Shakespeare’s 400-Year Legacy

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On April 23, 1616, it will be 400 years since William Shakespeare died, leaving behind an extraordinary collection of work that would be studied and performed time and again for centuries. Theater companies around the world are celebrating this anniversary in countless ways. United States President Barack Obama paid his respects by visiting the Globe Theater in London while on his visit to England.

The Folger Shakespearean Library and Theater in Washington, D.C. currently hosts an exhibit titled, “The Life of an Icon,” which features the largest collection of historical documents with a connection to the Bard. The exhibit has everything from property deeds reflecting the Bard’s home ownership to news articles describing plays as they were being performed for the first time in England.

Shakespeare, whose legacy is found in the approximate 884,647 words he wrote, of which 3,000 were new to the English language, i.e. hobnob, dishearten, cold-blooded, lackluster, luggage, jaded and laughable, continues to captivate his audiences 400 years later. There are a number of reasons for this, including what his death mask tells us of his health and the debate about the true authorship of his work. However, it is also because the messages gleaned from his plays are still applicable today. In honor of the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death, Time Money published a list of 11 quotes found in his plays that pertain to being mindful of one’s own finances.

A few notable lines included in the list are:

“If thou wilt lend this money…lend it rather to thine enemy, who, if he break, thou mayst with better face exact the penalty.” Merchant of Venice, Act 1, Scene 3. This sentiment resonates with many who avoid mixing friends and business and, perhaps even more so, with those who practice predatory lending.

“But the comfort is, you shall be called to no more payments, fear no more tavern-bills.” Cymbeline, Scene 5, Act 4. In this scene, the line is given while Posthumus Leonatus is imprisoned. It sounds as though the jailor is trying to cheer him by reminding him that at least he does not have to pay his bills. Apparently then, as it is today, paying bills was seen as a dull activity to be avoided if at all possible.

One of the original First Folio’s of work held by the Folger Library. It features the Droeshout Portrait of Shakespeare.

“Whiles I am a beggar, I will rail and say there is no sin but to be rich; and being rich, my virtue then be to say there is no vice but beggary.” Life and Death of King John, Act 2, Scene 1. Here, Time notes the way an individual’s perceptions of life, in Elizabethan England and today, might change along with economic status. This might be reflected in the current presidential race, where banking systems and taxes have come to play such a significant role.

In April 1616, the Bard was not the only famous writer to “shuffle off this mortal coil…” Indeed, in Spain, the death of Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, is also honored on April 23. Other poets to have died on this day include the English World War I-era poet, Rupert Brooke; the English Romantic poet, Williams Woodworth; and the English poet and man of letters, Thomas Tickell.  This grouping of deceased writers has provoked some to call April 23 “Dead Poets Day.”

William Shakespeare, 400 years later, retains a legacy of controversy and admiration. In his plays, the complex personalities of kings, queens, fairies, and wizards are explored and played out against one another, often with tragic results. Whether a reader is searching for evidence of Elizabethan jurisprudence or the roots of innocent courtship between lovers, this rich collection of stories allows one to indulge these endeavors.

Opinion by Joel Wickwire

BBC: Shakespeare anniversary: Prince Charles tours Startford-upon-Avon
Folger Shakespeare Library:  Shakespeare, The Life of an Icon
Shakespeare-Online:  Words Shakespeare Invented
The Independent:  Shakespeare400: 10 astounding facts about Shakespeare you probably didn’t know
Time Money:  11 Essential Shakespeare Quotes About Money

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