Today is William Shakespeare’s birthday, making the Bard 451 years old. The exact date of the playwright’s birth is not certain, but 18th Century biographers calculated April 23 as his birthday since it was known that he was baptized on April 26. It just so happens that he also died on April 23, at the age of 52, which makes for a curious twist in the story of this 16th Century celebrity who was known for his showmanship. Today, there are signs that his popularity is waning in the university system, but there are also signs of his popularity increasing in other places, such as prisons.
William Shakespeare wrote during a time when jurisprudence consisted of beheadings or being sent to the Tower in London, never to be seen again. Queen Elizabeth I was tough on crime, but it was also rumored that she enjoyed the work of the Bard. As is reflected in the content of his plays, he was quite knowledgeable in matters of justice and the law. Today, Shakespeare is again being associated with the penal system.
English Professor at Huntington University, Dr. Jack Heller, while not teaching at the college, teaches inmates at the Pendleton Correctional Facility about Shakespeare. In fact, today the group is putting on a production Coriolanus in celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday. Heller explains that Coriolanus was a figure that the inmates can relate to. After quickly rising to a position of leadership the public then rejects him because of his unruly temperament. Heller explains, what he expects to accomplish through his work at the correctional facility is to help the inmates develop “a different image of the themselves.”
451 years is a long time, yet Shakespeare’s plays endure. However, recent studies have shown that fewer and fewer English majors at universities are required to take in-depth courses on the playwright. Authors of a study from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni have commented, “We have found the Bard suffering ‘the unkindest cut of all.’” The authors use this quote from Julius Caesar to illustrate the fall in mandatory studying of Shakespeare, which at one time was seen as a vital part in building an understanding of the English language.
The study examined 52 elite universities in the United States and found that only four of the schools required English majors to take a substantive course on themes and the language found in his plays. These schools include Harvard University, the University of California Berkley, Wellesley College, and the U.S. Naval Academy. In a sentiment of lamentation the authors of the study again provide a quote from one of Shakespeare’s plays. This time they turn to the distraught Hamlet: “O! what a noble mind is here o’erthrown.”
Today is marked as Shakespeare’s 451st birthday. To this man that is more akin to a myth than a historical figure, the world owes thanks for the over 1700 English words he invented. While the popularity of his work may be not be what it was at one time, individuals like Dr. Heller still see reason, to teach all who are willing to learn, about Shakespeare.
By Joel Wickwire
Photo by Books18 – Flickr License
Photo by POP – Flickr License