So many anniversaries and so little time. With events planned to commemorate the fateful build-up in 1914 to the First World War, plus the local Magna Carta celebrations, and the recent centenary of our very own St Edmundsbury Cathedral, 2014 is already feeling like a year – literally – to remember.
There’s another anniversary next week that shouldn’t get past us unnoticed.
On Wednesday, St George’s Day, it’s the 450th anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare. He was the extraordinary product of another King Edward VI Grammar School, a rather younger institution, founded in 1553 and therefore a mere fledgling when compared to our origin in 1550.
But as one of the ‘King Edward VI’ family, the Stratford school had the same values as ‘schola buriensis’ – the school of Bury – that was founded by the young King Edward to teach grammar, rhetoric and scholarship to the young people of our town.
When I decided some 30 years ago that I was going to train to teach English, my own inspiring teacher, Roy Samson, said: ‘Brilliant – you’ll spend your life reading stories’.
He was right: I have. And every year with at least one class, it has involved reading and acting out Shakespeare.
So his work is in my bloodstream.
Here’s why. First, there’s the fact that I was born in Stafford, a slightly nondescript Midlands town that’s just a few consonants away – plus about 90 minutes by car – from Shakespeare’s Stratford. My parents would take me from an early age to see performances by the Royal Shakespeare Company. There, even towards the end of my father’s life, we would sometimes have to hush him up when he started joining in from the stalls with his favourite lines: ‘The quality of mercy is not strained,’ he’d intone along with the actress playing Portia.
It’s the language that makes Shakespeare so remarkable. Linguists reckon his verbal dexterity led him to add some 1,700 new words to the lexicon of English – new terms for concepts ranging from ‘assassination’ to ‘zany’.
With those words he paints pictures of a world that’s distant but recognisable, of ‘the spinsters and the knitters in the sun’, and tales of heroes and villains, kings and princes.
What we don’t get much of is Shakespeare himself. The Elizabethan age, for all its nostalgic sparkle, was a time of huge uncertainty. As Queen Elizabeth moved towards the end of her life, there was no obvious heir. She had continued her father’s work in forging England as a protestant rather than a Catholic country. It was a time of religious turmoil. People had to change or hide their faith, and anyone caught speculating on the royal succession could be banished to the formidable Tower of London or executed.
You had to watch what you said.
It was no wonder, in this context of swirling deception, that Shakespeare proves so good at hiding himself and his own views, and instead letting us peer into the minds of a host of memorable characters, breathtaking in their range and depth.
The older I get, the more it’s Shakespeare’s darker plays and later sonnets that speak to me the most. Those early frothy comedies entertain us, but it’s the later work that leaves us questioning – all that brooding on betrayal, lost love and a growing awareness of death.
That’s why for all I have been critical of successive governments’ endless tinkering with the national curriculum, I have always supported the idea that Shakespeare should be at the heart of English.
He’s part of our birthright and every child from every background should get to experience the magic that emerges from a great performance and from skilful teaching.
So next Wednesday, as the flags fly for St George, many of us will be thinking of the writer who more than any other taught us what Englishness means and, more fundamentally, what it means to be human.