Every so often a new Shakespeare Companion comes along. If you’re like me you’ll have had times in your life when Shakespeare’s appeared on your stage a lot, and times when you’re Shakespeare-lite – very young children put an end to theatre going for a while, for example, but as they grew up it seemed as important to tell them about Shakespeare as it was to go swimming and encourage playing a musical instrument. The Shakespeare companion my parents gave me was Twenty Tales from Shakespeare which amazingly is still available from secondhand booksellers. It had Richard Burton in moody black and white on the front cover, and gave succinct plot summaries with well chosen quotes from the most popular plays. For my children I bought Marcia William‘s beautiful comic strip versions, and found it did me no harm before seeing a play to sneak a quick plot update or remind myself of a juicy scene or speech to look out for.
Apart from luxuriating in the beauty and appositeness of the language, we all use Shakespeare for our own ends. He helped me defend school children earlier this year, against the reductive iniquity of SATs testing. (I may call him out soon on the Remain side.) He provides quotes for politicians (of all types, unfortunately), and backs up war leaders (think how Churchill used Henry V for propaganda in World War II). He gives a voice to women’s equality: currently London has Harriet Walter as Prospero and Glenda Jackson as King Lear. He could keep A level English publishers going single handed; most of us have old annotated copies on our shelves. (Hoping I don’t sound too nerdy, it’s worth the effort deciphering Shakespeare and fast becomes an enjoyment in itself.) He’s even there for culturally philistine profiteers, among the highest selling tea towel/fridge magnet/iphone covers in the UK tourist industry. (Unverified data, btw.)
Last week I was reading the newest companion to join the group, Beth Miller’s For the Love of Shakespeare. There’s the usual content: simplified plots, nutshell summaries, the words and phrases Shakespeare gave to English, the debate about sources and authorship, different interpretations people have given down the ages from all cultures and in all languages and media. What I liked best were the interviews with people who work with Shakespeare, and so with her permission I’ve taken her questions and interviewed myself. I hope it inspires you to interview YOURselves too.
What was your switch-on moment?
Aged about nine, I had a beautiful book called Shakespeare’s Flowers which is still in print (an excellent Christmas gift). It contained part of the fairy’s speech from A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a detailed illustration of a cowslip. At the risk of stereotyping little girls, it had everything one could want: gold, jewels, flowers, fairies, dewdrops…
Which is your favourite of Shakespeare’s plays?
The Merchant of Venice. I grew up in North London. All my school friends were Jewish; most had lost their grandparents in the Holocaust. When I was 11, my parents took me to see an elderly Laurence Olivier as Shylock and took care to explain the play need not be seen as anti semitic if you listen to Shylock’s great speech: I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.
Here’s a long aside: my father kept a file of notes on every play he ever saw in his life, and clearly didn’t think as highly of the performance as I did. But then he’d seen Olivier as a young screen idol at the height of his powers.
MERCHANT OF VENICE,THE, by William Shakespeare,Old Vic,SE1,6.1.53(1st night), cast including Claire Bloom,Douglas Campbell. Hugh Hunt directed.“I almost knew it by heart from having done it at school. Came over well.“
MERCHANT OF VENICE,THE Stratford,SMT,28.8.53,Peggy Ashcroft,Donald Pleasance,Michael Redgrave, Robert Shaw, Denis Carey(d) “Impeccable production. No director’s quirks. Dame Peggy enchanting.”
MERCHANT OF VENICE,THE. Old Vic(NT)SE1,1.5.70.Anna Carteret, Derek Jacobi,Jane Lapotaire,Laurence Olivier,Joan Plowright . Jonathan Miller (d) “Rather tiresome because it was set in Victorian times which added nothing at all.Olivier did a version of his famous Oedipus roar at the end.”
MERCHANT OF VENICE,THE, Stratford(SMT).4.71.,Judi Dench,Derek Godfrey,Terry Hands(d) “Don’t remember it but it must have impressed at the time because, back at the hotel, we talked about it until the early morning.”
MERCHANT OF VENICE,THE Old Vic,SE1,13.11.80.,Maureen O’Brien, Timothy West, Michael Meacham(d) “Run of the mill”
MERCHANT OF VENICE,THE Olivier,SE1,8.3.00.,David Bamber,Derbhle Crotty,Henry Goodman,Alexander Hanson,Richard Henders, Trevor Nunn(d) “Splendidly done at a good pace. It was like discovering it for the first time.” This comment is so telling. After seeing his first performance aged 26, and four more with the best actors of their time, Shakespeare’s Merchant still had something to offer my father at a sixth visit when he was 73.
Tell us about the most memorable performance you’ve seen.
Comedy: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Oddsocks Theatre Co in Valentine’s Park, Ilford – my children’s first Shakespeare outing too, I think. Sirens blasted past on the main road as the lost couples were chasing each other through the “woods” (actually the municipal shrubbery) and quick as a flash, one actor quipped: “See – even the police have come out to search!”
Tragedy: I was mesmerised by a television film of a production of Hamlet with David Tennant. I hadn’t realised what good actor he was until then – I think it was Boxing Day and despite being stuffed and sleepy I stayed with it to the (bitter) end.
Which Shakespeare character would you most like to meet?
Poor Desdemona, the original domestic violence victim. For selfish reasons: I’d get her to sing to me, her Willow Song aria from the Verdi opera Otello.To hear her sing this as she waits for the death she knows is coming is one of the most poignant marriages of theatre and music anywhere.
How would you persuade somebody to give Shakespeare a chance?
I used to teach English as a Second Language in a Sheffield secondary school. At the time, many pupils had just arrived from Pakistan and Bangladesh speaking no English. I showed them films, stopping from time to time for discussion. Roman Polanski’s bloody, haunting Macbeth went down a treat! There are so many brilliant film versions, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, Derek Jarman’s Tempest, the Kenneth Branagh Much Ado and Henry 5th… Or try a live production by Oddsocks – see above. Fringe or theatre-in-education companies are often the best at making Shakespeare accessible.
I’ve allowed myself much longer answers than the ones in Beth Miller’s book. But do look at it; much of it is new and interesting. Note the Globe staff member responsible for helping disabled audiences members access Shakespeare, for example, or Richard Burton complaining about Churchill in the front row when he was playing Hamlet. Churchill rumbled the lines along with him. “I could not shake him off, I tried going fast, I tried going slow…”
“Our revels now are ended.” An ending pinched from Shakespeare, via Beth Miller. I hope this post has reminded you of your own best Shakespeare moments, and tempted you to book seats for some more.
© Jessica Norrie 2016