Brush Up Your Shakespeare

In honor of the Bard's birthday (and death day), stories from Simon Schama, Stephen Greenblatt, Ruth Franklin, Garry Wills, and others.
5 stories

On April 23, William Shakespeare came to be—and not to be. In 1616, he died on what is traditionally considered his birthday, but his words and ideas are still very much alive.

In 2004, Stephen Greenblatt—winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction—wondered how a simple man from Stratford-upon-Avon became the Bard. "If anything, Shakespeare often seems a drabber, duller person, and the inward springs of his art seem more obscure than ever," Greenblatt marveled. "The work is so astonishing, so luminous, that it seems to have come from a god and not a mortal, let alone a mortal of provincial origins and modest education. And yet one of the prime characteristics of Shakespeare's art is the touch of the real."

His plays are also astonishingly relevant 400 years later. In January, New Republic critic Ruth Franklin wrote about Ralph Fiennes' new film adaptation of Coriolanus and its "obvious potential as a commentary on the current political scene, from the Occupy movement to the inconclusive end to the war in Iraq." Beyond that, the play has wisdom that applies to modern politics. "Perhaps every politician must have a bit of Coriolanus in him," Franklin argued, "an ego that propels him to believe himself worthy of public service, coupled with the desire to stand unswerving for the rightness of his own convictions. And yet a politician who wants to win must ultimately subdue his or her inner Coriolanus and 'be other than one thing.'”

But what if Shakespeare didn't actually write all those plays? Every decade or so scholars debate the possibility, but in 2011, the movie Anonymous posed the provocative question to the masses: Was Shakespeare a fraud? Simon Schama and Stephen Marche immediately came to his defense.

Anonymous subscribes to the Oxfordian theory of authorship, the contention that Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford, wrote Shakespeare’s plays," Marche wrote. "Among Shakespeare scholars, the idea has roughly the same currency as the faked moon landing does among astronauts." True to form, the onetime Shakespearean scholar wasn't remotely swayed by the film's case. "Unfortunately, the nonquestion of Shakespeare’s identity is now being asked on billboards all over the world," he lamented. "It will raise debate where none should be. It will sow confusion where there is none. Somebody here is a fraud, but it isn’t Shakespeare."

From the Web

Shakespeare’s Leap

How a provincial English playwright became the Bard.

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Shakespeare and Verdi in the Theater

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The Shakespeare Shakedown

The new film ‘Anonymous’ says the Bard was a fraud. Don’t buy it.

Oct 2011
From the Web

Revisiting Shakespeare’s *Coriolanus*

Coriolanus seems like a fantasy modern politician. But the true moral of this political fable, newly adapted by Ralph Fiennes, isn’t one we’re eager to embrace.

From the Web

Wouldn’t It Be Cool If Shakespeare Wasn’t Shakespeare?