This year’s 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare is not just an opportunity to commemorate one of the greatest playwrights of all time. It is a moment to celebrate the extraordinary ongoing influence of a man who — to borrow from his own description of Julius Caesar — “doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus.”
Shakespeare’s legacy is without parallel: His works have been translated into more than 100 languages and studied by half the world’s schoolchildren. As one of his contemporaries, Ben Jonson, said: “Shakespeare is not of an age, but for all time.” He lives today in our language, our culture and society — and through his enduring influence on education.
Shakespeare played a critical role in shaping modern English and helping to make it the world’s language. The first major dictionary compiled by Samuel Johnson drew on Shakespeare more than on any other writer. Three thousand new words and phrases all first appeared in print in Shakespeare’s plays. He also pioneered innovative use of grammatical form and structure, including verse without rhymes and superlatives, while the pre-eminence of his plays also did much to standardize spelling and grammar.
But Shakespeare’s influence is felt far beyond our language. His words, his plots and his characters continue to inspire much of our culture and wider society. Nelson Mandela, while a prisoner on Robben Island, cherished a quote from Julius Caesar which said, “Cowards die many times before their death, the valiant never taste of death but once.”
Shakespeare’s influence is everywhere, from Dickens and Goethe to Tchaikovsky, Verdi and Brahms; from West Side Story to the Hamlet-inspired title of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. His original plays continue to entertain millions: from school halls across the world to the overnight queues as hundreds scrambled to see Benedict Cumberbatch playing Hamlet at London’s Barbican last year.
But perhaps one of the most exciting legacies of Shakespeare is his capacity to educate. As we see from the outreach work of the Royal Shakespeare Company and Shakespeare’s Globe, studying and performing Shakespeare can help improve literacy, confidence and wider educational attainment.
Every day throughout 2016, Britain is inviting you to join us in celebrating the life and legacy of William Shakespeare. On Jan. 5, we launched Shakespeare Lives — www.shakespearelives.org. It’s an exciting global program of activities and events to highlight his enduring influence and extend the use of Shakespeare as an educational resource to advance literacy around the world.
The program will run in more than 70 countries, led by the British Council and the GREAT Britain campaign. You can share your favorite moment of Shakespeare on social media, watch never-before-seen performances, visit exhibitions, take part in workshops and debates and access new Shakespearean educational resources.
The Royal Shakespeare Company will tour China; Shakespeare’s Globe will perform across the world, from Iraq to Denmark. Young people will re-imagine Shakespeare in Zimbabwe. A social-media campaign, Play your Part (#PlayYourPart), will invite members of the next generation of creative talent to produce digital tributes to the Bard — and, in partnership with the British charity Voluntary Services Overseas, we will raise awareness of the huge challenge of global child illiteracy and use Shakespeare to increase educational opportunities for children around the world.
Beyond his great gift of language, the bringing to life of our history, his ongoing influence on our culture and his ability to educate, there is just the immense power of Shakespeare to inspire. From the most famous love story to the greatest tragedy; from the most powerful fantasy to the wittiest comedy; and from the most memorable speeches to his many legendary characters, in William Shakespeare we have one man whose vast imagination, boundless creativity and instinct for humanity encompasses the whole of the human experience as no one has before or since.
Join us in this unique opportunity to celebrate the life and legacy of this man; ensuring that, as he put it, “All the world’s a stage” and that through his legacy, truly, Shakespeare Lives.
David Cameron is the British prime minister.