Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters
A pyrotechnician lights a flaming depiction of William Shakespeare during a firework display at the Royal Shakespeare Company marking the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth in Stratford-upon-Avon, southern England April 23, 2014. Known as the Bard and regarded as England's greatest playwright, Shakespeare, whose 450th birthday was celebrated on Wednesday, let his imagination roam as widely as his characters.

Why there's still much ado about Shakespeare, 450 years later

The birth of Shakespeare was purportedly 450 years ago as of sometime this week, and the milestone has brought on an explosion of creative celebrations around the globe.

It’s Shakespeare’s birthday – the big four-five-o;
First, shall we sing praises in iambic?
Then, let us talk to people in the know,
And publish what they say, to seem more chic.

Fans and scholars around the world are holding a week-long celebration of the Bard’s birth, which was purportedly 450 years ago as of sometime this week. The milestone has brought on an explosion of creative celebrations around the globe. And it’s presented literati with a fresh opportunity to chime in on the question: Why is William Shakespeare still important today?

Some have gone so far as to tease their thoughts into the quintessential form of iambic pentameter. Writes Manon Spadaro, founding director of the nonprofit Chicago Youth Shakespeare:

Addressing life’s big questions old and new,
The Bard leaves judgment out and doesn’t preach.
Through characters that share their point of view
We learn the cherished lessons that they teach.

On Wednesday the Globe Theatre, Shakespeare’s home stage in London, launched yet another production of “Hamlet,” and it plans to tour the play across the globe over the next two years. Also on Wednesday, the Shakespeare Festival St. Louis opened Shake 38, a five-day festival in which 38 Shakespeare plays will be performed.

The week of celebration could be just a prologue to what’s shaping up to be a global orgy in 2016, when Britain plans to honor the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death with a year-long party. Tourism officials hope the national festivities rival the 2012 Olympic Games in sheer scale.

Shakespeare is so much a part of our culture today, and his influence so widespread, that even those who do not read his works are touched by his talent in the very language we use, “which still bears the marks of his genius,” points out James Bednarz, an English professor at Long Island University in New York.

His works – the 38 plays (although scholars still debate the final count), as well as 154 sonnets – have been translated into more than 80 languages. They’re included in the curriculums of more than 65 percent of the planet’s schools, reaching some 64 million schoolchildren globally.

Theater audiences know that Shakespeare is worth encountering. Each year in America, his works are produced at a rate easily triple the one for any other playwright, according to American Theatre magazine.

Curtain Call in Stamford, Conn., is one of the small US ensembles producing a Shakespeare work this year. The troupe will mount “Twelfth Night” in a town park this summer.

“Shakespeare is not really meant to be read,” sonnets aside, says Lou Ursone, Curtain Call’s executive director. “The plays were written for a mass audience, and they were done on the fly and were meant to entertain – not to become somber literature to be studied and forced down students’ throats.”

To answer the question of why Shakespeare is important today, it helps to realize this was not always so, says Maggie Vinter, an assistant professor of English at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Many of the earliest references that Shakespeare’s contemporaries made to his work were negative, she says. “People like Robert Greene and Ben Jonson claimed that he stole from others, that he wrote too fast and that his plots were ridiculous,” she adds via e-mail.

The cult of the Bard as it exists today took off in the 18th century, Professor Vinter notes, as much to help promote the careers of famous actors as for the virtues of his work.

“So, there are good reasons to be suspicious of the claim that Shakespeare is ageless,” she says.

American pioneers traveled in covered wagons with only two books, the Bible and collected works by Shakespeare. Thomas Jefferson once said, "Shakespeare must be singled out by one who wishes to learn the full powers of the English language."

Love him or hate him, Shakespeare is now inescapable. Understanding Shakespeare enriches the lives of some and oppresses the experience of others – but knowing his work is essential in the way that knowing the Bible is, says Richard Finkelstein, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va.

“Politicians, artists, military men and women, captains of industry, all borrow words from these texts to make arguments that further their causes,” he says via e-mail.

Shakespeare was the first “psychiatrist,” says Carole Lieberman, herself a psychiatrist in Beverly Hills, Calif. She adds via e-mail, “His plays still reverberate with psychological conundrums that people experience today – from unrequited love to betrayal to suicide.”

Indeed, Shakespeare’s power lies in his psychological insight into human nature, says Peter Sander, a professor of drama and dance at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

“Shall I compare thee to a modern playwright?” writes Professor Sander, echoing the iconic Sonnet 18. N.Y. He continues:

Thou hast more pertinence and much more scope,
Beckett, Pinter, Shaw may shed some daylight
Upon benighted states through which we grope,
But they can’t hold a candle to your skill,
In turning eyes into our very souls.

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