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Shakespeare Died 400 Years Ago Today: Why Do We Still Care?

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David Tennant in “Marvel’s Jessica Jones”; Myles Aronowitz/Netflix(NEW YORK) — Saturday marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, perhaps the world’s greatest playwright. But if you think that the stuff the Bard wrote hundreds of years ago just isn’t relevant anymore, think again.

Actor David Tennant, known for his starring roles on Doctor Who and Broadchurch, and most recently as the supervillain Kilgrave in Netflix’s Jessica Jones, is also a noted Shakespearean actor who is currently appearing in New York City in Shakespeare’s Richard II.   He says Shakespeare’s plays aren’t lofty, elitist, intellectual things: they’re the stuff of real life, no matter what century you live in. 

“He’s writing about what it is to be a human being and he’s got a way of getting to the heart of how we feel and how we think that we haven’t really managed to better in many ways,” Tennant tells ABC Radio.

Calling Shakespeare “the blockbuster movie director of his time,” Tennant says that plays like Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet were the popular entertainment of their time, like hit films, or soap operas.  As for what he thinks Shakespeare would make of the fact that his work is still so revered, Tennant tells ABC Radio, “I imagine he’d be quite surprised simply because there was no precedent for that at the time. It wasn’t an art form that was particularly cherished.”

“He elevated something that was seen as kind of trashy entertainment to an art form, just because he did it so well,” Tennant adds.  “These plays still go on and still reach mass audiences. They still fill theaters, otherwise people wouldn’t put them on. So it’s not just an intellectual exercise that we’re keeping something alive for the sake of it. There’s something that lights people up.”

OK, so where do you start if you want to get into Shakespeare?  Tennant says try checking out a modern adaptation, like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. 

“That’s a fantastic stepping-on point. People can get a bit nervous that Shakespeare’s not for them and that it’s difficult to access,” says Tennant. “But what someone like Baz Luhrmann did with that movie is he just went, ‘No, it’s a story first and foremost. It’s about people, falling in love, sex, battles, pride and shame…all the things that we can all identify with.”

In fact, Tennant says, the worst way to get turned on to Shakespeare is to read it in a book.

“I would suggest your first experience of Shakespeare should be seeing it in performance rather than reading it in a classroom, because it can be initially a bit intimidating,” he tells ABC Radio. “But if you see it in a performance the meaning kind of shines through, hopefully.”  

Fans of Tennant’s work in Doctor Who may even want to check out the episode “The Shakespeare Code,” which features him going back in time to meet the Bard.  Or, you can visit Shakespeare400.org for more information.

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