Saturday, 23 April 2016

Me and the Bard

My first taste of Shakespeare came in 1979 when our class was given a purple copy of Richard II and told we'd be studying it for O level English. 

Our teacher was Mrs Lovatt and she sticks in the mind for several reasons. She was eccentric, as were an unreasonably large percentage of our pre-National-Curriculum-girls'-private-school-in-former-country-house-lady-teachers-of-a-certain-age. Eccentricity is harder to come by in these dull days of tick box targets (and, of course, no guarantee of teaching ability) but in the case of Mrs Lovatt, eccentricity was the order of the day, and proved to be an all round GOOD THING. 

Mrs Lovatt was a luvvie. She never stood to teach, but sat askew a table top in casual slacks. Message: you too can be past sixty, effortlessly cool, and clever. I'm guessing she was patriotic since she mostly wore scarlet, white and electric blue, alongside a great deal of make up, chiefly thick face powder and very bright red lipstick that bled slightly upwards into tiny lip wrinkles. Her mouth only went upwards, not outwards, dictated by her upper middle class vowels, and her eyes were exceptionally pale blue, squinting at the light and watering from time to time when she found something funny, which was frequently. Handwriting-wise, each of her biro-red words would be attached to the next with a great upward loop, in a hopelessly illegible five line scrawl, as if life was too exciting to stop for boring details like helping students know what they'd achieved in the latest essay. It was literally hopeless trying to decipher any of it. I'm thinking now, perhaps she was also extremely short sighted.

Richard II is a history play but it wouldn't have mattered what type of Shakespeare we began with: under the tutelage of Mrs Lovatt, we progressed rapidly. Somehow from a library, my mother procured an LP of the script, which I played over and over, so the words sank in, embedded in deep grooves. Even though the first scene is quite mundane ('Old John of Gaunt, time honoured Lancaster/Hast thou according to thine oath and bond/Brought hither Henry Hereford, thy bold son/Here to make good the boisterous late appeal which then our leisure would not let us hear/Against the Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Mowbray?' 'I have my liege', etc.) the rhythm and cadences soon had me gripped, and whole chunks will even now present themselves verbatim, when called for, e.g. the quotation above, which, thirty five years on, I barely had to look up.

Richard II, perhaps less well known than the Henry plays, nevertheless rejoices in the famous 'sceptered isle' speech ('This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle/This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars/This other Eden, demi-paradise; /This fortress built by Nature for herself, /Against infection, and the hand of war; /This happy breed of men, this little world, /This precious stone, set in the silver sea......./This blessed plot, this earth, this England') and has some heart-stoppingly beautiful poetry in it as well as philosophical meanderings, for example when King Richard is eventually imprisoned: 'I have been studying how I may compare/This prison where I live unto the world...'

I lay the blame for my total lack of interest in O Level History squarely at Shakespeare's feet. Why study boring facts when you can learn about the Plantagenets though exquisite poetry? In one subject, you learn Richard was taken prisoner and put in a castle by Bolingbroke. End of. In the other, you get a profound insight into one man's tortured state of mind in which he imagines his thoughts populating the lonely world of his solitary confinement, whilst you reflect on what it is to be human. No contest.

In a parallel universe, I might have taken chemistry, biology and geography for A level and never given Mr Shakespeare another thought. But something tripped in my brain around age 16 and I took three languages instead. English being one. Thank you, the lovely Mrs Lovatt.

For A Level it was Othello and The Winters Tale. The editions had improved - the beautiful Arden covers illustrated by the brotherhood of rural artists became collectors items for me, especially after starting an BA in Eng. Lit. They brought the Bard to life even more, by imagining ordinary 20th century-looking people in the main roles.

Jealousy, fantasy, resurrection, war, love, birth, death, misunderstanding; gender: it was all there. I never anticipated having to read several plays per week, but that was expected if you were to keep up with the Bard's vast output, as an undergraduate. You could almost feel your mind expanding, a bit like what's meant to happen when you play Mozart to your unborn baby. I couldn't keep up with collecting Arden copies and soon had to buy the collected works, featuring the man himself on the cover, sporting a jaunty gold earring.

Getting an overview of genres helped to see what kind of development might have happened inside the genius head of someone who wrote 39 plays (and a multitude of sonnets) between the age of 25 and his death at age 52. 

History=obvious (see above). Tragedy=a fatal flaw in character/and/or circumstance is discovered too late to avoid bloodshed and death: desperate but you can't stop watching. Lear, Hamlet, MacbethOthello, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, etc.

Comedy=after a complication, everything ends happily: you are transported into realms of delight, particularly if it's a Kenneth Branagh production. A Comedy of Errors; Midsummer Night's Dream; Twelfth Night; Love's Labours Lost; As you Like it. Personally I love the concept of 'Problem Plays' where comedy and tragedy exist side by side, e.g. Measure for Measure, All's well that ends well, The Merchant of Venice (depending on which critics you read).

Inevitably, post-graduation my Shakespeare fervour died down, only to be rekindled again in the period of time between dating an English teacher and having children (the latter development made tagging along with English Department trips to Stratford more complicated. Before that curtailment we did the whole Plantagenet season directed by Adrian Noble in 1988 - unforgettable).

English students fly the nest by covering their first Shakespeare
 text with well wishes and other details that preoccupy 16 yr old girls
Despite the whole vista of Shakespearean possibilities opening up as one gets older, that first exposure to the funny purple copy of Richard II was the most powerful. Inside the cover of the text are a hilarious collection of bizarre and frankly unprintable ditties/ wishes for my 16 year old self written by my class mates as, O Level English completed, we flew the nest and left behind Mrs Lovatt and the confines of polished wooden floors and blue-grey uniforms. 

I believe you can take GCSE English now without ever having been exposed to Shakespeare. I'm probably hopelessly romantic, or perhaps becoming a grumpy old woman, but that this is even possible as we mark his 400th Anniversary, slightly breaks my literary heart.

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