This Saturday marked what’s believed to be the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death.
But it was also thought to have been his 452nd birthday — and over at Saint Anselm College, a group of students, professors and others turned out to honor the playwright and poet in the best way possible, with a daylong reading of his work. (There was also, of course, plenty of birthday cake.)
Professor Gary Bouchard brought the tradition along with him when he arrived at Saint Anselm from Loyola University of Chicago in 1989. Nearly three decades later, it’s still going strong.
“The main thing is to set up a day, on Shakespeare’s birthday usually, or in and around that day, and get many people who would never otherwise go near poetry to use Shakespeare’s fantastic language and great brand to attract people into kind of a playful daylong class outdoors,” says Bouchard, who now chairs the English department.
The celebration’s centerpiece is a marathon recitation of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets that spans across a range of languages and generations. Most of the day’s excerpts were performed in English, but a handful of people also read the sonnets in Chinese, Norwegian, Spanish, German and Arabic.
The reading’s been so well-received that a number of Bouchard’s former students have made a tradition out of returning to campus for the occasion. Some of those alumni are now teachers themselves in New Hampshire and neighboring states, and they bring along their own classes of high school students to participate in the performance.
This year’s event also featured a few musical interludes from Emily Rowden Fournier, a Saint Anselm alumna, and her mother, Lyn Rowden — the pair sported period-appropriate garb and serenaded the audience with a series of songs from Shakespeare’s plays. (The pair also participated in a recent Shakespearean celebration in Waterville, Maine.)
And in between sets of sonnets, the Abbey Players — a campus theater troupe — performed scenes from The Tempest, Much Ado About Nothing and The Merchant of Venice.
One of the student actors, Kelsey Warner, is a self-proclaimed “very eccentric Shakespeare fan” who fell in love with the language and the plot material back in high school.
Warner realizes that not everyone may feel the same way. Still, she thinks it’s worth giving Shakespeare’s stuff a second try, even if it might’ve seemed stale the first time around.
“There’s so much universality… There’s hilarious jokes. He has jokes about flatulence, he has jokes about sex,” Warner says. “He really was an entertainer, first and foremost, and I think everybody can relate to the entertainment. You just have to find the medium that really suits you best.”