Friday, 17 October 2014

1564 and 1960 - an Anniversary and a Birthday

15th October 1960

Presents, cards, breakfast, ingredients for a cake

So it was my birthday on 15th October. I was born in 1960 at 2:30pm in the afternoon in the front room of what was then 122 Linton Road on Eastmoor Estate in Wakefield. The house later became a different number because more houses were built.

Be More Molly and Marge

So I had some prezzies and got some great cards from family and friends – thank you, all – and watched the film Fargo in the afternoon, with the family. (“There’s more to life than a little money, you know? Don’tcha know that? And here ya are. And it’s a beautiful day. Well, I just don’t understand it.”)
Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson

Some films (Fargo is one of them) contain characters that you never forget and the final words of Marge Gunderson played by Frances McDormand capture a universal human impulse that turns the film into a piece of philosophy. It IS hard to understand why some of the characters behave the way they do when the world is essentially such a kind and wonderful place to be. One of my presents is the box set of the TV series of Fargo which I’ve already seen in bits but which I’m sure I’ll watch plenty more times – and for every Lorne Malvo or Lester Nygaard, there is a Molly Solverson or a Gus Grimly. Molly in the TV series is the moral equivalent of Marge in the film – and as I celebrate my birthday I hope to Be More Molly/Marge – I’m sure it’s what Shakespeare’s philosophy espouses.

Alison Tolman as Molly Solverson

450 years ago Shakespeare was born (23.04.1564)

Did Shakespeare know his body of work would contain so many themes? Did he think of his work as having a coherent whole? An overarching style and tone? I think I’m right in saying that the range of ideas in his work had never accumulated in one person’s work before his writing career and has never been surpassed since, by any writer in any language. Shakespeare deals with just about every theme and aspect of human life known in England at the time, all of which are still relevant. 

Antony Sher as Richard III

Every theme under the sun and moon

As a teacher I sometimes challenged students to present a situation to me from a modern TV show or film and 9 times out of 10 I could name the play where the same situation occurs between Shakespearian characters or the same theme is explored in one of the 40-ish plays or in one of his sonnets or poems. Everything’s there:
Kinnear, Lester, Iago, Othello
Every kind of Love and every kind of Hate
Passion, Compassion, Rage and Destruction
Comedy, Wit, Lunacy, Folly, Insanity and Madness
Jealousy, Ambition, Greed, Hypocrisy and Fear
Hope, Mercy, Loyalty, Courage and Strength
Parents and Children, Brothers and Sisters
Husbands and Wives, Friends and Enemies
Neighbours and Strangers, Masters and Servants
Cross-dressing, Gender-bending
Sex and Procreation, Lust and Desire
Violence and Tenderness, Hurt and Comfort
Injury and Healing, Grief and Joy
Art and Nature, Illusion and Reality
Music, Song, Dance and Spectacle
Duels, Fights, Battles, Tricks, Robberies
Disguises, Surprises, Spoofs and Storms
Shipwrecks, Constructions, Weather, Nature
Fields, Flowers, Moors and Cliffs
Hovels, Houses, Palaces and Castles
Ships, Sea, Islands, Deserts, Forests, Beaches
Venice, Verona, Mantua, Vienna, Messina, Milan, Rome, Florence, Padua
Sicilia, Bohemia, Athens, Ephesus, Troy, Tyre, Navarre, Paris
Britain, Scotland, Cyprus, Illyria, Belmont
Miracles and Magic, Dogs and Bears
Gods and Goddesses
Shepherds and Clowns
The Supernatural and the Down-to-earth
Dreams and Nightmares
Prophecies and Curses
The Subconscious and the Light-hearted
The Rude and the Crude
Elegance and Beauty
Disability and Power
Charisma and Humility
Winning and Losing
Revenge and Forgiveness
Glorious Triumph and Abject Failure
Medicine and Gardening
Education and the Law
Health and Happiness
Problems of Self-government and National Government
Rebellion, Riot and Conformity
Freedom and Slavery
Republicanism, the Monarchy,
Totalitarianism, Anarchy
The Price of Fame and the Cost of Responsibility
The Personal and the Universal
The Silly and the Serious
Birth and Rebirth, Murder and Resurrection
The Sadness of Disease
The Inevitability of Death
Youth and Age, Growth and Decay
The way we live our lives as individuals,
as families, as friends, as lovers, as enemies,
as citizens under the same sun
And our search for the meaning of life

Happy 450th anniversary of your birth, Shakespeare (just a couple of years to the 400th anniversary of your death.) Lucky birthday me to have your work as my retirement playground.
Di Caprio, Danes, Thompson, Branagh, Romeo, Juliet, Beatrice, Benedick

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

My First Shakespeare


Shop at Shakespeare's Globe, South Bank, London
William Shakespeare’s work, 450 years after his birth, generates a significant amount of income for the nation, yes, even in times of recession – ticket sales and hotel bookings in and around the Globe Theatre in London and at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon have not fallen in recent years. And as of today there are 1,151 films that carry his name in the writing credits on imdb; there’s no sign that this figure will stop rising; Shakespeare is by far and away the most prolific screenwriter in movie history, an industry that didn’t even exist when he was alive.
Other artists have been inspired to choreograph ballets, compose operas and create musicals; inspired to paint pictures, craft sculptures, write spin-off stories; less literary companies have manufactured posters, pens, fridge magnets, mugs, t-shirts, soft toys and other merchandise, great and small. The UK tourist board has calculated that the county of Warwickshire owes over half a billion pounds a year to the tourism generated as a result of Shakespeare being born in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon (Stratford-upon-Avon itself attracts around £335 million.)

When was I first entranced?

On the bookshelf in the front room through my childhood in Wakefield there was:
A set of encyclopedias
A family Holy Bible
Butler’s Lives of the Saints

And the Complete Works of William Shakespeare (complete with Fuseli plates.) I would pore over these tomes. I would read sections to pass the time and also for fun (only three TV channels and pre-digital age of course.) 

Fuseli plate of a scene from Midsummer Night's Dream

Tale of Two Teachers

But at school a teacher almost ruined King Lear by reading it bombastically from beginning to end striding about the classroom, oblivious to whether or not his class was listening. Shakespeare by fruity verbal sledgehammer – the worst kind of teaching! Luckily York Notes gave me the confidence to pass the exam (and another teacher, Ken Payne, happily gave me an excellent introduction to Hamlet with plenty of activities and tasks and provoked a sense that the play was thrilling, heartbreaking and relevant to a Wakefield teenager.)
 The Comedy of Errors, King Lear and Hamlet

Dromio of Ephesus

But it was at university in a production by David Phelan of The Comedy of Errors that the penny fully and finally dropped. And boy did it drop! I don’t know whether it was the “hair by Vidal Sassoon” (me and the other student playing Dromio of Syracuse were given curly perms) or the 1920's flapper music or the laughter generated by the audience – none of the ephemeral wonderments that are in the First Folio. But something about performing the play that year at that time of my life kindled a spark that has continued flaring. In retirement I will not be able to help myself delving further and deeper into the texts and context of this remarkable writer. Happy times!
That most "English" of Shakespeare's plays with Falstaff in merry mode

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

FutureLearning Shakespeare

My First MOOC

And so I've signed myself up to a FutureLearn MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) in order to keep my brain and spirit alive as the Autumn sets in. So far I'm impressed and need to stop rewatching each video and reading every single comment, otherwise I’ll never catch up. There are a lot of enthusiastic people signed up from around the world, so I don’t feel too geeky.

A certain gentleman

And in this blog I'm finally going to attempt to begin to articulate what it is about the work, life and times of a certain gentleman that occupies a huge part of my imagination....

The other love of my life

Sally knew when we married that there would always be another man in our life…. complicated by the fact that the man died in 1616. He was born in 1564 and grew up in a Midlands market town before getting regular work in London early in his twenties. He probably revisited his home town a few times a year, sometimes staying for reasonably long periods, keeping in touch with his family and hometown friends and neighbours, doing a bit of wheeler-dealing and eventually buying some property.
Joseph Fiennes in the film of Shakespeare In Love
Big Fat Book

During the seven years after he died two of his work colleagues gathered most of his works together and had them printed in a big fat book. About 750 copies, probably, were printed. And just over 220 still exist. God alone knows what happened to the rest – hidden, lost, burned, used for starting domestic fires, shredded, recycled? I have dreamt – literally dreamt – more than once – about finding and owning one of them.
West End cast of play version of Shakespeare In Love
And his book….?

A Shakespeare First Folio is, eccentrically and wonderfully, in Skipton Town Hall on permanent display.  The First Folio isn’t a simple story, though, with complications created by earlier quartos good and bad, printing errors, collaboration questions, disputed choices by a range of people: Heminges, Condell, the original typesetters, the original printers, possibly even choices made by Anne Shakespeare (or Susannah or John Hall or Judith?)

A fine legacy…. To be continued….

Whatever circumstances surrounded the original printings of the works attributed to Shakespeare, there is no doubt his legacy is a powerful and profound one.