As 2016 ushers in the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare, it also bids adieu to a number of icons who, like the father of the English canon, have become recognised as cultural touchstones of the contemporary era. But, in the wake of Bowie, Prince and Wood’s deaths, we wonder if their lives too will be celebrated on their quarter centennial year or simply forgotten, yet another victim of time’s amnesia.
The urge to be remembered, to circumvent the mortality of the human body by indelibly imprinting ourselves on the cultural landscape we leave behind, is arguably Shakespeare’s greatest concern as English students will be familiar. His plays are haunted by the fear of self-erasure, as characters prophesy their own memorial impressions and consequently experiment with methods of enduring: how, the ol’ Bard asks, does one ensure the preservation and immutability of memory?
“Do not forget” is Hamlet’s filial duty and Romeo and Juliet’s opening speech marks an obituary to its “star-crossed lovers”. King John torturously laments his own historical effacement, to be recalled as a mere “scribbled form”, whilst Bertram’s ring and Othello’s handkerchief are objects invested with dynastic baggage, carrying their owners’ respective genealogical histories and ensuring the preservation of a collective familial identity. Even Shakespeare’s procreation sonnets warn against the mortality that necessarily inheres within unmarried life: “Die single and thine image dies with thee”.
Still firmly embedded in the 21st-century consciousness, Shakespeare’s desire to remain persists: it is our triumphant vestiges of self, those retained in the minds and bodies of our survivors, which serve as the measurement of our success as living subjects. We can only hope that history will be as kind to those lost in 2016 as it has been to Shakespeare.