Saturday, October 13, 2012


I got into Shakespeare very late in life. I think it took me a long time to recover from the class read-round of Julius Caesar in about 1971. For one who nowadays reads well and discusses books a lot it is amazing that I flunked O Level English Literature. Age thirteen or so I saw an abbreviated version of A Midsummer Night's Dream at my sister's school and recall laughing. I then went to The Taming of the Shrew at Stratford when a gang of friends invited me.

And that was about it until 1992 when I found myself living within a short drive of Stratford and my employers got on the list of seat-fillers.

If you haven't come across this before try to crash it. Theatre companies will have nights when there are things such as patronal visits (royalty in the case of the RSC) and on those occasions will not want there to be empty seats. Thus free tickets.

1992 to 2006 I worked my way through most of the history plays and enjoyed them all.

Now I am within a short drive of Bristol the wonderful Tobacco Factory company offer two plays a year in a nice intimate environment where you can see the actors' facial movements and notice that all those on stage are acting, not just the speaker. There is nowhere to hide in the round when the front row can reach out and touch you.

Now I've just finished Bill Bryson's little biography. I guess the thing that amazed me was how much of what we think we know about Shakespeare is speculation, wild guess work and conspiracy theory. Even those sketches of him that often illustrate newspaper articles (see book jacket) are unreliable. There are only apparently three known images, at least one is based on one of the other two, and none of them were drawn contemporaneously with their subject.

But the book uncovers the flawed genius who gave us a lot of our language, couldn't spell in anything like the way most children can today, lifted whole chunks from other authors, had boats sailing from towns with no coast and altered history to suit his narrative. It is a delightful read (Bryson always is) and it adds to our knowledge by explaining all the things we think we know that we actually don't. It doesn't lessen Shakespeare for me. By placing him firmly in his own time we realise his timeless genius.

The most reliable documents we have to place him in places and times are court documents for tax avoidance. He left his wife his second-best bed and bedding in his will. What does that mean?


RuthJ said...

Probably his best bed was less comfortable.

Kev Webb said...

Have you tried eating at Teoh's when you visit the Tobacco Factory?