“Not of an age, but for all time” ~ Ben Jonson
If there is a single individual voice that speaks to the community of human kind, it is William Shakespeare. In a time when world awareness was essentially limited to the place of birth, with what is assumed to be only be a primary education, this writer managed to observe and comment on human nature more then perhaps any individual before or since.
Despite the debates of authorship or identity, what is undeniable is that the strength of these dramas endure throughout nearly half a millennium and has spanned the world being translated and performed in virtually every language known to man. Despite the fact that the values and morals reflected in these works are most assuredly renaissance English, the core values reflected, speak on universal levels. Shakespeare created an exploration and insights into the nature and motivations of humanity that had theretofore been relegated to the wonderment of gods and kings. In his plays, Shakespeare shows Lofty characters to have common threads, common folk were portrayed as having regal character.
Theatrically, Shakespeare’s works continue to grow and speak to increasing audiences. With each new generation of actor comes new inquiry, new insight and new methods for telling these timeless tales. The continuity and growth of modern theatre can easily be traced back to the works of this one author. Much to the chagrin of many a modern playwright, it is even said, that all of the conceits of drama were created by Shakespeare, and that all drama since has been a variation on those themes.
Why this discussion, why now? Simply put, April 23rd is the accepted date of birth of this monumental author. Though it’s an event that occurred in 1564 it’s still worthy of note and celebration. The depth of work and the opportunities provided to each generation of artists should be recognized and given due respect.
In the modern world, it may be difficult to see the transition. Events move so quickly and have so much hype attached that we forget that virtually everything created is a derivative of another effort. In theatre, the lines can be more apparent. On a grand scale, Laurence Olivier chose Derek Jacobi to be the torch bearer for Shakespearean theatre, Jacobi in turn has anointed Kenneth Branagh. This passing of the torch in theatre goes back to Shakespeare choosing Richard Burbage to play significant roles. On a less visible scale, we see the progression when a child attends a Shakespearean play, a light goes on and he or she wants to give it a try. More plays more roles and soon another generation and the cycle continues.
In theme, the cycle is equally apparent. Currently on Broadway, West Side Story resurfaces to retell the story of Romeo and Juliette. Hair opened last week and is arguable a civilization frolicking into nature, Think As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream…
When Shakespeare touched pen to paper and began to write his sides, formal western drama was already two thousand years old. His plays were neither unique nor original, but the insight and humanity he exposed most assuredly were new. Humanity was thus supplied with opportunity to examine itself in new light with new perspective enhancing one of our great gifts – enlightenment through entertainment.
Today or any day, in Los Angeles, there is inevitably at least a half dozen concurrent productions of various Shakespeare plays. There are some that are favorites, and some rarely done. Try them out, test the waters, and see what the fuss is about. There’s much to discover.
Ben Jonson was a contemporary of William Shakespeare. More then a contemporary, he was a competitor and arguably one of histories greatest self promoters. Yet when it came to William Shakespeare, he wrote, “not of an age, but for all time”.