Shakespeare. I groaned when they mentioned his plays at school. What relevance did a dead beardy-bloke have for me? Fast forward to college, where I had to study Othello and As You Like It for my English A level. At first they seemed so alien. Strange words! Quaint constructions! But in my class we would recite it aloud, different students playing different parts. Sure, we weren’t actors. We struggled with ye olde language. But in the interaction, and timing, and sound, we started to understand drama.
Then we suggested standing at the front to read out, rather than sitting behind our desks.
And we enjoyed it.
And we laughed.
And became characters.
And we understood.
And suddenly it was time for me to write an extended essay as a key assessed piece. The longest thing I’d ever written. I toyed with writing about horror, but was told it would not be “literary” enough. So I chose to write about island fiction, and how it explored human nature. Two of the three texts were obvious choices. Lord Of The Flies: a sneaky way of slipping horror into my essay. Robinson Crusoe: a book I hated but which was a gold mine for an essay like this. My third choice? I surprised myself by choosing a Shakespeare play. That’s how much my opinions had reversed! The Tempest, with its enslaved natives (Caliban) versus “civilised” invaders. I read it again and again, usually out loud. The play spoke to me about life.
Sometimes when we encounter new cultures for the first time we recoil. We may think they seem too alien, and it will take too much effort. But we are wrong! Brains can do many amazing things. Learning, and familiarisation, and adaptation are some of them. Thanks for teaching me that lesson, Shakes old pal!
Shakespeare became an obsession. I borrowed his complete works from the library, and during the summer holidays I read them cover to cover. Every play. Every sonnet. It wasn’t a chore, it was fun. By the end I could slip into Shakespearean tongue at the drop of a hat. (Which didn’t go down well at my local pub. People stopped dropping hats.)
Shakespeare continued to affect me, often in retrospect. Is it pure chance that my first novel, a horror, was set on an island during a storm; that a powerful “civilised” family had enslaved the locals; that things are disrupted by strangers arriving on the island; that it includes a theme about the power of words, and one chapter begins with the quote at the head of this article? No. Shakespeare’s stories had stuck in my mind: influences ferment over time, and come out in new and interesting ways. That’s the most a writer can ever hope for.
The things of greatest value require a bit of effort, but it pays off. If you’re new to Shakespeare then read the notes alongside the text, so that you pick it up quicker. Read it aloud (ideally with friends), and lose your inhibitions, and laugh, and imbue words with life. You’ll find entertainment, and stories, and drama, and see that some things haven’t changed. We’re all connected.
[The article above was originally published on OpenBooks, via commission.]
“Keep clear of the moors”, they said in The Slaughtered Lamb. Unfortunately Desdemona wasn’t given the same advice.
Othello is a man of power, a masterful strategist, who uses language with intricacy and authority: “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.” Yet he is also prone to suspicion and pride. Good and bad qualities, a mix all the best characters share. But the subtly evil Iago spreading poison from the wings illustrates how weak the foundations of life can be. Modern horror and thrillers have a debt to pay to Othello.
So foul and fair a play I have not seen. Dig beneath the melodrama of witches and cauldrons; look past a Thane of Cawdor brought low by wordplay; then you will find ambition and madness laid bare in The Scottish Play. Lady Macbeth pulls the strings of power, but that lust curses all it touches. Those at the top scheme behind false-friend facades, and the commoners pay the real price. Royalty, politicians, corporations – things may not be so different today. “What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?”