Monday, April 23, 2007

443rd birthday/391st deathday

Let us today remember the birthday of William Shakespeare, born on April 23, 1564—so far as scholars can make out. One measure of Shakespeare's enduring memory is that the Sixteenth Edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations1 devotes sixty-three 2-column pages to him, while devoting only two-thirds that number to The Holy Bible.

His Sonnet LV may as well have been addressed to himself:
Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rime;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmear'd with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war's quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
'Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
    So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
    You live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes.
With that ending reference to Judgment Day, the sonnet predicts that the beloved shall live until the very end of time. Shakespeare gives every indication of going to do so.

And in the following passage from A Midsummer Night's Dream [II.i.148-154], Shakespeare could have been describing the works of his own imagination:
    Oberon...My gentle Puck, come hither. Thou remember'st
Since once I sat upon a promontory,
And heard a mermaid on a dolphin's back
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath,
That the rude sea grew civil at her song,
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres
To hear the sea-maid's music.
    Puck.                                    I remember.

By the way, Shakespeare died on his 52nd birthday. He had recently written his own epitaph (as I learned from Stephen J. Greenblatt's excellent book, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare):
Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here;
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.
Let us remember, remember.
  1. Bartlett's is "a collection of passages, phrases, and proverbs traced to their sources in ancient and modern literature."

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