Today, 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 🙂
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 🙂
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 🙂