My hero: William Shakespeare by Susan Cooper
My hero: William Shakespeare by Susan Cooper

(The Guardian) Form 1 at Slough High School for Girls. In English that year we did Julius Caesar, and the next year it was A Midsummer Night's Dream, and every subsequent year another Shakespeare play. Being a shy child who mumbled, I had very small parts in the class read‑throughs (I think I was Wall in The Dream) but I fell in love for life with the characters and the words. And with their author.

He was one of those astounding happy accidents that redeem our imperfect race. He was born 450 years ago; today, his speed and inventiveness, and his brilliance at adapting other people's plots, would have seen him gobbled up by television, and we'd never have had The Tempest or As You Like It or King Lear. And I'd never have seen Olivier's Henry V or Gielgud's Benedick or Scofield's Richard II or, or …

He was a working dramatist within a community of actors, and by the time he died at the age of 53 he had written more than 35 plays, many of which are masterpieces still performed all over the world. Whatever people do to them, they work beautifully on stage. We know remarkably little about his life, which leads some into the folly of claiming he was actually Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford, but its emotions blaze out of his characters and his 154 sonnets.

Above all he was a man in love with the English language, so how can he not be the hero of an English writer? Shakespeare delighted in playing with the sense and the music of words; he was a creative lover of words, and unwittingly we quote him every day as we speak the ever-evolving English he helped to score. I wonder if he knew quite how extraordinary he was. Perhaps he guessed at it, now and again:


So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.