A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The Poet's Eye, The Poet's Pen

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 ShakespeareThis 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 MacbethBaz 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 LearTwelfth NightThe 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 trueSalad 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.

The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
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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Dominic Rivron said...

I have to admit I've not watched these TV series. However, you've got me thinking I ought to read more Shakespeare. The Tempest and Hamlet have been on my mind recently. The school holidays are here, so no excuse.

George said...

A very fine post, Robert! Enjoyed it immensely. I think it's fair to say that Shakespeare has had no equal, and is unlikely to ever have one. The thing that has most impressed me through the years is his unparalleled insight into human character and its challenges during life's journey. Since first reading Hamlet in high school, I have treated Polonius's advice to Laertes as advice from my own father.

Goat said...

I've read a lot more ABOUT Shakespeare than his actual works, but of the ones I'm vaguely familiar with, 'Richard III' is still my favourite, even after doing it in high school. Well, by "doing", I mean studying, though I dimly recall acting out some scenes. I just looked it up and learned that it's one of his longest, so presumably we did an abridged version, as some of my delinquent classmates wouldn't have tolerated a lengthy immersion.

I think one reason school didn't kill it for me was that we read a novel in conjunction with the play. I don't remember the title, but its premise was that someone in modern times was digging up evidence that old Dick possibly wasn't such a bad chap after all.

I also think the opening scene of that play is classic. Shakespeare was a master of atmosphere. And there's a punk-rock connection too: it's been suggested that Johnny Rotten borrowed his sneering, hunched-over on-stage persona from portrayals of Richard!

The Weaver of Grass said...

When I lived in the Midlands I saw some breath-taking plays at Stratford - Coriolanus, Merchant of Venice (Judi Dench as Portia), Midsummer Night's Dream, Julius Caesar - spring to mind. That and the opera in Birmingham (Midsummer Night's Dream Again, and Cunning Little Vixen spring to mind here) That is the one aspect of life in the country that I find annoying - still there are plenty of things to make up for it - and I still have the memories.

Ruth said...

A wonderful post, yes!

It makes me wish I, too, had been so inspired to see, listen and participate in his plays as you have done. Sadly the Bard did not come alive for me until a few years ago and went to a couple plays in London.

The Solitary Walker said...

Go see rather than read, Dominic, that's my advice...

'To thine own self be true'... advice that can't be bettered, George...

Thanks, Goat. for your evocative reminiscence...

Weaver — do you ever go to the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds? Not too far from you, I think...

I'm glad those London plays brought Shakespeare alive for you, Ruth... You have to see them, rather than just read them, I feel...

Susan said...

When we visited with Friko and Beloved, they told us about this series, and we can hardly wait. We had such a wonderful time with them, a real highlight of our trip. Your Shap Abbey brings back memories of other highlights. England is full of them, rain or shine (we were lucky indeed to get a fair number of dry days).

The Solitary Walker said...

The Shakespeare series was superb, Susan.