William Shakespeare died 400 years ago but remains the world's most famous writer, living on through endlessly reinterpreted plays and globally known characters, including the tormented prince Hamlet and the star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet . The long-dead Bard is one of Britain's leading cultural ambassadors, and the anniversary of his death on April 23, 1616, is being marked across Britain with parades, church services and — of course — stage performances. After all, the play's the thing. (That's just one of scores of phrases that Shakespeare has given the English language). U.S. President Barack Obama took a break from political talks in London to tour Shakespeare's Globe Theatre on Saturday, listening to Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy and admiring the open-air venue — a recreation of the theater, built in 1599, where many of the Bard's plays were first performed.
The president met a Globe troupe that has taken "Hamlet" on a two-year tour to almost 200 countries. They've performed Shakespeare's tragedy on a tennis court in Kabul, Afghanistan, in a Syrian refugee campin Jordan and at the U.N. General Assembly in New York. Dominic Dromgoole, the Globe's artistic director, said the world tour has taught him that Shakespeare "is a great aid to communication. He's a great way of helping people to encounter one another, and discover similarities and also discover differences." "I think he has no agenda," Dromgoole said. "There's no particular drive within his work to say, this has to be worshipped or this has to be believed. He presents life, and he presents life with wit and brilliance and enchantment — but it's life. And everybody understands life." The Globe has also erected screens along the River Thames this weekend, showing short films of excerpts from all 37 of Shakespeare's plays, filmed in the locations where they were set: "King Lear" at the White Cliffs of Dover, "The Merchant of Venice" in the canal-crossed Italian city; "Timon of Athens" in front of the Parthenon.
In the playwright's home town of Stratford-upon-Avon, the Royal Shakespeare Company is mounting astage extravaganza Saturday with performances by stars including Judi Dench, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ian McKellen — and even Prince Charles, who is slated to make a brief appearance as a performer in the televised show. Earlier, Charles laid a wreath on the writer's grave in Stratford's Holy Trinity church. And thousands of people — many wearing Shakespeare face masks — watched a theatrical parade through the town 100 miles (160 kilometers) northwest of London, complete with schoolchildren, strolling actors and a New Orleans jazz band. Across the country there is more — much more — taking place to celebrate a writer whose influence pops up in unexpected places.