Bears, beds and Bardolatry

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To mark the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth, we looked at the lighter side of his life and works with a little help from our pal, Professor Emeritus John F. Erath.

They say it’s his birthday…

It’s unknown if William Shakespeare was actually born on April 23, 1564, but records show he was baptized April 26 at Stratford-upon-Avon, and it was customary at the time for baptisms to occur three days after birth. “It’s as good a day as any to celebrate him, because that’s also the Feast of St. George, the patron saint of England,” says Erath, who taught Shakespeare classes at TCNJ for more than 30 years. Coincidentally, the Bard also shuffled “off this mortal coil” on April 23 at the age of 52.

Timeless themes

Despite his country-bumpkin origins, people are still reading, acting, watching and studying Shakespeare’s works four centuries later. Why? “Because he understood human nature and dealt with universal themes,” says Erath. “You see people you know in the plays: your Uncle Harry, your Aunt Myrtle, the guy who lives across the street. From a theatrical point of view, many of his works remain eminently playable on the stage.”

Alternative authors, you say? Fie upon thee!

“The Anti-Stratfordians continue to say this upstart from the sticks couldn’t possibly have written such deep, thoughtful plays, or know as much as he did about language, custom and behavior. But their evidence is shaky. It’s gimmickry pretending to be scholarship,” says Erath. Should you encounter one of these folly-fallen clotpoles in conversation, lob this gem at them (courtesy of our pal, Will): “Were I like thee, I’d throw away myself.”

‘Exit, pursued by a bear.’

Even Shakespeare’s stage directions are memorable — none more so than the one above from The Winter’s Tale, with which the Bard dispatched a character who was abandoning a newborn baby in the desert. So did The King’s Men use a live bear? “Some say they did, but I suspect that’s an apocryphal story,” says Erath. What does he plan to do next year, when his company, Shakespeare 70, stages the play? “Guy in a bear suit? Maybe. But my wife cringes every time I mention it.”

That must have been some bed…

Though he retired a wealthy man, Shakespeare bequeathed only his second-best bed to his wife, Anne Hathaway. Was it a sign of their unhappy marriage, or some strange sentimental act of affection? We’ll likely never know, since few details of Shakespeare’s personal life are known.

To see, or not to see

With more than 50 screen adaptations of Shakespeare’s tragic masterpiece, Hamlet, available for viewing, which to choose — that is the question. A good place to start is Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 adaption, says Erath. Beware, though: this unabridged version clocks in at over four hours. “I call it the ‘steel drawers’ Hamlet, because you’ve got to have your steel underwear on to make it through in one sitting,” says Erath. And whatever you do, be sure to avoid Mel Gibson’s 1990 turn as the Danish prince. “My standard line for students was, ‘Mel Gibson played Hamlet, and Hamlet lost.’”

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