According to tradition, William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-on-Avon on 23 April 1564. Records show that he was baptised on 26 April, and three days was a customary amount of time to wait before baptising a newborn child. Ironically, Shakespeare's died on his birthday, the 23 April 1616, at the age of 52. The poet and dramatist Ben Jonson said, "He was not of an age, but for all time."
There are all kinds of events planned this year to mark the 400th anniversary of his death. The 23rd April is also St George’s day and, perhaps, it’s for this reason that Shakespeare’s legacy can sometimes get dragged in to the patriotic parties and flag waving that usually happens on that occasion. I think Shakespeare’s plays and poetry speak to a much deeper part of our culture though; if you visit Stratford upon Avon and immerse yourself in the ‘Shakespeare experience’ then what you come away with is a real sense of how he has become a significant figure around the world. This is surely because his legacy of work reveal an understanding of human nature which is universal not confined to national concerns. He wrote about figures in history from many different countries and cultures, but more importantly he explored the great passions and problems of what it means to be a person: love, desire, jealousy, power, loss, magic and death.
Guests on Desert Island Discs on the radio are invited to choose a book to take with them, but it is always assumed that the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare’s are already available, so they needn’t choose either of them. Why would that be? Why are these two collections assumed to be of interest to everyone who is marooned on a desert island? Like Shakespeare, the books of the Bible reveal much about human nature: love, desire, jealous…etc. The big difference is that many regard the Bible as a holy book, the word of God in fact, and so it commands a certain reverence. But even if we began reading the Bible simply as a great work of literature we will be staggered by the enormity of its scope. It is a bold attempt to put down in writing the great myths and stories of how humankind has related to God and how it all went wrong, then got better, then went wrong again, and then turned down new and life-changing paths. Some of it is, frankly, boring; some of it is little more than lists of regulations. But the juicy bits are great and the interesting bits are when we get glimpses of seeing God in new and challenging ways.
The best literature opens our hearts and minds; the best bits of the Bible do the same. Shakespeare wrote is plays to be seen and heard in the theatre but they can be read as works of literature too; you don’t need to go anywhere to read the Bible but I would encourage anyone who was interested to read the Bible with others, to hear it read in church and to ponder its stories in times of quietness.
Rev. Steve Rothwell.