonson, Müller. I’m in conversations with John Quincy Adams, Isaac Asimov, and Neil Gaiman. I’m haunted by Voltaire, Sarah Bernhardt, and John Keats. Shakespeare studies is inclusive; it touches just about every other major course of literary study to some extent, and it’s written all over the history of the theatre. Because of Shakespeare, I have something to talk about with most people in my extended field (both the arts and humanities).
Shakespeare’s the great communicator and the great equalizer. When I need to say something but can’t quite find the right words, I often turn to him for help. When I am feeling something overwhelming, I often remember how his characters dealt with similar feelings (…though generally refrain from enacting their often bloody and complicated solutions; I have enough trouble in my life without running mad, baking people into pies, or crafting over-engineered schemes to manipulate the people around me and then wondering why they don’t work/how they could have possibly worked so well). Shakespeare’s there at my best and my worst and, these days, is often the catalyst for such moments. I rely on him to be a constant source of inspiration; a heartbeat to my work. He’s with me at every conference and he’s coached me through the end of every semester. When I feel like giving up, he alternates glowering at me and encouraging me. He keeps me motivated and excited. He calls me back when I’ve wandered too far astray, and he tells me to play the field when I’m being too clingy.
Shakespeare, right now, is my life. And I am so grateful to have the opportunities which allow this.
Here’s a few snippets of the panel. Watch, enjoy, and bid a big happy birthday to my man Will. Also, if you were interested in how some other internet denizens have chosen to celebrate Shakespeare-day, you should check out the e-card that the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust put together with folks around the world (myself included) available here.