Nearly 450 years ago a boy was born in an English village. No stars aligned to signal the birth of a literary saviour, he was not showered with privilege or power, his family was not terribly remarkable. The boy’s parents lived in a small town surrounded by farm land and populated with simple people who spent their days in largely manual labour. As the ordinary boy grew, he filled his life with ordinary pursuits: he attended the same school as everyone else in the village, he learned a trade and he went to church.
Somewhere along the line, the ordinary boy learned how to write—and he ceased to be ordinary. What this boy put down on paper was inventive, imaginative and immortal. There seemed to be nothing special about him, but his grasp of the best and worst of humanity appeared almost supernatural in its ability to see into our souls. And what the ordinary boy from a simple farming village did with words changed our language and our ability to express ourselves forever.
This is the beauty of Shakespeare for me: that a boy from such simple beginnings could carve a place for himself in heaven with no greater tools at his disposal than imagination, observation and empathy. Anyone might have done the same if they chose to open their eyes wide enough to see the comedy, tragedy, beauty, music and magic in the world around them.
Scholars say it was his time which made him—that Shakespeare lived in a period of intense drama—and they are right. That simple boy witnessed incredible change during his lifetime, just as everyone else in Tudor England did. But it was that ordinary boy from a simple village who made the most of his time, who captured not only the essence of the era but also the essence of us.
On this day I honour the power of an ordinary person who created extraordinary plays and poems which have been inspiring, entertaining and exposing humanity for nearly five centuries. The characters’ struggles and passions are as meaningful today as they were then, though the resonances have changed over time. His work is the true definition of universal art.
Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare!
Photographs from Sherburn High’s production of Hamlet directed by Katharine Elmer.