400 Years Ago Tomorrow Shakespeare Died

Source: Stephen Greenblatt in The New York Review of Books

ShakespeareShakespeare’s death on April 23, 1616, went largely unremarked by all but a few of his immediate contemporaries. There was no global shudder when his mortal remains were laid to rest in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford. No one proposed that he be interred in Westminster Abbey near Chaucer or Spenser (where his fellow playwright Francis Beaumont was buried in the same year and where Ben Jonson would be buried some years later). No notice of Shakespeare’s passing was taken in the diplomatic correspondence of the time or in the newsletters that circulated on the Continent; no rush of Latin obsequies lamented the “vanishing of his breath,” as classical elegies would have it; no tributes were paid to his genius by his distinguished European contemporaries. Shakespeare’s passing was an entirely local English event, and even locally it seems scarcely to have been noted.

The death of the famous actor Richard Burbage in 1619 excited an immediate and far more widespread outburst of grief. England had clearly lost a great man. “He’s gone,” lamented at once an anonymous elegist,

and, with him, what a world are dead
Which he revived, to be revivèd so
No more: young Hamlet, old Hieronimo,
King Lear, the grievèd Moor, and more beside
That lived in him have now for ever died.

William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, was so stricken by the actor’s death that months later he could not bring himself to go to the playhouse “so soon after the loss of my acquaintance Burbage.” It was this death that was publicly marked by him and by his contemporaries, far more than the vanishing of the scribbler who had penned the words that Burbage had so memorably brought alive.

The elegy on Burbage suggests that for some and perhaps even most of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, the real “life” of the characters and their plays lay not in the texts but in the performances of those texts. The words on the page were dead letters until they were “revived” by the gifted actor. This belief should hardly surprise us, since it is the way most audiences currently respond to plays and, still more, to film….

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2 responses to “400 Years Ago Tomorrow Shakespeare Died

  1. True. Who knew who Trumbo was until the movie came out?

  2. Alberto Manguel, in A History of Reading, observes, “The classic phrase ‘scripta manet, verba volat’ — which has come to mean, in our time, ‘what is written remains, what is spoken vanishes into air’ — used to express the exact opposite; it was coined in praise of the word said out loud, which has wings and can fly, as compared to the silent word on the page, which is motionless, dead.”

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