By Maxime Devillaz
The “Shakespeare Forever” event will commemorate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. The iconic poet, actor and playwright, who passed away on April 23, 1616, at age 52, has been read, recited, and reinterpreted ever since. Through a partnership among professors and departments at Post, over a dozen events will take place throughout the month of March until April 21.
“We’ve been brainstorming for over a year and wanted a wide spectrum of people involved,” said Manju Prasad-Rao, head of the library’s Instructional Media Center (IMC), and project director of the event.
Along with Kay Sato, director of Hutton House, a for-pleasure, personal enrichment program for senior adults on campus, Prasad-Rao has been able to spur wide interest among departments, including enthusiasts within the local community. Libraries in Port Washington and Great Neck are also hosting some of the events.
Prasad-Rao has received grants from The New York Council for the Humanities, the Dorothy Dayton Sorzano Theatre Library, the John P. McGrath Fund, as well as additional contributions from various partners, including a personal contribution from John Lutz, English department chair.
“The commemoration is important because Shakespeare has made major contributions to our understanding of humanity and the modern world,” Lutz said. “His work has captured the interest of both Western and non-Western cultures and his plays are taught all over the world. Since his works were first performed four centuries ago, they’ve continued to capture people’s imagination and been subject to reinterpretation through reading and performance.”
The almost two-month long event includes exhibits, programs, movies, performances, and workshops for groups and local high school students.
Prasad-Rao emphasized that there will be performances in addition to the literary elements of the event. Dr. Mark Shapiro, associate professor of music, has curated the music and will be conducting at several of the events, including a musical performance at the keynote lecture by Dr. James Bednarz, professor of English and Shakepeare scholar, on Thursday, March 3, during common hour.
“Many of Shakespeare’s plays and poems include references to music,” Shapiro said, explaining why music will accompany the program. “The extraordinary melodiousness of his verse suggests that he must have been a profoundly musical person.”
In the labyrinth-like English department on the second floor of the Winnick House, the door to room 215 sits open, revealing a movie poster on the wall, a book of antique scent unfolded on the desk, and a smiling fellow dressed in shirt and mustache.
“Can you believe it? Some people still believe Shakespeare didn’t write [the plays] himself,” Dr. James Bednarz said amused, pointing at the large paper advertisement in bold that reads “ANONYMOUS,” a conspiracy thriller-drama released in 2011. “I just had to put it up there.” Bednarz, professor of English and an internationally known Shakespeare scholar, unwraps his soul like a child does his birthday gift.
“I’ve been a fan for a while,” Bednarz admits, since he was a student at the Columbia Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, to be exact. He has gained international recognition for his extensive studies of Shakespeare’s earliest performances and quill jot-downs in the 1600s.
As the keynote speaker of Shakespeare Forever, Bednarz will indulge in Shakespeare’s comedies, histories and tragedies, known as the “First Folio,” from 1623—a collection put together collaboratively by Shakespeare’s closest friends seven years after his passing. It includes 36 of his plays, 18 of which had never been published before.
“There’s this bizarre relationship, a paradox between comedy and tragedy, which really defy all the classical laws,” Bednarz said. “He is an experimenter. He has become a repository of wisdom.”
The myth of Shakespeare, as Bednarz recalls it, is a man of the theatre, one with little interest in publishing at all. Yet, by the time of his death, half of his works could be found in print.
“He used the increasingly commercial days and previous works— Italian novellas, poorly written short stories—and transformed them. Ninety-eight percent of his works were based on previous works,” Bednarz said, pointing out that Shakespeare is the most translated secular author in the world, available in more than 90 different languages.
Today, researchers believe only 233 printed copies of the original First Folio have survived, according to Anthony James West and Owen Williams, curators of the 2011 “Fame, Fortune & Theft: The Shakespeare First Folio” exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. Prasad-Rao applied to get an original copy of the First Folio for the purpose of the commemoration, but it was cost prohibitive and neither proper security measures nor temperature control were acceptable for storing it on campus. An original copy can be found at the New York Historical Society in Manhattan.
“Shakespeare has been transformed, even in our program, into all me dia. People are tweeting Shakespeare quotes, actresses have tattoos from King Lear on their arm,” Bednarz explained. “We have Shakespeare in ballet without a word; we have Shakespeare added to music with some words. Shakespeare in film, there isn’t one media that Shakespeare…” he interrupts himself, “When Alexander Graham Bell was inventing the telephone, he was citing Shakespeare over it. He just keeps growing,” Bednarz said.
Shakespeare’s eloquent linguistics are still studied and appreciated today. “When he talks about crying, he’ll talk about ’the fruitful river in the eye.’ He won’t just say ‘a tear,’” Bednarz said. “Very few people in your life will give you more than you give them, your mother perhaps. And Shakespeare.”
The Honors College, in collaboration with the Poetry Center, has taken on the challenge of Shakespearean expression by offering a Sonnet Contest open to all undergraduate and graduate students. Each student could submit up to three entries, which were accepted until Feb. 1. Winners will be presenting their works on Wednesday, March 2, at the Steinberg Museum of Art during common hour. A sonnet is a particular form of poetry that is “written predominantly in iambic pentameter, a rhyme scheme in which each sonnet line consists of ten syllables,” according to Google.com.
“We all know a procrastinating Philosophy major, a would-be political usurper, a maniacal leader, a despondant lover. The fact that so many of his plays have been made into operas and into contemporary films proves this point exactly,” said Joan Digby, honors college director.
“Shakespeare, who gathered his plots from previous writers, also helps us understand how creativity can have a foundation in the past and even in borrowing or sampling to make something new.” Some may still ask themselves: why were Shakespeare’s works so groundbreaking, and how can they still be important 400 years after his death?
“The humanity that I see in him, that he has looked at a human being so thoroughly from the inside itself, I feel that’s one of the reasons why he can cross so many different cultures, because of his connection with humans,” Prasad-Rao said.
Sato elaborated, “He can make us feel that regardless of where we’re coming from, we can get whatever it is that he’s trying to present on stage. And it’s very puzzling sometimes too: what did he mean by that? And you can go back and see something else the next time.”
Shakespeare’s depth and humanization of characters are significant to Bednarz. But to him, the key to understanding Shakespeare is to know he won’t solve your problems—he is going to let you know what they are.
“He thinks of human beings living in time as subjected to incredible contradictions and all kinds of forces, and a dilemma—a human dilemma—which we can never extricate ourselves from,” Bednarz said. “So he teaches us where the complexity is, rather than resolving it.”
The commemoration is an attempt to revive the English-native playwright, and leave a new generation of college students and community members excited about Shakespeare.
“It’s like a big festival,” Sato said, her lungs swelling up like balloons before bursting into giggling laughter. “The next thing we can do is to come dressed in a garb.”
For more information about the various events, go to http://liu. cwp.libguides.com/c.php?g=397213&p=2700007, or contact Manju. Prasad-Rao@liu.edu.