In pursuit of Shakespeare

TLS, 20th April 2016

April 23rd, 1964 marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth and the beginning of my career. I was supernumerary in The Wars of the Roses with the RSC, and I could stand on the terrace outside the Green Room (home-made pies and crumbles in those days, nothing rotating at 750 watts), and look across the Avon at the pavilion that housed Richard Buckle’s huge Shakespearean Exhibition. It was mostly recorded speeches, some life-size cut-outs of the characters and laborious guesses as to what Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon might have felt like, and it was heavily criticized. Meanwhile I was thinking what luck was mine to be making my debut as part of the live event, albeit the fifteenth foot soldier from the left.

On the same day fifty-two years later I’ll be marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death by playing a matinée and evening as King Lear on tour in Northampton. Between the two performances I’m due to plant a mulberry tree in Abington Park, near the Peacock Aviary. King James I, a champion of mulberry trees, inspired Shakespeare, keen to honour the birth of his first granddaughter Elizabeth, to plant one in his garden in Stratford. Elizabeth survive the Civil War, married well and moved into her husband’s family home in Abington Park. A century after that, the aptly names Thomas Sharpe cut down Shakespeare’s tree and started selling off bits of it as mementoes; at that moment, the Shakespeare knick-knack industry was born. David Garrick acquired a cutting from the tree which he planted in the grounds of Abington Park in memory of Elizabeth, the playwright’s last surviving relative: a strange unresonant gesture, but Garrick always slightly missed the point in his curating of Shakespeare’s reputation - he had already presented a Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford in which nobody spoke a line from any of the plays. In planting a new one I’m following not only him but Henry Irving and Laurence Olivier, and my vanity is such that I don’t mind breaking into precious downtime between two performances of Lear to do it.

Naturally, now that I’ve noticed this odd congruity between my working life (thus far) and Shakespeare’s mortal one, I’ve not been slow to tall anybody who’ll listen, as if it gave me special privileges. In that, I’m only doing what many of us do, all the time - trying to take a selfie with Shakespeare. It is an odd experience to be spoken to intimately throughout your life by someone so anonymous - like repeatedly looking at a piece of art that the painter has forgotten to sign or even acknowledge. We badly want to be in touch with him, or at least to learn something - anything - more; the anxiety is palpable and the hope rather forlorn.

The big news this year is that ground-penetrating radar suggests that Shakespeare’s grave in Stratford ma have been ransacked and his skull moved to Bearley Church up the road; the excitement has only been dampened a little by the discovery that the suspect skull there has turned out to be that of a woman in her seventies. On the Island of Bute, another copy of the First Folio has been found in the last few weeks (see Emma Smith in the TLS, April 8). The latest of the 235 that we so far know to have survived from the original print run of 750 (the previous one was discovered in a former Jesuit library in Saint-Omer). The Stratford schoolroom where Shakespeare sat for twelve hours a day, six days a week, with a small break for bread and beer, is opening to the public at last. In Somerset House there is an exhibition called By me William Shakespeare which offers the first sighting of Shakespeare’s will for forty years, signed by his faltering hand (he had Scrivener’s Palsy at the end, and no wonder). From this show we will, it is recklessly claimed, learn about “the man behind the writing”. Now that really would be a miracle.

At the British Library you can marvel at Vivien Leigh’s headdress as Titania in 1937 at the Old Vic, directed by Tyrone Guthrie. Among those who came to the show was the two young princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret: Elizabeth was so fascinated to see how the fairies flew that she almost fell out of the box. Robert Helpmann (Oberon) and Vivien Leigh were introduced in the interval, but while they were bowing and curtseying their wire headdresses became entangled and had to be pulled apart by the royal party, much to the princesses’ amusement. I wonder if Her Majesty remembers this.

What there will not be anywhere is a bitchy diary entry about what a pain Richard Burbage was to write for, or how hard it was to find the right ending for Cymbeline. Or any suggestion as to why Shakespeare wrote a series of comedies directly after his son’s death; or why, on establishing himself in London, he bought a house in Stratford, and on the point of returning to Stratford, bought another in London. Or why he mourned the death of his son Hamnet by writing a searing speech of grief for Arthur’s mother in King John when the audience knows Arthur isn’t dead at all. Or what put it in his mind, when Charmian kills herself in Antony and Cleopatra, to have her say, with inexplicable brilliance, on her last breath; “Ah, soldier!” When there is no significant soldier about. Or whether the Fool and Cordelia were played by the same actor, and, when Lear cries out that his Fool is hanged, which of them he means, since “fool” also meant “darling”.

Shakespeare books keep bucketing out each year, their focus increasingly biographical, as if well-researched minutiae - a signature on a document here, a brush with the law there - were a better way of getting close than the texts and his contemporaries’ adulation. Notwithstanding that a library of Alexandrian proportions would be devoted to them, Shakespeare’s fabled secretiveness, compared to the rock ‘n’ roll manners of Christopher Marlowe and the grandiosities of Ben Jonson, remains unbreached, the best guess being that it was a lifelong result of his Catholic upbringing under a Protestant regime that bankrupted his father. James Shapiro in 1599 and Charles Nicholl in The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street have written brilliantly about him by describing not the man himself but the world he moved through and the events that bore down on him, leaving a Shakespeare-shaped hole in the middle for the reader to fill.

Every time I do a Shakespeare play I wonder what he was like and come to  different conclusion. Currently, I think he was quite short and had a slow smile but a sudden, high-pitched laugh; that among playwrights he was, in his manner, more like Stephen Poliakoff than David Hare, and among actors he resembled Tom McGovern, who is playing Kent with me - nimble, industrious and friendly, only Tom has better teeth and is not afraid of the Plague. What I never imagine is anything like the Droeshout engraving, which makes Shakespeare’s forehead very big, as if a child had been asked to draw a picture of a brainy man; or the porcine one in Stratford Church, from which you can only deduce that you wouldn’t want to cross him if you were a tenant farmer on his land.

I’ve also wondered about meeting him, and thought it would be a more humorous version of meeting God. On the other hand it might be very frustrating - I might find myself chasing this preoccupied figure as he weaved his practised way along Bankside or through the fields to Charlecote. I’m sure he suffered from the disease Chekhov called autobiographobia; still, I’ll have my questions ready, and rather than gushing I would show a knowing curiosity and even rib him a little about some imperfections, since after all that is an aspect of love. I’m sure he was someone who hung about and listened as much as he read, and I’d want to know in which Warwickshire pub he first heard a Shallow and Silence talking about the price of ewes and the inevitability of death in the faltering rhythms of the elderly, shying away from the unknown into their memories of youthful virility. I’d ask him to confirm my belief that when he thought of the citizens in Coriolanus as being no surer


Than is the coal of fire upon the ice,

Or hailstone in the sun


He was on his way to the funeral of his brother Edmund at St Saviour’s I Southward, announced by the “fore-noon knell of the great bell” which had cost him twenty shillings to hire; noting as he walked across the frozen Thames that opportunistic shopkeepers had lit fires on the thick ice to keep warm and do business. So even at such a moment he was thinking of a good line for a play: he went on to memorialize this harmless brother by using his name for the villain in King Lear. Also in Coriolanus, we now know that while the First Citizen denounces noblemen who hoard grain that should be feeding hungry mouths, that was the very thing that Shakespeare himself was doing in Stratford. And as for the mulberry tree, I’d suggest to him that when Timon of Athens announces that he has a tree growing in his close when he is living in an improvised shelter on a deserted heath where nothing grows, his author had perhaps paused, looked up from his desk for inspiration, and sen it in front of him, in his garden at Stratford.

More sternly I would ask him (as he accelerates away from me) why he only ever made up two original stories in his whole career, and whether the perfunctoriness of some of the plays’ endings has to do with having to get on with the company jig that concluded even the darkest of tragedies. I might have to lodge an affectionate complaint about his interminable Act Fours, when the accelerating action often stops either for repetition of earlier jokes or for a series of parleys before the battle. Or the innuendoes, so often about that great comedy subject, the sexually transmitted disease. I’d have to say we’re not so thrilled these days by the undertow of many of the jokes - Portia shuddering at the thought of being married to a black man; the French Princess in Henry V pronouncing English words so that they sound dirty; Mercutio’s stream of comical filth directed at the Nurse. For some reasons, I feel bound to let him know that some people - and not only teachers - believe he should not be on the new National Curriculum.

Why should I do all this? Because I want him to know that I’m on to him. But now, as he begins to bristle, I tell him some of the unexpected things that make me love him. By what miracle did it occur to him that the merest servant in Timon should describe the dispersal of his colleagues as a departure “Into this sea of air” or give a hired Murderer in Macbeth lines as beautiful as


The west yet glimmers some streaks of day;

Now spurs the lated traveller apace

To gain the timely inn.


And as for timelessness, I’d assure him that there is every sign in 2016 that he was right to predict that “humanity must perforce prey on itself,/ Like monsters of the deep” and that the poor naked wretches in Lear’s storm are to be found in the Calais Jungle. I’d pay tribute to the rolling thunder of the language itself, its fantastic twists and foibles; its buoyancy and good humour and neighbourliness. I’d thank him for making us all talented, so that we can see what he miraculously sees, whether in the natural world, in human eccentricity or the heart of darkness. And above all the alchemy whereby a quite simple idea is transformed by his sense of cadence, tension and release, harmony and syncopation, into something that embeds our unexpected feelings in a musical pattern that, now as we hear it, we always knew was there. I’d praise him for two of the finest small love affairs in the canon, between Falstaff and Doll Tearsheet in Henry IV and between Margaret and Suffolk in Henry VI - the first as tender and the second as passionate as Romeo and Juliet, and likewise based on the woman’s perception that it’s best to part quickly when the game is up: it’s the goodbyes that are agony. I’d pay special tribute to the famous moment when Lear in his madness tells the Fool they’ll go to supper in the morning and the Fool replies that he’ll go to bed at noon - lines whose real beauty is in their sanity: they’ve been out on the heath all night and had no supper, so it would obviously be better to have a nap now, then eat something, and go back to bed later the next morning. I can see how he’s done it - how the disyllables of the first line counterpointing the conclusive monosyllables of the second make it unforgettably sad as well. Lear continues the play talking with the greatest simplicity of undone buttons, garden watering cans and becoming like a man of salt in his grief; of his 268 words in his final scene with the dead Cordelia, 232 are monosyllables.

This is probably the moment Shakespeare would shrug his shoulders and say he can’t remember any of it and bustle away - like an actor asked why he did some piece of stage business in a performance thirty years ago. As I feel what Leontes in The Winter’s Tale calls  a great gap of time re-opening between us, I call after him to thank him for having invented most of what we take for granted in the theatre, and for firing up five generations in my own time - including a couple before mine and a couple after - to exceptional efforts to do him as proud as we possibly can.

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