April 23 is St. George’s Day, celebrating the patron saint of England.
England is a secular society and the obvious fiction of George, a mythological figure whose “miracle” is slaying dragons. Actually, he was probably a crusader and the dragon was probably the Muslim faith, so the fiction is more fun.
But the fact that the saint is a fiction is appropriate because the greatest writer of fiction in history, William Shakespeare, is said to have been born on that day (actually, his birth was registered on April 26 so he must have been born a few days earlier, and St. George’s Day has a nice symbolism for this English treasure. He is also said to have died on the same day, 400 years ago this year, although that is also probably not exact, but he was buried that day, so close enough. As I wrote earlier this week, he shares his death week with Miguel de Cervantes, another literary giant.
What is it that makes the Bard of Avon so enduring? Sure, he is a master of wordplay. Just the words he is credited with coining, as I wrote recently, would be enough to justify his place at the top of the literary heap. But it is more than that. If one really wants to understand humanity, one only has to read the complete works. Every type of human foible — good and bad — can be found in a character somewhere.
The plays have a specific setting, but if one decides to take a chance and move it from Elizabethan times to present day, from traditional to post-apocalyptic, one can easily justify it without losing the plot (although I really don’t need to see another hippie-fied version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream).
One cannot imagine a Eugene O’Neill play set in a suburban house. The plays speak to a specific group at a specific time (which is not to say the plays are not great, they are). But when Josh Whedon filmed a version of “Much Ado About Nothing” in his house, it still worked. When Julie Taymor set “Titus Andronicus” in an apocalyptic future, it worked. When Kenneth Brannagh set “Hamlet” in the 19th century, it worked.
The flexibility comes from the fact that the themes are universal, which is also what makes the plays such a pleasure for the actor. When Ben Jonson wrote in the First Folio, “(Shakespeare) was not of an age, but for all time!” he was spot on.
So on St. George’s Day, let’s remember the real patron saint of England — hell, the real patron saint of mankind.