I wake up too late to enjoy my coffee – so I leave the cup almost full to the brim, grab my jacket and run out. Brisk pace, take my jacket off because of the sweltering heat (is it really only April?), come to a halt and wait for the green light. I shuffle my feet impatiently and press on the traffic light button repeatedly (yes, I’m one of those people). Several steps later, I’m standing near the registration desks to confirm my presence at the ‘Why Shakespeare matters – from Bardolatry to Belgrade’ conference in Sava Centre.
Turns out, I’m early (I longingly think of my untouched morning coffee), so I kill time by observing the crowd. There’s quite a turnout (much to my surprise) and it’s mostly teachers and grad students (not so surprising). I start to feel a little insecure and out of place – these people are much more knowledgeable on the subject of Shakespeare than myself. Now, don’t get me wrong, I took a Shakespeare-related course during my studies, but it was really more like Shakespeare 101 than an in-depth analysis of the playwright’s works. Words fly about me – analyses I’ve never read, names of critics and researchers I don’t know, references I don’t understand. Why am I here?
As the conference commences and the opening speeches begin, I fiddle with the headset (through which the sound of first-class interpreting was emanating, I have to add), and send out a tiny prayer that I’ll be able to keep up. Then the plenary speaker of the event – Ewan Fernie, distinguished Professor and Chair of Shakespeare studies at The Shakespeare Institute, a branch of the University of Birmingham, stepped onto the stage and started his speech.
Throughout the speech, he touches upon several important themes in Shakespeare’s work, but mostly focuses on the idea of freedom and the political aspects of the Bard’s writing. He tells us that David Garrick (ha! I knew who that was!), one of the leading actors in 18th century England, freed Shakespeare. That is, at the Shakespeare festival in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1769, he declared Shakespeare to be a national poet, accessible to the common man. Shakespeare’s legacy, he claimed, belongs to us all.
Professor Fernie continued to explore the link between Shakespeare and freedom – particularly prominent and rebellious in nature during the 19th century Chartist movement, when the working class demanded political reform in Britain. Throughout the plenary speech and later on during question time, he continued to give us insight into the militant and political aspects of Shakespeare; stating his opinion on literary criticism as a form of art; telling us of his latest book Macbeth Macbeth, co-authored with long-time friend and colleague Simon Palfrey; giving us the English viewpoint on the influence of Shakespeare on venerated Serbian poet and scholar Laza Kostić. Although it was extremely informative, I won’t relay the entire conference to you. Rather, I’ll go back to the thought that Shakespeare belongs to us all.
I still remember the first time Shakespeare came into my life. I was a timid but curious 14-year-old, and ever the avid reader. We read a short excerpt from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in English Lit class, and I was immediately intrigued; the language was so different, so rich. My wonderful, observant teacher Miss Layla noticed how smitten I was with the play, and loaned me an unabridged version to read at home. That night, under the glow of my night-light I flipped the pages and read until the very last lines:
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.
I couldn’t understand half of it and I was too young to delve into the breadth of symbols and metaphors, but despite my lack of knowledge about Shakespeare’s work or his life, historical context or the techniques necessary to analyse a text, I knew I had just read a piece of art. A world unfolded before me, pieced together by a masterful wordsmith, with the most beautiful poetry and vivid imagery. In that moment, Shakespeare belonged to me just as much as he did to any critic, professor or scholar. His comprehension of the human condition, the reasons behind our deeds, our innermost fears, hopes, thoughts and dreams is striking. His language is bursting with life and colour, refusing to confine itself to conventions and mediocrity.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that it doesn’t take a great amount of expertise to be able to enjoy, comprehend and ultimately, fall in love with Shakespeare’s verses. We claim them as our own because they are so easy to relate to, and once read, they echo on in our minds like a gentle, melodic reminder of the nature of man and the many vagaries of life. We claim them as our own because they tell us we all suffer the same plights, and experience the same joys in life, regardless of our station, simply through the virtue of being human.
So on the day that would be the Bard’s 452nd birthday, let us all appreciate the wonderful legacy this playwright has left us. Though he sleeps (perchance he dreams?), his genius defies time and lives on.