“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”
“The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”
“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.”
All three phrases come from the pen of William Shakespeare, the son of an alderman and glover born at an English crossroads about 100 miles away from London 450 years ago today. We know little about him – only a few shards of paper with his signature on it still exist, and no original manuscripts of the plays, poems or sonnets that he wrote have survived the ravages of time, barring a miraculous discovery in some cobweb-infested English attic.
Nonetheless, Shakespeare still stands, even after all these centuries, as a monumental figure, not just among theater aficionados and English majors, but across all of humanity.
His major works – “Hamlet,” “King Lear,” “Macbeth,” “The Tempest,” “Romeo and Juliet” and on and on – have been translated into every tongue, and somewhere in the world right now, someone is memorizing a passage from one of his works. Theater companies entirely dedicated to plumbing the depths of his canon labor daily. It says something about the timelessness of Shakespeare’s works that they not only continue to be presented and appreciated in an age of relentless distraction, but that they are also so durable that they can be showcased in any number of ways, whether it’s “Macbeth” being staged in Haiti (as Orson Welles imagined it on Broadway in the late 1930s), or in Japan, with its central character taking the form of a grasping feudal warlord (the filmmaker Akira Kurosawa approached “Macbeth” that way with his 1957 movie “Throne of Blood”).
We never seem to tire of Shakespeare’s infinite variety, to quote the man himself.
Perhaps the most conspicuous reflection of the broad influence Shakespeare continues to have is the frequency with which lines or ideas from his plays seep into everyday discourse. When we refer to someone exacting “a pound of flesh” from a person or institution, we are, whether we realize it or not, drawing from “The Merchant of Venice.” When we complain about someone “protesting too much” we are quoting “Hamlet.” As one relentlessly grim, cold, snowy day followed another this past January and February and we mused about “the winter of our discontent,” we were echoing “Richard III.”
And speaking of “Richard III,” we still cannot resist comparing fallen public officials to Shakespeare’s power-mad, conniving monarch. When someone stumbles into a position of authority when they’re still a little green behind the ears, we pull our copies of the Bard’s “Henry V” off our shelves. When a public figure is undone by plotting underlings, we summon up “Julius Caesar.”
Of course, there are those who continue to insist that Shakespeare, a man born outside 16th century Britain’s most cosmopolitan class, couldn’t have written all those plays, that they were probably the work of a nobleman who used Shakespeare as a beard. But these arguments suggest that genius, the most volatile and unpredictable of commodities, can only spring among the well-heeled, or be nurtured in highfalutin zip codes. For more recent examples that give the lie to that argument, look no further than Vincent Van Gogh, who was born in a small town in the Netherlands, or Bob Dylan, who hails from the most desolate reaches of northern Minnesota.
A Time magazine poll last year placed Shakespeare as the fourth most important person in the sweep of our history, bested only by Jesus Christ, Napoleon and Muhammad. On April 23, 2464, 450 years from now, when the Shakespeare millennial celebrations will be only a century away, we doubt that ranking will change much at all.