The 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death is April 23rd, the date he passed in 1616 at the age of 52 believed to be his birthday. It’s a milestone for which the UK in particular has been prepping for quite some time so celebrating Shakespeare in England has never been easier. But opportunities to cross paths with the bard’s physical and literary legacies are cropping up in America, as well.
The oddest mention on the physical side of things is news that experts are reporting the skull in his grave does not appear to belong to him. In fact, they are convinced it once rested atop a woman’s neck. They’ve announced this conclusion just last week, their suspicions arising when a team of archaeologists inspected the contents of his granite-clad tomb at Holy Trinity using high tech scanners. Doesn’t this sound like the perfect topic for a Shakespearean drama if he were writing it today?
New Place, Shakespeare’s Family Home
In a less spooky vein, the bard’s family home, New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon, has been renovated and is opening to the public soon. For a taste of what you’d see if you visited his former residence, pictured below, take a look at the video clip above, an under three-minute snapshot of the transformation of the place the poet, playwright and actor called home for 19 years.
First Folio Tours America
In the US, we’ll be able to enjoy Shakespeare’s literary legacy in the touring First Folio, copies of the original manuscript of his plays published in 1623. These books will be on view in all 50 states, Hawaii and Puerto Rico this year, and I’m looking forward to stopping by the University of South Carolina in Columbia on my way to High Point Market next week to see a copy. The full schedule is listed on the Folger Shakespeare Library site, or the manuscript has been digitized and can be read online.
Published seven years after Shakespeare’s death, this book is so significant because it’s the reason 36 of his plays survived beyond his lifetime, and it’s critical to the preservation of 18 of them, which had never been published before. The plays we would not have known if this book had not been printed include “Julius Caesar,” “Macbeth,” “As You Like It” and “The Tempest.” Having seen all but one of these performed, I have to say what a loss this would have been!
My Favorite Shakespeare Festival
When I lived in New York City, I made regular summer pilgrimages to see Shakespeare’s plays out of doors, some years in the Delacorte Theater trekking to Central Park and others by visiting the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival (HVSF) at Boscobel. I feel fortunate to have watched Al Pacino hauntingly resurrect Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” in Central Park in 2010 and seeing the celebrities perform there was always exciting. But the creativity with which the HVSF plays are infused and the grounds of the Federal-style mansion perched atop a cliff in the Hudson Highlands, now a noted museum, made these productions my favorites over nearly a decade of attending.
The grounds of Boscobel open early and picnicking is welcomed. They have food and beverage service, including wine and beer, if schlepping a picnic basket on a train doesn’t appeal. The chance to be in nature provides an excellent opportunity to escape the city during those steamy summer weekends when every wants to skip town. It’s remarkable to be surrounded by the natural beauty on par with the backdrop in my photo above in under two hours by train. I photographed the view in 2014 when I saw “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” the footlights that help the HVSF actors find their way from utter darkness to the stage during the summer evening performances fixed between a period cast-iron urn and the property’s Hudson River views. This juxtaposition of “then and now” is just as artfully played out in the Festival’s oeuvre, as the dialogue Shakespeare penned is perfectly preserved while the costumes and music are fabulous enough to suit the sophistication of an edgy period blockbuster film.
The plays are produced in a handsome tented structure on the grounds of Boscobel from June through August each year. Can you imagine the loss if the lineup for the 2016 season could not have included “Macbeth” because it had not been preserved in the First Folio? I couldn’t. And I’m sorry I’m going to miss the production because HVSF is producing it with an all-female cast this year.
Celebrating Shakespeare Through Exceptional Acting
I first learned of the HVSF when I was the theatre critic for the North County News, a now-defunct Westchester County weekly for several years in the early 2000s. I looked forward to these literary adventures and the chance to see the Equity actors jam on Shakespeare’s lines, one of my favorites being Stephen Paul Johnson. I was able to see him in a number of leading roles, including “Titus Andronicus” and “King Lear,” and his range is remarkable.
There is always a thrill when the stage lights dim and a trumpet sounds or a bell clangs to announce the swaggering is about to begin! And I have such great memories of leaning forward to peer into the darkness to see who struts onto the sandy floor first! Once the action has begun, there isn’t a moment during which full-on raucousness doesn’t take hold until the actors leave the stage. It’s really captivating given the acting chops the festival draws and the magnificent setting.
The Shakespeare Legacy
I find it remarkable that we’ve now arrived at the four-century mark of Shakespeare’s literary legacy, a clear indicator that we will likely never stop celebrating Shakespeare. I believe this is because the material in his plays is timeless, and “King Lear” is a perfect example. I feel an eerie echo of terror’s grip on our world when Glo’ster declares, “They kill us for their sport.”
And considering the political insanity running amok with America’s elections, the Republican party comes to mind when Glo’ster says, “‘Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind.” By the time these pronouncements cease to be relevant, our entire race will be little more than “the dust which the rude wind blows,” the parting shot complements of Shakespeare’s Duke of Albany.
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