This month marks the 456th April since the birth of William Shakespeare – one of the world’s best known poets and playwrights. While his name, likeness, and words have been chiseled throughout the annals of literary history, the truth is that many of the details surrounding his actual life are shrouded in mystery.
So, what do we know about William Shakespeare, the man? We know that he was born and buried in Stratford-upon-Avon, a town that is still situated in the English county of Warwickshire. We also know that he was married with children and that his father made gloves for a living. And, while it’s not clear exactly when his plays started staging in London, it is certain that they were attracting large audiences at the Globe Theatre when it was built by Shakespeare and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in 1599 (take a virtual tour here!).
While we do know some things, many of the specifics of Shakespeare’s biography will remain lost to time. However, the works that are attributed to him endure because they so vividly capture the complex emotions that underlie the human condition.
In Hamlet, for instance, audiences are made to feel the anxiety and grief that plague the titular prince while his world slowly falls apart around him.
Meanwhile, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, spectators are swept into a complex, but ultimately humorous tangle of stories that lay bare the whimsical nature of love.
A stark contrast to that playfulness can be found in the themes explored in Macbeth. Through the mechanism of a self-fulfilling prophecy, the story told by this play makes palpable the misery that often walks hand-in-hand with power.
The idea that Shakespearean works are touchstones for human experience is even further enforced by the creation of countless adaptations, each of which filter Shakespeare’s most famous stories through new expressive lenses. In 1973, the Norton Center for the Arts debuted its first official performance season by presenting Verdi’s Otello (an operatic interpretation of Shakespeare’s Othello can be viewed at right). Since then, the Norton Center has hosted several other artistic interpretations of Shakespearian stories including modern retellings of The Taming of the Shrew (Feb, 2013), The Tempest (March, 2015) and, of course, Romeo and Juliet (March, 2016).
Yes, we would be remiss if we did not mention what is arguably Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy. A story of yearning, separation, and loss, Romeo and Juliet strikes at the heart of what it means to love outside the framework that others have built around you. But, truly, we know that the story of two star-crossed lovers being forced apart is a timeless one. Through Romeo and Juliet, the template is familiar, but the raw feelings that form that story have been captured by artists for centuries the world over.
Last January, the Norton Center showcased a performance with a narrative that is often compared to Romeo and Juliet, but in fact, the folktale that inspired it is much older. Presented by the Shanghai Ballet, The Butterfly Loversrecounts a Chinese legend that dates back to the Tang Dynasty. In this story, the fateful couple meet at an academy. Zhu Yingtai, our heroine, must disguise herself as a man in order to enroll and, over the course of her studies, she falls in love with fellow student Liang Shanbo. At the time, Liang is oblivious to Zhu’s affections and learns about her love and true identity only after she’s been betrothed to his adversary, Ma Wancai.
In the ballet, Liang rushes to destroy the wedding plans by proclaiming his love for Zhu, but he is tragically killed by Ma’s henchmen. In the end, as Zhu’s bridal procession passes Liang’s grave, she stops and entreats it to open. With a mysterious crash of thunder, it does and she decides to enter. The pair then emerge from the grave together, having transformed into butterflies. In this new incarnation, their spirits can finally fly on the same path.
When seeing the events of The Butterfly Lovers unfold, it’s no surprise that Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is considered a sort of spiritual cousin to the folktale. However, perhaps what the comparison most reveals is how authentically and movingly the world’s most talented creators have captured (and will continue to capture) the essence of human experience. Yes – Shakespeare will undoubtedly remain a household name as his works are studied, performed, and adapted to fit the conditions that surround them. However, it is also crucial to remember that there are many more people whose stories are woven into the fabric of artistic tradition whose names we’ll never know. Indeed, artists of myriad forms invite the world to glimpse into itself. Sometimes famously, sometimes anonymously, but always meaningfully – these creators provide the means for others to explore what it means to be human.
Molly Baker is a graduate of Berea College, where she studied Art History and Asian Studies. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Art History from the University of Kentucky. Before joining the Norton Center for the Arts, Molly held the position of Gallery Manager at TAMARACK: The Best of West Virginia. Later, she served as Assistant Curator/Gallery Manager at the Doris Ulmann Galleries (Berea College) as a sabbatical replacement. Molly is especially dedicated to the study and promotion of the arts and arts-based experiences using creative methods. Specifically, her goal is to bridge arts presentations with inclusive opportunities to learn about context, creators, and cultural significance, pointing to our combined human experiences in order to encourage critical thinking and understanding.