23 April is the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare and the date is always acknowledged as his birthday, with celebrations centred around Stratford Upon Avon in Warwickshire, where Shakespeare was born – and which is my family home.
St George’s Day is also celebrated in England on 23 April, so it is an important day – and entirely appropriate that one of England’s favourite sons is honoured on the same day as the patron saint of England.
In Elizabethan times, the world was very well connected, not only through trade but also through politics and the European line of royal families – called the Merovingian bloodline – from which all European royal families are descended. In Elizabethan England – a dangerous time – the general populace was politically aware, so although Shakespeare’s plays were performed for the people, they were full of allusions to the politics of the day and classical references, often satirising the leading public figures of the day, much as we do now. It was a dangerous ploy, but one which earned Shakespeare popularity and fame among all classes of Elizabethan England. It is said that Shakespeare himself trod a narrow line personally – and may even have been a secret Catholic forever living in fear of detection by the authorities in a Protestant country. The myths and conjecture around Shakespeare and who he was continue – there are people bearing his name who are his descendants in England today and especially in Warwickshire.
Many of Shakespeare’s plays are based on historical figures – and some are set in mythical or pastoral kingdoms, as well as in Italy.
Rome features in one Shakespeare’s most famous lines, when in Antony and Cleopatra, Antony reassures his lover Cleopatra of his devotion:
Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch
Of the rang’d empire fall. Here is my space.
Today we might say something like, “Let the world come crashing down, I will never leave you.”
Fortunately, Rome has not yet melted into the Tiber.
Shakespeare not only based his plays on historical figures, but also on stories passed on by word-of-mouth – in the same way as writers today might look to newspapers or social media for inspiration, or listen to stories in a bar.
In the case of Romeo and Juliet, there are many theories about the source of the story, from the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe in the poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses, to a story written in 1530 by Italian writer Luigi da Porto, which he called Giuletta e Romeo.
In Verona – where the play is set – it is thought the characters of Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet are based on the true story of two families who fought for power in Verona at the turn of 13th century – the Montecchi and Cappelletti families. It is said Shakespeare heard the story from a Franciscan friar he encountered in England – the story about the young lovers was true and had been passed down through the centuries in the Franciscan order by the original friar who married the young couple.
Tragedy ensued when he went to Mantua to tell Romeo – in exile – to return to Verona to Giulietta (Juliet), who had taken a sleeping potion to mimic death. However, when the friar arrived at the gates of Mantua, he was unable to enter the city because of plague, which occurred in the city in 1301/02. Romeo had heard of the “death” of Juliet and committed suicide, unaware of the plan by the friar to reunite the lovers before Juliet’s family could marry her off elsewhere, unaware she had already married Romeo. The story is an abiding symbol of young love and the obstacles in this life that true love sometimes faces in the face of family disapproval and social conformity.
Shakespeare’s plays ask questions about all the most important aspects of human life – love, death, power, betrayal, loyalty, family, belief – but perhaps his most famous question is the one we are still asking ourselves 400 hundred years after his death:
To be or not to be?
That is the question.
Happy Birthday to the Bard of Stratford Upon Avon!
…and when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
Juliet, Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Sc II