"He was not of an age, but for all time."
Certainly Ben Jonson's tribute is now as famous as the man thereby honoured. Indeed it might be said that, like most of the latter's celebrated quotes, it too has passed into the realm of the overused, the surfeit of cliché.
The name was Shakespeare, William. But then, what's in a name except that this much is known, that he existed.
For someone who not just became the presiding, and defining deity of English literature but pervaded the common speech of countless English-speaking multitudes the world over, that statement might seem scandalously economical; yet in no other instance of the written word does one find the work so eclipse its creator. We know a few basics: he was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, his father made gloves, his mother was landed gentry, he married someone nearly a decade his senior who was already pregnant at the time of his marriage, he had a son who was called Hamnet He also stole a pair of geese, and appeared before a magistrate for the crime. But these are bare bones, they hardly matter. The biographically inclined can trawl the libraries of the world for more - though not much, since all of it is merely a stirring of the same sparse ingredients.
We don't know what he looked like, since photography was still nearly four centuries into the future. Even the Chandos portrait is anonymous and dubious, and the engraving on the 1623 First Folio was supposedly a copy thereof, so we're no wiser. Their repeated use over the intervening centuries has conveniently given to 'aery nothing a local habitation and a name' - a face to tack the works on to.
About his love life we conjecture that Anne Hathaway was probably not all - his sonnets more than hint at adventures beyond his 'second-best bed' - which he willed, either meanly or cleverly (depending on how mean or generous one is) to Anne.
That he was more than ordinarily gifted with words (and we, in the 21st century, still stand agape and in awe of them) we surmise from contemporary evidences of professional jealousy: someone called him 'an upstart Crow', not so much a critical judgment as inferior spleen.
Some of that spleen perhaps was at the bottom of the alternative authorship theories - although the scholarship expended, and the detective skills displayed in furtherance of those theories is undoubtedly impressive. Thus one can take one's pick, from the Earl of Oxford, to Bacon, to Marlowe, or whoever else happens to be the flavour of the moment. But for the fundamentalists (of whom this writer is one) it hardly matters, because for them it was Shakespeare, William and none else who wrote those 37 plays, 154 sonnets and the two long poems.
If the British colonial endeavour is commonly believed to have been borne on spice, tea and trade, a less obvious but more insidious vehicle could be said to be the English language, and more particularly its greatest ornament. When Macaulay wrote his famous Minute on Education in India he might have saved himself the trouble by recommending instead a rigorous regimen of Shakespeare: seduction would have accomplished (as indeed it did) Macaulay's intention far more effectively than his elaborate verbiage. To see how potent that seduction still is one need do no more than echo Sir Christopher Wren's epitaph: "Si monumentum requiris, circumspice."
Perhaps the greatest tribute to a writer, the most enduring testimonial to his timeless appeal must lie in the parodies, the pastiches, the subversions of his work. And while the more obvious ones (Richard Armour, Brahms and Simon, Anthony Burgess, and Tom Stoppard to name a few) take on the Bard with a twist or two, his use by another great exponent of the English tongue, P G Wodehouse, is all-pervasive. Reading Wodehouse without a solid cerebral foundation of Shakespeare would be 'weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable'. It was another kind of genius that imbued the most sombre lines with unexpected comic mayhem.
And then there were the spoilsports, the busybodies who tried taking 'a spade to a soufflé' (to appropriate Evelyn Waugh's compliment to Wodehouse).
And the bard censor
Quite without argument the most officious of these busybodies was Thomas Bowdler. A man trained to be a physician or surgeon (one forgets which), he gratuitously meddled in things far removed from the ambit of his chosen calling, encroaching on the province (if that) of the clergyman instead of enriching his own, trying to sanitise supposedly impressionable minds and souls.
A full two hundred years after Shakespeare's death he picked on the poor Bard as a starting point to begin his self-appointed purification mission. Carefully excising, expunging and expurgating words, phrases and passages considered 'indelicate' for tender eyes and ears, he produced The Family Shakespeare: an opus to be dipped into by a benignly stern pater familias for the instruction, improvement and edification of his brood. One can imagine the scene: a Sunday evening at home by the fireside, after a properly sensible supper, with six or seven eager faces upturned as the man ponderously drones on.
And mind you, Victoria was not enthroned yet to set her stamp on the age.
Well, history often displays a nice sense of irony, so it wasn't long before the silly doctor got his come-uppance (but not before he had visited his unwholesome attentions on the Bible, and Gibbon, poor man). The same tender minds for whom he laboured now laughed at him. And of course, the English language got itself a new word: 'bowdlerise'.
But curiosity impels us to examine what precisely Bowdler found objectionable in England's greatest son - and not, certainly, out of moral scruple in this day and age. And his birth-cum-death anniversary is as good a day as any to do so.
As far back as the 1930s, Eric Partridge, the famous scholar and writer on English language, trawled through Shakespeare and documented every single word, phrase and passage having sexual or scatological connotations. And the result was his monumentally entertaining Shakespeare's Bawdy. A sample, perhaps? Here's something from Venus and Adonis - Venus speaking:
'Fondling,' she saith, 'since I have hemm'd thee here
Within the circuit of this ivory pale,
I'll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer;
Feed where thou wilt, on mountain or in dale:
Graze on my lips; and if those hills be dry,
Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie.
Within this limit is relief enough,
Sweet bottom-grass, and high delightful plain,
Round rising hillocks, brakes obscure and rough,
To shelter thee from the tempest and the rain:
Then be my deer, since I'm such a park;
No dog shall rouse thee, though a thousand bark.'
For sheer exuberance of imagery, that has few equals: and certainly none in the lurid, explicit pornography of today, which can match neither its refined lubricity, nor the delightful coquette's humour which Shakespeare invests Venus with. That needed genius.
In a passage of paradox which first extols man and then slides into transcendentally eloquent despair Hamlet asks:
" and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?"
The quintessence of that hallowed Warwickshire dust is the refined elixir of a language, and a name. The greatest ever. For all time.
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