An Introduction to “Shakespeare 400 Years After”

At the Old Dominion University “Shakespeare 400 Years After” inaugural reception on April 14, Executive Director of the Virginia Commission for the Arts Margaret Vanderhye introduced the program by sharing how she was introduced to Shakespeare and why his work still matters to this day. Her remarks are shared in full below. 


Photo of Margi Vanderhye, president of the Virginia Commission of the Arts. Image courtesy of conference director, Dr. Imtiaz Habib.
Photo of Margi Vanderhye, executive director of the Virginia Commission for the Arts. Photo taken by Anne Peterson.

April 14, 2016–Good evening and thank you! A warm welcome to you as you kick off your conference and celebration of all-things Shakespeare! I am Margi Vanderhye, and I am so pleased to be joining you at this Inaugural Reception. I understand you have already enjoyed plays, concerts, lectures, and a film retrospective, but tonight you officially celebrate your weeklong public event – an event that I understand has been in planning since 2013!

I bring greetings and congratulations from our Governor Terry McAuliffe and our General Assembly. The Governor has declared April 23rd, 2016 as Shakespeare Day in Virginia, and not to be outdone, the General Assembly has declared by Joint Resolution that 2016 will be recognized as The Year of Shakespeare in Virginia.

Our Virginia Commission for the Arts is proud to be part of The Virginia Shakespeare Initiative that includes The American Shakespeare Center, The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Washington and Lee University along with partners like you from all across the Commonwealth, to honor and commemorate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. Well over 100 Shakespeare-themed events have occurred or are in planning throughout this anniversary year.

As I was thinking about my remarks to you this evening, I recalled my own introduction to Shakespeare as a 9th grade English student many years ago. I suspect each of us has a memory of our first encounters with the Bard, and mine is particularly vivid because I was both entranced and intimidated by the prospect.

The play was Julius Caesar, and in retrospect, it was the perfect choice for 9th graders in their first year of high school: All the rationalizations that were really about political expediency; the people who thought they were “all that” but shouldn’t have; the blunt decisions based on the premise that the end justifies the means – just the topics and ethical dilemmas that high school students grapple with on a regular basis as they confront their own choices and assess their classmates and themselves.

You will be spending a good deal of time this week thinking about how and why we still find William Shakespeare so fascinating and so relevant – and perhaps too how he managed to find the sweet spot to secure an enduring legacy while his contemporaries did not. Certainly some were equally celebrated in their day. It helped that he was a talented actor and playwright when theater was popular, and also that the arts had the enthusiastic support of both Queen Elizabeth and her successor King James. It was also important that each of these monarchs believed that the arts should be accessible and not reserved for the very rich.

Unlike his predecessors though, and even some of his contemporaries, William Shakespeare had a gift of bestowing upon his characters all the foibles, weaknesses, vulnerabilities and sensitivities that his audiences recognized in themselves – traits that were universal to the human condition well before the 1600s and will be beyond the 21st century too.

If you went to the Globe Theater in the early 1600’s, you could see a good story performed with great alacrity and skill and recognize in the characters many traits and emotions like your own – a kind of reality show for the Renaissance set! You could laugh at the Fool, be thoroughly energized by the stirring exhortation of an inspiring leader, or anguish over the terrible judgment of a flawed protagonist who was often instrumental in a tragedy of his own making.

On this 400th anniversary year in particular, I have often thought that it would be beneficial for all of us if our political candidates could take a time out to study a little Shakespeare before they met with their inner circle to plot their next moves. Think of the potential revelations about character, leadership, choices and consequence.

I am often reminded these days of Glendower’s boast from Henry IV, pt 1: “I can call spirits from the vasty deep” to which Hotspur famously replies: “Why so can I, or so can any man; But will they come when you do call them?”

Here in Virginia we feel a special kinship with William Shakespeare. The business venture by The Virginia Company of London to the New World was launched when theater and Shakespeare were both tremendously popular in England. Some of the earliest Shakespeare productions in colonial America were performed here in Virginia. The Tempest is thought to be based on a storm not too far from our shores. I was pleased to learn that a production of The Tempest is being staged nearby and that several ODU students are cast in the show.

The Virginia Company expedition reminds us that our Commonwealth was born out of a creative and optimistic culture that celebrated innovation and didn’t shrink from risk or change. I would like to think we live in similar interesting times – full of possibilities and curiosity.

English Renaissance monarchs Elizabeth and James supported the arts, welcomed technological advances in communication and business, and celebrated our humanity, much as their preeminent playwright William Shakespeare did. They took advantage of their times and their potential.

So too should we. Here in Virginia we are bringing in new jobs every week to all corners of the Commonwealth. We are reforming our approaches to education, recognizing that all students don’t learn the same way but all should have a chance to succeed. We are receptive to new ideas, and we know that if you want an innovative society, you are going to need creative people!

After reading Julius Caesar at 14 years old, I was hooked. I loved William Shakespeare’s sonnets, his songs, the witty repartee designed for comic relief even in the midst of serious and somber tales. And although I was captivated by all of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, one section of it resonated deeply and permanently even though I was just a 9th grade freshman from Park Ridge Illinois.

Here, Brutus exhorts Cassius to take advantage of a strategic opportunity in their upcoming battle:

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.      

I think the famous poet and playwright we honor here would say, if he could witness all that you are doing this week that we are indeed afloat on a very full sea. And I think the English business and cultural leaders of the Renaissance in 1616 would argue that the little business venture they launched in 1607 has been quite the success for business and culture too.

In 2016, I cannot think of a better time to launch our own new Virginia Renaissance than here at your “Shakespeare 400 Years After” conference and event. We at the Virginia Commission for the Arts look forward to working with you to ”Ride the Tide” and “catch the wave”.

Together, let’s welcome a New Virginia Renaissance.

And congratulations Old Dominion University and Dr. Habib on a brilliant week.

 

 

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