Shakespeare anniversary

Shakespeare died four hundred years ago today in Stratford-upon-Avon.

  Looking down the Avon towards the spire of Holy Trinity Church with the Shakespeare Theatre on the right. Photo by Edward Burman                                   

Looking down the Avon towards the spire of Holy Trinity Church with the Shakespeare Theatre on the right. Photo by Edward Burman                                   

He was buried two days later in Holy Trinity Church, where he had been baptised almost exactly 52 years earlier. Both his birthplace and the house in which he then lived were within easy walking distance of the church - in a beautiful location beside the River Avon. He is buried in the 15th-century chancel, with a slightly later monument on the wall looking down at his and his wife’s tombstones. A plaque compares him to Nestor, Virgil and Socrates. The first is today virtually unknown, the second is read by very few outside the universities, but Socrates is well-known. Shakespeare himself has one of the few names known everywhere in the world, as are those of some of his most famous characters. Hamlet above all.

                                          Shakespeare's grave; that of his wife Anne may be seen on the left                                                                           ©Edward Burman

                                         Shakespeare's grave; that of his wife Anne may be seen on the left

                                                                         ©Edward Burman

I like to think of him as an actor, one of the greatest. To my mind, in the midst of thousands of books about his life and work, the most profound writing about Shakespeare was an "essay" two pages long by Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), the great Argentine author. He understood the importance of the actor in Shakespeare better than anyone, and understood how Shakespeare became Hamlet. Here are some lines from Borges’  ‘Everything and Nothing’:

In his twenties he went to London. Instinctively, he had already trained himself in the habit of pretending that he was someone, so it should not be discovered that he was no one. In London he found the profession to which he had been predestined, that of the actor: someone who, on a stage, plays at being someone else, before a concourse of people who pretend to take him for that other one. His histrionic work taught him a singular satisfaction, perhaps the first he had ever known. And yet, once the last line of verse had been acclaimed and the last dead man had dragged off stage, he tasted the hateful taste of unreality. He would leave off being Ferrex or Tamburlaine and become no one again. Thus beset, he took to imagining other heroes and other tragic tales. And so, while his body complied with its destiny in London’s bawdyhouses and taverns, the body inhabiting that body was Caesar, unheeding the augur’s warnings, and Juliet detesting the lark, and Macbeth, talking on the heath with the witches who are also the Fates. No one was ever so many men as that man: like the Egyptian Proteus he was able to exhaust all the appearances of being. From time to time, he left, in some obscure corner of his work, a confession he was sure would never be deciphered: Richard affirms that in his one person he plays many parts, and Iago curiously says ‘I am not what I am.’ The fundamental oneness of existing, dreaming, and acting inspired in him several famous passages.

 

The beautiful closing lines of Borges’ short piece are perfect:

History adds that before or after his death, he found himself facing God and said: I, who have been so many men in vain, want to be one man, myself alone. From out of a whirlwind the voice of God replied: I am not, either. I dreamed the world the way you dreamed your work, my Shakespeare: one of the forms of my dreams was you, who, like me, are many and no one.
— Translation by Anthony Kerrigan, in A Personal Anthology by Jorge Luis Borges, 1968.

                                                  Monument in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church                                                                             ©Edward Burman

                                                 Monument in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church

                                                                          ©Edward Burman