Shakespeare and Me

440px-Title_page_William_Shakespeare's_First_Folio_1623Today, as you’re probably aware, marks the four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and while celebrating someone’s demise might seem a little off, I thought it would be nice to mark the day in some fashion.  Sadly, I didn’t have time to read and review a play, but instead this week I’ve already looked at some modern-day sonnets and some fiction inspired by both Will and his contemporary, Cervantes.  My final contribution to the whole affair takes a somewhat different approach, though, a personal reflection on my connection with the bard.  This is Tony’s Reading List’s life with Shakespeare – enjoy🙂

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To begin with, it might surprise you to know that Will and I are neighbours (well, sort of).  Shakespeare grew up in the village of Stratford-upon-Avon, which is a short drive from my hometown, Coventry.  Surprisingly, then, I’ve only ever been there once.  When I came back to England from Japan for a short visit, my mum took my wife (girlfriend at the time) and me there, where we did the touristy thing and wandered through all the old houses.  Sadly, we never made it to an actual performance – maybe next time…

My first experience with Shakespeare came much earlier, however.  Like most Britons, I was exposed to Shakespeare at secondary school, even if earlier generations would have had to study far more of his work.  The only play we read in my English class was Romeo and Juliet, which I remember very well for a couple of reasons.  One (and many of you might share this memory) was watching the Franco Zeffirelli film version of the play, notable for teenage boys mainly because of the very brief glimpse of nudity.  The other was a piece I submitted for my GCSE English coursework, a newspaper report on the sword fight resulting in Romeo’s banishment from Verona (ace reporter Antonio Malonio was on the scene…).

Of course, a few years later another director had a go at adapting Romeo and Julio for the big screen, and I eventually ended up seeing the Baz Luhrman version in Germany.  I was living there at the time, working as a language assistant at a high school, and on a rainy day in Cologne I sought refuge in a cinema along with an ex-girlfriend.  I had studied German at school and university and had been living in the country for a few months – she had no German but a Master of Arts in the area of English literature.  Guess who understood the film better…

While it’s hardly part of the canon, I also have fond memories of a trip to London to see a show dubbed as presenting Shakespeare’s forgotten rock and roll masterpiece, Return to the Forbidden Planet (a loose sci-fi adaptation of The Tempest).  With the help of songs like ‘Good Vibrations’, ‘Great Balls of Fire’ and ‘We Gotta Get Out of this Place’, the play brought Shakespeare to another generation, mixing up pop music and theatre, and even playing with the Bard’s other works.  One line I remember well is ‘For never was a story of more woe than this of Gloria and her Prospero‘ – yep, another nod to Romeo and Juliet😉

Now I’m an English teacher of sorts, helping prepare overseas students for the trials to come at a major Australian university, and while I’ve never managed to convince them that they need to devote some time to Macbeth or Hamlet, I have sneaked Shakespeare into the classroom on a few occasions.  It’s usually in the form of a lesson on Sonnet XVIII (‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’), which has worked surprisingly well every time I’ve taught it.  In addition to scaring the students with seventeenth-century pronouns, I often use it as a gap-fill listening (there are plenty of versions available on Youtube).  When I actually let the students see the video, after we had finished checking the answers, the girls suddenly got a lot more interested in the lesson – well, it was read by Tom Hiddleston, after all🙂

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There you go – just a few little anecdotes sharing some of my experiences with Shakespeare and his work.  For someone who never really thinks of himself as having a strong background in this area (there’s only one Shakespeare review – King Lear – on the blog so far), it was surprisingly easy to find something to talk about – which just shows how towering a figure Will still is today.  That’s enough from me, though – how about you?  I’d love to hear about your connection to the Bard🙂

18 thoughts on “Shakespeare and Me

  1. At the risk of sounding like a pretentious twit, I can honestly not remember a time when I wasn’t aware of Shakespeare and in love with his stories. I started off with Stories from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb, then a combination of plays/films/reading. I have a battered old copy of the Complete Works which I’ve been carrying around with me for dogs’ years, in which I marked all my favourite plays and the part I wanted to play in each of the plays, even the obscure ones. Ariel in The Tempest, Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, but Helena in All’s Well that Ends Well (can barely remember what that’s about)? One of the most memorable performances was of ‘The Tempest’ by Cheek by Jowl company touring Romania back in 1989, just before the fall of Communism. When I lived in London I loved going to the Globe to see plays in as close to the original setting as possible, and I also saw the RSC, but never in Stratford. And the most recent Shakespeare play I saw was just 2 weeks ago: my younger son’s school performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – a modernised version, in which he played a somewhat belligerent Demetrius and a very silly Flute.

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    1. Marina Sofia – Very impressive🙂 I’ve never even managed to see one play staged live, so you’re a little ahead of me there! ‘The Tempest’ is one I’d like to try at some point, but then I say that about so many things…

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  2. My first experience with Shakespeare was developing an obsessions with Macbeth after seeing the Welles version in my early teens – I carried a tiny copy of it in my blazer pocket at school. And then of course we studied him, Julius Caesar for us and we watched a modern dress version on schools’ TV. I’ve visited the Globe, my kids have seen plays there and of course as we know from Bernard Levin, we probably use phrases coined by Shakespeare every day!

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    1. Kaggsy – Another to have been to the Globe (very jealous…). Not sure what happened with my generation, I’d have thought that we’d have done far more Shakespeare (five years of English at an independent school…) – I wonder if my kids will do more.

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  3. We did macbe that school which include watch an ill conceived roman polanski version which is a great film but not best for a group of 14 year boys . I have been to strafford as well it is about twenty miles from my dad’s house in dorridge

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    1. Stu – Haven’t seen that, but I can imagine a version in my head😉 Stratford is lovely, especially in nice weather, but the houses were a bit, well, dull to be honest. I do wish we’d been able to go to the theatre there, though.

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  4. Lovely post. I’m a member of the Globe so go quite often , nothing like watching a performance there. The atmosphere is unbelievable. Whilst I enjoy these traditional versions I also love watching small theatre and all the differing updates, varieties and changes they make. Better not forget to mention the joys of Marlowe , Lyly,Ford and Webster. Suppose I just love all theatre really.

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    1. Jeff – Some avid theatre-goers among my commenters! I must confess I’ve scarcely ever been to the theatre in my life, but I would love to visit the Globe one day…

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  5. My first experience was Midsummer Nights Dream at school which I hated but then we got to do Macbeth for O’level and that was more my kind of thing. But I really took to it when I saw Derek Jacobi as Hamlet in the theatre in my teens. I didn’t know the play at all so came to it cold and was just thunderstruck. Then there was Alan Howard dressed in black leather playing Richard Third at the RSC- that made an impression I can tell you! The most recent one I saw was Winter’s Tale with Kenneth Branagh and Judy Dench – it is such a weird, weird play but the ending is so touching… and she is an extraordinary presence on stage. What I find fascinating is how great actors can make lines which appear completely incomprehensible on the page absolutely clear as a bell. I suppose it’s their job but all the same sometimes it seems miraculous! Oh, and I should probably also mention being taught King Lear at A level by a fantastic, rigorous teacher Mrs Hardcastle.

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    1. Vicky – Another who got to do more Shakespeare at school than I did! I do think that part of getting into Shakespeare involves early exposure to the live experience – as well as access to the plays at all, which wasn’t really the case for me…

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  6. Ha! That’s a funny coincidence Tony, I wrote something in that line on my blog not long ago. My mother tongue being french, Shakespeare has always been quite intimidating to me. It took a long time (and few hilarious experiences) before I finally got to read Hamlet in V.O. and I truly enjoyed it. My reading lists being what they are😉 … Still I hope I can find time to read some more of W.S. soon! And thanks for sharing your experience and latests readings with us.

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    1. Space Cadet – ‘Hamlet’ was one of my first Shakespeare reads, many, many years ago. Needless to say, I didn’t understand it at all😉

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  7. I think I can trump most people. I’m a honeymoon baby and my parents honeymooned in Stratford on Avon so I can’t conceive a world without Will! Like you Tony, I have only written about one Shakespeare on my blog but my seven year old is currently fascinated with Shakespeare so I will be reading many of the plays again over the coming months, I think.

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    1. Séamus – It’s in the blood, so to speak😉 Not sure my eight-year-old daughter even knows who Shakespeare is, so that’s very impressive🙂

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