NOBODY reads Shakespeare for pleasure, said my English teacher. I was shocked. She’s insulting the big man! Is she suggesting no-one relaxes on the sofa with some hot chocolate and Coriolanus? Is she saying you can’t slip into a bubble bath with The Merchant of Venice propped open beside the rubber duck and the Head and Shoulders?
And surely for every commuter reading a damp newspaper there’s one dying to know what happens next in King Lear?
I was an annoying, precocious brat as I listened, disbelieving, to my teacher. I was desperately aware that I was from a scruffy council estate and was equally desperate to cover it up by “speaking right” and reading Shakespeare. I squirmed in my seat: I’ll read him for pleasure, Miss McCloskey, you bet I will. If he’s so great then it must be a joy to read him, so let me at him.
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Well, obviously, you need to be guided through Shakespeare.
You can’t just crack open the book and start reading: you need notes and help, and you need a whole background education so you can understand his references.
I stubbornly tried to “read Shakespeare for pleasure”
and I failed, mainly because I didn’t realise the most important thing about his work: he is not a novelist. He was a playwright, and so his words are meant to be read aloud, not read in the bath.
So our English teacher took us through Macbeth and supplemented our reading and study by wheeling an old TV into the classroom and playing a video of an old BBC production.
At the same time, Macbeth was on at the Citizens in Glasgow (my memories are vague but I recall excited chatter in the stalls because Lady Macbeth was being played by “her off Take The High Road”) and a friend’s mum took a wee gang of us along to see it.
Once you hear Shakespeare read aloud, performed as it was meant to be, the stiff jigsaw pieces begin to slot into place and you can enjoy, appreciate, and begin to understand his work.
And you certainly can’t read him in the bath.
But there is still a fence around Shakespeare, keeping out most casual or curious people. The impression is given that he’s for serious students only. Do Not Enter: there is no pleasure here. The fence can only be dismantled by a good teacher or by access to the theatre – and the latter brings its own problems, such as availability, ticket price and the sense, especially if you were a wee scruff like me from Fernhill, that you don’t belong in an ornate theatre which is offering great works of literature.
So maybe TV could step in? That would be an easy way to beam a performance of Shakespeare into everyone’s living room, but unless Benedict Cumberbatch was involved, we could assume most people might skip it. There is still that high fence of elitism.
That’s why King Charles III (BBC2, Wednesday) was such a revelation. The drama is based on Mike Bartlett’s play of the same name, and is set in the near future where the queen has died and Charles is king. It is written in blank verse and makes use of “iambic pentameter”, something I remember being taught about in university and being quite amazed by. Until then, I’d thought poetry just used words which rhymed, but it seemed there was a whole pattern of rhythm to be found in the syllables of the words themselves, one of which is easily detected by tapping out “da DUM da DUM da DUM”, the rhythm of the heartbeat and of so much of the English language.
So here we had a play about a king, written in fancy iambic pentameter, and delivered in blank verse: everything we’d been taught to fear about Shakespeare was present. The characters were also lightly pinned to Shakespearean roles, with the Duchess of Cambridge a scheming Lady Macbeth and Charles a dithering Hamlet who needs to get his act together quickly.
No-one reads Shakespeare for pleasure, but this wasn’t strictly Shakespeare. The writer was taking bits and pieces, little nods to the great man, and adding characters and colour of his own.
The lofty language was leavened by little bursts of the modern, such as references to Kate’s hair and Prince Harry’s loutish drunken friends. Seeing Harry flirting in a nightclub stripped away any fears this was going to be highfalutin stuff, strictly for the scholars.
This drama was a friendly open hand extended to anyone who’s felt excluded from the world of poetry, Shakespeare and the theatre.
Saying it might be a leg-up into Shakespeare itself isn’t meant to diminish King Charles III but to compliment it.
There will be moaners who will immediately dismiss this drama when they learn it’s about the monarchy, thinking any such thing will be sycophantic or will glamourise an outdated institution.
Equally, there will be moaners who’ll ignore it, thinking it’s insulting their beloved queen and that the royal family shouldn’t be cheapened in this way.
Let me deliver my opinion to these people in iambic pentameter: To them I say shut up.