STRATFORD-UPON-AVON, England -- Hollywood loves him. Millennium lists are incomplete without him. And in the town where he was born and buried, William Shakespeare remains the indispensable man and tourist franchise.
"Next to Jesus Christ, Shakespeare is probably the best known man on the planet," says Des Rowe, who annually answers questions from thousands of visitors from America to Zimbabwe who tramp through Shakespeare's Birthplace, a timbered home that is Holy Ground for Shakespeare lovers worldwide.
Rowe has a steady patter: Feel that uneven stone floor. It was laid in 1500 -- meaning, the great man walked on it. See that heavy oak chair in the corner? The Bard himself may have sat on that chair while imbibing at a local pub. And did you Americans know that one of the world's great promoters had sinister plans for the timber-framed home you're now standing in?
"A certain American, a Mr. P.T. Barnum, wanted to buy this house, take it to America and re-erect it," Rowe says, rolling his eyes. "Imagine that."
For someone who has been dead more than 400 years, Shakespeare keeps popping up -- on the boards, the screen, the news.
The movie "Shakespeare In Love," just opened in Britain. Reviewers laud the bawdy presentation of the Bard cutting a swath through Elizabethan London. Literati are still agog that in a recent British poll of radio listeners Shakespeare topped the likes of Winston Churchill and Oliver Cromwell to be named personality of the millennium.
"I was overjoyed when I heard of that poll," says Elspeth Udvarhelyi. Now the development director at the magnificently re-created Shakespeare's Globe Theater in London, she formerly worked at the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Arena Stage in Washington. "We are living in an age of diminishing vocabularies," she says. "To recognize the man who was the father of English language as we know it today, and whose work is ever-present, is encouraging."
Shakespeare can cause a sensation or a laugh. Globe Theater director Mark Rylance courted controversy the other day when he revealed that he would play Cleopatra in an all-male version of "Antony and Cleopatra."
"I am sorry that it is going to take roles from actresses," Rylance said. "It doesn't seem very politically correct." Asked who would play Antony in the sexually-charged play, Rylance joked, "I am choosy."
The fact that Shakespeare can inspire -- and even offend -- in this age is grist for an entire literary industry.
"The appeal of Shakespeare is the great big question," says Richard Proudfoot, a Shakespeare scholar who teaches at King's College in London. "Aspects of him have kept going out of style while other aspects have come back in style. One hundred years ago, George Bernard Shaw said Shakespeare's language was obsolete and couldn't be read. This has proved to be untrue. Even today, audiences who miss a great deal of the verbal detail can enjoy the performance."
It is a cliche to say that Shakespeare wrote about universal human experience, Proudfoot says -- "but it's true. Most people have families, children. Most fall in love. Sometimes war takes place. People are involved in political worlds. These are subjects he took up."
For many who have studied and savored Shakespeare, there is nothing like coming to his hometown, to walk in his footsteps, to see his plays performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company. The Shakespeare industry gets a bit out of control at a mall called Bard's Walk, where the shopper is reminded by Shakespeare: "Peruse the traders, gaze upon the buildings."
Shakespeare is presented reverently on a tour that leads from his 1564 birth to his 1616 death -- both events occurred on April 23 -- stopping at his father John Shakespeare's house on Henley Street and his tomb at the Holy Trinity Church. Homes and sights serve as signposts: his mother Mary Arden's house at Wilmcote, his wife Anne Hathaway's thatched-roof cottage, the timbered schoolroom where he may have been educated, the gardens he created at New Place.
The artifacts can't possibly tell a visitor who Shakespeare really was, or how he came to write plays and sonnets that would stand the test of time.
"From the public record, the information relating to him is almost excessive," Proudfoot says. "His circumstances. The people he knew. But there is nothing personal. What we don't know is what he thinks about this or that. What were his politics, his religion, his personal relations."
We're left with drama, tragedy, comedy and greatness.
Shakespeare's Stratford became a place of literary pilgrimage in the 18th century. The town's first Shakespeare Festival was organized in 1769 by a famous actor of the day, David Garrick. Visitors made their way to the birthplace, where there were tales of locals selling off so-called Shakespeare relics, such as chunks of his chairs.
In 1847, Shakespeare's birthplace was auctioned, a poster advertising "the truly heart-stirring relic." Money was raised in Stratford and London, the house was purchased and the property was administered by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which still oversees the home, other historic properties in town and a specialized library and archive collection. The library contains translations of Shakespeare plays in more than 70 languages, including Urdu, Icelandic and Yiddish. Scholars are lured by more than 100 years of material relating to Shakespeare productions.
The early 19th century saw annual Shakespeare celebrations and presentations of his plays. A brewer, Charles Edward Flower, championed the project, and when the first permanent Shakespeare Memorial Theater opened in April 1879 it was dubbed "the theater built on beer." The Royal Shakespeare Theater, which houses the Royal Shakespeare Company, opened in 1932.
With its company of 200, plus support staff, the company remains one of the top employers in town, as well as a keeper of the Shakespeare flame, with a priceless stash of costumes and props. Virtually all talented and ambitious British actors cut their teeth at the Royal Shakespeare.
"His works never go out of popularity," says Myra McFadyen, a member of the troupe. "They are a set text. I can't remember not seeing a Shakespeare every year of my school."
McFadyen is overjoyed whenever Shakespeare can be brought to the masses. If that means casting Mel Gibson as Hamlet, or Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo, or even creating a fictionalized account of Shakespeare's life, so be it.
"You have to take it to the grass-roots level and educate children," she says. 'You're up against videos and television and they forget the classics. You can hold on to tradition. But you can also do the works in a modern way."
There is a very simple reason, McFadyen says, why Shakespeare never goes out of style. "It's the stories. They're fantastic."
Pub Date: 2/07/99