It’s no surprise that if you search for Shakespeare on Europeana, you get back quite a lot of results, in more than 20 languages. Shakespeare wrote, amongst other things, 38 plays and 154 sonnets. He also invented 1,700 words including ‘eyeball’, ‘fashionable’ and ‘lonely’!
Today, 23 April, is traditionally celebrated as his birthday, and the day of his death. I say ‘traditionally’, because no-one is really sure of the actual date. What we do know is that he was baptised on 26 April 1564 in a parish church in Stratford, England. He is thought to have died on 23 April 1616, but this event too is surrounded by mystery, not to do with the date, but to do with the cause of death – some think it might have been typhus, others that he contracted a fever from partying too hard.
Regardless of the question marks surrounding both his birth and his death, today, on Shakespeare Day, we celebrate his life and works. Today is also World Book Day and what better book to celebrate than The Complete Works of Shakespeare? You can access the whole text through Europeana.
‘The complete works’, William Shakespeare, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, CC0
For one man to be such a prolific writer, producing some of the world’s most influential works, there must be something special about him, right? In 1914, the British Medical Journal published this diagram of Shakespeare’s skull, comparing its size with that of modern man. The diagram shows that his skull was bigger than the average man’s, and therefore presumably his brain was too. Bigger brain = better bard? Possibly. Another theory is that Shakespeare was just too good to be true and all his work could not have been penned by one man. Conspiracy theorists suggesting alternative authors have put forward more than 80 names, including Francis Drake, the 6th Earl of Derby, Christopher Marlowe, and the 17th Earl of Oxford.
‘Diagram comparing skulls of Shakespeare and modern man’. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 UK
My favourite Shakespeare play has to be A Midsummer Night’s Dream, partly because it was the first one I ever studied at school, partly because it’s full of fairies and magic, and partly because the school put on an open air performance of it in which I was an unnamed fairy and danced to The Beatles’ ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ – the interpretation was Shakespeare-cum-sixties-psychedelia. My favourite character in the play is the mischievous Puck, who is behind all of the tomfoolery that goes on, putting spells on people left, right and centre. By the way, don’t you just love the word ‘tomfoolery’? It’s a term, like so many others, coined by the Bard himself, inspired by the antics of the character ‘Tom Fool’ in King Lear.
From plays to poetry – I also have a favourite Shakespeare sonnet, number 61. It’s a poem in which the narrator is so much in love that he or she cannot sleep and longs only to watch over their loved one who is tortuously far away. I find it a very romantic notion:
Is it thy will, thy image should keep open
My heavy eyelids to the weary night?
Dost thou desire my slumbers should be broken,
While shadows like to thee do mock my sight?
Is it thy spirit that thou send’st from thee
So far from home into my deeds to pry,
To find out shames and idle hours in me,
The scope and tenor of thy jealousy?
O, no! thy love, though much, is not so great:
It is my love that keeps mine eye awake:
Mine own true love that doth my rest defeat,
To play the watchman ever for thy sake:
For thee watch I, whilst thou dost wake elsewhere,
From me far off, with others all too near.
More romance – dancers acting out the parts of Romeo and Juliet, a Shakespeare tragedy put to music by Prokofiev. ‘Romeo és Júlia, Magyar Királyi Operaház / Magyar Állami Operaház, (Budapest)’, eCLAP library for the performing arts, public domain
Do you have a favourite Shakespeare play, character or poem? Let us know by leaving a comment.