W4W : Why William Shatner should never play Macbeth

Comedy Hamlet and Yorrick scene

Image : Pixabay

 

As an Englishwoman, subject of this sceptre isle, this precious stone set in the silver sea, I’m ashamed to say, I’ve spent very little time watching or studying Shakespeare since leaving school.

As a teen, I was besotted by the stage – the lights, the attention, the thrill of stumbling over props and stagehands in semi darkness.

I acted in youth theatre, though this foray into the seedy world of Thespia was in part due to the attractions of the young male lead in my troupe, a loose hipped, loose lipped, self-adoring monster intriguingly named Conan. A barbarian like his namesake, this glorious creature was monstrous in the way only attractive teenage boys can be. I learned my lines (barely), threw myself around rehearsals (embarrassingly) and he hardly flickered an unfeasibly  long eyelash my way.

As compensation for my failure as an actress, I trotted along to every school theatre trip going. Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Edward II, Midsummer Night’s Dream, even Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and Coppelia got a look in, though I later decided I’m not a fan of ballet, preferring blood and guts high opera and its tendency towards morbidly extended death scenes over ballet’s pallid and picturesque drowning Swan Princesses.

In a moment of madness, I used my hard earned deli counter wages to buy a pre-loved copy of the complete works of Shakespeare. It had yellowed pages spotted with damp and a spine that crumbled more with every read. Unfortunately,  I found it disappointingly impenetrable and soon put it aside in favour of what I viewed at the time as easier prey such as Equus. I must have been a very weird teenager.  

As an adult, my

SHAKESPEARIAN

experiences have not improved.

Years ago, I went to see a production of Macbeth (always one of my favourites, due to its high body count and obsessions with personal hygiene and the supernatural) starring an actor from Blake’s 7. Those living in the UK and of a certain age will no doubt remember Blake’s 7 for its shaky sets (imagine the original Star Trek with half the budget), camp costumes, overacting and its terrifically downbeat ending where after following the crew across the universe for four years, all our heroes die in a bloodless laser gun shootout.

The actor from Blake 7 gave a perturbing performance, gurning, sucking his cheeks and staring into the middle distance (a la James Tiberius Kirk) which I think was supposed to convey inner turmoil, but just looked as if he was having trouble with his wisdom teeth.

Hoping for a more positive experience and plumping for ‘proper’ stage actors this time over ex sci-fi telly bods, we saw Twelfth Night a while after that, but though a better production, the story line itself is horrible.

Have you seen it? It’s a ‘comedy’, which is tricky to pull off at the best of times. I for instance, would be a Spaced or My Name is Earl kind of person, where the majority of the world seems to be more Terry and June or Two and a Half Men. I suspect Twelfth Night is the Early Modern equivalent of the latter, having as its central figure of fun Malvolio, a lowly steward who is humiliated and imprisoned by higher status tormentors just for being a bit of a pranny.  You had to be there, I guess.

Anyway, I’m hoping an upcoming Shakespeare play will rejuvenate my love of all things Bard.

For I have tickets to see the great British actor, Timothy West as King Lear in a few weeks’ time. Lear’s much more up my street than Twelfth Night. There may not be any witches, but there is madness, betrayal and enough pointless death in the last act to make Hamlet puce with envy.

So, wish me luck and be warned – I may soon be in the market for a second-hand complete works. Though not, be assured, teenage boy actors.

Probably.


Thanks to dear Kat, founder of W4W.

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Books in the Blood #14 : Why do fictional heroines have to be beautiful to be loved?

Image: Pixabay

Image: Pixabay

Now, so far my Books in the Blood have been on the populist side, or at least books many of you will have read. Some of this is due to my featuring so many school set books – To Kill a Mockingbird, The Diary of Anne Frank, Shakespeare plays, Lord of the Flies.

Clearly the curriculum developers know what they’re doing. It’s not meant as an insult when I describe some of these choices as the literary equivalent of a parasitic bug that’s burrowed into your brain – once it’s got its hooks in, it won’t detach.

But with BITB #14 – or Bitby 14 as I’ve suddenly decided to call it – the book choice is one that many of you won’t have heard of, by an author who died almost ninety years ago and I’m suspect is largely unknown.

Now, just as a preamble, I must explain there’s a big part of me that’s always despised romantic fiction.

Before you legions of ladies (and let’s face it, it’ll be mostly ladies) rise up and bludgeon me to death with your nearest weapon – a pair of Manolo Blahnik stilettos, say, or a passing Pomeranian – I admit that (as you can deduce from my sniffy comment) I have a twisted view of the genre.

You see, when I was growing up, the only examples I’d heard of were Barbara Cartland and Miles and Boon and the covers of M & Ball hazily painted swooning females and towering Milk Tray men – were enough to put me off. Remember, I loved mystery and adventure stories most and would soon embark on years of little else but Dean Koontz and Stephen King novels. I was beyond heaving bosoms and being swept up in manly arms.

Then came the BBC adaptation* of Mary Webb’s

PRECIOUS BANE,

with the towering Janet McTeer (literally towering, as she stands at just over 6 feet) in the role of Prue Sarn.

Prue’s my kind of heroine. You see, I’m always mildly irritated by attractive leading ladies. You know the ones – they’re feisty with tousled hair and an untamed beauty and men tend to fight over them at the drop of a tricorn hat.

This seems to me an inherently flawed starting point. Most of us – even in a kind light with a little Vaseline softening the lens – can’t be described in such terms. Most of us are lucky enough to be okay looking, neither drop dead gorgeous nor ‘cover her face’ ugly. But even if we are conventionally unattractive, should it naturally follow that we’re undeserving of love? No, of course it shouldn’t.

So why are many romantic heroes and heroines so stunning? Surely, that alienates the majority of readers, demonstrating to the young and single that the only way any of us will receive passionate, breath taking love is by having a new nose / boobs / chin / cheekbones and industrial strength liposuction.

I adored Prue because she starts the story on the aesthetic back foot. You see, she’s born with a harelip (we’d more generously call it a cleft palate these days) which gives her an unmistakable facial deformity. Not only that, she’s unlucky enough to have been born into a rural society during the nineteenth century, so because of her lip, she’s believed to be cursed and possibly a witch.

Prue’s probably a little retiring for modern tastes – she does have to be rescued by a man at one point – but as the book was first published in 1924, this is hardly surprising. She’s cowed, bullied and put upon by family and friends alike – the assumption being that a ‘hareshot’ girl will never get a lover, and as she can work as hard as most men, she may as well be used as free labour on her brother’s farm.

But Prue is kind hearted, intelligent and brave in her way and she wins her man not by looks alone – but by being a lovely girl. As I was a lumpy, lonely singleton living in a thatched cottage in the broad expanse of the Suffolk countryside when I first encountered this story, you can imagine how it appealed to me.

Along with the romance, there’s a lot of death, a whiff of the supernatural, plenty of superstition and a beautiful snapshot of a lost, rural Shropshire, filled with ‘sineaters’, a wizard called Beguildy and a brooding countryside of meres and mists that is both protector and death bringer to the inhabitants.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read Precious Bane and old cynic that I am, it still weaves a spell over me now.

‘Saddle your dreams before you ride’em.’


*With apologies, this is the only clip I could find for the BBC adaptation – skip through and you’ll find Janet. I gather it’s not available on DVD either. As Sarn Mere, it is lost in the mists.

The English class system: Why people don’t want Shakespeare to be a grammar school boy.

'I'm first to bowl, then, am I?' Image: Pixabay

‘I’m first to bowl, then, am I?’
Image: Pixabay

What class do you think you belong in? I’ve never been sure about myself.

My parents came from shopkeepers and manual workers. When I was a kid we ate broken biscuits and chocolate mishaps – mangled, rejected foodstuffs sold off cheap because they lacked the required perfection – because they were cheaper than the ‘real thing’. The biscuits came in plastic bags inside a plain brown cardboard box, all the flavours jumbled together, so Bourbons, Custard Creams ‒ everything ‒ tasted of Ginger Nuts. All of them were oddly shaped and powdery and there were woefully few chocolate digestives. It was sugar, though, so I wasn’t complaining.

Does our lack of funds make me working class?

Today I work in a shop, as I did when I had my first job at the age of fourteen. (Behind the Deli counter in a Fine Fare supermarket, if your asking. I wore a tabard, though I don’t remember a hairnet, and I used to weigh out bacon and haslet and corned beef and hide in the walk-in fridge to steal slivers of pate because I went there straight from school and didn’t finish until 8pm – way past my tea time. And I went home every night smelling of mince. Mmmmmm.)

Now, I may work in a shop, but I have a good degree. My husband has a good degree and a post grad qualification and works in the media. When I met him I was working in an off licence and he was working in a video shop. So, are we middle class or working class made good and does anyone give a monkey’s anymore?

Well, in a way, I think people still do and as evidence of this I give you Mr William Shakespeare.

What? You exclaim. How can the Bard of Stratford demonstrate the English preoccupation with class? Well, if you’d hush up a mo, I’ll tell you.

We all know the story. William Shakespeare, son of a glover. Not the highest ranking job, but what they might have termed a little later and before current class stratifications were invented, one of the ‘Middling Sort’. Not gentry but not a peasant – a respectable craftsman.

Young Will probably went to Stratford grammar school where he would have studied Latin authors such as Cicero, Ovid and Seneca. He vanished from the records for a few years before resurfacing as an actor and playwright in the 1580s, going on to write some of the best regarded literary works the world has ever seen.

But …

There are some people who don’t think a grammar school boy would be capable of writing great works, believing instead that only a nobleman – better educated, widely travelled, mixing with the finest scholars in the land – would be capable of such wonders.

Earls of Oxford, Derby, Salisbury, Stirling, Essex, Pembroke and Southampton have all been suggested as potential alternatives to Midlands Bill over the last two hundred years, along with various Barons, Countesses and even a couple of queens (Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth the I). Mind you, Cervantes – author of Don Quixote – has also been mooted, suggesting  that not all of these names are sensible or remotely credible.

Why this need to ascribe literary greatness to high social standing?

The link between money and literary talent is clear – Lord Byron, Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf, Percy Shelley, Victor Hugo, Robert Browning, Charles Baudelaire are just a handful of writers who began their lives financially secure, not having to work whilst writing.

But money is not a prerequisite to intelligence or talent – it just means the writer can dedicate more time to their craft without having to dig tunnels so they can afford to buy bread and keep a hovel over their heads.

Imagine how many great authors, poets, artists, sculptors have been lost to the world because they happened to have been born into the wrong social stratum, lacking the opportunity to flourish.

Working class writers do and can exist – D. H. Lawrence, Alan Sillitoe, Irvine Welsh, Pat Barker and so on, and though most would and could not be compared to Shakespeare, it does show that given the chance anyone from any background can show talent.

I wonder why, then, some are so loathe to allow the grammar school educated, glove maker’s boy the spotlight.


I must have missed out a million working class literary heroes – can you give me more names to add to my list?

Post inspired by a thread on Calm Groove. Many thanks for the conversation 🙂

Books in the Blood # 13: How to make teenagers love Shakespeare

Sandals? In Scotland? The man was clearly deranged. Image: Pixabay

Sandals? In Scotland? The man was clearly deranged.
Image: Pixabay

There’s no more attractive sight than seeing a man in costume. Well, certain costumes. Not clown ones with massive feet and red noses and the whole scary white make up thing.

I was thinking more along the lines of historical costume. There were just certain periods in history when fashion got it right so far as accentuating the finer points of the male form goes.

A while back my husband went to a big work do. As the party was fancy dress and the theme Pirates, the staff were able to hire clothing from a stage costumiers and my husband came home with a beautiful 18th century style frock coat, complete with brass buttons and braid and breeches to match. And a tricorn hat. To say he looked dashing was rather an understatement. I tried to persuade him to hire it for an extra few days over the weekend, but he demured. Coward.

It’s not just 18th century costume either.

Anyone remember Blackadder? Course you do. Remember Rowan Atkinson’s transformation between series’ one and two? He went from a snivelling dweeb with a bowl haircut and an outrageous selection of positively aggressive codpieces in the first series to an Elizabethan gallant, all trimmed beard, black doublet and hose and pearl drop earring in the second.

Now, I’m sure no one would ever class Rowan Atkinson as a heart throb. One of Britain’s greatest comedy actors? Yes. Sexy? No. Not until he was strung into that black velvet. Or is that just me? (No – it’s definitely my mother as well.)  

Which kind of brings me to this week’s Books in the Blood:

SHAKESPEARE PLAYS.

I loved Shakespeare at school – eventually.

But you see, people start the study of Shakespeare all wrong.

We’re introduced during those turbulent, troublesome teenage years, when your body’s like a chemistry set, a frightening jumble of hormones shaken together in all the right quantities to produce mental instability on a cosmic scale. And the way schools ease us into the works of the greatest British writer, with his themes of social climbing, cross dressing, regicide, suicide and murder, murder, murder is by showing us the text first.

Clearly, I get this. As a lover of words I know that what makes Shakespeare great, what makes him endure through four centuries and presumably into the distant future for as long as man exists, are his use of words, his prose and poetry, the way he describes the human condition.

I get this. But I’m not sure most teenagers do.

What teenagers get is difficult (occasionally impenetrable) language, loaded with Classical, mythological and medieval references they don’t recognise and jokes that just aren’t. They and their classmates have to take on roles, to read the text in class and if there’s anything less romantic than a self-conscious fourteen-year-old stumbling through

If I profane with my unworthiest hand

This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:

My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand

To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

while his mates are laughing and lobbing spit balls at him, I don’t know what is.

But I have a radical solution.

Before teachers hand out text books, before teen eyes settle on a single letter of the great man’s work, before the kids have had the chance to feel bamboozled, flummoxed, lightminded or just plain bored by the Bard experience …

TAKE THEM TO A LIVE PERFORMANCE FIRST

Shakespeare wrote plays. Plays which were meant to be performed and watched and gasped at and laughed through. They were NOT meant to be read and analysed, line by line, couplet by couplet, in one hour chunks in enclosed, dusty classrooms with the lure of sunshine and break time taunting you through the window.

Let them feel that adrenalin rush of a live performance. Preferably take them to see a tragedy, because all that intrigue, sex and violence that accompanies Macbeth, Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet tick every box in the teen brain stem. Let them hear swords clash, see the actors stumble and spit their lines and argue and kiss.

The students won’t understand every line. They will miss some of the references. But they might just leave the theatre with an initial good impression of Shakespeare. Then at least when they do look at the texts they might remember that sword fight, that kiss. The text might make more sense and they might realise Shakespeare isn’t boring.

And as they plough through iambic pentameter, they might remember the dashing hero in the doublet and hose too.


Every time I discuss Shakespeare I share alink with Desperately Seeking Cymbeline – and today will be no exception.