Happy birthday, Will!

There was an army of groupies on hand to celebrate Shakespeare's birthday last Saturday. But why? Maybe his work really is timeless. Or was he just in the right place at the right time?
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The gifts are always one way on Shakespeare's birthday - from him to me. The gift of his 36 plays. The gift of his 154 tantalisingly ambiguous "sugar'd" sonnets, as Francis Meares so sweetly described them in 1598 or thereabouts. But, above all, the gift of his overarching, overbearing genius, and all that it represents to us now, and all that it has represented to us as a nation in the past. No wonder that Hollywood has fallen in love with him all over again! Who wouldn't want to embrace the ghost of this man?

The practical consequences of all this bardolatry are not quite so comfortable though. Today, for example, I am standing just inside the vestibule of the British Library - it's Shakespeare Day here, and there are lots of lovely free events just for the taking - trying to get a good look at the statue of the Bard which stands in a niche near the door, that famously representative work by Roubiliac which stood in David Garrick's garden in the 18th century, by which time Stratford was already a shrine in his memory.

In the statue, the Bard is leaning fairly nonchalantly against his writing desk, jerkin partially unbuttoned. He looks, in that attitude of easeful repose, so secure in his sense of himself as England's national poet and pre-eminent cultural hero...

"Excuse me," someone says, "are you in this queue or not?" The tone of voice sounds mildly jostling, though the woman doesn't look like any old groundling.

The fact is, of course, that I'm not quite in any queue. In fact, I'm partially blocking the queue which, I see, snakes up towards the information desk, which is about to start distributing free tickets for a screening of Shakespeare in Love. Is it the word "Shakespeare" or the word "free" - or the fact that I'm in the way - that's making this queue so eager and vociferous?

I bound up the marble steps to the concourse to avoid further hisses at my back. Now I'm amongst hundreds of others, and we're all looking for somewhere to sit down.

But there are no more than about 15 seats - I count them once or twice - they're already being occupied by people with looks of defiance on their faces. One of the sitters even has his two hands upon the knob of a knobkerrie just in case. Suddenly, a man jumps up onto the narrow wall which stands in front of a giant tapestry by Ron Kitaj. It seems too narrow to be a stage, and especially an Elizabethan stage. More like the wall from which some nasty child might be pelting stones. He tells us not to worry too much about to sit or not to sit. The idea is that we should be milling around, as most of us would have been doing then anyway, and that can't be done from a sitting position.

So we all practise milling a bit, and it's not too bad.

A fresh-faced young academic from Sheffield University leaps up onto the wall next, and starts to demolish a few hoary, deeply cherished myths about the Bard. The birth date usually given - 23 April, St George's Day - is wrong, he tells us. Someone didn't know how to interpret the baptismal records in the Parish Church of the Holy Trinity. In fact, was more likely to be today (Saturday), and that's why we're all here now! What is more, Shakespeare wasn't born into a poor family - his mother was a millionaire. Nor was he necessarily a Protestant through and through - his father may have been a Catholic. He didn't leave Stratford because he stole a deer either. Nor was he a struggling artist. He wrote for money. He was a businessman who died stuffed. He didn't invent his plots. He plagiarised shamelessly. He wasn't a Universal Genius at all. He was a bit like us. Only the sonnets were written for love...

And on that note, he says, we are now going to hear a reading of all 154 sonnets by academics from Sheffield University, children from Whitgift School, a curator from the British Library and sundry others...

I am reeling from the shock of it all - all those fond myths of mine destroyed by some upstart academic from the provinces! Is that all they can find to do in Sheffield these days now that the steel

industry's gone? I take him aside for a word. We sit in a corner near the statue so that I can be emboldened by its aura.

If Shakespeare wasn't a Universal Genius, I ask him, why did Ben Jonson, of all people, write those immortal lines about him in that famous dedication: "He was not of an age, but for all time"? I can hardly bring myself to repeat the words now without tears starting into my eyes.

Dominic Shellard, Head Of Drama at the School of English, University of Sheffield and author of Shakespeare: A Writer's Life (British Library, 1998) looks back at me with just a touch of pity in his eyes. Do I see mockery too? Maybe I imagine that in that in my slightly overwrought state.

"Perhaps it was a marketing ploy," he says with a baldness edging towards the ruthless. This man can make facts - and even hard-nosed scholarly conjecture - seem so cruel. Then he drags me through the history of the creation of a national myth, and it makes for painful hearing to someone who has only ever been love with the man and the whole works in the privacy of his own room.

The middle of the 18th century was the key historical moment, he tells me. It was by then that Shakespeare had come to be adopted as the national poet. Milton might have been a contender, but he was too problematical politically. Chaucer, another possibility, was too distant, and the language wasn't sufficiently recognisable as modern English. The good thing about Shakespeare was that he was both fairly close in time, but also shadowy too. The fact that little was known about him meant that much could be imposed upon him. He could be remade in the images of all ages. He was the pre-eminent cultural icon for an emerging nation and empire.

Why him though? I asked petulantly. Why not somebody else? I was driving myself towards some kind of suicidally heretical edge, but I didn't much care by now.

As ever, Shellard was fairly cool and self-possessed.

"Well, Shakespeare was very lucky," he replied. "His actor friends collected and published the First Folio within seven years of his death. If they hadn't, he would probably be forgotten now... And if Kit Marlowe hadn't died young, there's no reason to suppose that we mightn't have had a Royal Marlowe Company today..."

I thanked him with as much civility as I could muster, and, by way of distraction, popped off upstairs to the restaurant for a plate or two of the restorative Elizabethan food that was on offer: thick pea pottage, spinach tart, braised chicken with gooseberries, poached herrings, knotted biscuits, and, to round it all off, a couple of slenderish slices of prune tart.

By the time I had managed to get downstairs again, we had reached Sonnet 96, and it was, I think, being read by that curator from the British Library, though I may be wrong about this. It was certainly someone who kept his heels pressed tight together when he read. By this time, the crowd having thinned out somewhat, I decided to sit and look and listen for a while - more look, if truth be known, than listen.

It is a curious experience, dipping in and out of Shakespeare's sonnets as they are being read out loud, catching one line but not the next, a little like listening to a book of English proverbial sayings, English verbal idioms, and a list of book and play titles, all rolled up into one. So many lines have been stolen by other writers, or have entered into popular parlance. In short, it was a great comfort to me after an emotionally bruising encounter and a heavy meal.

Others, I could see, were experiencing the reading of the sonnets in slightly different ways. One woman had her hands clasped together at her breast bone and her eyes screwed tight shut, as if in some agony of religious ecstasy. Bellini would have appreciated the pose that she struck. An elderly man, drifting in front of the speaker, turned and turned on his heel as if, in his mind's eye, he had just been reincarnated as the young Fred Astaire.

A little later, just as I was leaving the building, I caught sight of that woman-in-state-of-rampant-ecstasy again. Curious, I asked her what Shakespeare really meant to her.

"Well, he captured everything, didn't he?" she replied with shining eyes tilted up to mine like some fish's head on a plate. "All those emotions that we have in our humanity.'

I could almost have wept on her shoulder.

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