'All the world's a stage' for the complete works of William Shakespeare

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All 37 plays, 154 sonnets and two narrative poems, - written in quick succession while the Elizabethan genius was holding down a job as an actor and owner of a theatre company - are to be staged over the next 12 months.

The Complete Works Festival - which opened in Stratford-upon-Avon on the 442th anniversary of his birth - was devised by the RSC and launched by the actors Dame Judi Dench and Patrick Stewart, who unveiled a six metre-long portrait of the Bard of Avon by 90 artists, business people and the public.

It will be the first time that the full body of his plays - including lesser known works such as King John - will be staged in continuous session. The RSC will put on 23 dramas while overseas companies will perform the remaining plays, with 10 in languages other than English. Hamlet will be the first to be performed, by a South African company, followed by a German troupe's Othello over the next two weeks.

Michael Boyd, the RSC's artistic director, hailed it as the biggest theatrical celebration in the company's history. "The festival looks set to be the most extensive celebration of Shakespeare's genius - at once a national knees-up for the RSC's house playwright and a survey of the different approaches to his work from around the world.

"Our ambition is to stage one of the most significant cultural festivals of the year," he said.

Lighter events for less dedicated enthusiasts who do not want to sit through the plays include sword-fighting workshops, a make-up class in "blood, guts and gore", and a football match "in character" between the Montagues and Capulets, the opposing families in Romeo and Juliet.

Festival organisers have lured some of theatreland's most accomplished actors to perform, including Dame Judi in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Ian McKellen as the lead in King Lear and Patrick Stewart in The Tempest.

Dame Judi will also appear in conversation with the journalist Matt Wolf and Patrick Stewart will take part in a masterclass on staging Shakespeare. In the first of a series of debates, the Archbishop of Canterbury joined a panel chaired by James Naughtie yesterday to discuss the playwright's "creative imagination". The author Fay Weldon, Independent journalist Robert Fisk, and the politician Roy Hattersley will also speak in the series.

Actors will perform in the 1,000-capacity Courtyard Theatre, scheduled to open in July, and at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford, where Shakespeare was buried after his death in 1616 - also on 23 April. A temporary 100-seat studio will be erected inside the auditorium for a month. Shakespeare is believed to have produced most of his work between 1586 and 1616 and he remains the most quoted writer in the literary history of the English speaking world.