Daniel Swift

A mirror to the world

The latest crop of anniversary books shows just what an astonishing mirror to changing culture his work can be

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[/audioplayer]Who’s there? Shakespeare’s most famous play opens with this slightly hokey line, and the question remains for his countless audiences, biographers and scholars. Who was this man? What makes his works so apparently endless? Like the plays, his life is studded with riddles. Even the basic facts are slippery and over-determined. We do not, for example, know the date of Shakespeare’s birth. His baptism was recorded at Stratford on 26 April 1564, and since it was customary to baptise newborns quickly, it has been accepted that his birthday was 23 April. This is a nice coincidence: 23 April is St George’s Day, a celebration of the dragon-slaying patron saint of England, and Shakespeare died on another 23 April, in 1616. It is as if he began and ended at once, and in a neatly Shakespearean twist, there is a little fiction in the festivity.

Shakespeare is today 400 years dead but nonetheless — like the ghost in Hamlet still here. He is remembered on a £2 coin, newly issued by the Royal Mint, with a skull on one side and a jester on the other. He is on display in Wolverhampton, in a sculpture as small as the full stop at the end of this sentence (it is called, inevitably, ‘To See or Not to See’). In this year’s centenary celebrations, the Globe company has taken Hamlet to 196 countries round the world. But the most common place we encounter him is the page and not the theatre, for his plays are set texts at both GCSE and A-level, and are therefore one of the few things shared by almost every schoolchild in Britain. We are a nation defined by reading Shakespeare.

In a curious stage direction, Hamlet enters ‘reading on a book’.

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