William & Mary

Celebrating 400 years of Shakespeare

{{youtube:medium:center|aGJ-C8ZGWkE, W&M professor's stunning connection to Shakespeare's final play}}

History doesn’t tell us as much about Shakespeare as perhaps we’d like.

That may be hard for some to fathom, but it's true.

We know that he died on April 23, 1616. Historians believe he was born on that same day, 53 years earlier, in 1564. There are no records of any significant postmortem tributes by his fellow actors and writers. No one knows how he died, only that it was in a far different manner than the way he lived – meaning quietly, at Stratford-upon-Avon.
 
It’s not even known the exact number of works he penned, although the commonly accepted totals are 38 plays and 154 sonnets.
 
On Saturday, in honor of Shakespeare’s death – and birthday – the William & Mary Department of English, the Medieval & Renaissance Studies Program and the Virginia Shakespeare Festival are hosting a Shakespeare Sonnetathon from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in the Wren Building’s Grammar School Classroom.
 
All are invited to come and help read Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. Refreshments will be served during the lunch break, including birthday cake.Christopher Owens
 
“It’s hard to think of someone [else] whose works are going to live that long,” said Christopher Owens, associate professor of theatre, chair of theatre, speech and dance and producing artistic director of the annual Virginia Shakespeare Festival. “But the cliché phrase is ‘Only time will tell.’”

What made Shakespeare . . . Shakespeare?

If Owens is correct, and no other writer’s efforts will endure for four centuries or more, what is it about Shakespeare that separates him? Was it his ability to connect with royalty and commoners? Or his introduction of romance into English society at a time when the Church of England was adamantly opposed to such themes?

 “A lot of Shakespeare’s plays deal with human suffering,” said Suzanne Hagedorn, associate professor of English and director of medieval and renaissance studies. “Think about King Lear. That’s one of the classic tragedies of Shakespeare. A lot of Shakespeare’s plays – maybe the comedies, the romances – all end with marriages and ultimately are about hope and going on.”

After a long, illustrious career during which he was general manager of the Virginia Shakespeare Festival, taught a wide array of courses in theatre, , directed numerous plays and wrote four books, Professor of Theatre Richard Palmer is retiring from William & Mary.Richard Palmer

In discussing The Tempest, Palmer refused to “flatter” himself by saying that he can relate to the author. Rather, it is one of the play’s characters – the all-powerful magician Prospero – who agrees to relinquish some of his power in order to work out some problems he faces that strikes a chord with Palmer.

“He has a couple of valedictory speeches, which scholars say is Shakespeare himself saying goodbye to the theatre,” Palmer said. “As I confront my own retirement, I can connect more with Prospero than Shakespeare.”

Palmer estimated that there are now 260 Shakespeare festivals in the United States.

“Part of it is a status thing,” he said. “It shows that we’re a cultured society. But a lot of it is it’s just good theatre. I’m amazed at how children love Shakespeare. They may not understand all of it, but they love it.”

What we don’t know about The Bard

As the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death approaches, the circumstances of his death remain a mystery.

s workJohn Ward, the vicar of Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare is buried, wrote in his diary that, "Shakespeare, Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting and it seems drank too hard, for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted."
 
His work isn't the only aspect of his life that enthralls us.But Ward wrote the diary 50 years after Shakespeare’s death. C. Martin Mitchell, biographer of Shakespeare’s physician and son-in-law John Hall, hypothesized that it was more likely that Shakespeare died of something akin to a cerebral hemorrhage brought on by the prolonged physical and mental stress the actor-dramatist endured.
 
According to www.arogundade.com – The Culture of Shakespeare – there are many other theories: Tertiary syphilis, typhoid, influenza, alcohol abuse, even drug abuse (traces of cocaine found in clay pipes – not necessarily his – discovered on Shakespeare's property).

While the cause of his death intrigues us (200,000 annual Google searches), the work he composed continues to amaze and fascinate us. Shakespeare has never left the world stage.

Hagedorn sees a correlation between Saturday’s celebration and a character in The Winter’s Tale.

“Somebody [Queen Hermione] is presumed dead, and the fact that a statue [of her] comes alive, that’s a great metaphor,” she said. “Shakespeare’s coming back to life, 400 years since he died. But the fact that a lot of us – I hope – are going to come and read Shakespeare’s sonnets at the Sonnetathon says that his language and his drama and his characters still speak to us, even in the 21st century.