He’s the cleanup hitter of the English language, the sultan of sonnet and song.
William Shakespeare died 400 years ago Saturday, an anniversary marked across the “sceptered isle” and across the pond. And sports, like much else, is in Shakespeare’s debt.
Games clearly were part of his works, and of his age. Fencing and archery — still fixtures on the Olympic roster — were popular in Elizabethan England.
Then again, so was bear baiting, an amusement of the day in which a bear was tethered to a stake and set upon by dogs to the delirious howls of spectators. It was a big favorite of Queen Elizabeth I. Four centuries down the road, mixed-martial artists enter the cage for combat, and our Elizabethan ancestors do not seem all that far away.
Shakespeare’s voice echoes across our games, and with the Run for the Roses coming up, every Kentucky Derby owner stands in league with King Richard III when he cries, “A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!”
The Bard’s words would find a home today in arenas and on the field, in press boxes and online. He might not have imagined the money-besotted spectacle of the World Cup, but he surely knew better than anyone that all the world’s a stage.
Were he tapping on his laptop today, Shakespeare no doubt would look on the toxic mess that is FIFA, and proclaim as he does in “Measure for Measure”: “I have seen corruption boil and bubble till it o’errun the stew.”
Shakespeare worked at the Globe Theatre, in the same city where Chelsea now plays and tries to make sense of a soccer season gone all wrong in defense of its Premier League title. Team management, as the poet reminds in “Timon of Athens,” would readily acknowledge, “We have seen better days.”
No one, of course, carries himself with the majesty of The Bard. Maybe the closest is Vin Scully. Now 88 and witness to so many seasons and games, Scully might well look out on the tableau of mountains and blue sky that is Dodger Stadium and “compare thee to a summer’s day.” Or maybe from his broadcast booth he would watch a runner going from first to third and speak, as Shakespeare did in “Cymbeline,” of “lads” who “like to run the country base.”
“Stoolball” was played in Shakespeare’s day and may have been a forerunner to baseball. The poet never conjured the likes of Yaz and Big Papi — although they sound like characters lifted from his rollicking comedies — but perhaps in “Othello” he envisioned Fenway Park. Iago, like many an American League pitcher, was wary of “the green-eyed monster.”
Shakespeare also spoke the language of football, with a namesake of sorts — Stanley Shakespeare played one season as a receiver for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1987. Blitzing linebackers everywhere can revel in a sack dance and think of Osric, who in “Hamlet” declares “a hit, a very palpable hit.” The NFL itself, from its place on the mountaintop of sports, can heed the words from “Henry IV, Part II” as it faces legal challenges over chronic brain injury: “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”
And maybe it’s time to reconsider Cam Newton’s postgame Super Bowl news conference. Altogether sullen, with his hoodie pulled low, the defeated Carolina Panthers quarterback may well have been lost in the admonition from “King Henry the Fifth”: “Men of few words are the best men.”
Across basketball, Shakespeare’s advice holds: Michigan State (“Beware the Ides of March.”); Philadelphia 76ers (“Nothing will come of nothing.”); Golden State Warriors (“Be not afraid of greatness.”).
The anniversary of Shakespeare’s death — and scholars mostly agree he was also born on April 23 — is a good time to place his words beside two of the most celebrated figures in sports.
Tiger Woods, were he to summon “Romeo and Juliet,” might be forced to agree: “For you and I are past our dancing days.” As for Derek Jeter, the Yankee great retired to his Florida palace by the sea, the line from “Macbeth” is uncontested. “I bear a charmed life.”
The Olympics are less than four months away. Shakespeare, though not a member of the International Olympic Committee, understood the importance of keeping pace with preparations.
“The game is afoot,” he writes in “King Henry the Fourth.”
Organizers in Rio de Janeiro, like a monarch of yore, are beset on all fronts: befouled waters, a viral pestilence, a battered treasury, a besieged leader, a populace enraged.
The Games are afoot. What’s to be?
That is the question.