In Depth

Shakespeare Live: David Tennant to host BBC event

Stars to mark 400 years of the Bard, but why is the playwright still so popular?

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David Tennant is to host a live TV celebration of William Shakespeare to mark the 400th anniversary of the playwright's death. 

Shakespeare Live!, which will be broadcast on BBC Two on 23 April, will feature performances from Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ian McKellan, Al Murray, Tim Minchin and Joseph Fiennes, who played the playwright in the hit film Shakespeare in Love, reports the Radio Times. The gala will be a variety bill, featuring not only classical actors, but also opera, ballet and hip-hop inspired by Shakespeare.

It forms part of a weekend of birthday celebrations, with highlights including BBC Two's The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Keeley Hawes and Sophie Okonedo, and Matt Lucas, Maxine Peake and Elaine Paige in A Midsummer Night's Dream on BBC One.

Tennant, who is currently starring in the RSC's Richard II in London, said he fell in love with the Bard after being "blown away" by a performance of As You Like It.

He was especially drawn to the clown character. "I thought Touchstone was the coolest man," he said.

The plays are, he adds, "catnip for actors".

But just what is the appeal of Shakespeare, 400 years after his death?

An article in the New York Times in the late 1990s, shortly after the release of Shakespeare in Love, noted that while Shakespeare was being dropped from many university courses, regarded as "the quintessential Dead White Male", he remained the most produced playwright in the US.

Why? The newspaper suggested it was the very style and structure of his work – the mixing of genres and both highbrow and popular entertainment; his ambiguity and pursuit of plural truths; his game-playing and gender confusion - which resonate with our age.

But it isn't just in culture or the humanities that Stratford-upon-Avon's most famous son continues to resonate.

Michael Barrett writes in the New Statesman this week that Shakespeare and "Shakespeareomics" have a continuing interest for scientists, including archaeologists, forensics experts, AI specialists and medical researchers.

As part of the birthday celebrations, for example, Will's will is to go on display at Somerset House in London, alongside findings from analyses of the document's paper and ink that help authenticate its origin. Elsewhere, others have wondered if the Bard's esoteric writing might have been influenced by his being high on drugs. A study on chemical traces found in clay pipes dug up in Stratford-upon-Avon, however, revealed no sign of cannabis, providing some evidence against the "High Bard" theory.

Big data is mining the texts not only to explore the question of authorship, but also to train machines to learn and write, while the techniques developed in the studies have helped create algorithm techniques that are being used in medicine to develop cures tailored to individual patients.

Ultimately, says Barrett, understanding the humanities and writers such as Shakespeare "can help us learn to live with our brain, which after all drives our feelings and makes us all we are". 

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