In case you missed the fanfare, today marks William Shakespeare's 450th birthday. Yes, he's still no longer with us – but did that ever matter in the first place? A quick glance of social media (most notably, Twitter) shows that many people are celebrating the bard's supposed birthday. Why “supposed” birthday? Simple: no one knows the exact date of William Shakespeare's birth. Many historians have based their birth judgments on his baptismal certificate, which shows a baptism date of April 26th. Of course, this means that Shakespeare would have been baptized mere days after he was born, but that's another discussion for another day. (Don't even get me started on the authorship question, either!)
Most, if not all, English teachers still relish teaching Shakespeare's plays and poetry, even if students find them maddeningly complex and lacking in educational value. True, his language still perplexes even the brightest of educators, but the themes in his plays remain very relevant to today's (and tomorrow's) world. The average student struggles with Shakespeare more than any other author or playwright, but such struggle does not diminish from the inherent value derived by looking at his work. (Oh, and to clear up a misconception, Shakespeare wrote in Modern English – yes, the same English you and I speak on a regular basis. Would you like to see Middle English? Old English?) How has Shakespeare maintained his place atop the educational pedestal? Among other things, we have two “spheres” to thank for that: the critical sphere, and the digital sphere.
A simple search of Shakespeare criticism reveals an abundance of books, articles, and other relevant commentaries on his works. Scholars have continued to dissect Shakespeare's works decade after decade and show absolutely no signs of letting up anytime soon. Case in point: Shakespearean scholar James Shapiro recently released his latest Shakespeare commentary entitled Shakespeare in America: From the Revolution to Now, in which he examines the bard's influence on the development of the United States. While one might question the need for such a study, Shapiro's work illustrates how Shakespeare's ideas shaped much of what we hold as “sacred” in American culture. Consider also the fact that of all dramas ever published, Shakespeare's plays are performed the most on a consistent basis in almost every major city around the world. That has to mean something, doesn't it? After all, if society still held Shakespeare's contemporaries in as high regard as it does Shakespeare, we likely would see more performances of Christopher Marlowe's plays. (Poor, poor Marlowe – talk about writing in the shadow of a giant!) In any case, the more Shakespeare's plays are performed, the more they remain important enough for critics to examine. The plays help the critics, and vice-versa. If you are ever at a loss for what to write about, you cannot go wrong with a study of why (insert play or sonnet title here) still holds up in 21st century circles.
We also can thank the rise of the Internet (does anyone even call it that anymore?) and digitization of texts for the proliferation of Shakespeare, especially in the world of education. Thanks to the pre-copyright laws, anyone and everyone can gain access to Shakespeare's works in a number of ways. Want to read a basic version of Hamlet? Go to Project Gutenberg, search for Hamlet, and download the entire play on your computer or other device. The cost? Absolutely nothing. Feel like browsing through a collection of his works with notes, insights, and other goodies? Readdle's Shakespeare and Shakespeare Pro apps (the latter a paid and more robust app, and both apps iOS only – sorry, Android users) are fantastic resources for anyone looking for a wealth of information on the man, the myth, the legend we call Shakespeare. I use the aforementioned apps whenever I teach Shakespeare to my students and/or when I need a “quick fix” myself. My favorite part of the apps? The glossary of terms. If you have a question about a word in one of his works, you need only go to the glossary to discover its meaning. (Of course, we know that Shakespeare coined many words currently a part of our everyday lexicon!) Readdle's developers have done their homework in creating these apps and update them regularly to ensure they are of the highest quality. End of shameless plug. 🙂
I could write about Shakespeare forever, but I will end with this: chances are, you have seen something Shakespeare related every single day of your life. Remember watching The Lion King? Yep, that's Shakespeare. How about reading the Harry Potter series? Uh-huh, Shakespeare influenced J.K. Rowling's writing of the books. Ever utter the words, “To be, or not to be?” Yup, you are quoting Hamlet. And perhaps the most recent example of Shakespeare's relevancy (and something that I have yet to but definitely will read): Shakespeare meets Star Wars. May the forceth be with thou.
As you can see, Shakespeare remains an important part of the educational process and, in my opinion, will continue to do so long into the future. I'm willing to bet that he never imagined his plays and poems would be studied 450 years later, but that's what makes him such an important figure in literature and beyond.
Happy Birthday, Willie Shakespeare!