William Shakespeare is 452 years young today and, as any fan of the Bard knows, he also died on this day four hundred years ago. I am a self-confessed Shakespeare nerd; I loved him from the moment we were introduced, probably when I was ten years old and we read ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in my primary school.
My principal memory from that time is acting out a scene or two, in which I was cast as a tree. I was a damn good tree, as far as I recall, but I am sad to say that my acting talents have not improved since then. I’ll never tread the boards as Ophelia or Cordelia or Viola, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a lot of happy Shakespeare memories anyway. The issue with his identity, about whether he was really who we think he was, or if he was someone else using a pseudonym, or someone who gave a hack called Shakespeare his plays to put his name to, doesn’t bother me. He could be anyone for all I care; he could be the boy from Stratford-on-Avon who rose to the top against all social odds, or he could be the Earl of Whatever embarrassed to put his name to plays full of sex and bad language and puns. All I care about is that these plays exist and Shakespeare, whoever he was, has given me some awesome memories:
That Time I Learned Writing Could Be Fun
Shakespeare is directly responsible for the fact that I enjoy writing so much today, academic and otherwise. Around the time I was reading ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, we had a half term project to write a short biography of William Shakespeare. It was probably so we could learn about ‘writing to inform’, or whatever it was called in the SATS that year, but it seemed fun at the time. By fortuitous circumstance, my family had decided to go away that half term, and one of the stops was Stratford-on-Avon. I had an unfair advantage on the rest of my class because of that holiday; I got to visit Shakespeare’s birthplace! I saw the theatre! I walked the streets he might have once walked! I also had a mother who was forward thinking enough to make sure that I bought a ton of postcards so that, when I got home, I was ready for my biography.
I was so fired up by having seen his turf that I mainlined about six of those kiddie library books – you know the ones, with the fun cartoons and curling corners and dubious stains – and wrote the whole thing in one sitting. My short biography turned into a dozen pages, with postcards and illustrations, and it was the first thing I ever wrote that I was truly proud of. My teacher put it on the wall – serious praise indeed, in the jungle that was Year 6 – and I never forgot that feeling. If someone put the stuff I write now on the wall, I would probably faint with joy.
That Time I Almost Had Heart Failure
At college, I stage-managed an open air production of ‘Macbeth’. It didn’t come out of the blue. I did have some experience, although I had never done anything as big as that production. I also knew ‘Macbeth’ inside out, having studied it at school, so I was ready…or so I thought. My main problem came from having a dressing room and storage area that was a good fifteen second sprint from the stage. Do you know how many props and just how much stuff you need in ‘Macbeth’? I did not. It turned out that it was a lot, or at least more than you would want it to be when you didn’t have Usain Bolt on your stage crew. I really could have used him, in the hair raising moments when I thought we were well and truly screwed.
First, there was the time that a character is supposed to bring a tray of goblets on. From my vantage point, I watched in horror as the boy playing the part came running towards the wing, goblets balanced precariously on the tray, and threw himself on stage literally with the end of his cue. I never did find out why he was late. I didn’t ask.
Then there was the night we had to move indoors because of rain and the walkie talkies I used to talk to my dressing room manager – and cue the actors!- ran out of batteries. We did the whole of the fourth and fifth acts by text and I was glad that my crappy signal lasted the evening.
The scariest moment by far though was the night that we lost Macbeth’s head. Macduff, in his moment of triumph, carries Macbeth’s head on stage at the end of the play, and on the second night, I got a call from the dressing room to say that we couldn’t find the head. They were tearing the dressing room apart, seconds before the moment Macduff needed to be on stage with said head, and I could do nothing to help them. I’m not religious but I think I prayed in that moment. They found the head, wherever it had got to, and Macduff moved so fast that had Usain Bolt been there, he would have been proud and maybe even worried about his prospects in the next Olympics.
I never told our director about any of these hiccups, because if I was about to pass out, he actually would have, and that would just be embarrassing for everyone. It was the most stressful three nights of my life, and I wouldn’t change a thing about them for the world.
Those Times I Laughed, Cried and Almost Threw Up
Ultimately, of course, Shakespeare wrote plays to be watched and enjoyed, and perhaps even four hundred years ago, he was daring to hope that they would be loved too. I don’t suppose that anyone ever sets out to be known as the greatest writer in their language but it happened to him, and I like to think that maybe he had an inkling of just what he had created. That’s probably wishful thinking, of course, but no one can deny the man knew how to put on a show. The best nights I’ve had at the theatre have been Shakespearean ones, every single time. I think the first live play I saw was ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ and I don’t believe I have ever laughed so much in three hours as I did then. It is not a new revelation, of course, but I understood in a way that I had not understood before and I was hooked. ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ was almost as funny; who couldn’t laugh at a man turned into a donkey? If you say not you, you’re probably lying.
‘A Winter’s Tale’ is apparently a comedy too but I was moved to tears by Leontes’ grief over his son’s death, and when Hermione’s ‘statue’ comes to life at the end, I didn’t think that Leontes deserved so happy an ending but I cried anyway.
Shakespeare gets under my skin, just like I am willing to bet he gets under yours, and those characters are truly timeless. That’s why any play, it seems, can be translated to any time period and it just works. Shakespeare was just a man, but nothing he wrote has dated, and you never watch the same play twice. As far as I’m concerned, that’s actual magic.
(Oh, and the time I almost threw up? Well, there’s a moment in ‘King Lear’ when one of the characters is blinded by another, a fairly gross scene as it is. The version I saw took it up a notch; Lear’s daughter literally sucked Gloucester’s eyeball from the socket, and came up with a mouth covered in blood. We had seats so close to the stage that we were being spat on, so we had a very good view of an empty, pulpy socket. I don’t know how they achieved the effect but it was amazing and disgusting in equal measure and, if Shakespeare had given me nothing else, he was responsible for that memory, and I am oddly fond of it.)
Happy Birthday, Will! Goodness knows that you deserve it, and here’s to the next four hundred years!