Shakespeare at 400

Daniel Hannan, British politician, writes on Shakespeare’s 400th birthday:

The truly magical quality of Shakespeare’s plays is that, as Harold Bloom once put it, whatever experiences we bring to them, they illuminate our experiences more than our experiences illuminate the plays. Whenever we read his words, they seem narrowly aimed at our circumstances. The same passage can speak to us in opposite ways at different moments in our lives. How this sorcery works I shall probably never understand; but, if you’re familiar with the canon, you’ll know what I mean. …

We sometimes write too loosely of people having ‘divine inspiration’ or ‘divine genius’. But Shakespeare created worlds and souls in a manner that makes lesser metaphors seem inadequate. In a short essay, Jorge Luis Borges imagined Shakespeare meeting his Maker after death, and being told, ‘I dreamed the world as you dreamed your plays, my dear Shakespeare.’ …

If even God recognises Shakespeare as an equal, it is hardly surprising that the rest of us should see something ourselves in him. Today, exactly 400 years after the date that, with some uncertainty, we assign to his death, Shakespeare is claimed by every faction. To Tories he is a Tory, to radicals a radical, to monarchists a monarchist, to Europeans a European. And, in a sense, they’re all right. Or rather, as T.S. Eliot put it, ‘the most anyone can hope for is to be wrong about Shakespeare in a new way.’

Of only one thing am I absolutely certain: not a day passes without my being grateful that the most complete intellect evolved by our species speaks to me in my own language. A time will come when our nation wanes, and all our pomp of yesterday is one with Nineveh and Tyre. But, as long as English is spoken, and Shakespeare’s canon is preserved, we shall never be just another country.

We were never exposed to much Shakespeare in the course of my 12 years of Catholic education. Bits and pieces here and there—Hamlet, for instance—but no great in-depth into his canon.

I’ve read more Shakespeare in the years since, including all of his sonnets a few years while riding the New York subway for 24 hours on Valentine’s Day. A few ago I saw hipster Hamlet in South Philadelphia, which was fun.

I want to come into contact with him more. To Hannan’s point, Shakespeare has always felt like one of the “permanent things” of our civilization. A critical part of our common cultural vocabulary.


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