A ship full of schoolchildren sinks in the East China Sea. A few days later, on Easter Monday, in a city a few thousand miles away from this shipwreck, a morning walker hears the cry of an infant coming from a plastic bag lying on the footpath. He looks inside to find a day-old baby. The crows had got to it, but it was still alive. From unbearable tragedy to the miracle of life, from the vastness of the sea to the puniness of an abandoned baby — where in modern life would one find such a range of stories? In the news media, for sure. But also, more enduringly, in the works of a man born exactly four and a half centuries ago, a few days after the birth-date of this rescued child, in a tiny kingdom surrounded by the sea. After reading about the shipwreck and the baby on successive pages of a newspaper, many would recall the unforgettable moment in William Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, when a shepherd who has just found a baby left to die tells a peasant who has just seen a man being eaten by a bear, “Now bless thyself. Thou met’st with things dying, I with things new born.”
Why was the birthday of a man — born hundreds of years ago on a small island currently of questionable influence in the world — celebrated all over the planet with such a universal sense of cultural proprietorship? Not only in this empire’s former colonies, where his works were used to educate and civilize, but also in most other parts of even the non-Anglophone world — in Japan, Russia and Iceland, for instance — the learned and the ordinary alike have been claiming Shakespeare for themselves on his birthday, with a familiarity usually reserved for a dear friend. From Polish Stalinists of the Sixties to American management gurus and Indian film-makers of today, people of every calibre and persuasion speak of him as a cherished contemporary. From demonic tyrants to dissident transvestites, there seems to be something in Shakespeare for everybody. A chameleon poet for Keats, Everything and Nothing for Borges, Shakespeare appears to have pulled off the rare feat of being eternally available as well as eternally elusive.
It is only in politically correct university departments that talking about Shakespeare’s greatness is considered to be an embarrassing foible. But for lesser mortals who still believe that studying the humanities is about becoming better — that is, more interesting — human beings, a good Shakespeare teacher in school or college is all that is needed for learning to savour life, love, oneself, language and art forever, and not necessarily in that order. It was the poet, W.H. Auden, who outraged New World earnestness by pointing out in a lecture on Shakespeare to his students in New York, one of the more important features of Shakespeare’s greatness: “To be able to devote one’s life to art without forgetting that art is frivolous is a tremendous achievement of personal character. Shakespeare never takes himself too seriously.”