Happy Birthday, Shakespeare!

Liz Woledge of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust invited me to be involved with this project.Liz Woledge of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust contacted me, asking me to participate in Happy Birthday, Shakespeare: the SBT’s 2011 project inviting bloggers to write about Shakespeare’s impact on their life and work. I was delighted to get involved. #hbws 1564-2011.

I exist because of Shakespeare. Hyperbolic though that may sound, it’s less an assertion of Shakespeare-as-self-help (although, if you’re in the market…) than a statement of historical fact.

Ben Kingsley and Niamh Cusack, 1985.

My parents worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company; my mother was a Senior Wig and Make-Up Artist, my father a Deputy Stage Manager. They met during the RSC’s production of Othello in 1985, started dating in previews, were living together by press night, and got engaged five months later. They’ll celebrate their silver wedding in July.

Although Stratford babies have yet to start gurgling in iambic pentameter, my experience of Shakespeare has always been inseparable from my experience of Stratford. This sense of ownership has, quite naturally, engendered a sense of belligerent, smug parochialism that would put the inhabitants of Royston Vasey to shame. Although wildly partisan about the glories of Stratford, from the Singing Man Of Henley Street to the architecture of the new theatre (which still looks quite a lot like a 1930s power station, but, good, I like it that way), I can, for the sake of argument, admit there might be an objectively equal town somewhere on planet Earth. The great thing about Shakespeare is that I have never needed to recalibrate my smugness. Shakespeare is the best, and the glorious thing is that the rest of the world seems to agree.

Growing up in Stratford, with theatre-loving parents and the RSC on my doorstep, I was guarded from the horrific slow death that can be a first encounter with Shakespeare at school. Instead, I saw my first production aged eight (Josie Lawrence in The Taming of the Shrew ) and benefitted from a drama teacher, Ali Troughton, who made Shakespeare’s language the birthright of seven-year-olds. The first speech I ever learned was the seven ages of man, and the first scene was the Witches in Macbeth. We were never taught that Shakespeare was difficult, boring or remote on some plain of exaltation; instead, he was immediate, exciting and ours.

I went on to take a degree in English, write a Masters thesis on Shakespeare performance history, and am now writing a doctorate on Shakespeare’s heroines at the Victorian fin de siècle. I’ve also directed and acted in Shakespeare productions, playing my way through his illustrious back catalogue of Women Who Are Short and Boys Whose Voices Haven’t Broken.

(c) Alastair Muir, 2003
Alexandra Gilbreath and Jasper Britton, 2003.

If Shakespeare has led me to some strange places, I can only apologise to my fellow-travellers. Special and fervent self-recrimination should be laid at the feet of one Jasper Britton, who had the misfortune to become the object of my schoolgirl adoration when I was fifteen, and he was in The Taming of the Shrew. Everything in my feminist, liberal, pinko-Pankhurst heart quite rightly rebels against Petruchio and all he stands for. Nothing can excuse the day I chased Mr Britton across the Bancroft Gardens to the cackling approval of a dozen other fifteen-year-old girls. Somehow, I went on to be the sort of Front of House staff member who could safely usher the Patrick Stewart/David Tennant Hamlet season. I also apologise to the student actress whom I forced to climb furniture around the edges of my college room, refusing to let her touch the floor in a “freeing” exercise to “help her find” Puck.

I, too, have suffered for Shakespeare. Part of my summer job with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (who bravely commissioned this blog post) involved me dressing as the first act of The Crucible in tropical temperatures while 3,000 visitors poured through the Birthplace each day. The upside is that I can now can now say “glovemaker” in Korean. Aged twelve, I wore a purple, gold and sky-blue blazer (I want you to take a moment to imagine that. Use this bracketed space to fully contemplate sixty eleven-year-old girls in purple, gold and sky-blue blazers. With shoulder pads) to represent my school in the Birthday Celebrations and lay flowers on Shakespeare’s tomb.

Christopher "Kit" "too cool for school but got stabbed in the eye" Marlowe. Not quite as good as Shakespeare.

As an undergraduate, my Oxford tutors tried their best to vary my literary diet of Women, Gayness, Shakespeare and Death. I studied conceptions of masculinity, attended with joy to the thrusting passion of Heathcliff and Cathy, acknowledged Middleton and swapped John Donne’s self-burying sermon for… no, I still read about Death. For a term, I even followed the cool kids by pretending I preferred Marlowe to Mr W. S.

However, while a BA is a time for experimenting with bad haircuts and all kinds of textual identities, grad school is different (for one thing, you no longer have money for a hairdresser). Critics in feminism, from Sandra M. Gilbert to Anette Federico, have described how academic research increasingly becomes “a kind of re-search into our own lives”. This is true for me: my own experience of Shakespeare is equally inseparable from my experience of theatre, and of my hometown.

Today, my academic research explores performances of Shakespeare’s heroines at the end of the nineteenth century, a time when Shakespeare was simultaneously the planet’s most idolized and most contested playwright.

Reading the writings of our most famous Shakespearean performers – then and now – convinces me that however we encounter Shakespeare, whether as readers, scholars or performers, we have always used his plays to help us understand ourselves, and to articulate our own experiences.

Responding to the Arts Council England cuts, I wrote a polemic on the value of theatre, trying to express the ways in which theatre teaches confidence, creativity, self-belief and, above all, communities in which diversity, trust and risk-taking can flourish together. Everything that is true of theatre is especially true of Shakespeare. No other writer that I’ve found so consistently challenges and empowers all those who encounter him.

(c) www.bustledress.com
Lillie Langtry, c. 1880.

Back in 1882, Lillie Langtry, by then a sidelined Royal mistress with a bankrupt husband and illegitimate baby, turned to acting largely out of financial necessity. The result was artistic liberation. Staging Shakespeare she was, for the first time “my own master, my own mistress, and freed from unaccustomed control”. Generations of performers have felt the same freedom.

If this sounds too much like Bardolatry, I should say there are some plays I absolutely hate – King Lear is always about seven hours too long, and as one very famous Shakespeare scholar noted in my hearing, consists chiefly of “all those men going mad”.

This August, I’m thrilled to be seeing Catherine Tate and David Tennant in Much Ado About Nothing. I hope the combination of superstar actors and one of the world’s most-visited cities brings a new generation of theatregoers to one of Shakespeare’s best-loved, sharpest comedies. I hope seeing their first play encourages them to track down a second – and a third, and a fourth. Happy Birthday, Shakespeare.

17 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Shakespeare!

  1. I think you should have put in the bizarre fact established during our Parisian ‘discussions’ – I use the term most loosely – on the subject:

    In the event of all-consuming fire, flood, and dearth, if required to save one play and one alone, you would pick CYMBELINE.

    (Unless you’ve changed your mind since.)

    But even with this incomprehensible omission – great post. I’d not heard you tell the Jasper Britton story before!


  2. [sidenote — I am MID-EMAIL to you but please be assured yr present was a TRIUMPH and the card – I think we should buy up ALL STOCK of that card and send it to each other continuously, forever. My mother cried “But they look like tattoos!”]

    Oh dear. Oh dear. I had forgotten that and am, of course, in anguish.

    If I could somehow put A PRODUCTION in the bunker, it wouldn’t be CYMBELINE, but otherwise it might well be. We’d save beautiful poetry and a good sense of what Shakespeare does with character/plot/genre. It does seem hard to chuck Leontes, but the pastoral stuff in Cymbeline is so much better than all that sheep-shearing. I can’t save Dogberry for anyone.


  3. Lovely post.
    Admittedly, Marlowe did have quite the hairstyle for his time.

    The “Women Who Are Short and Boys Whose Voices Haven’t Broken” is quite the catalogue. Is there a specific one of those that you found fascinating to play as?


    1. For ANY time, I’d say – except possibly the 1980s, when (from what I can gather) the Marlowe look seems to have been the norm.

      The most recent was Moth – he was fascinating because he gets this ridiculously complicated prose in a play where people are mostly being clever in verse. I wonder what sort of age the boys were who played him (and what else they played). I looked up some nineteenth- and twentieth-century theatre seasons that featured Love’s Labour’s Lost, and noticed that quite often the play is doubled with The Tempest, with the Moth actor also playing Ariel. That resonated for me because of how physical an actor has to be while playing Moth, in order to try and get the meaning of the words across – but it was also interesting because I’m not the sort of performer I – or anyone – would cast as Ariel.

      I would really, really like to play Maria in Twelfth Night.


      1. I came across your “Overheard on Blackwell” post…somehow. Not entirely sure. But then, I realized that both of our sites were on the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s “Happy Birthday, Shakespeare” project, thought your site was awesome, and added it to my site’s links that I hop over to almost daily.


        1. Awesome! I’m looking for your RSS feed now but can’t find it — you have a great front page, by the way (so beyond my capabilities as a blogger).


  4. There should be a big RSS icon on the “Follow Us” block near the top left, below the (questionable) Language options. If not, the feed should be around here: http://feeds.feedburner.com/pursuedbyabear/PBAB

    (although if you go straight to that, it autoplays everything that I usually hide under a “more” tag, to you might want to turn down your speakers before you go ahead and add them.)

    Seriously, your blog is great, and your research topic is definitely fascinating.


  5. Great post! I just love the opening sentence “I exist because of Shakespeare” Can one add also “I survive because of Shakespeare” as well–of course, not emotionally speaking but rather factually?

    Thanks again for this post!


    1. Hey Zsolt, so glad you enjoyed it! I think one probably could. I’m lucky Shakespeare decided to be born in Stratford & that Garrick did the Festival & that there was an 1879 Memorial Theatre, because without all of that neither of my parents would have ended up at the RSC. 🙂

      Do you mind if I add you to my blog roll? Have a good Monday. Sx


  6. I’m glad that you are glad.

    Thanks and I’ll do the same. (add you to my blog roll).

    Oh, I’ve had a great Monday (I mean compared to other Mondays), so the same to you!


  7. I was at that production of Othello. I was studying it for A level, and came down to London with a for the day with a school friend. Two seventeen year olds, let loose in the West End – lots of happy memories. It was a superb production, only a few years on from Kingsley’s Oscar for Ghandi, whilst years before Poirot, David Suchet had developed a cult following in the BBC’s adaptation of Blott on the Landscape.


    1. Amazing! I’d have loved to have seen it. Were you already an ardent theatregoer, or was that the start, for you?


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