“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
It was exactly 400 years today that William Shakespeare, once a well-known playwright across the English-speaking world, shuffled off this mortal coil. I therefore thought we should mark the occasion. How I will do it is by noting that I picked up a secondhand copy just yesterday of Lytton Strachey’s Books and Characters: French & English which has a wonderful essay on “Shakespeare’s Final Period”, although the reason I actually bought the book was because it was dedicated to John Maynard Keynes. But what I found so interesting about the essay was that it assumed intimate knowledge of about a dozen Shakespearean plays of which for me, anyway, many were way off my own most important dozen. I have to admit I am almost entirely unfamiliar with Cymbeline or The Winter’s Tale or Timon of Athens although with the others he discussed I was pretty au fait. I suspect few enduring a modern education would even recognise these titles never mind know a thing about the plays. I, on the other hand, am from a different era. Today it is Tony Soprano rather than Titus Andronicus anyone would be more likely to know.
But this short post is about Shakespeare’s death and the article was about whether he had become more content with life even as he aged, which apparently was a common view in 1906 when the article was written. Based on an ability to properly date the order in which the plays were written, which had been discovered just around that time, Strachey thinks it is nonsense and goes about showing there is no genuine sign that Shakespeare had entered upon a serene and contented existence as his life drew to an end. If anything, he says, he just got bored with trying to write about real people in real circumstances and therefore went off on various imaginative excursions so that he could write beautiful poetry but didn’t have to worry whether his characters were realistic and the plot lines made sense. The Tempest, as he says, ought to be play about Prospero’s revenge but ends up being mostly a love story.
Anyway, however Shakespeare spent his final years, they ended on this day four centuries ago. It is a miracle that so many of his plays have been preserved and one may only hope that 400 years from now there will be others to commemorate and honour the anniversary of his death.