The Bard of Avon has become playwright to the world

A global icon

No dramatist in history has wielded such influence. Shakespeare’s words and stories are returned to again and again and have earned him the title of the ‘Immortal Bard’

by Farida M.Said

The most famous, and the most performed, playwright in the world was born in a small Warwickshire market town Stafford-upon-Avon in 1564 and died there 400 years ago. Coincidentally, he is said to have been born, and to have died, on St. George’s Day, April 23. This year is the 400th anniversary of the death of this man from Stafford — William Shakespeare.

Widely regarded as the greatest writer of all time, Shakespeare occupies a unique position in the literature of the world. Other poets such as Homer, and novelists such as Tolstoy, have transcended national barriers but the reputation of none of these writers can seriously be compared with that of Shakespeare. His plays, written 400 years ago, are now performed and read more often and in more countries than ever before. These works have inspired operas and ballets, paintings and films. No dramatist in history has wielded such influence.

Shakespeare’s words and stories are returned to again and again, and have earned him the title of the ‘Immortal Bard’. The 400th anniversary of his death his legacy is being celebrated with commemorations galore around the globe. There will be hundreds of lectures, recitals, international academic conferences, films, concerts, operas and major exhibitions throughout the UK, the US, and beyond. All the world has indeed become this great poet- playwright’s stage.

“Shakespeare’s works have been translated, it is estimated, into more than a hundred languages. They have profoundly shaped national literary cultures not only in Great Britain and the United States but also in countries as diverse as Germany and Russia, Japan and India, Egypt and South Africa,” says Harvard professor of humanities, Stephen Greenblatt.


We have one man, whose vast imagination, boundless creativity and instinct for humanity encompasses the whole of human experience as no one before or since.


Shakespeare wrote 37 plays, 154 sonnets and five long poems. It was not, however, until seven years after his death that his comedies, histories, and tragedies were gathered together by his friends in an expansive edition — the First Folio. And it was only then, in his commendatory poem to this volume, that his great contemporary, the poet and dramatist, Ben Jonson declared that though Shakespeare had “small Latin and less Greek” he was nonetheless a national treasure. “Triumph, my Britain,” he proclaimed, “Thou hast one to show, / To whom all scenes of Europe homage owe”. To this proud claim Jonson added the most famous line of his eulogy on Shakespeare:

“He was not of an age, but for all time!”

Few wordsmiths have been as essential and as influential to the evolution of a language — both the written word and the spoken tradition — as Shakespeare. While certainly noted for his themes, rhythm and meter, Shakespeare’s strongest influence on the English language was his diction. Scholars estimate that Shakespeare used at least 20,000 words in his work overall, and that he coined thousands of those words and phrases. His degree of linguistic variety and innovation is unmatched. If you have ever said ‘It’s Greek to me’, suffered from ‘green-eyed jealousy’, ‘stood on ceremony’, been ‘tongue-tied’, ‘hoodwinked’ or ‘in a pickle’ you are quoting Shakespeare.

“Shakespeare played a critical role in shaping modern English and helping to make it the world’s language. The first major dictionary compiled by Samuel Johnson drew on Shakespeare more than any other writer. Three thousand new words and phrases all first appear in print in Shakespeare’s plays. I remember from my own childhood how many of them are found for the first time in Henry V. Words like dishearten, divest, addiction, motionless, leapfrog; and phrases like ‘once more unto the breach’, ‘band of brothers’ and ‘heart of gold’ — have all passed into our language today with no need to reference their original context. Shakespeare also pioneered innovative use of grammatical form and structure —including verse without rhymes, superlatives and the connecting of existing words to make new words, like bloodstained — while the pre-eminence of his plays also did much to standardise spelling and grammar,” said Prime Minister of Britain David Cameron.

Reminding his audience that Nelson Mandela, while a prisoner on Robben Island, cherished a quote from Julius Caesar which said, “Cowards die many times before their deaths, the valiant never taste of death but once,” Cameron proudly concluded:


How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in’t! —The Tempest


“Beyond the great gift of language, the bringing to life of our history, his ongoing influence on our culture and his ability to educate, there is just the immense power of Shakespeare to inspire. From the most famous love story to the greatest tragedy; from the most powerful fantasy to the wittiest comedy; and from the most memorable speeches to his many legendary characters, in William Shakespeare we have one man, whose vast imagination, boundless creativity and instinct for humanity encompasses the whole of human experience as no one before or since.”

Britain’s Royal Mail has launched a set of special postage stamps to mark the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare. These stamps pay tribute to the genius of the poet / playwright through his immortal words and poetry. A spokeswoman for the Royal Mail said: “Over 50 years, William Shakespeare and his work have appeared on 25 stamps, making him the most featured individual on Special Stamps outside of the Royal Family.”

The Royal Mint is marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death by releasing three special edition coins, each featuring an iconic symbol of his plays. Sculptor John Bergdahl has carved out three detailed images, which will appear on the coins that represent the genres most commonly associated with the Bard’s plays. The tragedy coin features a skull and rose. The edge inscription reads “What a piece of work is Man!” from Prince Hamlet’s speech in Hamlet Act Two, Scene Two. The comedy coin is carved with a jester’s hat and staff with an inscription from As You Like It, while the final coin is engraved with a crown and dagger representing the history plays. Its inscription “The Hollow Crown” comes from Richard II.

The Guardian in its editorial on Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary says:

“Unfortunate the land that has need of heroes, wrote Bertolt Brecht in an often quoted line. But perhaps Brecht was in error. Whatever our other problems, Britain is a very fortunate land in at least one enduring respect. That’s because, for the last four centuries, our pre-eminent compatriot has not been a king or a general, an aristocrat or a political leader, but a POET, who lived his life in the wings of great events, not at the centre of the stage. The best of us all was not a man of action or wealth but of letters. Few statues of this national hero exist — long may that be so — but no one ever campaigned for them to fall. Or, if they did, they were simply wrong.

“Instead William Shakespeare’s monument is mostly inside us, passed down through the generations and ours to pass on in our turn. It is in the language we use, the phrases we utter, the conversations we conduct, the jokes we make, the lines that make us suddenly serious, and in the images and references we reach for to express ourselves and to imagine our country and its history.

“Shakespeare requires no anniversary year to burnish his credentials, nor the urgings of any newspaper editorial to establish his claims on the collective attention. No new year’s honour or knighthood for services to the theatre was ever needed to assure his public esteem. Indeed it’s one of the particular pleasures about Shakespeare that this extraordinary man, who can seem to have known everything that there was to know about human beings, was in so many ways so very ordinary. …

“Yet this year is nevertheless the 400th anniversary of his death in 1616 and, since big Shakespeare anniversaries only come around about once every 50 years, we should make something of it. … There is only joy about marking the gift that Shakespeare has given the people of this country and the world for the past 400 years.

“There will of course be serious exhibitions, symposiums and other events to mark this date. … But the living commemoration will be in his plays, at least 37 of them, which as usual are being performed in almost every corner of the land — and indeed the globe — in every imaginable way. They will be done straight, cut, adapted, updated, reimagined, danced, sung, with and without music, indoors, outdoors, by professionals, by amateurs, in English and in other languages.”

The enduring and global success of Shakespeare’s work is due to his universality and humanity and to his immeasurable ability to captivate readers, music and theatre lovers, film-makers and movie-goers.

Feste the clown, at the end of Twelfth Night, sings a farewell ditty:

“A great ago the world begun, With hey, ho, the wind and the rain, But that’s all one, our play is done.”

For a split second it sounds like it is all over, and then the song continues:

“And we’ll strive to please you every day.”

That’s what Shakespeare has done for over four centuries.


Shakespeare on film

**The Guinness World Records lists 410 feature-length film and TV versions of William Shakespeare’s plays as having been produced, making Shakespeare the most filmed author in any language. Some are faithful to the original story and text, while others are adaptations that use only the plots rather than his dialogue. *The Internet Movie Database lists Shakespeare as having writing credit on 1,151 films.*

William Shakes­peare is the most frequently adapted author in cinema’s history. The dynamism with which filmmakers have transmuted his plays from stage to screen has carried Shakespeare to a broader public. With the arrival of talkies, Shakespeare’s films incorporated dialogue, music, large crowd scenes and realistic locations. Audiences intimidated by the idea of going to the theatre were suddenly given easy access to both traditional adaptations and creative reinventions of the Bard’s great plays.

Dubbed the greatest actor of the 20th century, Sir Laurence Olivier, “the classically trained and majestically handsome” English theatre veteran transplanted his passion for Shakespeare to the big screen and in so doing allowed Elizabethan blank verse to break free of its stage-bound origins. His thrilling directorial debut, Henry V, filmed during the Second World War, was the first adaptation to exploit the screen’s full potential and stunned audiences with its vivid Technicolour battle scenes. Olivier followed it up with Hamlet which won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Actor and his legendary Richard III.

The gifted American actor / director Orson Welles matched him with Macbeth, Othello and Chimes at Midnight, built around Sir John Falstaff.


Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. —Macbeth


Many of Shakespeare’s plays have also been turned into Broadway hit musicals. Cole Porter borrowed from The Taming of the Shrew to write the musical Kiss Me Kate. Romeo and Juliet was the basis for the popular West Side Story, with music by Leonard Bernstein and libretto / lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

Shakespeare’s tragedies have long inspired some of the world’s greatest film-makers.

*Peter Brook’s magnificent black-and-white film adaptation of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s staging of King Lear with Paul Scofield as the king remains peerless.

*Marlon Brando was an impressive Mark Antony in Joseph Mankiewicz’s vision of Julius Caesar. Its cast also included the great Sir John Gielgud as Cassius and James Mason as Brutus. *Hamlet has been filmed myriad times, with the list of actors taking the lead reading like a Who’s Who of acting greats: such titans as Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh and, most recently, Benedict Cumberbatch.

*There have been many film adaptations of Macbeth. Roman Polanski’s adaptation came under fire for being so violent that “It’s difficult to pay attention to the poetry”. But the most bloody and brilliant adaptation is the recent one by director Justin Kurzel. It stars the great Michael Fassbender and begins with perhaps the most spectacular battle scenes ever created for the Bard.

One of non-English filmmakers whose works have won critical acclaim is the Russian director Grigori Kozintsev. His production of Hamlet is titled Gamlet and one of King Lear is titled Karol Lear. The great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa re-located his Shakespeare’s plays to feudal Japan for his totally unforgettable versions of Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear — Throne of Blood, The Bad Sleep Well and Ran.

In the late 1960s a golden age for Shakespeare movies emerged beginning with Franco Zeffirelli’s exuberant film The Taming of the Shrew, featuring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Soon afterwards Zeffirelli produced Romeo and Juliet, another hugely popular film.

Shakespeare has also reached large audiences through television, with some of his plots adapted for serials like Star Trek.

Movie directors also continue to explore fresh ways of presenting Shakespeare. Oliver Parker’s Othello and Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing, combine period costumes with modern cinematography.

Other plays have been updated: The Australian director Baz Luhrmann set his innovative Romeo + Juliet among American drug gangs. While Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard shows a group of actors discussing and rehearsing Richard III, Richard Loncraine’s Richard III has a fascist Richard ruling 1930s Britain.

Curiously, though, the most successful Shakespeare film in many years — John Madden’s Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love — is not based on a play, but is a fictional romp about the young playwright and his mistress. Starring Gwyneth Paltrow as the beautiful Viola de Lesseps, Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth — a white-faced Gloriana — and Joseph Fiennes as a young William Shakespeare, Shakespeare in Love won seven Oscars for Best Picture. Its success is proof enough that, four centuries after he made his name in London, the Bard remains a global celebrity. —F. M. S


The Bard in Bollywood

Not only Shakespearean characters and dialogues, but also themes are frequently being used in Bollywood films

“The roots may be lost but every big story in the Hindi film industry is from Shakespeare,” insists Naseeruddin Shah, a veteran Bollywood actor who has played Shakespeare on stage and on screen.

The origin of the film industry in the subcontinent can be traced back to the Parsi Theatre tradition which borrowed freely from English dramatic sources. Today, Bollywood films often abound not only in subtle references to popular Shakespearean characters and dialogues, but also frequently use typical Shakespearean themes such as star-crossed lovers, twins separated at birth, cross-dressing, the wise fool, the shrew tamed and the mousetrap device.


All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players —As You Like It


The film Angoor is the best known adaption of Shakespeare’s play The Comedy of Errors. It is also one of the first Shakespearean adaptations to be transposed in a modern Indian setting. Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak is perhaps the best known adaptation of Romeo and Juliet in Bollywood. In the commercially popular Om Shanti Om the so-called ‘mousetrap’ device is used. The ‘mousetrap’ device, or the ‘play-within-the play’ in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, helps Prince Hamlet test the Ghost. “The play’s the thing,” he famously says “wherein I’ll catch the conscience of a king.”

Following in the footsteps of film-makers such as Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles, Kenneth Branagh, Grigori Kozintsev and Akira Kurosawa, the Indian film-maker Vishal Bhardwaj has recently made a trilogy based on Shakespearean tragedies — Macbeth is the inspiration for Maqbool, Othello for Omkara and Hamlet for Haider set in Kashmir. —F. M. S.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, April 24th, 2016

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