“There was a star danced, and under that was I born.” Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing
We’re celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday again. It comes round every year. I want to record something but what? Writing about Shakespeare is daunting, a potential minefield. For me, all I want is to whisper it softly that Shakespeare’s writing helped set me free.
I am, in JD Salinger’s words, “an amateur reader…who just reads and runs.” My journey with our national poet started badly when I dropped a spear in a school production of Julius Caesar. Then, a year or two later, in Aberdeen, I snoozed through most of Hamlet played by an upstart shooting star called Ian McKellen. It was an inauspicious beginning, but I saw some of the play and was into the foothills of the journey.
I had some lucky breaks early on. First off, I had a girlfriend who had no patience for what she thought were my adolescent enthusiasms for the Beats and ‘60s literature and all that. I had to up my cultural game sharpish and where better to start than with Uncle Bill and all those Elizabethans. It actually didn’t take long. A few visits to the RSC and the National Theatre of those days and my head was exploding. I can’t deny there was the odd occasion when things were just not connecting and I needed a drink and there was still an hour to go. But the good times far outweighed the bad.
We would go to productions cold and take whatever it was we found. In those days, it was common for the theatre not to be full. We would get seats in the gods and then at the interval, if not before, tiptoe down the aisle and grab the empty seats at the front, where I learned the addictive pleasures of being able to see and hear. If I’d ever thought the classical theatre was difficult, I soon realised it wasn’t, at least when done well. The RSC, especially, was such a pleasure. Even now, as everything else in the country goes to hell in a hand cart, we still have the best theatre in the world.
The number of attested Shakespeare plays is almost as hard to count as official Bob Dylan albums. The current consensus seems to be 37, with two or three more reckoned to include at least a co-write. Over the years, I have seen them all in professional production, chasing the rare ones down when they were given an occasional showing. Even with the old favourites, familiarity does not blunt the thrill as the curtain goes up in Stratford, where audiences have watched these plays for 400 years and where I know my grandfather travelled from the north of Scotland for the opening season of the new theatre in 1932.
For no sensible reason, I’ve kept a full set of the programmes for all the plays. The thing that strikes me when I look at them now is how many stars-in-waiting I saw without of course realising it: what price Tilda Swinton, playing a spear carrier (without dropping it) in Julius Caesar in 1984 or Stephen Merchant as the second servant in King Lear in 1990? This was in the days when serious actors on the British stage were still expected to pay their dues.
I saw Brian Cox, now of Succession, in Deborah Warner’s Titus Andronicus in 1988. That was a special one. There was so much gore the woman in front of me started to hyperventilate and had to be rushed out on a gurney, across the stage of the Pit Theatre, strapped to an oxygen tank. I’ve subsequently seen a film of that play, but that night disturbed me so badly I would never go to see it again live.
Over the years there have been many, many highlights. Just as a flavour, how about: Ian McKellen as Coriolanus in 1985 at the National; Mark Rylance playing Cleopatra at the Globe in 1999; Antony Sher and Harriet Walter in Macbeth in 2000 at the Young Vic?
These various productions were directed by the great and the good, such as Gregory Doran, Sam Mendes, Richard Eyre and Trevor Nunn, in a range of great theatres: the Olivier, the Donmar, the Globe, the Theatre Royal in Brighton, to name but a few.
A lockdown project
My next step up was to read the plays properly. At the beginning of lockdown, I got the idea that maybe I could read all the plays in a year which, as I recall, was how long we thought lockdown might last. That would be one play every 10 days or so.
I tried to read them in the order they were believed to be written and mugged up a bit of commentary and watched a production, either from the fantastic live streams that were suddenly available or from old films or even YouTube. I didn’t meet my deadline but I wasn’t far behind. I finished The Tempest after about 15 months.
One of my guides on the journey was Harold Bloom and his extraordinary book, The Invention of the Human. His argument is that the way Shakespeare represents character and personality is so gigantic a leap, beyond anything that came before, that it can be said he invented the human personality. 300 years before Freud. Dwell on that a moment. Without Shakespeare, he says, we would think and feel differently. Ideas would be different, particularly our ideas of the human, since they were Shakespeare’s ideas before they were ours.
I can, of course, still remember myself holding that spear, bored and preoccupied, and I do know why it’s hard to get started on the journey. One way in, that was helpful to me in the early days, was how these plays opened up new worlds. Through them, at a youngish age, I could see why it was important to actively seek experience, to try to go further.
Unquestionably, the plays expanded my consciousness. Shakespeare’s characters give us vital examples of freedom and agency: Hamlet, Juliet, Cleopatra, Falstaff, Rosalind and, for me, from the Moray coast, Macbeth, the Thane of Cawdor. These characters are people becoming themselves.
Happy Birthday, Mr Bill.