From a new "First Folio", to the only extant script in his handwriting, William Shakespeare is still front page news 400 years after his death.
As we celebrate the legacy of Shakespeare all month long on WCRB’s weekly opera program, Sunday Night at the Opera, it is remarkable to note the frequency with which Shakespeare has been appearing in the news in recent months.
A rare “First Folio” was discovered this month in the library of the stately Mount Stuart House on the Isle of Bute, Scotland. Compiled and published several years after Shakespeare’s death by his friends and colleagues, the First Folios were the first comprehensive collection of Shakespeare’s plays. Without them, some eighteen plays, including Macbeth, Twelfth Night, and The Tempest would have been lost forever. Needless to say, the Mount Stuart House First Folio is an extremely rare find, now one of only 234 First Folios in existence.
Shakespeare, and Compassion for "Strangers"
The First Folios are not the only appearance that Shakespeare has made in the news in recent months. As the refugee crisis in Europe has blanketed front-page news with stories of desperation and hard choices, some have turned to a surprising source for inspiration: the only extant example of a script in Shakespeare's handwriting.
It is a passage from The Book of Sir Thomas More (a play only partially written by Shakespeare it appears), in which Shakespeare has Sir Thomas More urge a riotous crowd to have compassion for religious refugees, with an “how would you feel if you were in their shoes?” argument. It’s a powerful passage, and one that as NPR puts it, “… finds eerily poignant echoes in today’s arguments about refugees and immigration on both sides of the Atlantic.”
Here is Sir Ian McKellen reading the passage (reading starts at 2:20).
What should we take away from all this? First, the power of the arts to withstand the test of time. What will our legacy be 400 years from today, and what will our art say about us? Second, we're not as unique as we might like to believe. Whether times are good or bad, without a doubt they have been good and bad in similar ways countless times before. And the arts - be they plays, operas, poems, or paintings - have the unique ability to dig to the center of those difficult questions of humanity with the wisdom of history behind them.
Shakespeare may have died 400 years ago this month, but what he had to say still rings true today.
This month, catch operas inspired by Shakespeare's works on WCRB's Sunday Night at the Opera.