John Timpane is an Inquirer staff writer
William Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616, making Saturday the 400th anniversary of his passing. He was baptized on April 26, 1564, although his actual birth date is not recorded anywhere. But it's a decent bet that right around this time, 452 years ago, one of the best-known writers in history was born.
His 400th yahrzeit will be observed in all sorts of ways in all sorts of places. So what's the best way you can celebrate his 52 or so years on this earth? What's the best way for anybody to celebrate him, whether they know Shakespeare, like Shakespeare, hate Shakespeare, are bored by Shakespeare, or shake at the thought of Shakespeare?
He's worth celebrating. Few human beings have brought so much pleasure; so much cathartic emotion; such music; so many enduring, human characters and situations and sayings and stories (granted, many repurposed - as in stolen - from other writers). He's funny, appalling, perplexing, poetic, dirty, profound, witty, and anything else around and in between. His plays and poetry have earned him a place he deserves among the best- and longest-known and most-loved human beings ever.
Here's the worst way to celebrate him: because you think you should.
Here's the best way: Be part of a group that reads his poetry or goes to a play, or more than one play - and then goes out afterward and talks about it. This very weekend you could try to see the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre's savage Macbeth or sparkly Twelfth Night, or the deliciously evil Richard III in a cozy space at People's Light (final day today).
Let me return, holding nose, to the worst way, a way unfortunately common, though none will admit it.
Out of duty. Because of what other people have said: that he is "great," "important," "still relevant," "the best." Because he is said to be "Shakespeare." A name that stands for quality! The ultimate brand! The Geico of the literary art!
Do that and you will be saying that Shakespeare, for you, is dead.
Many do. Because "I've never seen a Shakespeare play and I better get around to it." Because "I don't do poetry," but OK, just this once. Or because Belinda is acting in Midsummer Night's Dream at the high school and you've got to represent. Obligation.
This worst way is a little old-fashioned, deriving from worn-out ideas of "high" and "low" art, and all the snobbish class assumptions that used to attend them. They hang on, a little, but the last 100 years of American culture have pretty much blown them out the window.
Especially the last 25. The Internet is Shakespeare's oyster. His face is all over the place. His plays are made into movies, and remade into modern films; he is the subject of love stories, satires, silliness. He has never been more readily available, every word, to the whole world. Immediately, you can see all his plays in various video forms, including wonderful broadcast-into-theater performances such as Benedict Cumberbatch's recent Hamlet at the Barbican Theatre or the well-paced, suitably wacky National Theater's As You Like It.
Neither high nor low, Shakespeare was an ambitious man of a class of people in the middle, a class of entrepreneurs itching to rise. Of course, of course, he could write a fair lick. Much more of the time, though, he was a businessman, a shareholder in an acting troupe. He got most of his money, which added up to a tidy sum at the end of his life, from his cut of the take from the Globe and (later) the Blackfriars Theaters.
This man was a professional entertainer, not an academic. (The academy does not own him and never can.) He had no sense (that we know of) that his plays would ever be collected. That they would ever be "taught." That sort of thing didn't exist in his day. Public theater - his business - was only a generation old.
So he didn't have the same ways of thinking of art or literature that we have, or used to have.
So go, with a friend or two. Let him entertain you. What we have are these great events, these shows, happening all around us. Nobody has to "know anything" about Shakespeare. For a few minutes, the Early Modern English of his plays may confuse . . . but after a few minutes more, you lock in, and you'll be fine thereafter. (Many have expressed surprise to me that - and I wish I did not quote - "I understood the whole thing.")
Like poetry? Read a few of the sonnets. Out loud. With friends around. I love 3, 18, 73 (my favorite), and several dozen more.
Then sit around with your friends and talk about what you just heard or saw. Much of the magic is in what people talk to one another about afterward. Shakespeare has done his damnedest; now let's talk among ourselves about what it meant, what hit us, what surprised.
Two lawyers once told me they were thrilled at his "savvy understanding of the law" in Measure for Measure. After the Cumberbatch Hamlet, all the talk was of the staging, the acid humor, the athletic pace, especially the superbly chaotic Act 4. After the rarely performed Two Noble Kinsmen at the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, we talked about how the company had discovered a comic gem. And I'll never forget the discussion attending a brilliant Princeton performance of The Tempest.
Let Shakespeare happen to you. With friends. Go not with prejudice or fear, but with readiness. I always try to. In his short life, he gave us much of the best that ever was. At this anniversary, we should give him some of our best.