The Bard was the best of us, so to mark four centuries since his death we should make a resolution to see one of his plays this year, ideally in Stratford-upon-Avon
Unfortunate the land that has need of heroes, wrote Bertolt Brecht in an often quoted line. But perhaps Brecht was in error. Whatever our other problems, Britain is a very fortunate land in at least one enduring respect. That’s because, for the last four centuries, our pre-eminent compatriot has not been a king or a general, an aristocrat or a political leader, but a poet, who lived his life in the wings of great events, not at the centre of the stage. This best of us all was not a man of action or wealth but of letters. Few statues of this national hero exist — long may that be so — but no one ever campaigned for them to fall. Or, if they did, they were simply wrong.
Instead William Shakespeare’s monument is mostly inside us, passed down through the generations and ours to pass on in our turn. It is in the language we use, the phrases we utter, the conversations we conduct, the jokes we make, the lines that make us suddenly serious, and in the images and references we reach for to express ourselves and to imagine our country and its history.
Shakespeare requires no anniversary year to burnish his credentials, nor the urgings of any newspaper editorial to establish his claims on the collective attention. No new year’s honour or knighthood for services to theatre was ever needed to assure his public esteem. Indeed it’s one of the particular pleasures about Shakespeare that this extraordinary man, who can seem to have known everything there ever was to know about human beings, was in so many ways so very ordinary and that his England was not bounded by the walls and streets of fashionable London, as ours sometimes is.
Yet this year is nevertheless the 400th anniversary of his death in 1616 and, since big Shakespeare anniversaries only come around about once every 50 years, we should make something of it. There will be tougher commemorations in Britain this year — of the battle of the Somme above all. But there is only joy about marking the gift that Shakespeare has given the people of this country and the world for the past 400 years.
There will of course be serious exhibitions, symposiums and other events to mark the date. The British Library in London even promises public proof of a rare new fact about Shakespeare’s elusive life — that “William the Conqueror”, as he signed himself, beat his Globe colleague Richard Burbage to an assignation with a stage-struck female fan in 1602. But the living commemoration will be in the plays, at least 37 of them, which as usual are being performed in almost every corner of the land – and indeed the globe – in every imaginable way. They will be done straight, cut, adapted, updated, reimagined, danced, sung, with and without music, indoors, outdoors, by professionals, by amateurs, in English and in other languages.
Shakespeare is hardly neglected in British life. But we can always treat him better and more imaginatively than we do. On a day for making new year’s resolutions, many of us could do worse than make two Shakespearian vows for 2016. First, to pledge in the coming 12 months to see a Shakespeare play, preferably one that is not done so often, to celebrate the work itself; and, second, if possible, to see the work outside London, ideally in Stratford-upon-Avon, where his story started and ended, to honour the man. The two can be ideally combined at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre itself, which deserves to enjoy a vintage year — and no floods.