Saturday, 26 July 2014

Shakespeare for Haters or Learning to Bear the Bard.

I first encountered Shakespeare as the result of a teacher at my primary school.  It was a typical assembly in a hall, like many school halls a wonderful symphony of odours, ranging from mashed potato to sweat.  The teacher gave us the rundown of 'The Merchant of Venice' and positively salivated as he relished the sound of the phrase, 'pound of flesh'.  He also explained to the innocents surrounding him, the only area where a pound of flesh could be removed (for your information around the heart).  Poor Antonio but you really shouldn't make deals with dodgy money lenders called Shylock...

The assembly remains etched upon my memories of childhood and to this day, I still haven't seen 'The Merchant of Venice' although I will.  The word 'flesh' makes me creep though, in this case owing to childhood fears and the associations made between 'flesh' and food consumption and cannibalism.  As I have subsequently learnt, Shakespeare touched on themes of cannibalism more than once in his plays.

It may not surprise you that Shakespeare and I as a child had little in common.  Indeed, even when I hit secondary school and studied 'Macbeth' at GCSE then 'Antony and Cleopatra' for A-Level.  It took a little while for me to get to grips with the subject matter and the language.  As an adult, I look back and I can resolutely empathise with students who cannot get on with Shakespeare.  His works mean so much more in performance than they do on the page.  The language is archaic, so it takes awhile to get to grips with the poetry of the works.  Slipping beneath layers of innuendo that wouldn't seem out of place in the 'Carry On' series years later to get to the real content of the works can be a tedious task for students.  Fortunately, my English teacher at secondary school had the sense to show the Polanski film of 'Macbeth', which also featured Keith Chegwin (children around the country will remember him as a TV presenter) and he sang.  'Antony and Cleopatra' worked for me once the power relations between the characters was established and let's face it, who can fail to love a play in which the lead bungles his own noble suicide.  I also studied 'Twelfth Night' for A-Level.  In retrospect, I prefer the tragedies to the comedies, they mean more to me, the characters are more real.  Although, 'Twelfth Night' does contain some amazingly funny characters and contains one of my favourite lines from Shakespeare, 'many a good hanging prevents a bad marriage' ('Twelfth Night Act 1, Scene 5).

When I resat A-Level English at college, I studied 'A Winter's Tale', which like many of Shakespeare's comedies involves mistaken identities, people hiding themselves under different disguises and some quite mundane comedy.  As I say, the tragedies are where Shakespeare excelled.  It's interesting to think that post college, Shakespeare and I did not really mix much.  I saw the odd production whilst I was at university but I was more interested in other playwrights.

It has only been recently that something about the Bard has struck home with me.  A friend suggested a lecture/performance piece at the British Library, which explored the notion that the clipped over the top BBC pronunciation of Shakespeare's works had removed it from its original context.  It was after all performed to everyone, not just to a group of upper middle class with more money than sense.  Also the actors came from a variety of backgrounds, so the dialect would of could alter how lines were delivered.  When you hear the work delivered in something that probably equated with the original pronunciation of the works, you can see the intricacies of the rhythmic structure and also as one of the actors stated, it changes how you deliver the lines.  The problem with trying to deliver the lines with too much austerity and too little emotion is to render them as passionate and appealing as a shopping list.  I have seen some truly average performances where somewhere beneath the dry expression of the poetry, there was once a brilliant play.

I can say now as an adult that I have a liking for Shakespeare and his works.  However, I will not deify his works.  I am not in the camp that feel that he should be studied at the exclusion of every other playwright or poet.  He should be seen in context.  At one point, I would have stated that you need to study his plays to get the most out of them.  Well, guess what?  I was only partially right.  It sometimes helps, but actually when you let yourself go and simply go to see lots of Shakespeare's plays, something changes.  You learn that they cover universal themes, that the characters are as familiar as your friends, family and enemies.  Also the language is as eclectic as the conversations you engage in with the people you encounter.  Sometimes, quite flowery, occasionally colloquial and always to the point.  I don't care whether Shakespeare wrote all of his own plays (logically, he may not have done, after all he worked in different theatre groups) but something about the works has started to resonate profoundly with me.  So much so, that I have vowed to see all of the plays I haven't seen performed professionally by the time I hit the age of fifty.

Shakespeare, I was wrong about you or maybe, I was led astray for a while and now I am back on track.

Barry Watt - 26th July 2014.


Roman Polanski's film, 'Macbeth' is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Shakespeare's plays are available in a million different versions.  Just grab the ones you feel most comfortable with.  The family inherited a beautiful volume of Shakespeare's works with notes marking when the owner saw various productions and her opinions of the performances. She also drew a lovely image of the Bard.  The edition is 'Shakespeare's Works' (Oxford University Press 1928).  The line from 'Twelfth Night' was extracted from page 346 of this edition.


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