Will Shakespeare

I haven’t read Shakespeare since I was forced to at school as part of English class, so as you can imagine I was excited about the possiblity of seeing A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Mrs Pigfender. I was looking forward to a good chance to retreat into my own imagination and spend a couple of hours thinking through some of the plot devices for my current attempt at fiction and one or two killer points for that article I’m supposed to be writing.

Imagine my disappointment to find myself totally gripped by this masterpiece of comedy, and enthrawled by the excellent performance and production. My hats off to Will, of course, who I really don’t remember being this entertaining. Hats off as well to the young emerging artists of Calgary’s Shakespeare In The Park. A fine job by all!

Schools can be held guilty for killing off so much potential interest … and it must have taken real skill to make our Will and his work seem uninteresting!

Well, it is 500 years out of date. That is a problem. Things change, thank goodness.

Though when I saw the Russian Hamlet (film) again in Cambridge UK, I was as knocked out as I had been the first time, in Sydney Australia, in 1962. Some things remain.

We — as individuals and as species — were talking long before we were writing. Shakespeare’s audiences typically went, not to see a play, but to hear a play. Most writers I know insist on reading every passage aloud before letting an editor see it. If it works for the outer ear, it will work for the inner ear. I think that connection — the aural one — may be a critical element in separating literature from “other stuff.”


I spent most of my life being not terribly impressed with Shakespeare. Then, a few years ago, I did an Open University course on ten of his plays and a fair chunk of the sonnets, and I was completely blown away. It was Richard II that swung things for me, very early in the course – the poetry, the pathos, the sense that the characters were real people in difficult positions and that the playwright was portraying their dilemmas/flaws/strengths in all their complexity, with astonishing verbal skill and unforgettably emotive scenes… And learning more about the historical context and about changing lit-crit views over the past hundred years made a huge difference to my understanding and appreciation as well.

I saw several productions of A MIdsummer Night’s Dream that year (including the Globe Theatre in London, and the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, as well as a couple of more local productions), each of them different, and each of them totally engaging and (in places) hilarious. The family came to the Globe with me, and laughed as much as if it had been a modern play in regular everyday language. (I think a lot depends on the performance interpretation, particularly of the “ruder” bits.) And yet this was a play I had always considered to be twee and irritating. Who would have thought it would be a real crowd-pleaser? An eye-opener.

Just a few weeks into that course I became truly ashamed of my previous dismissal of Shakespeare as overrated. I blame school, which cultivated my ennui despite five years of “doing” a different Shakespeare play each year. Most of the humour is inadequately explained at school (and, indeed, is barely suitable for school children, especially if you are at a girls’ school in Northern Ireland as I was). None of the political complexity was considered relevant, and the bowdlerised plots were treated as the “main dish”. The plots aren’t the main dish. The point of Shakespeare, as I have since learnt, is… well… every other aspect of the plays.

I don’t know if you have access to it in your part of the world, but the BBC is currently showing three new productions of history plays under the heading The Hollow Crown Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part II and Henry V. We watched Richard II and Henry IV Part I last week, and they were absolutely great.

Agreed. The Richard II was particularly good.

Was involved in a lot of Shakespeare at university. Toured Europe and the United States. Best moment of my life in the theatre came in the Hamlet fight scene in a 1,000-seater auditorium in Hamburg when the audience realised that Hamlet and Laertes had switched swords, and Hamlet now had the one with the poisoned tip. You could hear 1,000 people think.

One of the best repertory companies in the USA is American Players Theatre, operating out of tiny Spring Green, WI (pop 1,400) since 1979. Drawing over 100,000 patrons to a June to October season, APT always offers several Shakespeare plays. The 2012 season includes Twelfth Night, Troilus and Cressida, and Richard III, in a variety of styles. The audience consists of school children, local farmers in bib overalls, and academics from nearby Madison. Reviewers from the NY Times and WS Journal show up to sneer and go home to write raves. Shakespeare never fails to please, rain or shine.