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Shakespeare Saw '360 Degrees Of Humanity,' And That's Why He Endures

Apr 23, 2016

April 23 is a big day in England: It's St. George's Day, a national holiday named for the country's patron saint, and it's also the day William Shakespeare is said to have been born and died. This April 23 marks the 400th anniversary of his death.

According to the Royal Shakespeare Company's artistic director, Gregory Doran, the only account of Shakespeare's death was written 40 years after it happened, by the vicar of the church where he's buried. "[The vicar wrote] that Shakespeare and his friends Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton had a 'merry meeting,' drank too much and 'Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted,' " Doran says. "So it sounds like Bill and Ben and their friend Mike went out for a birthday binge and overdid it, and he shuffled off his mortal coil."

There was also a typhoid epidemic in 1616 and Shakespeare could have died of that — but Doran prefers the drinking story. Doran's company is marking the 400th anniversary with four history plays, which they're performing at New York's Brooklyn Academy of Music. The plays — Richard II, Henry IV parts one and two, and Henry V — reveal much about what makes Shakespeare great: his gift for lyric poetry, bawdy comedy and depicting heroic triumphs and tragic downfalls.

Actor David Tennant (known for his appearances in the TV series Doctor Who and Broadchurch) plays the tragic King Richard II. Tennant believes that, more than 400 years ago, Shakespeare saw how history repeated itself. "I think whenever you put [his plays] on, you see political resonances," he says. "Maybe that says more about the fact that we, as a society, never seem to learn from history, or maybe it just talks about Shakespeare's ability to get to the kernel of human experience and to be expressing those eternal truths about how we live our lives, how we attempt to create power structures" — structures that crumble, as they do for Tennant's character.

While Richard II deals primarily with the aristocracy, the two Henry IV plays present the upper and lower classes of England. The Royal Shakespeare Company's Gregory Doran says, "There's a real huge picture of society: from the king down to the boy who serves in the pub, from the country justice to the prostitute."

And then there's the larger-than-life character of Falstaff, a rogue and a liar who serves as a mentor to Henry IV's son, Hal, as he progresses from prince to king over the course of three plays. Antony Sher plays Falstaff in the Royal Shakespeare Company productions. He calls him "the Lord of Misrule," or the guy who breaks all the rules. It's a character that transcends not only the ages, but very different cultures. Sher says that before the company landed in Brooklyn, it played Beijing, and "as soon as we started playing in front of Chinese audiences, we realized again Shakespeare is such a good writer that he doesn't write history lessons — he writes great drama. Every society has a Falstaff."

The plays also have a way of fitting into the moment. The company presented Henry V last November, a day after the terror attacks in Paris. In the play, after the English defeat the French in battle, Henry reads a list of the slaughtered French soldiers. During that scene, Gregory Doran says, "You could hear a pin drop. Shakespeare wasn't intending that, and he wouldn't know 400 years ago that this was going to happen on this particular day; but it did and it made a deep impression."

Doran says, "Shakespeare somehow is like a magnet that attracts all the iron filings of whatever is going on in the world. And somehow, because he articulates 360 degrees of humanity, inevitably he talks about today as much as he talks about his time."

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Today, April 23, is St. George's Day, a national holiday in England. It is also the day William Shakespeare is said to have been born in 1564 and the date on which he died in 1616. The Royal Shakespeare Company is in exotic Brooklyn to stage four history plays to mark the anniversary. Our man Jeff Lunden has more.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Gregory Doran is the RSC's artistic director. He says the only account of Shakespeare's death was written 40 years afterwards by the vicar of the church where he's buried. He wrote...

GREGORY DORAN: That Shakespeare and his friends Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton had a merry meeting, drank too much and Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted. So it sounds like Bill and Ben and their friend Mike went out for a birthday binge and overdid it. And he shuffled off his mortal coil.

LUNDEN: Well, actually, there was a typhoid epidemic in 1616 and Shakespeare could have died of that, but Doran prefers the drinking story. The four plays his company is presenting - "Richard II," Henry IV" parts one and two, and "Henry V" - reveal much about what makes Shakespeare great - his gift for lyric poetry and bawdy comedy, for depicting heroic triumphs and tragic downfalls.

DAVID TENNANT: I think whenever you put them on you see political resonances.

LUNDEN: David Tennant, who's best known in this country for his appearances in such television series as "Doctor Who" and "Broadchurch," is playing the tragic King Richard II. Tennant says Shakespeare saw 400 years ago how history unfortunately repeats itself.

TENNANT: Maybe that says more about the fact that we as a society never seem to learn from history. Or maybe it just talks about Shakespeare's ability to get to the kernel of human experience and to be expressing those eternal truths about how we live our lives, how we attempt to create power structures.

LUNDEN: The crumble, the hubris of Tennant's character leads to his downfall.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "RICHARD II")

TENNANT: For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of Kings, how some have been deposed, some slain in war, some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed.

LUNDEN: While "Richard II" deals primarily with the aristocracy, the two "Henry IV" plays, which follow it in the cycle, present England both high and low, says the RSC's Gregory Doran.

DORAN: There's a real huge picture of society from the king down to the boy who serves in the pub, from the country justice to the prostitutes.

LUNDEN: To the larger-than-life character of Falstaff. Sir Antony Sher, who plays him, calls Falstaff the lord of misrule, the guy who breaks all the rules. It's a character, Sher says, transcends not only the ages but very different cultures. Before the RSC landed in Brooklyn, it played Beijing.

SIR ANTONY SHER: As soon as we started playing in front of Chinese audiences, we realized again Shakespeare is such a good writer, that he doesn't write history lessons. He writes great drama. Every society has a Falstaff. You know, we all know of the fat guy getting drunk in the pub telling preposterous stories.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "HENRY IV")

SHER: What is honor? A word. What is that word honor? Air. Who hath it? He that died o' Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. Is it insensible then? Yea to the dead.

LUNDEN: Falstaff, the rogue and liar, is a mentor to Henry as he progresses from prince to king over the course of three plays. Alex Hassell plays him in the RSC cycle.

ALEX HASSELL: To explore writing of such depth by potentially the best writer of, you know, all mankind is a real privilege and takes sort of every facility I have to attempt to live up to the potential in the part.

LUNDEN: That potential speaks very much to our current time. The RSC's Gregory Doran says Shakespeare somehow provides us with words when words fail. The company presented "Henry V" last November, a day after the terror attacks in Paris.

DORAN: After the Battle of Agincourt, Henry reads out the list of the slaughtered French, and that afternoon you could hear a pin drop. Shakespeare wasn't intending that and he wouldn't know 400 years ago that this was going to happen on this particular day but it did and it made a deep impression. And Shakespeare somehow is like a magnet that attracts all the iron filings of whatever is going on in the world. And somehow because he articulates 360 degrees of humanity, inevitably he talks about today as much as he talks about his time then.

LUNDEN: So while we mourn his untimely death, Shakespeare always leaves us much to consider. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.