Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Musings on the Bard

Old Bill has been in my mind a bit of late. Perhaps that recent film, in which it is claimed that he didn't write anything, and that his plays were the work of the Earl of Oxford, brought him to mind. No, I have not watched it. The idea is as boring to me as I found Macbeth. Those of you who revel in the work of that chap from Stratford are probably growling or pulling at your beards in a rage about now. How can I find the exciting, propaganda-laden plot dull? What is tedious about witches? Treachery? The madness and murder unleashed by the eponymous protagonist? All I can say is that Shakespeare clearly managed to make it all rather wearisome. But perhaps I am unkind. Did Shakespeare really screw up or have I just been unfortunate in my perceptions?

Let us begin at the beginning and then go on. Heh. Shakespeare was the author of two texts I was compelled to study in school. First was Julius Caesar and the second was the aforementioned Scottish Play. No author, I hope you agree, is at his best when mumbled by a disinterested teenager who would sooner be playing football. We cannot blame the poor chap for that. We also cannot blame him for writing in sixteenth century gobbledygook - unless we're ready to criticise Charles Stross for writing in contemporary English. What else? Well, nobody enjoys set texts in school. If you did, you have my amazement. In my experience, the surest way to cure a child of the desire to read is to tell him, "This book is a classic! We will now sit here and go slowly through it at the speed of a snail, taking two terms." When my mother was at school, she was overjoyed to find that they were to read The Wind in the Willows, which, if you have not read it, is a charming piece of literature. She promptly read the whole work again that night - my mother reads with a speed I have always been amazed by - and returned to her second English lesson of secondary school ready to discuss the story. Unhappily, what she found was that the whole was to be stretched on the rack.

It was fortunate for her that she already liked the book. In my case, I was introduced to Dickens at secondary school. Well, I had read A Christmas Carol in primary school, and we still have an audio tape of someone or other famous reading David Copperfield, but Great Expectations was my first serious introduction to a proper novel by the man. It was, as I have recounted on this blog before, excruciating. It was so dull, the characters so unlifelike, unlikeable and so limp that it became the first book I failed to finish. I would like to bolster my claim that drawing out books across two terms murders them, but I cannot honestly do so. I made a hearty effort at it, and got a hundred pages or more in, stumbled, had another go, and eventually ground to a halt somewhere between half and three-quarters of the way through. But I digress. I was talking about Bill.

So already we have against Bill three strikes that simply aren't his fault: his work is spoken by someone who is no actor, his language is often gibberish, and it is subjected to a painful, microscopic, tedious examination. They boil down to the simple fact that the plays have been wrenched from their intended position, fastened to a page and drained of all emotion. But what of plays? They were intended to be plays, after all! We went to see a production of Macbeth at the local theatre. The action had been removed to some sort of post-apocalyptic future, I think. Macbeth communicated with the doorkeeper by means of a video screen, I recall. It is hard to say whether I was already so prejudiced against the play that I gave the performers no chance or whether they did just do a pretty poor job. Let us give them the benefit of the doubt. Who would you believe, after all - a group of respected actors or some stroppy, whining teenage boy? Exactly.

That said, several of my fellows, who were less stroppy and whining, though still teenage boys, didn't care much for the production either. A few weeks ago I decided to watch Branagh's Henry V. I believe I blogged at the time on how surprised I was to have enjoyed it. I discovered we had a filmed version of Macbeth starring Ian McKellen and Judi Dench. I've not stolen their honorifics; it's quite old. In fact, it's possible that we were subjected to it in school. "Subjected, Pete? Methinks you have given away your conclusion before beginning your review of this version." That is true. I gave it an hour, pressed some buttons and misread that only fifteen more minutes remained. After fifteen more minutes I realised that it had been 1:15:00 that remained, and it was now 1:00:00. I gave up in disgust and annoyance. The piece was every bit as bad as my stroppy teenage self had thought. The funny thing is that I not only like the leads, but even was quite pleased to see Ian McDiarmid in a double role as Ross and the Porter. He managed to make me enjoy the Porter's speech about drunkenness and lechery, which is the first time that has happened. In fact, if I did watch this version in school, then maybe he failed to persuade me of its merits back then.

Macbeth was a wash-out, despite my liking for the actors. The other week a friend lent me her copy of Hamlet on VHS. It's Branagh again. I've watched an hour so far, and three hours remain. I'm quite enjoying it. Admittedly, part of that enjoyment is remarking with pleasure on Jack Lemmon being in it, and looking forward to Charlton Heston appearing at some point, but let us seize any sign of pleasure as grounds for rejoicing. As was the case with Macbeth, there are actors I like, but in this instance I was not subjected to the play in school. As is always the case, the language is intermittently nonsensical. The Daily Telegraph was very caustic some time ago about a plan to revise Shakespeare into more contemporary language. I do not share their immediate dismissal of such a scheme. How many of us have read The Iliad from cover to cover in Greek, The Aeneid in Latin all the way through, and so on, and so on. One can pretend that Shakespeare's speech is always intelligible, but it is hollow lie. "The play's the thing" might be a motto to deliberately misapply here. Hook the children with a translation before they are compelled to read the unreadable.

Having said that, am I not now guilty of trying to foist some awful tripe on children even though I had it bad in my day? It's a tricky question. My English teachers generally loved the texts they taught. I cannot claim that of my first-year English teacher, as all we had was Kpo the Leopard, The Red Pony and Walkabout, which probably did not excite the chap terribly. Then again, he was very contemptuous of Watership Down (a childhood favourite of mine), yet managed to restrain any evidence of dislike for the three set texts. But Mr Martin loved Shakespeare. He was honestly baffled by my dislike of Macbeth. Mrs Bell seemed to enjoy Julius Caesar. I forget what Mr Edwards put us through, as all I can recall is him saying "Yarmouth" in a languid way, and that his shirts were - as was said of John Major - tucked into his underpants. No text he taught us has really stuck in my head. Maybe he forced Great Expectations on us?

The point is that they all enjoyed this stuff, yet failed to transmit that joy to me. I don't blame the majority of them for that. My first year English teacher was also my form tutor, and the chap who failed to help out in any way when I was bullied. So I probably associated the subject of English with books that bored me, spelling tests that insulted my knowledge of English (precocious little snot, wasn't I? Why ever was I bullied? :-D), and so on. It's a hard thing to transmit enthusiasm to a student who doesn't want to be there. One of my contemporaries, N, studied Hamlet at A-level, and has nowhere near so many bad opinions of the Bard's work as I do. A friend at school confided in me, when I said I was studying Julius Caesar, that she had felt it was a pretty poor example of Bill's work.

Maybe we're getting to the nub of the question here. Everyone agrees that Shakespeare is not uniform, whether one tends to think he is the bee's knees or one inclines to the feeling that much of his work is that of a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then [should be] heard no more. So we return to the question I asked back at the start. Did Shakespeare make a hash of things? Yes and no, is my prevaricating answer. I don't blame him that others mangle and mess up his work, nor that we don't really speak the same language (I don't hold it against Thucydides, either), but he's no piece of perfection, and some of his stuff is unwatchable. Anthony Trollope is an author my father loves. Mum finds his writing tedious. Dad delights in Jane Austen. I find her forced. DBC Pierre won praise for Vernon God Little some years ago, but many people didn't care for it at all. In short, some of Shakespeare is shabby, and some is still rather good. I still prefer the comic stylings of John McClane in Die Hard and Predator's Dutch to Macbeth's Porter, mind. Anyway, I'm off to watch another few hours of Hamlet - or die trying! :-D

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