This year, April 23rd marked the 450th birthday of William Shakespeare -- or, at least, marked the day when the world chose to celebrate it. (The Bard was born in 1564, but his exact day of birth remains a mystery.)
We don't know much about William Shakespeare. (I recommend Bill Bryson's excellent biography Shakespeare: The World as Stage, for as comprehensive a look as one can take at the famous playwright.) One thing, however, we can be certain about: his stories, characters, and poetry remain as popular, relatable, and relevant today as they did over four centuries ago.
So in honor of the Bard's big day, I'm here to recommend some personal Shakespearean favorites.
Comedy: Much Ado About Nothing
"There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and [Beatrice]: they never meet but there's a skirmish of wit between them."
In Shakespeare's time, the word "nothing" -- pronounced as noting -- was also used to refer to gossip and hearsay. It's an appropriate reference for a story that follows the paths of two couples who have their worlds turned upside-down by the power of rumor. But it happens in two very different ways: while young Claudio is tricked into leaving his beloved Hero standing at the alter, the more worldly Benedick and Beatrice are tricked into the discovery that their feelings for one another run more deeply than expected. For both couples, however, happiness is an obtainable goal -- but it will take work, wit, and some outside help for everyone to find their way.
One of the most recent versions of the play was directed by Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, as well as the director of Marvel's blockbuster film The Avengers). But I'll always be partial to Kenneth Branagh's 1993 release, in which Branagh (who directs the film) plays Benedick opposite Emma Thompson's Beatrice.
-- Request Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing
-- Request Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing
Runner-Up: The Tempest
Try this 2010 production, which stars Helen Mirren in the traditionally male role of Prospero. A sorcerer, Prospero uses magic (and some old-fashioned manipulation) to conjure a storm and bring about the downfall of Antonio (Prospero's treacherous brother) -- while restoring Prospero's daughter, Miranda, to her rightful inheritance.
-- Request The Tempest
History: Henry IV, Part 1
"I'll so offend, to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will."
Coming-of-age stories are particular favorites of mine. So I was bound to enjoy 1 Henry IV -- which, despite its name, is the first of three Shakespearean plays that focus on the character of Prince Hal (who will himself go on to become King Henry V of England).
The first part of Henry IV shows us a prince who has gained a reputation for himself as a bungling slacker (his father, King Henry IV, informs his court that he rather desperately wishes Prince Hal was not actually his son). But Hal always has the intention of shaping up once the chips are down -- despite the machinations of Falstaff, Hal's mentor, who hopes to keep the prince exactly as he is.
Hal joins his father on the battlefield in the play's final act, the two fighting to defeat a challenge to Henry IV's throne (a throne that will, after all, one day be Hal's). For some great battle sequences -- and truly fine acting -- look no further than this 2012 release from the Hollow Crown series, featuring Jeremy Irons, Tom Hiddleston, and Simon Russell Beale.
-- Request Henry IV, Part 1
Runner-Up: Richard II
I'm partial to last year's staged version from the Royal Shakespeare Company, starring David Tennant (of Doctor Who fame) in the title role. It'll be released to DVD next month; in the meantime, try the version from the Hollow Crown set, starring Ben Whishaw as the vain, selfish king whose overthrow and downfall is as necessary as it is heartbreaking.
-- Request Richard II
"O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
it is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on."
I've got a soft spot for Othello, my first-ever Shakespeare play. Othello is a general in the Venetian army; Iago is one of his trusted soldiers and a right-hand man. But not quite "right-hand" enough to suit Iago himself -- and when Othello promotes Cassio over Iago as his new lieutenant, Iago decides then and there to take his revenge.
What follows is a story spinning out from the machinations of one of the most evil villains in all of literature. What makes Iago so chilling (and so undeniably brilliant) is his skill in using half-truths to spin the worst lies imaginable -- lies which come to sound all the more convincing and plausible.
Jealous himself of Cassio's promotion, Iago turns jealousy into a weapon wielded against those around him. Iago may be the catalyst, but what makes the play a tragedy is that Othello ultimately becomes his own worst enemy, allowing jealousy to manipulate him as deftly as Iago himself does. The 1995 version, starring Laurence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh, remains my favorite adaptation.
-- Request Othello
If it wasn't for Othello, there's no question in my mind that Hamlet would be my favorite of the tragedies. The world seems to agree: it's probably the most popular of all of Shakespeare's plays, and definitely one of the most-often performed. Take your pick!
-- Request a version of Hamlet
Sonnet: Number Eighteen (Listen to it read online here)
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course, untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st;
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Click here to hear Joss Whedon's version of "Sigh No More,"
a song from the pages of "Much Ado About Nothing."
-- Post by Ms. B