Tag Archives: Shakespeare

University of Zimbabwe reader

Celebrating the difference reading makes to people’s lives

On Saturday 23rd April, people around the UK celebrated both World Book Night and Shakespeare400, marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

World Book Night logo


It seems fitting that a writer whose work has so influenced the world of literature should be remembered on World Book Night when we celebrate the difference that reading makes to people’s lives.

Yet it is incredible that Shakespeare’s plays and poems, written over 400 years ago, are still so popular. It is said that after the Bible, there is no author or book more quoted than Shakespeare. He continues to be celebrated as the UK’s best known writer, his plays continually adapted and his sentences used for the titles of books, films and TV programmes. Shakespeare’s fame is a worldwide phenomenon, his works translated into over 100 languages. In many of the countries where we work, Shakespeare is a set text in secondary schools and each year we send hundreds of copies of his plays and revision guides and critical essays on his work for our partners to distribute to schools and universities.

After 400 years, Shakespeare remains unrivalled. What is it about his work that makes it so universally popular and enduring? Why does it still speak to us today, crossing not just time but continents and cultures? Our Communications Executive and Shakespeare fan, Jenny Hayes, decided to find out.

Whilst at London Book Fair, I attended a seminar exploring what it was about the period during which Shakespeare, Don Quixote author Cervantes and Chinese author Tang Xianzu were writing, was so fertile for writing. Speaking about the cultural conditions in Shakespeare’s day, Dr. Ros Barber, Lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London had some fascinating insights to share:

It was during the 16th century that book printing increased, making books – and thus knowledge – far more widely available. However the number of books available in comparison with today’s number was tiny and Shakespeare lived at a time when it was possible for a person to read all the printed books available. According to Dr. Barber, this is exactly what Shakespeare did. In doing so, he studied all that people at that time knew about the world and the human race. Shakespeare’s knowledge was profound. It was these books that informed his plays and sonnets, supplying him with characters, places and plots. Before Shakespeare was an incredible writer, he was first and foremost an incredible reader.

But as Dr. Barber explained, Shakespeare wasn’t just well-read, he was also a poet. He communicates deep human truths with beauty and precision and it is this poetry that makes him so widely quoted. He created a body of work that speaks to the human heart.

Reflecting on this after the seminar, I can see that we relate to his characters because they are like us; complex, neither wholly good, nor wholly bad. And his writing addresses themes – love, power, ambition, fortune and much more – which touch all our lives in one way or another and transcend time, place and culture. It is the amalgamation of Shakespeare’s deep understanding of the human condition and his ability to communicate those truths with such elegance that causes his legacy to continue.

Shakespeare tells human stories. And these stories speak to us as much today as they did their original audiences, regardless of whether you are reading them in the UK or Kenya, in English or Swahili.

Attending the World Book Night celebration of Shakespeare at the British Library on Saturday, I was able to experience the beauty of Shakespeare’s words in performance. On the stage, notable figures delivered favourite passages. Around the library, roving actors performed short scenes and monologues. Others, including the poet John Agard and spoken word artist LionHeart, shared new work inspired by Shakespeare. There was even a  DJ playing ‘Shakespearean club sounds’. And that was the unifying theme of the night for guests and performers alike  – everyone there had been inspired by Shakespeare in some way. I suppose that is why his legacy endures – the beauty of Shakespeare’s writing and his stories about our humanity continue to not only touch us but inspire. How fitting that he himself should have been inspired by what he read.

That is what we hope for the readers who use the books we send to our partners in sub-Saharan Africa. That they, like Shakespeare, will be inspired by what they read. Because, as World Book Night says, everything changes when we read.