Sunday 24 April 2016

THERE'S ALWAYS ONE: By Elizabeth Chadwick

It's Shakespeare month and Shakespeare is the general but not exclusive theme of this month's History Girls' blogs.  Of course I may well get the sack after my particular contribution this time round! 
I am going to stand up and say that I just do not get on with Shakespeare. His words of iambic pentameter have never moved me except to tears of boredom and to wonder what all the fuss is about.  I do admit that he has contributed greatly to the English vocabulary.  I do admit that there are lines of prose that are indeed wonderful, but entire plays?  No.

I suffered having to study the Bard throughout four years of 'O' and 'A levels and emerged with top grades in English literature.  I could understand and dissect and discuss, but it still didn't mean that I felt anything but a stultifying horror of boredom at having to study the material.  I think it simply boils down to a matter of taste - the same as a preference or dislike of a food, a colour, a smell.  I can recognise the man's talent but it's just not for me.

One of the reasons I did so well in my exams is that I had my interest in Shakespeare lifted by film and theatre.  'Aha!' I hear you say 'So you do appreciate it after all, and in the medium closer to the original experience!'   
Umm... not quite.  You see my interest was sparked by teenage hormones.  At the time we were doing our 'O' levels, the play for study was Macbeth, and Roman Polanski had just brought out his version for the cinema with Jon Finch in the leading role.  Now, I had a massive crush on Jon Finch, courtesy of watching a TV programme called Counterstrike.  I had also begun writing my first novel set in the Middle Ages.  So to see the dark, handsome ex SAS Finch (he turned down the role of James Bond which then went to Roger Moore)  as Macbeth, robed in medieval splendour was beyond addictive.  I went to see that film once with the school and I've forgotten how many times on my own. I absorbed the settings, the costumes.  I memorised the speeches, got into all the nuances, but not because it was Shakespeare.  Oh my goodness no.  My motive was my obsessive teenage love for Jon Finch.  I think some of the boys in the class got the same kick out of watching Francesca Annis sleepwalking in the nude!  

Jon Finch as Macbeth.  

Anyway, the result was a top grade English literature 'O' level.  I also remember me and my best friend having a hilarious moment over the quote 'Out damned spot, out I say!'  This was to do with the children's TV programme The Wooden Tops, about a group of wooden dolls that lived on a farm and had a naughty dog called Spot...  I can never hear that line these days without thinking of THE WOODEN TOPS  (Spotty dog appears just after 6 minutes into the video clip).

'A' levels saw King Lear at the top of the bill.  Oh joy.  What got me through that was more lusting.  This time going to see the play live at Coventry with Michael Goff (who wasn't that exciting to an 18 year old) as Lear and heart throb pop star John Paul Jones as Edmund.  Oh yes! Oh yes indeed!  Once more, driven by hormones, I dived into my studies and again claimed a top grade 'A' level (and this was despite having Wordsworth inflicted on me as well as D.H. Lawrence. Also not to my taste.  Chaucer I adored and aced).
Exams finished I haven't looked at a Shakespeare play since except to peruse the occasional line for cultural or linguistic purposes. I do have a copy of the plays on my bookshelves somewhere - passed on through the family - but it doesn't get opened very often.  People might say I'm missing out, but I have accepted that when something is not to one's palate, one should try it again to make sure and then move on to other experiences more rewarding - although without Shakesepeare having written Macbeth, I guess I wouldn't have been rewarded by Jon Finch! 


Sue Bursztynski said...

From what I know of Shakespeare. I'm betting his response to your enthusiasm for the actors would be a shrug and a "Whatever works for you. And don't forget to pay your penny on the way in."

I hope *your* works are still being loved and read four hundred years from now. ;-)

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Thank you for your hope Sue, but I expect not in my case. I don't have that kind of genius. I also expect the Bard will still be going 400 years further down the line if humanity has not destroyed itself by then, both delighting millions and turning others off in droves depending on their mileage. ;-)

Susan Price said...

I do get Shakespeare - but am absolutely behind you, Elizabeth, in your right to detest him. (And I share with you a strong dislike of D H Lawrence and a resentment of being told I should admire him.)

I think one of the problems with art becoming 'classic' - whether it's literature or music or visual - is a sort of unwritten, unspoken rule that you 'have' to like it. No, you don't. As you say, it's still a matter of taste, no matter how 'great' or 'timeless' a work has been judged. No one will ever convince me that the paintings of El Greco are worth looking at - though I accept that others see a beauty in them that entirely bypasses me.

Introducing youngsters to 'great works' or the history of art would be easier, I think, if we just told them: here's some stuff to consider. You don't have to like it, but if you give it a chance, you might find you love some of it - as you did Chaucer.

After all, Pepys thought Midsummer Night's Dream was 'silly stuff.'

Sue Purkiss said...

Ah well, thank goodness for variety. I never 'got' Shakespeare. I liked Lawrence's short stories and poems, and even used to like his novels, though except for Sons and Lovers, which I re-read recently, I find them difficult to get through now. But then he came from the next town to me, so in some ways, I understand his pain. Wordsworth - well, some of it. Bits of it.

But Shakespeare - yes, I do absolutely get it. It took a while, but now there are certain speeches - a lot, in fact - which send a shiver down the spine.