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After 400 years, why are we still so devoted to Shakespeare?

Written by
Kris Vire

Today marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, a milestone that’s occasioned ostentatious celebrations around the globe but particularly in Chicago, where Chicago Shakespeare Theater has led the charge in the yearlong Shakespeare 400 Chicago initiative.

At museums, universities and even restaurants across the city, lectures, concerts and performances of and about Shakespeare are taking place throughout 2016. At Chicago Shakespeare Theater itself, more than a dozen theater troupes from around the world are visiting with productions of or inspired by Shakespeare, while artistic director Barbara Gaines is currently in rehearsal for the first half of what looks to be a 12-hour marathon adaptation of Shakespeare’s history plays called Tug of War. All told, Shakespeare 400 Chicago claims to encompass more than 850 events this year—I had to give up on trying to create listings for all of them.

One question seems to go largely unasked amid all these reverent celebrations: Why? What is it about this one writer above all others that’s compelled us to venerate his work to such a degree centuries after his death?

Mind you, I’m not making the contrarian argument that Shakespeare shouldn’t be done. The man wrote 38 plays, and many of them are very good. But some aren’t, and we persist in staging them anyway. There’s a whole group of them we refer to as “the problem plays,” and we just keep trying to solve them. Most writers’ lesser works simply fade into the shadow of their best, but with Shakespeare, scholars and directors just won’t give up on trying to fix Timon of Athens.

Part of the appeal for producers, directors and designers, surely, is that neither the writer nor an estate are around to object to whatever anachronistic commentary we try to layer onto his text. And no royalties!

Still, when you really step back a bit, isn’t it just a little bit odd how much energy we devote to Shakespeare? There are Shakespeare theaters and Shakespeare festivals across the United States, which is kind of like opening a bookstore that’s devoted to Dickens or Twain. There are 44 surviving plays by the ancient Greeks, but we don’t build temples to them. Nor do we devote institutions to Ibsen or Chekhov or Wilde or Molière. (Canada has its Shaw Festival, true, but in recent seasons only two out of 10 to 12 plays per season have been Bernard Shaw productions.) Other English writers of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, like Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson and Thomas Middleton, penned important plays, but seeing them produced today is a novelty. And good luck finding productions of works by early women playwrights like Aphra Behn or Susanna Centlivre. 

Is it possible some playwright of more recent vintage could inspire the kind of worship that Shakespeare does? If the Earth is still spinning centuries from now, might we see an Oregon Arthur Miller Festival? A Williamstown for Tennessee Williams? The Illinois Caryl Churchill Festival, a Chicago Sondheim Theater? Who can say? In the meantime, ol’ Willy will keep dominating the conversation—including one I’ll be leading this Sunday at the Steppenwolf Garage, following that afternoon’s performance of the Gift Theatre’s Richard III. See you at the Shakespeare.

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