William Shakespeare. You grow up knowing his name, don’t you? Even if you’ve never read a single play or sonnet. Even if you’ve never seen any performances of his work. Even if you’re not really sure who on earth he was, you know the name, even as a little child. He’s as English as fish and chips, Corrie and the Beatles. Even his birthday, April 23rd – which is also the date of his death – is our national day. The day we fly the flag bearing the cross of St George. Shakespeare is embedded in our culture.
How many schoolchildren are loaded onto buses and driven to theatres to watch his work performed? How many GCSEs depend on a basic understanding of at least one of his plays? How many coach holidays revolve around a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon? How many visitors traipse around Anne Hathaway’s cottage? But how many people really, really enjoy his work? How many people actually read it? How many people shake their heads, hold up their hands in dread, and declare they don’t understand his words, and aren’t particularly interested in learning them?
My first introduction to Shakespeare was at high school. As part of my English literature ‘O’ level studies – yes, I’m that old! – we had to read Julius Caesar. I hated it. We were also studying To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, which I loved, and the works of RS Thomas, Ted Hughes, John Betjeman and Philip Larkin, as part of the syllabus. I enjoyed those. On the days that the teacher announced we were studying Julius Caesar, we all groaned, and I prepared for an hour of total boredom. The lines made no sense to me. The words were dry and dusty on the page. I can’t, in all honesty, remember any quotes from that play. I confess, though, that Julius Caesar, as played by Kenneth Williams, is vivid in my memory, as he wailed, “Infamy, Infamy, they’ve all got it in for me!” in Carry On, Cleo.
We were taken on the obligatory school trip to see the play performed. I think it might have been in York, or Leeds. Either way, seeing it come alive on stage made no difference. I think I actually fell asleep. Similarly, when we went to see Hamlet, in either York, or Leeds(!) I wasn’t interested. None of it made sense. I didn’t even know what was happening. I was more interested in the music of the Bee Gees, pouring from the coach radio. than in the lines of anguished dialogue being wrung from the lips of passionate actors on stage. More into Saturday Night Fever than the feverish outpourings of a distraught Prince of Denmark.
So why did I decide to study Shakespeare as part of an Open University degree, in my forties? I’m not entirely sure, to be honest. I could have chosen other courses. Maybe it was that I thought I ought to. Maybe it was because it was a challenge, and one I was determined to accept. Maybe I thought that being older and wiser would help me understand the words. Maybe it was the hope that having guidance from expert tutors would open up all the beauty of his words that I had so far failed to grasp. All I know is that I’m very glad I went for it.
I am far from an expert on Shakespeare or his works. I haven’t read most of his plays. I’ve only tackled the ones I needed for my course. I chose A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, Richard II, Hamlet, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Twelfth Night and Cymbeline. We also read various sonnets. Did I understand them? Not all of them – at least, not at first. Having tuition to guide me through made them so much more enjoyable, and watching performances of the plays on DVD was a revelation. Shakespeare does come alive on stage. That’s what his plays were written for, after all. They weren’t novels. They were written to be performed, and once you start to understand them, and stop being afraid of them, they are amazing. I laughed out loud at A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream and I genuinely adored Macbeth. The sonnets were a real revelation. They are beautiful. Those poems actually moved me to tears.
Most people have heard at least the first line of Sonnet 18:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe, and eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
But there are other, beautiful sonnets that aren’t quite as well known. Heart-wrenching poems of love and longing, and fear and loss, and jealousy, pain, grief and acceptance. I began to understand why, four hundred years after his death, he is still the most famous and celebrated writer in history.
I’m sure there will be lots of articles written, lots of programmes on television, lots of discussion on the radio, about this man who, in spite of his fame, remains surprisingly elusive. (Not much is known about him, though there is a great deal of speculation and theory.) I hope that it’s not all overly-intellectual and dry. I hope it’s inclusive and encouraging and exciting. I hope it persuades more people to open their hearts and minds to his wonderful work. It’s a terrible shame that he is thought, by too many, to be for “academics” and the middle classes. I think he would be appalled and saddened by that.
I expect some of you reading this will be thinking, ‘Well, obviously. I love Shakespeare. She’s preaching to the converted here.’ But if there are some of you who are reluctant to give him a try, perhaps because you think his work is boring, or scary, or only for clever people (which is what I believed for years) then why not give it a chance? This isn’t coming from someone who can quote vast chunks of Shakespearean lines off the top of my head. This isn’t coming from someone who can say she understands every word he ever wrote. I don’t. But when you just relax and give it a chance, it’s astonishing what happens. Don’t believe me? Go for it. You just might be pleasantly surprised, and find a great deal of pleasure in something you’ve feared until now. As the great man himself said:
“Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt”
Measure for Measure
Here’s to you, Mr Shakespeare. God bless you.