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Jerry Dowlen: Shakespeare's 400th Centenary


The first half of the year 2016 has been a remarkable period of celebration of the 400th centenary of William Shakespeare’s death (born 1564, died April 1616). If you have wanted to ‘brush up your Shakespeare’ there has been ample opportunity: a flood of new books; a special issue of postage stamps; multiple staging of plays up and down the country; every famous Shakespearian actor and actress interviewed  in the literary press.


At the British Library in London the Shakespeare season remains in full swing. Their displays and events offer a 400-year journey illustrating how Shakespeare’s plays have been transformed for successive new generations of theatre-goers. Visitors are invited to imagine, for instance, how audiences reacted to ground-breaking moments like the first British performance of Othello by a black actor in 1825. I would imagine that would resonate strongly with Malory Blackman the author and former Children’s Laureate (2013 to 2015). Speaking on BBC Radio 3 on 26th May she told Rob Cowan that she had read thousands of library books when a child and there had never been any black children like her in the stories. She had been aged seventeen when she first encountered a major black character in any English Literature, when she read Othello.


Meanwhile in the first half of 2016 the ‘Square Mile’ of the City of London is in full boast of its many commemorative places where Shakespeare lived and worked at the peak of his output and fame. David Pearson is Director of Culture, Heritage & Libraries at the City of London Corporation. He enthusiastically introduces the Shakespeare Woz Ere season (January to July 2016) with mention of numerous locations across Bankside, the Barbican, the Globe Theatre, Guildhall and the Museum of London where visitors can immerse themselves in a Shakespeare-fest of learning and celebration.


And all entirely appropriate, if we agree with Roy Hattersley our former Deputy Prime Minister. RH loves to insist that Shakespeare defines England and Englishness and that he is the man who makes England different from the rest of the world. The newspaper columnist Michael Henderson echoes this: he describes Shakespeare as the greatest Englishman.


Celebrating Shakespeare: Duty or Pleasure?


Given the magnitude of Shakespeare’s 400th centenary, it seems irreverent to ask: are some of us celebrating Shakespeare out of duty? – or pleasure?


A straw poll of my literary friends yields the collective experience that none of us had liked Shakespeare very much when we were force-fed his poetry and plays at school during the 1950s or 1960s. We had found it hard going: difficult language; long and impenetrable soliloquies in the plays; background history and/or geography insufficiently known by us to fully understand the drama in the stories. 


Cue the scene in Blackadder where Rowan Atkinson meets Shakespeare and is unable to resist punching him on the nose; then afterwards explaining:


“That’s for every schoolboy and schoolgirl for the next 400 years. Have you any idea how much suffering  you’re going to cause? Hours spent at school desks trying to find one joke in a Midsummer Night’s Dream. Years wearing stupid tights in school plays and saying things like; ‘What ho, my Lord.’ Oh – and that [aiming a kick at the prostrate Shakespeare as he tries to regain his feet] is for the four-hour uncut Kenneth Branagh version of Hamlet.”


But in our later life, most of my friends have insisted to me, we have all come to appreciate the Shakespearian treasure-trove of perfect poetry, skilful sonnets and thrilling theatre. Cue the City of London 2016 where David Pearson reassures us: “Shakespeare’s drama, poetry and language have resonated down the centuries and still inspire us today.”


Shakespeare’s Sonnets


One of the first centenary celebration events to burst out of the starting gate in 2016 was a newly published book by Arvon / Bloomsbury in which thirty of Britain’s leading poets had composed a ‘new’ Shakespeare sonnet modelled on a chosen real one.


Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets that are rich with language, music and imagery. (‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’). Not only that but each sonnet is impeccably correct in its structure, rhythm and rhyme. That is no mean feat. Try writing one and you’ll see what I mean!


I liked some of the ‘new’ sonnets in the book – the full name of which is On Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A Poets’ Celebration. But it did strike me that some of the poets had struggled to achieve technical perfection. In quality the ‘new’ sonnets, introduced by Roger McGough, ranged from the sublime to the silly. In two of the best ones, Wendy Cope produced a delightful and flawless new take on Sonnet 22; Douglas Dunn startled us by re-imagining Sonnet 1 as ‘Posh totty totters past on serious heels.’


Shakespeare in Paris


It is Roy Hattersley’s opinion that the world’s greatest plays about love, ambition, jealousy and grief all are written by the Bard. Well! I thought to myself, when reconsidering this  in March 2016, I wonder whether other countries would accept that claim. How about Chekhov … Euripides … Ibsen … Schiller …?


By coincidence, I was in Paris at the start of April and on a coach trip through the city I heard our tour guide point out ‘The most famous book shop in Paris’ as we passed by the Seine. The name of this bookshop? Shakespeare and Company. It was founded in 1919 by an American ex-pat and she deliberately chose that name for her shop because of the global reach of Shakespeare’s name and reputation. The bookshop has endured as a haunt of famous writers and as a magnet for book addicts. In its heyday Shakespeare and Company was frequented by the likes of Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. It was nicknamed ‘Stratford-on-Odéon’ by James Joyce.


Proof enough, I would suggest, that the name of Shakespeare sits astride the world stage of literature and that Britain can be truly proud of him. Moreover, as I was to read in The Times newspaper a few days after my return from holiday, Paris was graciously paying special homage to Shakespeare in two extra special ways. The four million daily passengers on the Paris Metro would see Shakespeare quotations on display. Lines from Comme Il Vous Plaira [As You Like It] and eight other works would adorn the walls in the 368 stations and in hundreds of carriages during a two-week display. And this would be followed by a performance of Romeo et Juliet at La Maison de Molière on 23rd April, the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.


Sacrebleu! Formidable! Not only I Love Paris in the Springtime but Paris Loves Shakespeare in the Springtime!


Jerry Dowlen

May 2016


Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:


Gregory's Girl: Remembering the Hit Film

The Impact and Legacy of Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

A Tribute to Margaret Forster

Remembering Saeed Jaffrey

Old Wine in New Bottles - "new" books by Margery Allingham, Raymond Chandler & Agatha Christie

Remembering Ruth Rendell

Philip Larkin: His Maiden Voyage on The North Ship (1945)

The Catcher in the Rye and Billy Liar

Michael Holroyd

Erle Stanley Gardner

John Masefield


Antony Sher: The History Man

Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author

Computer Chess: The Imitation Game

P G Wodehouse

John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green

Daniel Abse

Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution

Wilfred Owen

Wolf Mankowitz

Bob Hoskins

Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam

The Story of Edith Nesbit

Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert

Rebels With A Cause

Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective

The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas

The Bergerac Police Adventure Series

It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene

Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers

The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym

D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...



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