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With limited opportunities to see Shakespeare outside London and Stratford, the only alternative is to read him. Mind you, it was worse for Anne and the kids. They hardly ever saw him and just had to take his word for it about the plays. So perhaps we should be grateful. Reading Shakespeare isn’t so bad and quite often turns out to be better than seeing him.
There are only two productions that I remember well, one of The Tempest forty years ago at the University Theatre in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the other of Antony and Cleopatra three years ago at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. The production in Newcastle, directed by Michael Bogdanov, began with an agonisingly slow crawl across the stage by Bill Wallis as Prospero and went on to achieve even greater heights of introspective intensity. It was unforgettable. In the Stratford production, directed by Michael Boyd, Kathryn Hunter played Cleopatra and shouldn’t have. This production took casting against type to extremes, with Cleopatra played by a very small woman with a limp and Antony by a bearded Cossack twice her size. It too was unforgettable, but for all the wrong reasons.
Of all Shakespeare’s plays, these are the two that I know best and that it hurts most to see spoiled. I studied them as set books for A level and got to know them almost off by heart by listening to them on record. Each came in a boxed set of three LPs by the Marlowe Society, a Cambridge University drama group which had recorded most of Shakespeare’s plays. My revision consisted of putting a record on and closing my eyes.
Reading takes a little more effort but is just as enjoyable and avoids those Kathryn Hunter moments. The Cleopatra you see is the one Shakespeare intended when he wrote that ‘age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety’. When Antony says, ‘Would I had never seen her!’ he is not thinking what I was thinking. Nothing gets in the way when you read the plays for yourself.
Little has changed since Hamlet said, ‘O, there be players that I have seen play – and heard others praise, and that highly – not to speak it profanely, that, neither having the accent of Christians, nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so strutted and bellow’d, that I have thought some of nature’s journeymen had made them, and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably.’ He isn’t talking about amateurs, he’s talking about Brian Blessed.
I read As You Like It recently, a play I had never seen and had read only once before, so long ago that I remembered very little about it. I had forgotten that it is really a variety show, with several acts on the bill and only the flimsiest thread of a storyline to string them together. There’s a wrestling match, a clown, songs, cross-dressing, recitations, comic turns, double-acts. Something for everyone. It has some of Shakespeare’s best songs: ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’, ‘Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind’ and ‘It Was A Lover And His Lass’. It has some of his best set-piece speeches, none of which has anything to do with the story (such as it is) but are there for the actor to enjoy making them and the audience to enjoy hearing them. Duke Senior gives Jaques his cue:
Duke Senior This wide and universal theatre
Presents more woeful pageants than the scene
Wherein we play in.
Jaques All the world’s a stage…
There follow twenty-eight lines of sublime poetry, ending with the best line of all, because it lets the actor slow it right down, slow, slow, slow, leading at last to a silence that cries out for applause.
(Silence, followed by rapturous applause.)
I have never seen King Lear and in some ways, especially now that I know it so well, would rather not. Of all his plays, it is perhaps the one that most rewards reading and is most likely to disappoint when seen. Shakespeare was a poet and a playwright. As Ben Jonson wrote in the first folio of Shakespeare’s works:
Thou art a monument, without a tomb,
And art alive still, while thy book doth live,
And we have wits to read, and praise to give.
It’s all about reading, though he is also very complimentary about Shakespeare’s acting. As the less well known poet, L.Digges, put it in his contribution:
When brass and marble fade, shall make thee look
Fresh to all ages…
The perfection of Shakespeare’s dramatic art lies in the poetry. That is to say, in the perfect assimilation of words to action in the iambic pentameter that is (or was) the natural home of the English language. This was the great achievement of all the Elizabethan dramatists that reached its apotheosis in Shakespeare and has never been matched since. Hamlet again:
…suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature: for anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.
And as Shakespeare was ‘not of an age but for all time’ that form and that pressure are as real, as palpable, now as they were then.
You can open the book any time you like. You don’t need to go to the theatre and pay good money to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters. Better stay at home and feel the tears prick at your eyes when you hear in your head King Lear say to Cordelia:
No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too, –
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out; –
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by th’ moon.
Apart from anything else, when you read it alone in the privacy of your own room, you can weep as loud and long as you like.