Posts Tagged ‘Stratford’

On Shakespeare’s birthday

April 23, 2019

I don’t recall meeting any of Shakespeare’s plays until I got to the fourth form and began my O Level Eng Lit course: we studied The Merchant of Venice, with an inspirational English teacher who wasn’t afraid back then to explain everything, including the bawdy bits. I was fascinated to finally be reading this writer whose fame and reputation I’d heard so much about, and I came to love the moral complexities in that play. I can still reel off vast sections which I must have learnt by heart as I revised. It wasn’t until years later that I actually got to see it onstage, and the most memorable performance was one at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in the 1990s, where Portia was played as a woman who was old enough to be worried about being left an old maid, and Bassanio was clearly also no longer in the prime of youth and an evident gold-digger… Sadly, I only had a couple of opportunities to teach the play in my entire career.

A Level brought two tragedies, King Lear and Othello. The former still moves me to tears when I read it and I look forward one day to seeing a decent performance onstage; the only one I’ve seen so far was truly abysmal and best forgotten. Othello I loved, too, and have taught more times than I care to remember; I’ve seen a number of memorable performances including a couple at Stratford with the RSC, though I still like Willard White paired with Ian McKellen best of all, a TV performance I’ve watched countless times with students. Iago’s cold, calculating and incomprehensible evil comes across so powerfully as he struts in his corporal’s uniform, and you have to be really quick in the closing moments to see the brief and sinister darkening of the moustache…

I was lucky enough, at school, to have been taken to see plays at what was then the revolutionary – in more ways than one – new Nottingham Playhouse, where I was fortunate to see one of Ian McKellen’s first, if not his first, performances as Hamlet. In the end, however, that was a play that I never really warmed to, just as I always found Macbeth somehow unsatisfactory, although if you look up my post on the performance I saw at Stratford last year, you will see that I finally got to see a performance that transformed my appreciation of that play.

Although I enjoyed teaching Shakespeare enormously, it was always against the backdrop of examinations, especially with younger students whose enjoyment I feel was sometimes marred by the need to ‘get it right’ for an examiner. I particularly hated having to teach plays for the SATs at age 14 (now long gone, thank God) and felt constrained when Romeo and Juliet was up for testing as it was rather a challenge explaining all the obscenities to students that young… it’s a play much more suited to GCSE. But grinding thorough Julius Caesar or Macbeth with a 75-minute examination in view also felt like a bit of a chore, and at times I wondered how much of a love for the bard the students would end up with.

Obviously when students have chosen to study Eng Lit in the sixth form, it’s all rather different: there’s more time to do justice to a play, and students are more thoughtful and mature in their approach, and we could enjoy the language and the jokes, the wit and the vulgarity to the full. We could explore alternative possibilities and interpretations and this was positively encouraged by the syllabus at times. This is where I came to love two plays above all: Othello, and Antony and Cleopatra; ask me one day which is my ‘favourite’ Shakespeare play and it will be one of these two, depending on whether there is an ‘r’ in the month or which way the wind is blowing. Why? Othello for the evil of Iago, the innocence of Othello and the shock when everything that was perfect is turned to dust for him, and the feistiness of Desdemona, until she cannot understand what is happening to her and her husband any more… Antony and Cleopatra for the passion of age that is not youth, and the giving up of worlds for that passion… Both plays for the sublimity of the language.

Sometimes I engage briefly with the scholarly arguments about who wrote the plays; most of the time I do not care. Someone – William Shakespeare, most probably – wove and knitted words so magically some four centuries ago that they can take us to places, take us inside people, show us feelings that can take us far beyond ourselves, can entertain us, make us think, move us to tears. It’s all invention, and it’s all wonderful.

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Shakespeare: Henry V

June 5, 2014

I recently saw the RSC productions of  Henry IV Part One and Two in Stratford during a Shakespeare course I took part in; we also watched a film of Richard II, so I thought I should complete the tetralogy by re-reading Henry V.

Shakespeare starts with a useless king (Richard) and ends with an effective one (Henry V); in between is sandwiched the reign of the illicit and troubled usurper, Henry IV; and yet his actions are suggested to have been necessary for the sake of the realm. Prince Hal has been transformed into Henry V, although there are times when this didn’t seem convincing. Both the plays Richard II and Henry V are very formal, ritualistic even, with much discussion in council and lengthy speechifying, Richard’s being beautiful and ineffectual, Henry’s being crisp, logical and directed. Court life during the reign of Henry IV was just chaotic. So there is a tidy sense of structure to this tetralogy.

Henry V is unlike the others in the use of prologue and choruses; these help shape the effect Shakespeare wants to achieve, heightening the presence and power of the king, and creating description and atmosphere for the campaign in France, particularly by articulating the fears of those who are off to war. There are still lots against the king, but unlike those against his father, there are easily dealt with, and the traitors even repent in the face of Henry’s apparent rectitude and good sense. And the good king still ensures that traitors lose their heads.

A less pretty side to Henry is revealed in the man of war and his threats against the French, but coupled with the conversations of the common people, the overall effect is to suggest what a dreadful thing war is in general, and how foolish those are that seek it (ie the French).

Another interesting effect is that of the king wandering off in mufti and enjoying conversations with the footsoldiers and lower class members of his army; again we see their fears through their arguments with the king, and he is not always at his ease with the new role that has been thrust on him, though he sustains it and develops a sense of fair play and justice of which Shakespeare’s audience would surely have approved, when he reveals his true self to those men later on.

Shakespeare brings the cycle of plays to a successful end with Henry’s victory at Agincourt, though his wooing of Katherine is now either tiresome or toe-curling or both. But what Shakespeare has done most effectively of all is to raise so many questions for us to reflect on, about kings and rulers, about justice, about the rights and fears of ordinary people when faced by power, and about the evils of warfare. All sides are laid bare, no-one escapes lightly, no easy answers are offered…

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