Bard to death? Not me

Strange thing, as we edge up to April 23 and the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, that all this bardolatry – as the doyen of Bankside guides John Constable likes to call it - doesn’t seem to be palling. Commemorations so quickly get swamped in overkill that all you want to do is forget as quickly as possible and move on.


But this Shakespeare stuff is addictive – not the plays so much or even the text, but the man. It seems that for the first time the thesps, the scholars and the audience have all come together to get something extra, discovering that there’s so much more than they thought that connects 2016 with 1616. 

It’s almost accidental that it happens to Shakespeare that is opening the door to us, a door that turns out to be a mirror showing us that we're much the same now as we were then: worrying about family and our children’s recalcitrance, about finding somewhere to live, about making businesses work against the odds, about keeping just on the right side of the law and how to get out of it when that line is crossed, about having fun and sometimes paying for the consequences. One thing that was a large part of life in 1616 and isn’t now is the church, but in that tiny liberty of Bankside the church was often in on it: the Bishop of Winchester that owned most of it licensing the prostitutes and seeing much more turpitude in the playhouses than the bawdy houses. All that is coming out of the exhibitions, tours, talks, the novels, the TV and radio programmes and newspaper articles. Who knew that honey and mead doughnuts were the street food of choice at holiday time?

But looking closer at the life of this man than we ever have before, we find a businessman who had a particular gift which has transcended history. He did his work largely in a particularly scurrilous quarter where you were asking for trouble to go without a weapon, but lived in digs in the more respectable Cheapside. And when his growing reputation was threatened by a cheating landlord who tried to take ownership of his company’s theatre because it was on land he owned, he and his mates ganged up and physically moved the playhouse from Shoreditch to Bankside and changed its name to The Globe. As a result they created a new kind of consortium that took their little company to the very top as The King’s Men – which meant they had to wear a special livery on royal occasions and were obliged to parade in it at James I’s coronation (probably processing past Will’s digs in Silver Street, it was a smaller world then at least). And these were his mates for life to whom he was a little more generous in his will than his wife.

And we see the same man, a portly citizen of Stratford (his bust in Holy Trinity Church there is affectionately own as “The Pork Butcher”) deeply into litigation over land ownership, coping with his peevish wife, comforted by his favoured elder daughter who’s married to a respectable GP, aggravated by the wayward one who’s taken up with a ne’er do well who’s already got someone else pregnant. King Lear should had it easy. 

The Victorians made us treat Shakespeare with kid gloves, with reverence and nervous respect, and we were shocked when Peter Brook told us it didn’t need to be like that. But as the Globe’s new artistic director Emma Rice knows, these plays – and poems – were about life then, and they're about life now. They're there to be used, not venerated.

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