“Triumph my Britain, thou hast one to show" - William Shakespeare

23 April 1616, 400 years ago, William Shakespeare died in Stratford-upon-Avon.

“Triumph my Britain, thou hast one to show / To whom all scenes of Europe homage owe. / He was not of an age, but for all time!“ (Ben Jonson)

Sir John Gilbert’s (1817 – 1897) picture puzzle “The Plays of William Shakespeare“ (c. 1849)

It’s like with Homer. Some artists play an identity-establishing role to such an extent, that at some point in reception history, posterity begins to doubt their existence and comes up with various attempts at an explanation for individuals that have become long since a cultural phenomenon. One of the usual approaches is to socialise their works, attribute literary remains to a team of authors, in Shakespeare’s case to, exempli gratia, Francis Bacon, Raleigh and Edmund Spenser, or creating an even more fantastic larger-than-life figure by attributing authorship as spare-time work to worthies from Christopher Marlowe to Good Queen Bess herself. As if the idea of an individual with an otherwise rather assessable biography, graduate of a grammar school, married, three children, decent marketing skills and a job as theatre director, being one of the greatest authors of world literature at the same time was simply unbearable. Whatever might have been the case, Shakespeare has become a cultural icon comparable to few others ever since.

A procession of Shakespeare's character from around 1845

Of the 17,677 words Shakespeare uses, he invented one-tenth, more than 1,700, himself by changing nouns into verbs, verbs into adjectives, pairing words into a new meaning and inventing some that had never been used before, from “advertising” (“Measure for Measure”) to “rant” (“Hamlet”) and “swagger” (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”). 20.000 pieces of music are linked to his works and few authors of world literature past the late 1700s would write their own masterpieces without concerning themselves with Shakespeare and not only in the Anglosphere. It is actually thanks to the Romantics that Shakespeare was exalted to Olympian (“King Henry VI”) heights after Dr Johnson had made him the most quoted author in his “Dictionary of the English Language“, up to a point where the Victorians indulged in a reverence of the Bard that G.B. Shaw called “bardolatry” and constituting him to be the most quoted author worldwide after the Bible – and Shakespeare remains an inspirational and culture-endowing force to this day.

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