With the Silent Eye’s annual workshop just weeks away and based around the idea of a fictitious final play by William Shakespeare, we decided to take a trip to his birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon to pay our respects. With his back to the river and surrounded by some of his most memorable characters, the Bard surveys the life of the town, watching from his pedestal as he would have watched in life.
It is said, although there is no record of either event, that Shakespeare was born in Henley Street, on 23rd April, St. George’s day in 1564 and died on the same day in 1616. It is plausible, as although records were not kept in those days of births and deaths, his baptism was recorded on April 26th 1564 and his burial on 26th April 1616, at Holy Trinity Church.
His father was a successful glove maker and his mother the daughter of a land-owning farmer, so although he was born into the working classes, it was as the son of a tradesman that William grew to know the world. Through his father’s business doubtless the lad would have had a window on other levels of society and, coupled with a decent education and a curious mind, the seeds would have been sown early that would one day lead to the glove-maker’s son being hailed as the greatest playwright in the English language.
There is much debate about the body of work attributed to Shakespeare, with some believing it to be all his own, while others suggest Francis Bacon may have been their author. Yet the plays read as if they were well-rehearsed, the characters are rounded, written with empathy and complexity, the dialogue is polished, not merely dead words upon a page.
We decided that the versions of Shakespeare’s plays that have passed down to us through literary history read not as first drafts, but as finished versions… tried, tested, performed in front of an audience, with all the jokes and ad-libs of the actors recorded. They could be authored by a single writer, or the result of collaboration with other writers… but read more as if they are simply a recording of the combined work of Shakespeare and his theatrical company. Not that it matters. The literary entity now known as Shakespeare has left us a body of work unmatched.
In England, we all had to ‘do’ Shakespeare in school, and most of us hated it with a passion. The archaic use of language hid the beauty, the multifaceted wit passed us by, and as teenagers, few of us are equipped to appreciate the depth of perception and understanding of humanity shown within the pages of the heavy tome. My own love of Shakespeare came when my class was studying Henry IV (part one) for ‘O’ level; the Prospect Theatre Company were playing that play at the Grand Theatre in Leeds, and our teacher organised a mass visit. I was fifteen.
Prospect played Shakespeare with the absolute minimum of props and in doing so captured something of the feel of the original performances. I will never forget looking down on the empty stage, where a single chair portrayed the royal court with such power. ‘Less’ was definitely ‘more’ and that one scene taught me a lot. Prince Hal was played by a young Timothy Dalton, and brilliantly played too, and the exchanges with Falstaff, as well as the humour and the antics with a recalcitrant sword, brought the words to life. I finally understood what all the fuss was about. The next day was Saturday and I was back at the theatre on my own, clutching my ticket to see Part Two.
Knowing the stage-doorkeeper at the Grand through dancing, I went backstage after the performance and was lucky enough to meet the whole cast… far smaller than you would think, with well-known actors taking multiple roles. They were, without exception, very kind. They answered the enthusiastic questions about the play and their own love of the Bard, signed autographs…. and between them, ensured my lifelong love of Shakespeare. I went home, took down the dog-eared family copy of the Complete Works, and started to read.
There are no books with nothing to teach, even if they are so bad that they only teach how not to write. But reading through the plays, poems and sonnets was an education in human nature and emotion, a real revelation to the teenage mind that still saw good and evil, love and hate, lassitude and passion, all in black and white. Black ink on white paper brought colour to my vision of the world and taught me how much I had yet to know of life. So it was with genuine respect that I stood beneath his statue and paid my respects to the Bard.