What if Shakespeare had been born on 23 April 1964 not 1564?
What sort of person would he be today? What would we think of our Gen X genius? I wondered this recently at a production of King Lear, reminded yet again of how vividly and immediately Mr Shakespeare speaks to us about our own lives, even after 400 years.
I love and work with words every day, yet confess they rarely move me emotionally the way a song or a movie can. Words have a quieter music. Shakespeare is the exception. There are some speeches in the plays which always move me close to tears. It is a truism to say that he remains an extraordinary artist of genius, yet how would we view him as a contemporary in 2012?
Shakespeare was a creature of his time, of course, when English crystalised into the lithe and robust language we know today, but can anyone doubt that his genius would have expressed itself in other ways too?
I imagine him as a teenager in a ’70s suburban bedroom, listening to Bowie or the Velvet Underground, writing songs that would astonish the world a few years later. Hitting his twenties, he would form a band because that was what you did. He grew the funky goatee beard that became his trademark. Despite the band’s top ten album, their music was hard to define. Punk? Hip-hop? Jazz? Classical crossover? It was their songwriter and singer who got all the attention anyway, and he soon drifted into acting. There was a famed performance at the Donmar, then Will moved swiftly into directing himself. He was a man in a hurry.
Will made an arthouse movie that became a cult. People in anoraks could recite whole scenes from it. He made a Hollywood movie and won the first of several Oscars. Each film was utterly different apart from the astonishing dialogue that made you want to rewind and watch scenes over and over. What’s your favourite WS movie? became a popular topic for magazine articles. He disappeared for a year. It turned out he’d been living incognito in Berlin, writing a novel. He gave it away as an ebook from his website. There were a hundred thousand downloads in the first week. The following year he was directing a Bond movie for the fun of it.
And what about his personal life? There were rumours about his sexuality. There were rumours about affairs with actresses and models. Some of these people he had actually met. Then the Murdoch press hacked his gmail account and published a series of explicit, lyrical emails to ‘my dark lady’ in Chicago. She was never traced.
In later life Will retreated to his house in the country, a few km from his friend Sting’s estate. He was labelled ‘eccentric’ and ‘reclusive’ simply for refusing interviews with the tabloid media. He emerged once to put on a strange, spare play that disturbed its audiences. Critics were divided, but in the years that followed it spawned dozens of imitations, starting a whole new movement in the theatre. And then there was silence.
Who is the real WS? journalists asked. It was a question he sometimes asked himself, then shrugged his shoulders.