The bloke of Avon

25 April 2018

By Will Kerley

I am writing this the day after Shakespeare died. It’s the 24th of April. Well, when I say the day after he died, of course I mean four hundred years and a day after he died. Yesterday was also his birthday. Not necessarily the best birthday present, poor Will, to die on the day you were born.

Self-centredly, I’ve always tracked Shakespeare’s life along with my own. He was born in ’64 and I was born in ’65 – so, wherever I am my life, he’s always been about the same age – yes, yes – albeit in a different century. Shakespeare was born in April 1564 and I was born in April 1965.

Four hundred years ago. Sounds a flipping long time, doesn’t it?

Four hundred years. But, so often, if things seem remote and concepts hard to grasp, we’re just not playing the right game, not using the best thought-experiment. Four hundred years ago is really just four people away. Imagine if you’d been held as a baby (I don’t know how old you are but in, say, 1995) by someone who was a hundred years old. Let’s call that person Tom. And imagine if Tom had been held as a baby (in, say 1895) by an old man who was a hundred years old, let’s call him Richard. Then let’s imagine Richard was held as a baby (in say 1795) by another centenarian called Henry. And imagine if Henry was held as a baby (in, say 1695) by another hundred-year-old person called, let’s say Elvis – then Elvis would have been born in about 1595 and, as a boy, could have met Shakespeare and seen his plays performed at the Globe Theatre in London (I’m not sure how many Elvises there were in Elizabethan London but hopefully I’ve made my point).

So it really doesn’t take many grey-haired baby-holders – just four in fact: Tom, Dick, Harry and Elvis – to get us back to the time when Shakespeare was around and doing his thing. 

People say that Shakespeare was a genius. That he had a godlike gift for writing. That he was able to sum up the human condition, that his plays are masterpieces, that his words transcend all sorts of other works of literature in their divine inspiration. Yes. Of course. All of the above. But, look – I know this will come as no great revelation but Shakespeare was – well – just a bloke.

What if you lived to 100?

Yes, he was a phenomenal playwright, actor and theatre-manager – but he was still, well – just a bloke. A baby, then a boy who grew up to be a man. He was a son. A brother. A husband. A dad. A grandfather. He was as human as we are. He was born, he lived and then finally, as we all must: he died. And now, all that’s left of his body is a collection of bones under a gravestone in a church in England.

His tomb bears an inscription warning potential graverobbers to keep away: “Blessed be the man that spares these stones/And cursed be he that moves my bones!” The man William Shakespeare is as dead as a doornail. But through his art he lives on because he left behind a whole lot of words he scribbled to a rehearsal deadline, that, over the years, people have come to value very highly indeed. 

Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, in the English county of Warwickshire. It’s thought he was a student at Stratford Grammar School. When he was still a teenager, he had to get married in a hurry because his girlfriend Anne (who was eight years older than him) was pregnant. When he was nineteen, his daughter Susanna was born. When he was twenty-one, his wife gave birth to their twins Hamnet and Judith. The twins were named after close family friends, a Stratford baker, Hamnet Sadler, and his wife, Judith. 

Shakespeare went off to London, worked in the theatre. Acted, wrote plays, ran theatre companies. We don’t know how many times a year he came home to Stratford. Tragically, his son Hamnet died at the age of eleven. So William Shakespeare knew what it felt like to have a young child die. Poor Will. Shakespeare made a huge amount of money in London, came back to Stratford as an older man and bought the second biggest house in town for £60 – several million pounds in today’s money. And, on his 52nd birthday, he died. 

Sometimes, if I get confused by biographical dates, or they seem distant, I play this game: just take away the first two digits of the year a person was born and died. So Shakespeare lived from ’64 to ’16. Unhappily, Amy Winehouse lived from ’83 only as far as ’11. Beyoncé was born in ’81 and, thankfully, is still with us. Justin Bieber was born in ’94 and will hopefully live to be one-hundred-years old in 2094. Which reminds me that there’s another game that makes historical dates come alive a little more. It’s this thought experiment: what if he or she had lived to be a hundred?

When were you born? Think of the year. Let’s say you were born in 2000. If you live to be a hundred, that means you’ll die in 2100. Simple. If Shakespeare had lived to be a hundred, he’d have died in 1664. Fifteen years earlier than that, here, in England, we cut off the King’s head. Yes, that’s right. Executed our monarch. In London. In January, 1649. In a building that’s still standing – and that you can visit – near the Houses of Parliament in Whitehall: the Banqueting House. They built a wooden scaffold at the front of the building and the King walked out through a window casement and onto that scaffold and a crowd of thousands watched as the executioner swung his axe and chopped off King Charles’s head. 

If Shakespeare had lived to be 100 years old – he’d have been alive to see the King executed. What would he have written about that momentous day and the bloody Civil War that preceded it? The famous Irish playwright Oscar Wilde lived from 1854 to 1900. What if he’d lived to be a hundred? Imagine what Oscar might have written about the senseless slaughter of young men in World War One. If the composer Mozart had lived to be a hundred, he wouldn’t have died until 1856. If the poet John Keats had lived to be a hundred and was still alive in 1895 – what would he have written in his old age? (Thomas Hardy, who was a very good young writer, wrote much of his best poetry as an old man.) A centenarian Charles Dickens would have still been alive in 1912. The artist Vincent van Gogh, instead of dying in 1890, would have lived all the way until 1953 – perhaps he’d have met your grandparents or parents. What if van Gogh had lived long enough to know that he wasn’t a failure? To know that the paintings he couldn’t sell in his lifetime would come to be seen as priceless masterpieces?

 Shakespeare’s ensemble

Shakespeare had a company of actors he wrote for. Actors he knew well and loved. There was an actor called Richard Burbage who played all the great parts like Hamlet, Othello, Richard III and King Lear. There were players like Robert Armin who would have taken on the comic characters like Touchstone in As You Like It, Feste in Twelfth Night and The Fool in King Lear. When we are putting on a performance, there is nothing like the confederacy we have with other actors, musicians and technicians. Shakespeare would have known very well what it was to be part of such an ensemble.

During Shakespeare’s lifetime, only some of his plays were published – in little books called quartos. Some of them were bad copies of the plays – since there was no copyright law, a grumpy actor could leave one company and then go and join another theatre company and try to remember the lines of a play that had done well. There’s a bad pirate copy version of Hamlet which, we think, has been largely misremembered by the actor who played the small part of Marcellus. In this “bad quarto” the famous speech “To be or not to be/that is the question” is rendered as: “To be or not to be/Aye! – there’s the point!”.

After Shakespeare died two actors from his company, his good friends John Hemmings and Henry Condell, decided to put together a big book of all the Shakespeare plays they could find. It’s called the First Folio and it was published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death. There were only about 750 copies printed. There are 234 still in existence today. Thank goodness Hemmings and Condell did collect the plays together and publish them, though – because if they hadn’t, half the plays Shakespeare wrote might have been lost to us. We know from accounts that have survived from the time that Shakespeare wrote other plays such as Cardenio which have not survived. It would be amazing if one day, in some dusty attic, a copy of this play turns up. 

In the last year of Shakespeare’s life, his new son-in-law got into terrible trouble. Thomas Quiney married Judith Shakespeare but he had been having an affair with a woman called Margaret Wheeler. Now Margaret, pregnant with Quiney’s baby, died in childbirth. Quiney was in disgrace. He had to make a public penance in church and pay a fine. Poor Margaret and her baby suffered a far worse fate. We can only imagine how Shakespeare’s daughter Judith must have felt. So Shakespeare knew what it was like to have a scandal in the family. He was as human as you or I. He had bad days and good days. He had personal problems and business worries. One of his theatres was burned to the ground when a stage cannon set fire to the thatched roof. So much for Elizabethan theatre special effects. People were jealous of Shakespeare’s successes. Another playwright and critic, Robert Greene, described Shakespeare as an ”upstart crow” who had stolen the beautiful feathers of other writers by stealing their ideas. The Cambridge-educated Greene may also have been furious that this bumpkin from Stratford, who’d never even been to university, was making such a success of himself in the Big City. 

Energy first, analysis later

Shakespeare wrote hundreds of sonnets – poems about all sorts of subjects – about being elated or depressed, being lucky or unlucky in love, about being young, about growing old. Yes, he had an extraordinary talent but don’t ever forget, in the midst of all the Bardolatry of this 400 year anniversary that he was also just a bloke who loved theatre and who loved to write. 

There was a time when none of Shakespeare’s plays existed. The time before he dreamt up those words and wrote them down. They aren’t tablets set in stone, delivered by some deity. They are words that come to life when actors seize them and give voice to them on stage.

Of course, sometimes Shakespeare’s language can seem a bit archaic. But usually that’s because we’ve been alienated by a poor introduction to his work. Sometimes we are given the false impression that we have to approach Shakespeare’s writing purely as literature. Now, a literary approach can be very useful to theatre-makers. There’s plenty to be learned from academic studies that can inform the work we do in the rehearsal room. 

But every one of Shakespeare’s plays was written to be performed, with a company of actors waiting for their lines, with an audience coming along, in great anticipation, to opening night. And there’s no better way to unlock those old-fashioned words than by just having a go at speaking them. I find it helps to read them out loud with other actors and not, initially, worry about what they mean. It’s good just to guess how Shakespeare’s words should sound. We don’t after all have a 400 year old tape recorder, so it’s up to us to decide the “correct” pronunciation for today. 

This approach might best be summed up as: energy first, analysis later. Once, as a performer, you’ve had a practical go at something and tried to give it the energy to make it work, you can always go back and consult the dictionary, encyclopedia or academic notes. Shakespeare never published an authorised version of his collected plays. He didn’t live to see that First Folio published in 1623. And because the plays exist in several versions, when we are rehearsing them, it’s up to us, the performers, to form our own opinions about how to play them, about which selections to make from the textual variations we find in the different editions of those quartos and folios.  

Shakespeare is nothing without people like you. People who love theatre. People who love acting. Without actors, those words Shakespeare wrote are just squiggles of ink in an old book. A play doesn’t become a play until an actor speaks the lines and gives them life. Too often, we see plays in performance that have no sense of “play” about them. Our job is to take those words and to make them speak to audiences for our time, four hundred years after they were written. 

I wish you luck and every success as you make Shakespeare’s words your own. And a thousand thanks for all those wise words, Will Shakespeare, you inspiring, fellow theatre-maker – we salute you: that talented bloke from Stratford-upon-Avon.

 This article was first published in Scene which we publish three times a year and send to all our members. You can find out more about becoming an ISTA member here.