By Bob Rogers in Britain:
Who’s afraid of the big, bad Bard?
Sunday 11 November 2012
Fear because of the power his dead hand seemed to wield over otherwise unimpressable teachers and loathing because of the apparently insurmountable gulf between his Early Modern English and my unwillingness to even try and decipher it.
For most 12-year-olds it was probably not a major issue, but I had just moved with my family from the south Wales valleys to Stratford upon Avon.
Worse, I was a pupil in the very school Shakespeare was said to have once attended, so naturally he was a permanent and frequent fixture on the curriculum.
To read his words, sterile and flat on the printed page was an onerous task, ploughing through line after meaningless line and very soon giving up the struggle to make any sense of it.
To read them out loud helped a bit, it was at least now possible to determine the moods of the protagonists and there was an occasional bit of swordplay, but it still wasn’t a patch on James Bond or John Wayne.
Later in life I would occasionally overhear a snippet of conversation in which someone would accuse someone else of “living in a fool’s paradise” or a character on TV would say: “He’s sent us on a wild goose chase, Sarge!” and somewhere deep in the cold hearth of memory the ember of a long-gone lesson would briefly flicker.
And that’s where my attitude stayed until I was working on an assignment involving some research into the history of Elizabethan working people, which caused me to bury my nose in a book about 16th century London. And it was like turning a key in a lock.
A chapter was dedicated to Shakespeare and his contemporaries, Ben Johnson, Richard Burbank et al, and I found that everything I thought I knew about him was wrong.
I borrowed a book specifically about Shakespeare’s life and quickly realised I had known next to nothing about the man at all.
School had taught us dates and deeds but little about the human beings behind them.
I discovered that Shakespeare, feted by kings, queens and earls, idol of the literati, was a working bloke who drank wine and ale, who almost certainly smoked, played music, wrote songs and probably sounded not unlike Ozzy Osbourne.
He never attended university nor enjoyed a childhood hunting on the great estates – at least not legally – and during his adult life he worked very hard, so hard in fact that by his 50th birthday he was quite possibly all but burnt out.
He wrote prolifically, performed perpetually and toured the country throughout his career.
And he hadn’t made it to the top via nepotism or luck. He was world famous 400 years after his lifetime because he was brilliant at what he did.
If only they’d told us this at school instead of burying the flower of genius under an avalanche of analysis.
Shakespeare’s plays are written to be seen. They are first and foremost a spectacle and, like any good drama today, they are life distilled and condensed and full of rogues, clowns, scarlet women and livid men.
It’s not the plots that make the plays so good, most of them he adapted from earlier works anyway – the tale of Hamlet was knocking around for hundreds of years before Will was born – it’s the sheer brilliance with which he uses words to invoke emotion.
So great was his skill with words that he had to stretch and expand the English language to accommodate his imagination.
And so great his influence that, had he not lived, we would speak English quite differently today.
Phrases that have lived on for centuries flavour our everyday speech turning the functional into the beautiful.
Millions quote him quite unknowingly, many of who would confess to not knowing a thing about the man.
And that’s in keeping with his stated philosophy of the play being the thing. Not that he went to any great pains to preserve his work – it was his former colleagues, John Heminges and Henry Condell, who, in 1623, published what has become known as the First Folio thus preserving for all time 36 of the Bard’s known plays.
We know for certain some plays, including Love’s Labour’s Won died with him. We may never know how many others did too.
His literary success measured in figures dwarfs everyone else, anywhere, ever. He is the bestselling author of all time, the most successful poet and playwright. He is also the most prolific “screenwriter” in history with, to date, 113 films to his credit.
Were he alive today his annual royalties would make him, by a country mile, the richest person on the planet.
In his plays we can see the common ancestors of every whodunnit, romantic comedy, “slasher” movie and Carry On film brought to life once again – a timeless link to centuries past and one of the few things we can be sure will enrapture audiences of the far future.
American film and television producer, director and writer Joss Whedon has adapted William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing for the screen. The best-known previous film version was directed by Kenneth Branagh and released in 1993: here.
- Gift Guide: Explore Shakespeare iPad Apps (techcrunch.com)
- 10 Things You Didn’t Know About William Shakespeare (history.com)
- William Shakespeare’s Sonnets (wearepandorica.wordpress.com)
- The app’s the thing as Shakespeare goes digital (eschoolnews.com)
- Alas, poor Shakespeare! I don’t know him well: The Londoners who think The Bard was a Roman Centurion (standard.co.uk)
- Town of the great poet William Shakespeare (lisamoorey.wordpress.com)
- William Shakespeare Quotes (expertscolumn.com)
- William Shakespeare, Tax Cheat (taxprof.typepad.com)
- Shakespeare the Businessman (davidscommonplacebook.wordpress.com)