Wanted Dead or Alive!


1616-2016: Celebrating 400 years of Shakespeare’s (Im)Mortality


The texts and exercises below are intended as a contribution to the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, the “Immortal Bard” of English literature, offering firstly a reconstruction of his linguistic bequest to the English language (and in part to other languages), followed by an analysis of and active research into the many and varied forms in which the Bard has found a home in an extraordinarily wide (and at times unlikely) range of contexts in contemporary culture.

Mauro Spicci and Timothy Alan Shaw

The contribution seeks to bring out the idea of an Immortal Bard, who oversteps the limits of time and space, of registers and of cultures – a man who for over 400 years now has belonged to all humanity. We might, indeed, describe Shakespeare quoting from one of his own works, borrowing the last four lines of Sonnet XVIII:

[…] Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st;
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

The activities below are designed to be tackled either in order or selectively.

Sample 1: Exploring Shakespeare’s Linguistic Legacy

Among the four nations in the United Kingdom, England stands out sadly for its lack of a national celebration. Ireland (and with it the Irish communities all over the world) celebrates Saint Patrick’s Day on 17th March with a public holiday. Scotland celebrates its national poet every year on 25th January with “Burn’s Night”, a feast of music, poetry and gastronomic specialities. Wales organises its traditional music festivals or “Eisteddfods”. July 12th sees Northern Irish Protestants involved in a provocative commemoration of the Battle of the Boyne of 1690. England alone fails to celebrate “Englishness”.

One date for a national holiday has been proposed but never taken up – the 23rd April.
This year will be different, however, as England prepares for this date, 23rd April, which is not only the feast day of the nation’s patron saint, Saint George, but also the birthday and “deathday” of its iconic writer, William Shakespeare. 23rd April 2016 will be the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
Shakespeare may have died in 1616, but he is still the Immortal Bard, a writer whose impact on the English language and culture is beyond compare.
Shakespeare is so much a part of English-speaking (and world) culture that we can find no parallel figure. Indeed, in the preface to the First Folio of Shakespeare’s works Ben Jonson commented: “He was not of an age, but for all time”.


The website “England.net” places him as the most famous English person of all time, ahead of names like Sir Isaac Newton, Sir Winston Churchill, Queen Victoria, J.K. Rowling, two Beatles (John Lennon and Paul McCartney) and the footballer David Beckham. If the test of time can be relied on, we can suppose that Shakespeare’s number one position will remain unchallenged for centuries to come.
Wikipedia publishes a list of “The Ten Most Significant Figures in Human History”, where Shakespeare is ranked third, beaten only by Jesus Christ and Napoleon Bonaparte.

What then has Shakespeare left us? Iconic images, with a face that is no less familiar than the silhouette of Sherlock Holmes or portraits and statues of famous queens – Elizabeth I and II, Victoria; characters, both historical and invented, like Hamlet, Othello, Shylock, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Macbeth and Lady, and so many others; sonnets that live on throughout the centuries; plays, of course, too many to list and many which have given birth to other plays, books and films.
His real impact, however, is found in language. Shakespeare is said to be the greatest inventor of words in English and indeed in any language. It is estimated that he contributed about 1,700 words to the language from the very common (“bandit”, “mountaineer”, “advertising”, “gossip”) to the more sophisticated (“lacklustre”, “consanguineous”). Native English speakers are completely unaware of the paternity of these words when they use them, but generally realise that they are quoting the Immortal Bard when using some of his phrases. Whenever we need a phrase for an occasion or to express an idea or an emotion we find that William has already made one for us:

Laurence Olivier in Hamlett

“To be, or not to be: that is the question” (Hamlet)
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on” (The Tempest)
“What’s in a name? A rose by any name would smell as sweet” (Romeo and Juliet)
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” (Henry V)
“Romeo, Romeo wherefore art thou Romeo?” (Romeo and Juliet)
“It was Greek to me” (Julius Caesar)
“The pound of flesh” (Merchant of Venice)
“All that glisters is not gold” (The Merchant of Venice)
“All’s well that ends well”
(title of a play)

Kiss Me Kate-Brush Up Your Shakespeare

Cole Porter, one of America’s leading songwriters, wrote a song called Brush Up Your Shakespeare for the 1948 Broadway musical Kiss me Kate (based in turn on The Taming of the Shrew). The message Porter offers is simple enough: you need to perfect (brush up) your knowledge of Shakespeare to impress people (especially girls!).

The girls today in society go for classical poetry
So to win their hearts one must quote with ease
Aeschylus and Euripides
One must know Homer, and believe me, Beau
Sophocles, also Sappho-ho
Unless you know Shelley and Keats and Pope
Dainty Debbies will call you a dope

But the poet of them all
Who will start 'em simply ravin'
Is the poet people call
The Bard of Stratford on Avon

Brush up your Shakespeare
Start quoting him now
Brush up your Shakespeare
And the women you
will wow

See it on YouTube

The Bible, the Bard, the Beatles: these are perhaps the three most important sources of familiar sayings in English.

Poems Shakespeare

Work in small groups and try the test below. Can you identify the source (“the Bible”, “Shakespeare” or “the Beatles”)? Check here your answers and see how many correct answers you have given. Which group has the most correct answers? Which of these expressions are also used in Italian? Can you guess why?

1 a plague on both your houses
2 a rose by any other name would smell as sweet
3 a wolf in sheep’s clothing
4 all’s well that ends well
5 an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth
6 as you sow, so will you reap
7 don’t let me down
8 for everything there is a season
9 he that is without sin, let him cast the first stone
10 I get by with a little help from my friends
11 lend me your ears
12 many are called but few are chosen
13 money can’t buy me love
14 neither a borrower nor a lender be
15 no more cakes and ale?
16 such stuff as dreams are made on
17 the love of money is the root of all evil
18 the writing is on the wall
19 whisper words of wisdom: “let it be”
20 yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away

Great writers are still read years or centuries after their deaths, but a great genius, like Shakespeare, is still spoken four hundred years after his death.

Isaac Asimov

Sample 2: Exploring Shakespeare’s (Im)Mortality

The text analysed in this part of the essay is The Immortal Bard (1954), a curious short story by the well-known American science-fiction author Isaac Asimov, in which a scientist brings Shakespeare back to life and has him face up to the world of our own time. The text is easily available online.

Isaac Asimov is a famous - if not the most famous - American Science-Fiction writer. Born in 1920 in Russia, he published more than 500 books, most of which had an enormous success: among his most famous Sci-Fi books it is worth mentioning I, Robot (1950), and his trilogy Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation (1951-53). He also wrote non Sci-Fi books, such as the popular Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare (1970), in which he introduces Shakespeare’s plays and places them within their cultural and chronological context. The short story that you are about to read, entitled The Immortal Bard, is an example of Asimov’s interest in Shakespeare and was written in 1954.



1. Imagine you woke up in the 17th century, Shakespeare’s age.

a. How would you feel?
b. What would attract you about this unusual condition?
c. What do you think you would not like about it?
d. Would you like to go back to the present age?

Share your ideas with the rest of the class.


1. Give short answers to the following comprehension questions:

a. Who are the two characters involved?
b. What is their job?
c. What can Dr. Welch do?
d. Who are the people that he brought back to life?
e. Why did Dr. Welch choose to bring Shakespeare back to life?
f. What most fascinated Shakespeare about today’s world?
g. Which university course did Shakespeare attend?
h. What happened to him at the end of the course?

2. Which narrator does Asimov use in this passage?

a. 1st-person narrator
b. 3rd-person narrator

3. The action takes place after a Christmas party. Which particular about the two professors does Asimov mention to make their conversation appear suspended between reality and dream? Quote from the text.

4. Dr. Welch’s experiment is clearly unreal, but is presented by Asimov as perfectly real. Which elements does Asimov use to make it look realistic? Find evidence in the text to support your choice(s).

a. Use of scientific terms
b. Clear description of the scientific process
c. Dr. Welch’s air of reliability and certainty
d. Other (specify)

5. What do the three people brought back to life by Dr. Welch have in common? Explain it in your own words.

6. What differs Shakespeare from the other three people resuscitated by Dr. Welch?
Complete the following sentences.

a. He has a great mind but is also…
b. He is not a scientist: he is…
c. He knows people so well that…

7. To make his story even more credible, Dr. Welch also projects a wholesale hardware card with Shakespeare’s authentic signature on it. How would you define the effect produced by this device? Match the adjectives below with their definition and choose the one(s) you think are most appropriate.

ADJECTIVE                             MEANING

Comic                                       Incongruous and bizarre
Grotesque                                Irrational
Equivocal                                 Funny
Absurd                                     Ambiguous

8. Why does Shakespeare call his Hamlet “a damp clout”?

9. Dr. Welch calls Shakespeare “Bill” instead of William. Does this produce the same effect as the device you analised in question 7?

10. Which “humiliation” did Shakespeare have to endure? Explain it in your own words.

11. How would you define the end of the story? Tick as appropriate and give reasons for your choice(s):

a. Amusing
b. Unexpected
c. Grotesque
d. Obvious
e. Other (specify)


Imagine Shakespeare entered your English class now, 400 years after his death. What would he find interesting, strange, or simply surprising? Write a short text from the point of view of William Shakespeare himself.

Sample 3: Shakespeare the undead

In the short story you have just read Asimov plays with the idea that Shakespeare, the Bard of English literature, is both mortal because of his human condition and immortal because of his universal works. Shakespeare’s plays are still performed on the stages of the world and his characters have been transformed, rewritten, adapted, mutilated and reconstructed so many times that they have pervaded almost every field and area of our culture, from music to films. The presence of Shakespeare and his characters in the maze of contemporary culture is so pervasive that it is possible to say that Shakespeare has never been so alive as he is now, 400 years after his death. In other words, Shakespeare is like a “zombie”, an almost supernatural creature that never dies and always comes back to life in its attempt to conquer the world.

It is not surprising then that with the popularity of the “undead” in today’s television and film culture Shakespeare and his creations have been brought back to life (?) as zombies. Warm Bodies, a 2013 zombie film telling the story of a zombie who is revived by love,is a perfect example of Shakespeare’s popularity among zombies.

Watch the videoclip and answer the questions below:

1. What is the girl’s name?
2. He is called “R”. What does “R” stand for?
3. Which of Shakespeare’s plays is this scene based on?
4. What other elements of the “original play” are contained in this scene? Tick as appropriate:

a. The balcony
b. The time
c. The language
d. The characters involved
e. The risk
f. The setting (Italy)

5. Julie says “If they see you, you’ll get killed”. What is ironic about her statement?
6. Do you think this is a helpful way to bring students or contemporary people closer to Shakespeare? Why (not)?
7. Do you think Shakespeare is turning in his grave or smiling serenely?


Mauro Spicci has a PhD in English Literature. He has taught English both in Italian high schools and universities and has published articles and books on literature, medical humanities and drama.

Timothy Alan Shaw
graduated from Oxford University and the York University Language Teaching Centre. He has 30 years of experience as a teacher and teacher trainer in Italian high schools and has published course books and guided readers in English.