A biscuit or a Bard? As the world marks the great writer’s 400th anniversary, Ger Fitzgibbon reflects on how Irish people drawn to his work included rebels holed up in Jacobs during the 1916 Rising.

AYOUNG man in black looks intently at the skull he is holding. Anywhere in the world, someone will recognise this picture as Hamlet. They may have never read or seen the play, but they will know this figure and what it represents: life contemplating death. Four hundred years ago, on his 52nd birthday, the man who made that image — William Shakespeare — died, and an enigma was born.

How did a glover’s son from a small provincial town become the world’s greatest playwright? The plays were written quickly (he “never blotted a line” according to one contemporary) and rehearsed in ten days.

They had to engage a mixed and turbulent audience of apprentices, prostitutes, courtiers, tourists, locals and yokels. This audience demanded something for everyone: mischief and murder, a jig and a tale of bawdry, and it all had to be wrapped in language that would rattle the timbers of those ramshackle buildings and send everyone home muttering memorable phrases and repeating favourite jests.

Shakespeare’s master-stroke, of course, is to challenge his audience: “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts… Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them, Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth.”

The remarkable thing is that those plays are still so alive today. They continue to challenge actors and directors and delight audiences with intricate stories, rich and memorable language, and complex thought and feeling. Paradoxically, the “insubstantial pageant” refuses to fade. The plays still ask us to face some of life’s harder questions: “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, and thou no breath at all?”

That these plays transcend history and politics, as well as time, is nowhere more evident than in the Ireland. A hundred years ago, when Douglas Hyde was lecturing people on The Necessity of De-Anglicising Ireland, Shakespeare got a free pass. Hyde even contributed a poem to a volume celebrating Shakespeare in 1916. Padraic Pearse himself was forever quoting Shakespeare and Sean O’Casey, the most politically radical Irish dramatist of the period, wrote glowingly of his delight in performing Shakespearean scenes with his brother, a delight he wrote into Red Roses For Me where the hero takes inspiration from reading Shakespeare.

In later years, O’Casey complained to connections of his in the USSR that the English were not celebrating Shakespeare’s anniversary adequately — an Irish socialist complaining to Russian communists that an English monarchist author was not appreciated!

Perhaps the most poignant story is that in the midst of the 1916 Rising, the Volunteers in Jacob’s Factory found time heavy on their hands, so they read each other excerpts from Julius Caesar, “borrowed” from the company library.

One can’t help wondering what they thought as they read the overthrow of the tyrannical Caesar, quickly followed by Rome’s descent into the chaos of civil war.

Shakespeare knew what he was doing. As he wrote in one sonnet, “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments/ Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme.” He proved more prophetic than he could have guessed.

When he died he left the world a treasure-house of words, characters, stories and images. He also left a substantial property portfolio. His will disposed of that property with great care, leaving the vast bulk of it to his eldest daughter. The will mentions his wife only once, and his sole bequest to her is his “second best bed”. Now there’s an enigma.

Dr Ger FitzGibbon is former Head of Drama and Theatre Studies, UCC, and author of The Bed, a new play about Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway, which will feature in the Cork Midsummer Festival. Next Tuesday at 6pm he will give a public lecture in UCC on ‘Shakespeare, O’Casey and the Nature of an Insurrection’

The Volunteers in Jacob’s Factory found time heavy on their hands, so they read each other excerpts from Julius Caesar


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