Shakespeare? He’s not so Bard. (Sorry!)

William_shakespeare_dmWilliam 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.

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Anne Hathaway’s Cottage

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.

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An intimidating looking textbook…

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.

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I had to make lots of notes!

I’m not claiming to be an expert on Shakespeare or his works. I haven’t read all of them. 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 truly adored Macbeth.  The sonnets were a real revelation. They are beautiful. Honestly. 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.

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Cymbeline starring Helen Mirren

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 even 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.

xxx

30 thoughts on “Shakespeare? He’s not so Bard. (Sorry!)

    • They really are, Deirdre. The thing with the plays is, the language is so old that we tend to freeze upon reading or hearing it, thinking we’ll never make sense of it all. But when you get past that and grasp the story, they’re so good. He so understands people, and what makes them tick. His words are full of truth, and he can make you laugh out loud or shed tears of sadness. He really makes you think. Quite an amazing talent.

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  1. Like you, I struggled with Shakespeare at school. It was only when I went to university as a mature (very old) student I started to ‘get’ him. I think Merchant of Venice remains my favourite as it was the first play we studied and saw performed.

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    • I’ve got a vague memory of reading some of The Merchant of Venice when I was at school, but I can’t remember when or why. I think there is a move to make Shakespeare more accessible to children these days. They’re encouraged to actively engage with the plays, rather than just sitting in a classroom having the words read out to them and being expected to respond to that. Hopefully, more and more youngsters will learn to enjoy his work, without having to wait until they’re “mature” to finally realise what they’ve been missing! 🙂

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    • I had a professor who thought so too. This was in the Psychology Department and he taught The Psychology of Shakespeare. I believe the Bard would be spinning in his grave to hear such a Freudian professor analyse his characters…

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  2. I did Julius Caesar and MacBeth as introductions to Shakespeare at school, the Henry V for ‘O’ level (a few years before you!). I think what I liked best was the ordinary people he drew so well – Pistol and Llewllyn for example. And, of course, the larger than life Falstaff..

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    • The ones that stick in my mind are Bottom and his friends in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They really made me laugh and lured me in. Falstaff is legendary. I just wish more people knew that side of his work.

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    • Absolutely! I was watching Shakespeare Live last night, and I was laughing out loud one moment, and sobbing my heart out the next. There is a truth in his words that just touch you, and leave your nerves jangling. It’s quite extraordinary.

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  3. Great post! It makes my heart hurt to read that you were introduced to Shakespeare in high school through some of his most difficult plays and never read his sonnets until you were an adult. His sonnets are beautiful, heartwrenching. They are meant to be read, and his plays meant to be performed, and yet I hear so often from adults who read his plays in high school exactly as you’ve described – like novels – which they aren’t. I was very fortunate to have a wonderful drama teacher in high school who had us perform “West Side Story” our first semester and then went on to “Romeo and Juliet,” “King Lear” and “Coriolanus” in subsequent semesters. (“Coriolanus” is fabulous and if you get a chance to see Tom Hiddleston’s performance, do it.) We always read the plays outloud, with students reading the parts. It made such a hugh difference and has given me a lifelong love of Shakespeare.

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    • I think there is a move towards teaching Shakespeare in this way now. I hope it continues and grows. It was a huge mistake to make us read Julius Caesar as a novel. Well, actually, we didn’t even read it. The teacher read it out loud to us, pausing every few lines to try to explain what the words meant. It was guaranteed to bore us to tears, and such a shame, because by the time we went to watch a performance of it we’d already decided we hated it, and didn’t have a clue what was happening. Is Tom Hiddleston’s Coriolanus available on DVD? I’ll have a look out for it. Thanks for commenting.

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      • Shakespeare is still being taught this way, at least in the UK. My teen is “reading” “Henry V.” Of all the plays to start teens on! I’ve taken her to see “Twelth Night,” “King Lear,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Coriolanus” (Tom Hiddleston’s performance is on DVD, but we were lucky enough to catch a rebroadcast at our local cinema – it was toe-curlingly exciting to see it on the big screen). A couple of them have been at experimental theatres, which I also think is really engaging for teens. But none of this has come through her school. So sad!

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  4. For me, the following brief line from Julius Caesar was most useful. “Et tu Brute?” It does say something that so many centuries later our language is still imbedded with such lines as “A rose by any other name, How do I love thee… and so many others. A number of them are para-phrased and ‘updated’ but they are still there. It is true in both English and American-ease! 😉 Léa

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    • Ah yes, “Et tu Brute?” I DO remember a Julius Caesar quote, after all! 🙂 I think almost everyone can quote something from Shakespeare, even if they’ve never actually read the plays. Who doesn’t know, “To be or not to be?” “Double, double, toil and trouble” or “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears?” Hey! That’s another Julius Caesar quote I know. Just shows you! 🙂 Thanks for dropping by and commenting.

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      • Sharon, your post has inspired me and I also threw down the gauntlet to a blogging friend. Hopefully there will be a new post soon on my poetry blog… Thanks! 😉 Léa

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  5. I was scarred for life when studying Shakespeare at school, but not because of the bard himself. Let me explain. We were fortunate enough to be studying Macbeth which it has to be said, has a pretty interesting (and fairly grizzly) plot. We had to do the standard school approach of reading round the classroom. I’ve always been comfortable with reading out aloud and was thrilled when I was given the part of Lady Macbeth. Thrilled, that is, until I discovered how incredibly difficult some of Lady M’s soliloquies are. Oh my goodness. Talk about challenging! At the end of me stuttering and stumbling my way through an agonisingly painful read, the teacher turned to the class and said: “What have we learned about Lady Macbeth?” One of the class bullies called out, “That she’s got a lisp!” I never forgave Shakespeare for doing that to me!

    I have never read Shakespeare since, although I have seen Macbeth, Romeo & Juliet, and King Lear performed; the latter in Stratford Upon Avon which I have to say was pretty special.

    What I love about Shakespeare is how enduring his language has been. Some of the words/phrases/sayings that he is credited with having made up are part of our everyday language so, despite the traumatic soliloquy, I have to take my hat off to the man and his genius!

    Great post 🙂

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  6. Oh, bless you! What an embarrassing thing to happen. No wonder you’re scarred. I love Macbeth. It’s possibly my favourite Shakespeare play. Wish we’d studied it at school, instead of Julius Caesar. I am determined to visit Stratford-upon-Avon in the next couple of years, and I want to go to the theatre and see one of his plays being performed, rather than just watching a DVD. I haven’t done that since I was fifteen, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy it much more now!

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  7. I never enjoyed Shakespeare at school, although I always loved all the stories… they are timeless! I was too impatient to cut through the words and spend time in analysis, that took away the beauty for me.

    But my 14 year old son is studying Romeo and Julie and has been quite captivated by it. Observing his reaction has opened my eyes. We sat and watched the movie together (it was really very good!) And he went with his school to see the play last week and came back raving about it. I’m proud that he managed to see what I couldn’t at his age.

    I’ve never read that sonnet you posted, although of course I recognised that first line. I surprised myself by understanding it and realising, yes, how beautiful it is, but more than that, getting a real sense of the emotion behind it. Thanks for that. 😊💕🌹

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    • Thank you for leaving this comment. I’m so glad you enjoyed that sonnet, and that you are seeing for yourself how his words find the very heart of you. It’s very good news that your son is enjoying his work! I think a lot does depend on which play schoolchildren are introduced to him through, and I think some are more likely to engage children and teens than others. Romeo and Juliet is always with popular with youngsters of that age, but not all manage to see past the basic storyline to the language beyond. I’d be proud of him, too! Thanks for sharing that with me. It’s really cheered me up!

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