Today is Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. Probably. Nominally. Well, we know he was baptised on the 26th, and it was usual for that to happen about three days after the birth. Also he died on April 23rd, 52 years later, so it appeals to our sense of symmetry.
I wrote a little more about celebrating Shakespeare in Australia over at Eastside Radio, and you can read some of what I found out about early colonial Australian Shakespeare in this article: “Shakespeare and the Drover’s Wife”. If you are within reach of Sydney, you can go and see the “Shakespeare Room” in the Mitchell Library arm of the State Library of NSW, any Tuesday from 10am to 4pm.
Here and now, though, I would rather post just one speech. It’s from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and it makes me realise anew why is it that I love to keep returning to Shakespeare, and how there is always more to find, in the most surprising ways. When Oberon confronts Titania about why she is willing to continue their row, instead of simply handing over the little human boy he wants, this is her reply:
Set your heart at rest:
The fairy land buys not the child of me.
His mother was a votaress of my order:
And, in the spiced Indian air, by night,
Full often hath she gossip’d by my side,
And sat with me on Neptune’s yellow sands,
Marking the embarked traders on the flood,
When we have laugh’d to see the sails conceive
And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind;
Which she, with pretty and with swimming gait
Following, her womb then rich with my young squire,
Would imitate, and sail upon the land,
To fetch me trifles, and return again,
As from a voyage, rich with merchandise.
But she, being mortal, of that boy did die;
And for her sake do I rear up her boy,
And for her sake I will not part with him.
Taking time out for a detailed explanation that does nothing whatever to advance the plot, Shakespeare shows that he has noticed the way women move when they are heavily pregnant, shows his awareness of the risks women took in having a baby, and the love a woman could have for another’s child, and imagines a deep and loving friendship between two women, such that the loyalty of one extends long after the other’s death. He also lets us see this about the character of the fairy queen, that far from being “proud Titania”, she was not above sitting on the sand to pass the time sharing jokes with a mortal friend.
Favourite links to good bits of film and so on very welcome in the comments.
And here is “Next” again, because. Just because.
Video description: A puppet Shakespeare stands on stage and ‘auditions’ for a puppet Peter Hall, by miming his complete works, to music.