Why Shakespeare never fails to get brains buzzing

Apparently the Bard’s enduring impact is all down to neural excitement. Robert McCrum explains why Shakespeare’s language enthrals.

Yesterday was Shakespeare’s 447th anniversary. As with almost everything else about our national poet, this is disputed. All we can safely say is that he was born in Stratford, married, wrote or collaborated on about 40 plays, published some bestselling poetry, retired to Stratford, made a will and died, traditionally on his birthday in 1616, aged 52.

In contrast with this sketchy biography, Shakespeare’s universal reputation as the greatest English writer – some say, greatest writer who ever lived – continues to resonate and inspire. Shakespeare plc goes from strength to strength. This spring has seen Derek Jacobi’s King Lear, one of the finest in memory. The Merchant of Venice, with Patrick Stewart in the title role, opens in Stratford in May. The bardolatrous RSC is even mounting a production of Cardenio, the so-called “lost” Shakespeare play from 1613.

What’s his secret? You can invoke a higher power for the astounding universality of his work, but that won’t do, especially for anti-Stratfordians.

If I had to sell Shakespeare to a class of refuseniks I’d focus on three essentials that separate him from almost every other literary writer. Go here to find out what they are.


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