|Shakespeare: the Chandos portrait.|
I’m not a big TV viewer, preferring to read or listen to the radio in the evenings. However, the current BBC2 Shakespeare season is umissable. Simon Schama’s been accused of dumbing down history for TV, but I found the two episodes of Simon Schama’s Shakespeare — This England and Hollow Crowns — utterly compelling. And now we’re half-way through a sparkling tetralogy of Shakespeare history plays: Richard II, Henry IV Part One, Henry IV Part Two, and Henry V. Sam Mendes is executive producer, and there’s a very fine cast of actors including Ben Whishaw as Richard II, Jeremy Irons as Henry IV, Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal, and Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff.
I was lucky at school. School has a habit of putting kids off Shakespeare, but it had the opposite effect on me. We studied Henry V in class. We saw The Tempest at the Nottingham Playhouse and A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Leicester Haymarket. I was smitten. I’d never read or heard anything like this before. The strange but ravishing language, the bold but brilliant metaphors, the rousing speeches, the lyrical soliloquies!
Later I saw Julius Caesar and Macbeth at Stratford and Antony and Cleopatra at London's Globe Theatre. I’ve seen an amateur production of King Henry IV Parts One and Two in Norwich which I had to slip away from as it was so dire. I’ve seen an open air Comedy Of Errors somewhere in Buckinghamshire which was blighted by heavy rain showers and electrical failure. In the days when BBC Radio used to broadcast a lot of Shakespeare, I heard Hamlet and The Merchant Of Venice and Troilus and Cressida. And I’ve watched many TV and movie adaptations over the years: Polanski’s Macbeth, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, Lawrence Olivier playing Othello, Hamlet and Henry V, Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson in Much Ado About Nothing.
Along the way I've also managed to add to the list King Lear, Twelfth Night, The Taming Of The Shrew and The Winter's Tale (which contains the most famous stage direction of all time: Exit, pursued by a bear), but I can't remember when or where I saw them. There are so many plays I don't know and haven't seen: Coriolanus, Cymbeline, Love's Labours Lost, Measure For Measure, Pericles, Timon of Athens, Titus Andronicus . . . and so it goes on. Shakespeare is a project not just for one lifetime but for many lifetimes, and even then you would barely have scratched the surface of his genius.
Why do we still read and go to see Shakespeare's plays so many centuries after they were first performed? Firstly, I think, it's the language. Shakespeare revitalised the English language, originating a huge number of imaginative words, phrases and expressions that are still in common use today: The course of true love never did run smooth, Neither a borrower nor a lender be, The world's mine oyster, To thine own self be true, Salad days, In my mind's eye and a thousand more. He wrote with a flair for invention, for poetic metaphor and lyrical expression, that remains unparalleled.
Secondly, Shakespeare had such a penetrating insight into our characters, motivations and relationships, our hopes and desires, vanities and ambitions, foibles and absurdities, that no writer ever since has been able to equal his understanding of human psychology. There's simply everything, the whole world, in his plays, which take place in a wide variety of settings and with an incredibly broad range of characters — from peasants to kings.
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!
SHAKESPEARE A Midsummer Night's Dream
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