Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare

"To be or not to be, that is the question..." Oh, yes, don't we all have those days when we feel a little like Hamlet -- when things become a bit overwhelming, we feel confused and indecisive?  But then we're blessed on other days when we feel "As merry as crickets," or maybe "As merry as the day is long."  Some of us just like to be around our friends for whom "Happiness courts thee in her best array."

But what's all this talk about?  "Words, words, mere words, no matter from the heart," writes Shakespeare, words that touch our heart and give us insight into our small private world, and, as scholars note, words that hold a mirror to the follies of our ways.  This week we celebrate the glorious birthday of the Bard of all Bards, William Shakespeare, whose works are literary canon, whose genius is described by scholars as "beyond brilliant."

Actor, poet, playwright, and businessman extraordinaire, Shakespeare's fellow playwright Ben Jonson proclaimed, "He was not of an age, but for all time."

Four centuries later Jonson's words echo loud and clear as it truly can be said that the sun never sets on Shakespeare as his plays and poetry ring out day after day, year after year around the globe, his works performed in Mandarin, Japanese, Russian, Croatian, Romanian, Hungarian, Afrikaans, and so many more languages, both on stage and in film.

Wait a minute, you say?  Not all of us are fawning Bardologists.  In fact, many of us are still nursing a bad case of a high school Shakespearean rash brought on by a close encounter with Miss Young, the English teacher who tried to cram Julius Caesar or Hamlet down our throats, or, God forbid, the Tempest!  Works to be read in a language we couldn't understand, a story that left us lost in a maze of boys disguised as girls, girls disguised as boys, and plots of such convoluted magnitude that one needed a GPS system to map the relationships of the characters.  For many, this was not love at first sight.

But not to fear, for those of us who fell along the youthful Shakespearean wayside of life -- we weren't completely lost, even though we may have been unaware of our intimate relationship with the richness of Shakespeare's gift to us.  It's true that we may not have dived into the deep pool of the complexities of Shakespeare's characters -- so often, larger than life -- and that we've put the Milky Way vastness of the psychological unpinnings of his stories temporarily on our closet shelf of life, but we still have the beauty of Shakespeare's diamonds and pearls in words and language that we'd find hard to get through each day without.

Yes, scholars credit the Bard with the invention of more than 1,700 new words -- words and phrases that we hear and we use every day.  Do these sound familiar: Dauntless, deafening, dishearten?  Gloomy, gossip, green-eyed?  Laughable, lonely, luggage?  Madcap, majestic, monumental?  Scuffle, swagger, and zany?

How about a taste of the Bard's gift of phrases that are so much a part of our living language: All that glitters is not gold, break the ice, breathed his last, in a pickle, dead as a doornail, faint hearted, good riddance, Greek to me, heart of gold, love is blind, in my mind's eye, laughing stock, naked truth, sick at heart, and yes, what's done is done!

Haven't we sometimes turned for comfort to these words of wisdom when faced with our own internal trials, when worried, stressed, or frustrated?  "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is, to have a thankless child," "Oh, woe is me," or, "What a piece of work is a man..." Shakespeare speaks to us of our time and place in this world -- giving us a sense of who we are.

All the world's a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances...

Shakespeare entered onto the stage of life four and a half centuries ago, but lives today in his works, or, as he might tell us, in his "lines," as he writes so lovingly in Sonnet 18: 

Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou growest: 

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

On this 447th birthday students at a small-town community college in Casper, Wyo. are performing The Twelfth Night, and in a big-city high school in Los Angeles, students prepare to celebrate with a 4-play Shakespearean Festival.  Shakespeare was instrumental in taking actors' performances from the bearbaiting arenas and taverns of London into a thatched-roof, rough-hewn "play house," the famous Globe Theater. Today, magnificent playhouses adorned with chandeliers and filled with patrons dressed in silk and diamonds celebrate the Bard's birthday.  But one does not have to live near a community playhouse or a glittering, red-carpeted theater to reap the richness of the world's greatest poet and playwright.  One may sit at home alone with the howling prairie wind battering at the door, and through the magic of electronic media, enter the amazing world of King Lear, Beatrice and Benedick, Prince Hal and the incredible "comic Socrates" Falstaff.

Whether on the windswept prairie, in the snowy woods of Maine, along the misty seaside of Oregon, high on the eucalyptus-covered hillsides of California or in the heart of the Arizona desert, we can hear Shakespeare whisper in our ear, "The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together."

Words, mere words, scratched with quill and ink on an ale-stained, wrinkled scrap of parchment by a thin and hungry looking young man struggling to create a play.  To this young man, let's lift a cup of ale and cheer, BRAVO, dear beloved playwright Will Shakespeare.