April 23, 2014 was the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth, as best we can judge.
Shakespeare is estimated to have had a vocabulary of 37,000 words (twice our best today), wrote 37 plays and 154 poems and provided plots for 250 television shows and movies. He has an estimated 150,000,000 entries on the Internet. In an age of the "mega" this is worth our respect. Just one play alone, “Hamlet,“ has generated 61 movies and 21 television shows at last count. Those are remarkable statistics. No wonder so many consider him the greatest writer in the English language.
My interest in the Bard began at venerable old St. James School that once crowned the top of Bond Street in Carbonear, across from the elegant and historic church. In those days our literature classes were given collections from the "greats" of literature called anthologies with their seemingly bullet-proof covers.
I still have a couple of mine: “The Golden Caravan" and “Argosy to Adventure." I vividly remember a section of the ninth grade reader titled “The Play’s The Thing“ and saw that it was a quote from Shakespeare’s most famous play, “Hamlet.“
Preparing for finals
“The Golden Caravan“ sported selections from “Much Ado about Nothing“ and the verbal sparring of Beatrice and Benedick. Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson colourfully recreated all this on screen in 1993.
Shakespeare’s whirligig sentences were a stretch for our age group — especially in the comedies — but then Newfoundland culture has been heavily leavened by the written as well as the oral word.
In the ninth grade at cold and drafty St James we got to move downstairs. One of the incentives for passing your exams, we used to joke, was to move nearer the pot-bellied stove where Grade 11 hung out. In 1959 we had a principal with a real feel for the musical rhythms of great literature. He could “hold“ some of us in grades nine and 10 with his delivery of the particular Shakespearean play the eleventh graders had to plow through for the final exams.
As a ninth grader I heard him expound “Twelfth Night“ so well that I still remember the opening lines: “If music be the food of love, play on!“ Iambic pentameter — once you hear it, the beat gets into your bones. The next year Harold Laing and Guy Fred Earle got to wade through “Julius Caesar“ and the “lend me your ears“ speech.
You had to know this backwards because the play of the year would certainly be on the exams — the dreaded CHE public exams that were sent to St John’s for “marking,“ a process designed to get your attention.
Bringing Anglicans, Catholics together
My year in Grade 11 (1961-1962), we had “Macbeth“ and the sombre theme left me with a slight aversion to it, even though it was my hero President Lincoln’s favourite, I learned. Still, the third scene makes a grand set-up for the action (Shakespeare was a master at getting you into it).
Macbeth also delivers a bleak forecast that every Newfoundlander can relate to: “So fair and foul a day I have not seen.“ Who could forget wading through Lady Macbeth’s troubled confessional, wringing her guilty hands after the murder of King Duncan: “Out, out, damned spot.“ Macbeth had his own epitaph: “Life’s but a walking shadow.“ That year we rated a visit to St Clare’s School down the road to watch a movie version of the play. Not bad. Will Shakespeare bringing Anglicans and Catholics together.
At Memorial University, Shakespeare was an acclaimed third-year course and everyone hoped to land professors MacDonald or “Doc Francis“ as their lecturer. I was given Miss Orsten, a recent young graduate from England, but very capable in her own right. I recall the political insights she had in “Richard II“ where Bolingbrook, the eventual king and executioner, was willing to be merciful to the captured Richard if it could be managed. “Don’t win too big“ was the lesson the author and Orsten seemed to be making.
Truth is, once you see the tie-in between Shakespeare’s “Histories“ and our own times you are off and running. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and Premier Joey Smallwood, I fancied, were both larger than life types who missed out, perhaps, on a career on the stage. They didn’t know when to leave it, many felt.
Diefenbaker being let go by his own party in 1967 conjured up to the Shakespeare fan “Et tu, Brute?“ Joey Smallwood hanging on to government for dear life in 1971-1972 (“A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse“ — or an assembly seat, perhaps) drives home the theme of great men and women unconsciously plotting their own demise.
Ray Guy the Court Jester
This was “harmatia“ — “the tragic flaw“ we learned about at Memorial. It was with Shakespeare in mind that Telegram columnist Ray Guy was dubbed Court Jester in the Kingdom of Joe, the witty Fool being another constant in Shakespeare, the only one who could speak a word of truth to power.
Four years in England exposed me to plays at Stratford-on-Avon where watching “The Merry Wives of Windsor“ or hearing the hard “Rs“ of the West Countryman made me sit up and pay attention. Shakespeare had a way of surprising you. Those West Country accents filtered into much Newfoundland speech, I later learned. The Bard was even more multi-dimensional on his home turf. Accents came to life such as the delightful Fluellen’s the Welshman, which Kenneth Branagh wisely gave good play in his movie version of “Henry V.“
Early training at St James and Memorial was hard to shake off.
I was impressed at the way Kevin Costner quoted “Richard II“ at the end of his flawed but memorable movie, “JFK“ where he appeals to the Bard’s sense that “authority forgets a dying king.“ When called to put together drama groups in Calgary and Toronto, my young charges were heard to hear me exclaim after a good rehearsal, “The play’s the thing!“ St. James lived on, as did Will.
In the 1980s I was struck by the gathering rumors that William Shakespeare of Stratford, Esquire, was not really the author of his plays but was a front man for Edward de Vere, the brilliant Earl of Oxford, whose noble lineage forbade him frequenting the company of actors. This seems like a stretch offhand and I never completely bought into the idea, even at UCLA. For one thing, various writers have been offered as the “real“ Shakespeare — Francis Bacon or Walter Raleigh I heard about in the 1960s or even Queen Elizabeth I herself.
These red herrings, however, can be useful in that they make you take a second look at some of the plays with their endless court intrigues and plotting reflecting a busy Tudor or Stuart court — “Game of Thrones“ ahead of its time.
“When ways be foul“
Dr. David Pitt, my wise English prof at Memorial, often remarked that a rural Newfoundland upbringing can be valuable for accessing key scenes in English literature. I often feel while driving past Freshwater Pond, for example, that the Lady of the Lake’s hand could rise from the water at any time offering me Excalibur — the terrain there is so Arthurian. But perhaps this is only jet lag.
No doubt, though, that Will Shakespeare of small town Stratford was a master at recording the countryside he saw all about him and in all its many moods. Perhaps after this severe winter of 2014 we can all the more relate to the rich and playful ending of “Love’s Labors Lost:“
When icicles hang by the wall,
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipped and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
Tu-whit; Tu whoo, a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.
There’s something about the indoor cosiness of bad weather keeping people home that endures 450 years later. And that can speak to stormy weather in other climes and places. This is good writing. The play is truly the thing!
Shakespeare in Hollywood
Of course the movies have given Will a new lease on life. Down here in the Palm Latitudes I’ve enjoyed seeing him come alive on screen. The 1990s version of “Much Ado about Nothing“ has Emma Thomson perch cattily in a tree overlooking a Utopian Italian garden scene as she masterfully recites that witty testament to the battle of the sexes:
“Sigh no more ladies, sigh no more/Men were deceivers ever …“
This looks offhand it could come from “Sex and the City“ where the journaling of Cupid’s follies in New York echoed many a lively Shakespeare theme. Good literature does that. It takes us to different places, geographically and psychologically. It can be ennobling.
While Shakespeare seemed never to miss the chance for a bawdy joke and had shed enough fake blood in “Titus Andronicus“ to please Quentin Tarantino, there is no doubt that a chivalric quality surcharges his work. He has Marc Antony praise Brutus as “the noblest Roman of them all.“
The young Prince Hal salutes the passing of his youthful rival, the dynamic Hotspur with “Fare thee well, great heart.“ In “Midsummer's Night Dream“ the mighty King of Athens is forced to concede that both fate and sheer silliness has outfoxed his stern ruling to wed the wrong pair of lovers to each other.
All of this bespeaks the qualities of empathy and Big Mindedness, virtues not as evident today, perhaps.
Human, after all
One valuable lesson compiled by researchers in our own time in this hasty reminiscence is that we are learning that Shakespeare was not superhuman. He may have had collaborators on some later plays and there is evidence that even “Hamlet“ was reworked from an earlier effort. Early on, Christopher Marlowe gave Will a run for his money as well as originating “the mighty line“ that we associate with the Stratford man. There is truth in the humorous quip that “good writers borrow and great writers steal,“ and Will was not averse to such practices — an encouragement to those of us who take up the pen today.
Still, there is no explaining genius and the generally high standards Shakespeare reached across a 20-year career in so many different styles of presentation may also have been a result of the very exceptional times in which he lived. The great historian A.L Rowse felt that the era was so dramatic that it cried out for a high-toned Muse to make sense of the times.
The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and the worrisome switch from the Tudors to the Stuarts in 1603 — this pervasive political tension fuelled Shakespeare’s scribbling. It is likely that his fame will endure at least till 2064, I warrant, when his 500th will draw out admirers wherever the language is spoken.
– Neil Earle is originally from Carbonear South. He teaches church history for Grace Communion Seminary Online. He writes from Duarte, Calif. Duarte is a city in Los Angeles County.