In this blogposting…* AGM XXXVI
* Shakespeare and Me
Once more unto the breach, dear friends…
Our latest AGM took place as planned last Wednesday at one of our more traditional haunts - the Pret a Manger opposite Grey’s Monument.
And, as usual, it was a splendid affair, thanks to the truckshunters who braved the sunshine and the late summer cool. Namely, Hildie, Brenda, Vivienne, Neville and Stephen - all of whom God preserve.
There was a lovely, mellow, end of summer, feel about it. All of us enjoying the sunshine, the coffee and the crack, which ranged across the usual diverse and unexpected topics. With his lurid tales of life as a trucker, Stephen gave the assemblage a not unwelcome edge of nudge-nudge sauciness which left me, for one, wanting to hear a lot more!
My thanks to everyone who was there; it was, as always, good to see you!
Finally, please remember the upcoming birthday of our Honorary President, Ada, on October 1!
Shakespeare.... and me
SHAKESPEARE AND ME
Anyone who gets to the age of 60 having seen only one of Shakespeare’s plays - as I did - is culturally fraudulent.
You can just about get by in the world of High Art even if you haven’t read a word of Thackeray or Goldsmith or Jonson - or even if the likes of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens are closed books to you. But you are in two-short-planks territory if you are as ignorant as I was of the works of the great and noble Bard.
After all, if the whole world - English-speaking or not - recognises him as the greatest writer who ever lived (and it does), then surely it behoves his fellow-countrymen to know a little more than a few well-remembered lines from O-level Macbeth.
With this gaping cultural abyss in mind, I decided that, after I retired, I would buy the entire DVD collection of the BBC Shakespeare tv productions and watch them all - every single one of them.
That was over 3 years ago and so far I’ve managed just eleven. I’ve resolved to pick up the pace a little, which I will need to do if I am to complete the marathon before I’m taken to meet Shakespeare himself face-to-face.
For what they’re worth - admittedly not much - here are my impressions of the plays I’ve seen so far.
Some of these opinions might seem a little pompous, declamatory or conceited. So no change there, then.
If your opinions differ from mine, I’d love to hear from you….
I'm watching them in alphabetical order, so...
ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL
Needlessly convoluted claptrap about a dying king, his ‘ward‘ and a woman called Helen. There are naturally several other people involved as well, but if you want to know the plot’s twists and have nothing better to do, Google it.
Normally, it’s quite good fun to be led up various garden paths and through plot-mazes. But not this time. The constant - and highly unconvincing - ‘disguises’ and the obvious and peculiarly humourless ‘jokes’, make this a tedious and unsatisfying waste of time.
ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA
A book I have describes this as ‘one of the surging triumphs of Shakespeare’s late career’, which is like describing Middlesbrough as ‘a must-see scenic and monumental highlight of any visit to north-east England’.
The only thing that Antony and Cleopatra manage to do is talk in impenetrable Elizabethan adjectival phrases that seem to last for hours. It goes on and on and on and it’s awful.
AS YOU LIKE IT
Badly-named. I didn’t.
Wafer-thin plotting, typically Shakespearean ‘disguises’ and interminable plot twists which only the Bard himself could have cared about.
It’s as if he wrote it to be instantly forgotten, which it ought to have been.
THE COMEDY OF ERRORS
They say that humour has trouble crossing national boundaries. The Comedy of Errors is proof that it also has problems crossing the great divide of time. Heavy-handed and obvious ‘jokes’ worked to death amongst the inevitable and dreary puns that Shakespeare liked so much…
So not only ludicrous. Trivial and forgettable as well.
To describe this as ‘comparatively quite good’ depends, of course, on what you’re comparing it with - in this case, the plays above.
It’s all about how fickle fortune is and how easily greatness can be snatched away; and, for once, Shakespeare teaches us the lesson in a thoughtful and genuinely dramatic way.
It’s a bit wordy - but it’s watchable.
Even more ludicrous than The Comedy of Errors.
After I watched it, I got quite angry because I’d wasted a whole evening on it. If there’s one play I would ask Shakespeare’s apologists to explain the deep significance and beautiful language of, it’s this one.
It was at about this point in my Bardic marathon that I realised that, so far, I hadn’t come across a single character that I cared about.
George Bernard Shaw once famously described any Wagner opera thus: It starts at 7 o’clock and, four hours later, you look at your watch and it’s twenty past seven.
He could have been describing Hamlet.
It’s long. Very, very, very long. Much, much longer than any experience you’ve ever had - even the dreariest Wagner opera. Hamlet is as long as death, which is oddly appropriate because, in the final scene, everyone is dead.
Including whoever’s left in the audience.
KING HENRY IV PART ONE
I’ve seen worse - see above.
Although it doesn’t exactly carry you along with the excitement of it all, you do feel involved and interested in what happens next - even though Shakespeare tries to kill your enthusiasm stone-dead by constantly stopping the plot and reverting to ‘an inn in Cheapside’ so that he can start making silly and painful puns again.
Despite the leaden lines he is given to say, Falstaff was the first person in the entire cycle so far that I actually quite liked.
KING HENRY IV PART TWO
This is a strange one. There’s a ‘grown-up’, almost gloomy, feel about it that really got to me.
The contrast between the warlike main plot and the slow downfall of Falstaff - who is made to look both foolish and perfidious here - are particularly striking, mainly because Shakespeare isn’t too hamfisted about them and leaves us to draw our own conclusions (rather then telling us what our conclusions are, which is what he does so often).
I started to wonder, though, whether my interest in history was colouring my not unfriendly reaction to these last two plays.
KING HENRY V
Laurence Olivier’s overcooked and jingoistic film portrayal of Henry V - necessary because of the wartime morale-boosting it had to do - has almost killed any other kind of interpretation. This is not Shakespeare’s fault but it’s an unignorable effect.
This was the first play I’d seen that I’d like to see again - not because I enjoyed it so much but because of the subtleties within it, many of which I’m sure were lost on me. Unusually, I understood most of what the actors were saying, which is by no means always the case with Shakespeare, and there was a pleasing dearth of weak and obvious puns, to which the Bard of Avon was notoriously prone.
KING HENRY VI PART ONE
This is a cracker.
For a start, it’s written in the kind of English anyone can understand. Secondly - and vitally - lots of things actually happen. There’s action onstage. People fight and fence and argue. The jokes are good jokes and the word-play doesn’t interrupt the plot but seems to add to it.
Reputations get lifted up and laid low right there in front of us. Love, pride, vengeance, redemption and sorrow - Henry VI Part One has it all.
I’ll be watching this one again.
So there you have it, as far as it goes. Which is admittedly not very far. I still have the joys of Julius Caesar, Timon of Athens, Romeo and Juliet and Titus Andronicus - amongst many others - to wade through.
I was going to say that watching Shakespeare's plays 'at least keeps me off the streets' except that it doesn't even do that.
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