Brush up your Shakespeare!

Shakespeare by Bill BrysonWhile it may seem as if 2012 is the Year Of Dickens, he’s not the only great British writer to have helped the Doctor fight alien invasion and it’s only right that so many arts organisations should be devoting the rest of the year to celebrating his 448th birthday (if you want to send him a card, his official birthday is actually the 23rd April though we don’t know for sure whether he was born then.

As our old friend the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography puts it:

Shakespeare, William (1564–1616),
playwright and poet, was baptized, probably by the parish priest, John Bretchgirdle (or Bracegirdle), in Holy Trinity, the parish church of Stratford upon Avon, on 26 April 1564, the third child of John Shakespeare (d. 1601) and Mary Arden (d. 1608).
It seems appropriate that the first of many gaps in the records of Shakespeare’s life should be the exact date of his birth, though that is a common problem for the period. He was probably born on 21, 22, or 23 April 1564, given the 1559 prayer book’s instructions to parents on the subject of baptisms. But, ever since Joseph Greene, an eighteenth-century Stratford curate, informed the scholar George Steevens that Shakespeare was born on 23 April, with no apparent evidence for his assertion, and Steevens adopted that date in his 1773 edition of Shakespeare, it has been usual to assume that Shakespeare was born on St George’s day, so that England’s patron saint and the birth of the ‘national poet’ can be celebrated on the same day.”

Confusingly, if you want to join in the celebrations in his home town (handily accessible via Marylebone Station), the main events are all happening tomorrow, Saturday 21 April.

The Lodger, by Charles NichollBut we Londoners are traditionalists and on Monday 23 April, Shakespeare’s Globe is kicking off its ambitious programme of every one of Shakespeare’s 37 plays  in 37 different languages with Troilus and Cressida in Maori (complete with haka!), finishing with Hamlet in Lithuanian. If you prefer your Shakespeare in English, check out the BBC’s Shakespeare Unlocked season  schedules for such delights as Twelfth Night with David Tennant as Malvolio and Simon Schama on Shakespeare and Us.

There will be plenty of other productions around London this summer – check out the Stage & Screen section of the Westminster Libraries Gateway to Websites for a look at the excellent theatre listing sites Whatsonstage and London Theatre Guide. And if you fancy treading the boards yourself, there’s the Amateur Theatre Network for all your Amdram needs. Or closer to home, you could check out the Play-reading Group at Maida Vale Library.

Cue for Treason, by Geoffrey TreaseOf course, there have been plenty of film adaptations of Shakespeare’s works – a glance at the Internet Movie Database reveals that he was the source for more than 800 films  going back to Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s King John in 1899. Sir Herbert, incidentally, had six illegitimate children, one of whom grew up to be Carol Reed, director of Oliver! and The Third Man. Find out more about the Bard’s cinematic career at the BFI’s Screenonline site. If you access the site on a Westminster Library public computer you will be able to view rare clips and films such as the 1899 King John itself. And don’t forget to check out our catalogue for DVDs, such as 10 Things I Hate About You (a high school Taming of the Shrew) and Shakespeare in Love (from the days when Colin Firth used to play the bad guy!).

Having watched a few plays, you will now want to look at the texts. Check out the Books & Literature section of the Gateway for  Project Gutenberg and ManyBooks - both of them offer downloadable ebooks in a variety of formats. For background information, check out Oxford Reference Online, another of Westminster’s online subscription resources. Here you can read the full text of the Oxford Companion to Shakespeare - everything you want to know about the Bard from Aaron to Zuccaro.

The Road to London, by Barbara MitchelhillHave a look at the library catalogue for some of the many  books on Shakespeare we have. Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare : the world as a stage goes back to the original sources to examine what we know for certain about the man. Which apparently doesn’t include where he was educated, whatever they tell you at King Edward VI School in Stratford. In The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street, Charles Nicholl analyses in-depth a single incident in Shakespeare’s life, giving an insight into his way of life while he was writing his materspieces. Children’s novels, such as Geoffrey Trease’s classic Cue for Treason and Barbara Mitchelhill’s recent The Road to London, have looked at the lives of the Globe Theatre’s boy players.

While you’re reading, why not crank up the Naxos Music Library, another online resource, where you’ll find no less than 544 tracks inspired by Shakespeare.  What better way to celebrate the bard’s birthday than listening to  Cole Porter’s Brush Up Your Shakespeare  (from Kiss Me Kate) performed by the late, great Sid James.

[Nicky]

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