This year’s 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare is not just an opportunity to commemorate one of the greatest playwrights of all time. It is a moment to celebrate the extraordinary ongoing influence of a man who — to borrow from his own description of Julius Caesar — “doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus.”
Shakespeare’s legacy is without parallel: His works have been translated into more than 100 languages and are studied by half the world’s schoolchildren. As one of his contemporaries, British playwright Ben Jonson said: “Shakespeare is not of an age, but for all time.” He lives today in our language, our culture and society — and through his enduring influence on education.
Shakespeare played a critical role in shaping modern English and helping to make it the world’s language. The first major dictionary compiled by English man of letters Samuel Johnson drew on Shakespeare more than any other writer. Three thousand new words and phrases all first appeared in print in Shakespeare’s plays.
I remember from my own childhood how many of them are found for the first time in Henry V. Words such as dishearten, divest, addiction, motionless, leapfrog — and phrases such as “once more unto the breach,” “band of brothers” and “heart of gold” — have all passed into English today with no need to reference their original context. Shakespeare also pioneered innovative use of grammatical form and structure — including verse without rhymes, superlatives and the connecting of existing words to make new words, like bloodstained — while the pre-eminence of his plays also did much to standardize spelling and grammar.
However, Shakespeare’s influence is felt far beyond our language. His words, plots and characters continue to inspire much of our culture and wider society. Former South African president Nelson Mandela, while a prisoner on Robben Island, cherished a quote from Julius Caesar which said: “Cowards die many times before their death, the valiant never taste of death but once.”
While English poet Kate Tempest’s poem My Shakespeare captures the eternal presence of Shakespeare when she wrote that Shakespeare “is in every lover who ever stood alone beneath a window … every jealous whispered word and every ghost that will not rest.”
Shakespeare’s influence is everywhere, from writers Charles Dickens and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to composers Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Giuseppe Verdi and Johannes Brahms; from West Side Story to the Hamlet-inspired title of Agatha Christie’s play The Mousetrap — the longest-running theater production in London’s West End today. While his original plays continue to entertain millions — from school halls across the world to the overnight queues as hundreds scrambled for last minute tickets to see Benedict Cumberbatch playing Hamlet at London’s Barbican last year.
However, perhaps one of the most exciting legacies of Shakespeare is his capacity to educate. As we see from the outreach work of the Royal Shakespeare Company and Shakespeare’s Globe and the impact of pioneering British charities like the Shakespeare Schools Festival, studying and performing Shakespeare can help improve literacy, confidence and wider educational attainment.
So today — Twelfth Night — and every day throughout this year, Britain is inviting you to join us in celebrating the life and legacy of William Shakespeare. Today we are launching “Shakespeare Lives” — an exciting global program of activity and events to highlight his enduring influence and extend the use of Shakespeare as an educational resource to advance literacy around the world.
The program is to run in more than 70 countries, led by the British Council and the GREAT Britain campaign. You can share your favorite moment of Shakespeare on social media, watch never-before-seen performances on stage, film and online, visit exhibitions, take part in workshops and debates and access new Shakespearean educational resources to get to grips with the English language.
The Royal Shakespeare Company is to tour China; Shakespeare’s Globe is to perform across the world from Iraq to Denmark. Young people are set to reimagine Shakespeare in Zimbabwe. A social media campaign called “Play your Part” (#PlayYourPart) is to invite the next generation of creative talent to produce their own digital tribute to the bard — and, in partnership with the British charity Voluntary Services Overseas, we are to raise awareness of the huge challenge of global child illiteracy and use Shakespeare to increase educational opportunities for children around the world.
Beyond the great gift of language, the bringing to life of our history, his ongoing influence on our culture and his ability to educate, there is just the immense power of Shakespeare to inspire. From the most famous love story to the greatest tragedy; from the most powerful fantasy to the wittiest comedy; and from the most memorable speeches to his many legendary characters, in William Shakespeare we have one man, whose vast imagination, boundless creativity and instinct for humanity encompasses the whole of the human experience as no one has before or since.
So, however you choose to play your part, please join us this year in this unique opportunity to celebrate the life and enduring legacy of this man; ensuring that, as he himself put it, “all the world’s a stage” and that through his legacy, truly, Shakespeare Lives.
David Cameron is the British prime minister.
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