Whenever there is talk of Shakespeare, most people that I know raise their chins and, with hand resting on their heart, declaim, “To be or not to be, that is the question…”, which is all very well, but if you invite them to see a play by the Bard they flinch. “I can’t take that high falutin stuff” they say.
It is understandable. In our part of the world, Shakespeare is taught in such a manner that students begin to fight shy of him. His language frightens them and, as a consequence, they do not have the slightest recollection of the text when they leave college.
Not so long ago, a young man came to see me, seeking a job. His qualification, he said rather proudly, was that he had “done his MA” in English at a local university. Now, I knew that Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear was one of the prescribed plays for MA students at this university. So I asked him what the thought of the play “Well Sir, there is this king who has three sons and he has a dispute with them over some property matters…”
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Quite recently I came across the revised edition of J.C Trewin’s ‘Companion to Shakespeare’ printed attractively in the form of a pocket book. (Trewin was a renowned stage historian, theatrical biographer, drama critic and author of over fifty books. He lectured on Shakespeare in England, America and Europe.) For each of Shakespeare’s 39 plays, he gives you a synopsis of the plot, a list of the characters and a resume of the performance history.
There is useful and sometimes revealing information on every aspect of the play. Romeo & Juliet, for example, was not presented as Shakespeare wrote it until the late 19th century. Thomas Otway was the first to provide a travesty way back in 1679. Other distorted versions of the play followed. Cibber’s version of the play, in 1744, supplied what was, for the taste of the period, an obligatory farewell dialogue between Romeo and Juliet in the tomb. Four years later, the great actor-manager, David Garrick, also produced a self-indulgent text.
In the last act of the play, Juliet is duly placed in the tomb as dead. She has been given an opiate by the Friar that will put her to sleep for “two hours and forty. Unbeknown to her, Romeo has entered the tomb and, finding Juliet to be in a death-like trance, assumes that she is dead. He then drinks the poison he has brought with him and after a heart-rending speech that ends with ‘Thus with a kiss I die,” dies. In Garrick’s version Juliet’s words when she comes out of the trance are: “Bless me how cold it is. Who’s there?” Whereupon Romeo emerges from a corner to reply: “Thy husband. Tis thy Romeo, raised from despair to joy unutterable.” His joy is brief. The apothecary’s poison works at last and before dying he says, “My powers are blasted/Twixt death and life I am torn, I am distracted.” It is interesting to bear in mind that Garrick continued to play the part of Romeo for ten whole years.
Even in the 20th century Romeo and Juliet has been performed with some innovative directorial whims. Terry Hands’ production at Stratford-upon-Aron sought a homoerotic sub-text in the relationship between Romeo and Mercutio, and Michael Boyd directed the play in which the ghosts of Tybalt and Mercutio returned to oversee the later stages of the play.
Shakespeare’s earliest exercise in writing a tragedy, Titus Andronicus, was much admired in its day even though his formidable contemporary, Ben Jonson, wrote that anyone who swore that ‘Andronicus’ was the best play yet must be a man “whose judgement has stood still these five and twenty or thirty years.” Indeed, most scholars refused to think that Shakespeare could have written so horrible a play, an exercise in the sensational that resembled the ‘tragedies of blood’ written by the Roman playwright, Seneca.
If you were to read ‘Titus’ you would think that the gruesome and violent tragedy could only create a farcical effect. Trewin tells us that there was a production of Titus in 1857 in which the heads and hands of the sons of the wicked queen, Tamora, were hanged on the wall; the queen stabbed her black child and the arch-villain Aaron, a Moor, was put to death on stage by racking and burning.
There were a few other adaptations of the play. The famous black American actor, Ira Aldridge, presented in London his version in which the bestial black villain, Aaron, the slave, (played by Aldridge) was turned into a noble and lofty character.
Titus Andronicus was the first play I saw at Stratford. For the lowest priced seat (half a crown) that I could afford, you had to wait in a line. I queued up all night to be one of the first four to reach the box office when it opened in the morning. The all-night vigil was well worth it. Peter Brook’s production with Laurence Olivier as ‘Titus’ was a triumph.
The play opened with a flourish: the tribunes and Senators were lined up to welcome their intrepid general who had defeated the Goths and captured their queen. Olivier entered the stage, not as an exultant Commander-in-Chief but as a battle-weary man who has seen too much destruction to have any taste for pomp and panoply. It was a mesmerising performance. The silent cry he produced when his hand is chopped off with a cleaver was a feat that still haunts me.
The most interesting aspect of ‘Companion’ is the background to the apocrypha of plays attributed to Shakespeare. Thus we learn that his great tragedy, , fared badly when it fell into the hands of Nahum Tate (in 1681) who produced a ridiculous mutilation with Edgar and Cordelia as lovers. The Fool was cut out of the play and Lear lived happily ever after.
The audience apparently loved this version because for the next hundred and fifty years it was Tate’s ‘Lear’ that was staged in England. It was only in 1838 that the actor-manager, Charles Macready (he of the Macready pause), brought back an abridged Shakespearean text with the Fool restored, but assigned to an actress.
Teachers of English literature would benefit hugely from Trewin’s book for two reasons alone: it introduces Shakespeare’s work through its historical context, and it unravels the complications of even the most elaborate of Shakespeare’s plots. Also it provides an instant reference to words spoken during the Elizabethan era which are no longer used.