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April 23rd A short essay on a Saint, a Dragon and a Bard

Shakespeare, Cervantes and St. George all have one thing in common - April 23rd.

That date marks St. George's Day. It is also, by general consent, the date in 1616 when both Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare died. And - with a historical neatness almost too good to be credible - it is claimed as the date, in 1564, when Shakespeare was born.
St. George is the patron saint of several states, provinces, regions and cities, including Catalunya and England. Though now widely accepted by theologians as a purely legendary figure, he is reputed to have come from a variety of places including modern-day Israel/Palestine, Libya and Germany. The popular story is that he lived around the fourth century and saved the virginal daughter of a local ruler by slaying the dragon that was holding her captive. At the point where the dying beast's blood soaked into the soil, a bush of red roses miraculously sprang up, and St. George has ever since been closely associated with red roses and fire-breathing dragons - the latter surely a clear indication that he must be a few sword-lengths away from reality.
The Dragon
His cult grew in England and was adopted by the then anglophile Catalans ten years after Shakespeare's birth; in 1667 his feast day officially became a holiday throughout Catalunya. Quite when he became the patron saint of England is not clear, though we know that Shakespeare's King Henry V exhorted his troops to reattack during the siege of Harfleur in 1515 with the words: "Cry 'God for Harry, England and Saint George!'"

If we know little for certain about St. George, then we know little more about Shakespeare himself. But does it matter? The validity of a national and/or religious icon is important. If we find - and can prove - that he or she did not exist, then we must also discount the deeds associated with that icon. Many, of course, will not - which is the shining triumph of belief over knowledge.

But the validity of a writer's life is a different matter . . . for the texts remain - and, excepting those people whose interest in the author is purely biographical - it is the texts that are of prime importance.

Did William Shakespeare write 37 plays (plus at least two attributed to him which do not survive)? Or more? Or less? There are considerable doubts, for example, about his authorship of the three parts of King Henry VI (and, frankly, were I Shakespeare I'd be quite happy to disown them).

Until - and even when - he and his contemporaries established the worth of their 'modern' English playwriting, the author was considered less important than the play or the leading actors. Copyright did not exist and nobody balked at lifting words, plots and ideas from other sources - classical, historical or modern. The Merchant of Venice was based on a story called "Il Pecorone", in The Adventures of Giannetto by Giovanni Fiorentino, about a Jewish creditor demanding a pound of flesh from a defaulting Christian debtor, who is saved by the advocacy of a 'lady of Belmont', the wife of his friend. Also, in the mediaeval collection of tales, Gesta Romanorum (new English translation, 1577), there appears the trial of a lover's character by choosing between three caskets of gold, silver and lead. These two sources gave Shakespeare his entire story.

The Bard himselfThe Elizabethan writers' 'finished' works were also liberally altered during rehearsal. It is no fanciful caprice to imagine a breathless Shakespeare rushing into The Globe with his latest play and, say, Richard Burbage (the theatre's major shareholder and its leading tragic actor) scanning his own key scenes and saying: "Look, Will, how about instead of 'Should I live or should I die', we put 'To be, or not to be'?" Further, we know that the written plays (collected from various sources) were then edited - often very heavily - by their subsequent printers.

Who really wrote 'Shakespeare'? If we simply mean the poems and plays widely attributed to someone called 'Shakespeare', it surely doesn't matter . . . except, of course, that it's more convenient to refer to "William Shakespeare" than to "the person(s) who wrote (or allegedly wrote), partly or wholly, those works such as Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, etc. etc."

So what about the plays themselves that were written by, er . . . Shakespeare?

The new reader or playgoer will possibly first be struck by their sharp perception of human character. Even when writing about kings and princes and peers, Shakespeare presents them as 'ordinary' people with complex actions and reactions to their circumstances. And, though not perhaps a proto-feminist, his ability to examine and observe all people enabled him to present strong and interesting women while also concentrating on the poor and disadvantaged. In short - with some exceptions, particularly in the earlier plays - his characters were not 'cardboard' but, like you and me, multi-dimensional. (Even the 'evil' Richard III of Tudor propaganda is shown as intelligent, charming, courageous and with a sharp sense of humour.) Not surprisingly, his plays thus still have a relevance and vital immediacy today: a production of Coriolanus in Paris in the 1930s caused the fall of the Daladier government; Richard II, which deals with the deposition of a monarch, was taken off the London theatre during the abdication crisis of King Edward VIII; the communist authorities in Czechoslovakia frequently staged Shakespeare as a propaganda argument against the capitalist West.

Startling, too, is Shakespeare's language. He wrote in English at a time when Latin was still considered the language of 'serious' academic works; as such, he was understood by all classes. And, in the then brand-new medium of theatre, he appropriated the fast-developing language of English with breath-taking inventiveness, single-handedly testing its grammatical flexibility, changing its pronunciation and vastly enriching its vocabulary with hundreds of new phrases and nearly 2,000 new words. Thanks to 'the immortal bard' we now have, for example: snow-white, fragrant, frugal, fretful, hurry, and dwindle.

Shakespeare's story lines and broad range of subject matter, his effective mix of verse and prose, the keen observation of human nature, the dramatic energy and his bold use of language all mark a canon of literature which was - and is - exciting, intellectually challenging and thoroughly entertaining. What more do you want . . .? Well, if you really do want something more, here is a short quiz for bardolaters everywhere.

1998 Peter Noel

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