It’s Shakespeare’s 400th deathday. Shakespeare has been my touchstone since I read Macbeth for (what was then) O level. I think I have read every play once and seen all but two of the plays he definitely wrote.
My memories include LC Knights declaim
“Come not to me again, for Timon hath made his everlasting mansion,
Upon the beached margin of the flood”
Stark bollock naked.
I have seen Kenneth Branagh as Henry V and Anthony Sher as Richard III, I’ve watched films , been to play-readings and even acted in a few (people still remember my Bottom).
And I had three amazing years reading English Literature at Cambridge alongside Tilda Swinton, Emma Thompson and many other wonderful thespians.
So to have a year – as we are having – where I can watch and listen to Shakespeare almost all the time- is seventh heaven for me.
Where I live in London is directly opposite where Shakespeare’s summer theatre- the Globe would have been and where the reconstructed Globe is. I walk over the Wibbly -Wobbly Bridge to get there. My flat looks down on the Cockpit pub which claims to be the site of Shakespeare’s London house (which he bought to let). Right beside me is Playhouse yard where Shakespeare’s winter theatre was (probably where the Apothecaries’ Hall is today.
Up the road is the Barbican Theatre where the Royal Shakespeare have been performing the cycle of great History Plays this winter, opposite the FT below Southwark Bridge are the remains of another theatre Shakespeare wrote for- the Rose- it has recently set up as a theatre overlooking the space where the Rose once was.
Shakespeare is alive today, we are Bard stiff and loving it!
Samuel Johnson described Shakespeare as the poet of nature- it was not meant as a compliment. Johnson preferred the classicism of John Milton and the clever wit of Alexander Pope, which showed how far mankind had come from our natural state. Johnson could not however dismiss Shakespeare who he was always coming back to as a touchstone.
When I think of Shakespeare, I think of the natural state of man, because he told stories of things that seem entirely natural to us. His language is heightened but it is not poetic, even accross 400 years , it still bears the emotional thrust and the complicated nuances of thought with which it is written. The language dwells on the mind like a photograph capturing moments that seem super real.
LC Knights, a 70 year old, long-haired, angular man stood before us children naked and declaimed and no-one tittered; it was Shakespeare what had done that! It seemed entirely natural that Timon should rage against misfortune in this way, but only the words suspended our disbelief. When the lights went out and Knight hurried off stage, our disbelief was over!
I go to the theatre to laugh and cry but most of all to be enthralled. Within the walls- whether of the Globe, National, the Barbican , the Rose or even (too rarely) at Stratford, I am taken out of nature into the super natural world that Shakespeare’s language and genius for drama creates.
My favourite theatre of all is beside the Globe, in the Sam Wannamaker playhouse, this little space shows Shakespeare’s indoor plays by candlelight. This winter I have seen Pericles (Prince of Tyre), Cymbeline, the Winters Tale (3 times) and The Tempest. These are the great final plays and together – in such a setting – they have taken me away from auto-enrolment, funds transparency and the fate of DB pension plans into a different- super natural state of things.
Happy death day Will Shakespeare!
I heard David Tennant say on the TV last night that he didn’t care who Shakespeare was. I agree. Anthony Burgess wrote a great little book called “Nothing Like the Sun” where Shakespeare lives in Stratford with his son (Hamnet) living the language of the plays. He uses a word “Spurgeoning” to describe water eddying under a bridge- after the Shakespeare critic who identified some obscure lines in Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece.
Some years ago I was watching water flowing under Windsor Bridge and went home to write a blog- “Spurgeoning” ( felt the words flowed like the river- reading it again I’m not so sure!
These are the kind of weird things that Shakespeare’s language does- it colours my grey imagination, makes me alive with wonder for words and phrases and – as all poetry does- turns musical in my head.
I hope that if you read this blog today, you will have been touched as Shakespeare has touched me. I can really say that Shakespeare has made my life much richer by his plays (and poetry). Thanks Will Shakespeare, I don’t know who you are and don’t want to. But you – your aesthetic, your words and your understanding inform everything I do.
Here is Shakespeare’s eulogy by another Johnson (Ben not Samuel) . I have put in bold my favourite lines and phrases.