Well, I say 'Happy Birthday', but although the 23rd April is the day on which we celebrate the Bard's birthday, we do not know if this was his true birthday. Historical records tell us that William Shakespeare was baptised on 26th April 1564 and, perhaps because we also know he died on 23rd April 1616, and historians seem rather fond of symmetry, his birthday is generally celebrated on 23rd April. It helps, of course, that this is also St George's Day. What better day for the most famous playwright in the English language to be born than on the very day his own patron saint is remembered?

And, in reality, it doesn't matter that much if we're out by a day or two, or even a month or so. We just want to celebrate Shakespeare and why not?

Like most teenagers I was introduced to Shakespeare proper at school. We studied lots of texts and, thankfully, were able to see several of them performed on the stage. There is, after all, really nothing like seeing and hearing actors deliver the lines to make them, and their full meaning, leap from the page. Although I'd heard plenty of stories from friends' older siblings about how boring and dry and hard Shakespeare would be. But I couldn't help looking forward to it.  I knew also that these were the greatest plays in the English language. And, having read pretty much everything that had been put in front of me, 'young reader'-wise,  I was ready to move on to something more sophisticated. 

And from that very first day of reading Julius Caesar I knew that I would just love it. One of my favourite things about going to church as a child was listening to, reading and speaking the words. From services in the Book of Common Prayer, through passages of the Bible and on to Hymns Ancient and Modern, it was The words and how they sounded as much as what they meant that pleased me. And in Shakespeare, with his extraordinary use of language, of words, of timing and tempo and rhythm, I found the same pleasure. 

The stories, of course, are multi-layered and fascinating. They are by turns romantic and funny and tragic. They speak of human relationships, human dramas and the very essence of being human. And although they are long plays, full of long words and complex sentences, there is not a word wasted. Every one is loaded with meaning and importance. 

Of course, if all the Shakesepare you know comes from reading it out in class as a nervous fourteen-year-old, or listening to your peers do the same, it's likely you'll still view it as a bit obscure.

Shakespeare didn't write his plays to have them 'performed' by self-conscious school children. Or to have them analysed by angsty teens or, for that matter, by academics. And there's some danger in over-analysing them. During their recent Shakespeare Season, Sky Arts showed a documentary about Hamlet, featuring interviews with many directors and actors who had participated in various productions. One, John Nettles, the actor best known for roles in Bergerac and Midsommer Murders, spent a long time explaining how, in historical terms, Hamlet was, in fact, about the oppression of Roman Catholicism in England under Elizabeth I. Now, I'm not one to pooh-pooh an idea out of hand, but it seemed a tad unlikely. At the very least, it seemed a bit pointless, and rather got in the way of what was already just a darned good documentary.

I prefer to remember that Shakespeare wrote purely to entertain his audience. But you don't have to be an Elizabethan Briton to 'get' his plays. Yes, some of the language, references and viewpoints reflect life in Shakespeare's time, but really it's all very straightforward, especially when you see a good professional production in the flesh.

And you really do need to be in the theatre, or at least in front of a television or cinema screen, to get the most out of Shakespeare. And there's so much room for interpretation for directors and actors and even set designers that no two productions of a play are ever the same. I've seen two productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream. One fairy-like and magical, the other harder, edgier and drug-induced. There was a Julius Caesar set in 1930s Fascist Italy complete with gunfire and explosions and a completely traditional Much Ado About NothingI've seen Hamlet done 'medieval' and 'modern'. The former was a small production in an ancient hall in Lichfield with the actors performing from the stage as well as from the sides and back of the tiny auditorium. We went on a school trip. The latter, twenty years later, was Greg Doran's recent RSC production at Stratford featuring an extraordinary, and to be honest starry cast, that included David Tennant and Sir Patrick Stewart. I'd studied Hamlet at school for A-Level and I thought I knew it well. So well that I could at times follow along in my head with passages of dialogue I would have thought I had long forgotten. And yet that Stratford performance was one of the most surprising and moving productions I have ever seen in a professional theatre. I was emotionally drained by the end. And, even though I knew only too well, the various and unseemly ends, of each of the characters I was still struck by the terrible sadness and tragedy of it all. Now much of that is down to fabulous acting, but even more is due to Shakespeare's brilliance.

If all this Bard-love leaves you unconvinced. If you still believe that Shakespeare and his work has nothing to offer you, how about this? So ubiquitous is the Bard's work, that words and phrases first coined by him are used in much of our everyday speech. So much so that I'll bet that few of you haven't encountered at least one phrase of his in the last week. There are dozens, but here are just a selected few:

'In my mind's eye', 'murder most foul' and 'own flesh and blood' are all from Hamlet.  'As luck would have it', 'the world's my oyster' and 'laughing stock' all feature in The Merry Wives of Windsor. From The Tempest we have 'brave new world', 'in a pickle' and 'sea change'. From The Merchant of Venice: 'love is blind', 'bated breath' and 'pound of flesh' and in Macbeth: 'milk of human kindness' and 'one fell swoop'. In King John we have 'play fast and loose'. In Troilus and Cressida 'snail paced. From Henry IV Part 1 'set my teeth on edge'. In As You Like It 'too much of a good thing', in Richard III 'tower of strength' and from Romeo and Juliet 'wild goose chase'.

You might not love Shakespeare, but you can't escape him!