Shakespeare’s legacy

A tribute to “insubstantial pageants”.

ShakespeareAt the end of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, the magician Prospero’s spells are “all o’erthrown” and he lacks “Spirits to enforce, Art to enchant.” That will never be the case with Shakespeare, who died a mere four hundred years ago on 23 April 1616.

The Cobbe portrait is an early Jacobean panel painting that many experts believe is a portrait from life of William Shakespeare. It is on display at Hatchlands Park, a National Trust property in Surrey, England, and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust claims it is authentic. It may be one of only two genuine portraits of Shakespeare.

After Shakespeare died, his mortal remains were laid to rest in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford upon Avon. The gravestone bears no name, but a strange inscription:

“Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbeare,
To digg the dust encloased heare:
Bleste be the man that spares thes stones
And curst be he that moves my bones.”

In The Life and Times of William Shakespeare (1988), one of the best books about the man and his writings, Peter Levi speculates that the inscription “may be the last four lines of verse that he ever wrote – a conversation with gravediggers” intended to deter reburial elsewhere at a later date. Stanley Wells, in Shakespeare For All Time (2002) says that the stone is a late 18th or early 19th replacement of the original, the remains of which may lie under the altar steps, which are also a later addition.

Shakespeare was a householder and landowner. He owned a mansion with barns and extensive gardens, the smaller house in which he was born, at least one cottage with a garden, and a large area of land leased for farming. He died at his home in Stratford, having been in failing health for several weeks. He may have been suffering from typhoid fever.

Shakespeare, the man of property, appears to have been more concerned about his goods and chattels than about his writings. His famous last will and testament makes no mention of them. Shakespeare’s contemporary, Ben Jonson, had collected his own works into a great folio, but it was left to Shakespeare’s friends to publish his plays – which they did in 1623 in part because the public had been “abus’d with diverse stolen, and surreptitious copies, maimed and deformed by the frauds and stealthes of injurious imposters”.

And yet Shakespeare doubtless had an eye on posterity and an inkling of his own worth as a playwright and begetter of poems. The Sonnets, which Peter Levi calls “the most thrilling and intimately deep poems in our language”, are certainly about personal relationships, but they are also ambiguous. The eighty-first could refer to Shakespeare’s own legacy and his hope for an enduring place in our hearts and minds 400 years after his death:

“Or I shall live your epitaph to make,
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten;
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read,
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead;
You still shall live (such virtue hath my pen)
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.”

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