It’s kind of cool that St George’s Day and William Shakespeare’s birthday are celebrated on the same day. Two legends of English history. A pick n’ mix of cultural icons. I have to confess that I don’t actually know much about the story of St George, except for the essentials, like, er, he slays a dragon. The myth that we based our portrait of St George on, the noble Christian who kills the dragon to protect the beautiful maiden, is inextricably mixed in with earlier Eastern religious folklore. We celebrate him as the patron saint without really needing much more; his legendary status has been assured since 1222, when the Council of Oxford appointed 23 April as his Feast Day. If anything, the story of St George reflects the messy, complicated, cross-cultural heritage of most of the mythology that underpins our ideas of what ‘England’ itself represents.
Shakespeare, with the benefit of being born slightly later than the tricky ‘days of yore’ era, we are more sure about. A bit more sure, anyway. I know, (mostly from watching Shakespeare in Love and a QI episode about him) that there is still some debate around whether all of the work accredited to him actually belongs to him or not, but this mostly seems to be rooted in the snobbish idea that a man of relatively humble origins could not possibly have produced so much Good Stuff. In the celebration of anything English, clearly there must be at least a smidgen of cynicism, not to mention a touch of class-based snobbery thrown in, just for good measure.
At school I used to grumble about the amount of Shakespeare that was shoved into the GCSE syllabus and shoe-horned into every term. I liked a lot of the plays; but always thought they are written as plays to be performed and watched, rather than half-read and picked over by bored year nines trying to impose every meaning possible on each line of deconstructed dialogue.
Then we studied Room with a View and I never looked back on the bard. I had fallen in love with 20th Century fiction. I picked a University literature course that didn’t include compulsory Shakespeare.
But these days, I am glad in a way that we had iambic pentameter force-fed to us for a while. Lines drift back to me now and then; offering a view into the mysterious world of 16th century language and poetry that I never would have been aware of left to my own narrow minded devices. Our world now is one where culture is constantly photographed, documented, discussed and regurgitated online. The sheer volume of plays and poetry that Shakespeare wrote gives us an opportunity to peek into the otherwise impenetrable world of 500 (ish) years ago. It’s all there; but instead of documentary footage, twitter trends and instagrams, it is witty, sharp, revolutionary writing. A bit hard to read at times, but mostly worth the effort.
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
Also, the film 10 Things I hate about You would simply not have existed without The Taming of the Shrew. And for that, I am eternally grateful.