Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Bard of Stratford on Avon

“Brush up your Shakespeare,

Start quoting him now.

Brush up your Shakespeare,

And the women, you will wow.”

From Cole Porter’s “Kiss me Kate.”

It was with some relief that I read in yesterday’s papers that there is a new book published by Frank Kermode that has the temerity to question some of Shakespeare’s efforts.

I say with relief, since for years I have struggled to understand just what on earth he was talking about sometimes. I always put it down to the fact that he was speaking in what I assumed to be the language of Merrie Olde Englande, but now it seems I may have got it wrong.

Now the theory is that he was merely hungover for much of the time and, as any carworker in a factory will tell you, a Monday car’s not worth having.

Sir Peter Hall, respected theatrical director of Shakespearean work that he is, suggests that, stuck out there in the country at Stratford on Avon, Will took to the bottle or jug in a pretty big way. Had the Bard been breathalysed on his way back from Anne Hathaway’s cottage of an evening, he might well have had his licensed confiscated, or at any rate had enough points added that would have sobered him up for a while. Presumably it would be during these periods of sobriety that he would have written his more understandable plays.

Ben Johnson, a contemporary rival and a pretty good toper himself, frequently having to be wheeled home in a barrow, once wrote:

“I remember, the Players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare, that in his writing, (whatsoever he penn'd) hee never blotted out line. My answer hath beene, would he had blotted a thousand. Which the Players thought a malevolent speech.”

And some of the lines might well have been blotted out for all the sense they make. However, it takes a courageous theatregoer to stand up in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford and ask if the cast could kindly repeat the line in English.

Having said that, I’ve usually enjoyed watching the plays when performed by talented actors, more often than not at the Royal Shakespeare, where they put a lot of vim and vigour into making even the most banal of lines sound dramatic, but amateur performances tend to be pretty dire. Even the best actors have a tough time getting past some of Will’s more risible efforts with a straight face. Macbeth, for one, is full of unintended laughs for the cynical amongst the audience and any actor who values his (or her) reputation would be well advised to give it a miss.

And sometimes, perhaps because he was English, there is a nonchalant understatement. Caesar, on being punctured by his best mate, only comes up with “Et tu, Brute?” Now I feel that’s taking cool a bit too far. I don’t know about you, but I feel I would have a few comments to make on Brutus’ ancestry under the circumstances. Or certainly an “Ouch!”

A more tolerant view is that Shakespeare was not suffering from a Grade A hangover when he penned some of his less memorable phrases, but was merely pressurised by an impending deadline looming over him.

No doubt they were restive down at the Globe Theatre, waiting for the country boy to come up with another smash hit and to stop fooling around with Anne.

However, I think the first option is more viable and so perhaps the best way to appreciate the Bard in his natural environment, so to speak, would be to tackle him whilst in a similar state of intoxication.

I’m going to try it. Rather in the same way that it took the researchers at Bletchley Park some time to decipher the German Enigma codes, it may take a while, but I’ll get back to you with the results eventually.

Just as soon as I’ve got over this hangover.


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