Getting to Enjoy Shakespeare

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I’m often asked how I first ‘got into’ Shakespeare, and naturally this starts me thinking of my earliest memories of his work. I have no recollection of encountering it when I was a little boy either at home or at primary school. I went to a grammar school – Kingston High School, Hull – in 1941, at the age of eleven, and it must have been in the first form there that I remember reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream around the class. I must have read Hermia because I remember in my innocence feeling a frisson of daring at having to say the word ‘hell’ in the line ‘O hell! To choose love through another’s eyes.’ We were an innocent lot in those days.

But it was not all reading round the class. Even then we often, to use the slogan recently adopted by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Education Department, ‘stood up’ for Shakespeare. It can only have been a year or so later that I was on my feet in front of Mr Woolf’s English class wielding a ruler as Cassius in the quarrel scene from Julius Caesar.

These were superficial encounters. Higher up the school we had as a teacher one Mr Large – Edmund John Cyril Large, but the ‘Mr’ sticks – who had a profound influence on my academic and cultural development. It was when he introduced the class to Sonnet 29 – the subject of a recent blog by Paul Edmondson – that I was first deeply stirred by Shakespeare’s language. It was a time of emotional development, of sentimental friendships and the first stirrings of love, and I identified especially with the emotions expressed in the poem’s closing couplet:

For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my heart with kings’.

Mr Large was himself a fine actor, understandably inclined to allocate himself the leading roles. He regularly directed the school play, but we didn’t ‘do’ Shakespeare when I was there. The summit of my actorly achievement was Sir Peter Teazle in Sheridan’s School for Scandal. My breeches slipped down at the dress rehearsal, revealing a colourful pair of bathing trunks.

It was in class that I had my first, deeply moving acquaintance with King Lear, greatest of the plays. Rather than reading round the class we were assigned the roles. I – a slightly built lad – was given the Fool. I remember reading ‘And I’ll go to bed at noon’ as if it was funny, only to have it gently pointed out that since these were the character’s last words in the play maybe they should be spoken with a touch of pathos. I’m not so sure now.

Mr Large was a truly civilized man. He and his wife would entertain some of his sixth-formers in their home. There I remember discussing the theatre reviews of Harold Hobson and Kenneth Tynan as they appeared, hearing about the first performance of Britten’s Peter Grimes, and listening to Mahler’s Fourth Symphony from the Proms, with the enchanting Elisabeth Schumann singing the child’s dream of heaven that forms the last movement. Several of Mr Large’s pupils – Tom Courtenay, Malcolm Storry, and John Alderton among them – went on to become professional actors.

It was while I was at school too that I saw my first professional Shakespeare, acted by Donald Wolfit and his somewhat ramshackle company, and it was because of my schooling that I chose to go to university in London, where I could see more theatre and hear more music. More of that on another occasion, perhaps.

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Author:Stanley Wells

Stanley Wells is Honorary President and a Life Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Follow Stanley on twitter @stanley_wells or visit his website
  • StanleyWells

    I have no idea why any comment may have been erased – or even indeed if it is possible to do so. This website is in an ealrly state of development so conceivably something went wrong. If so I apologise. For the points you raise, see my other response referring you to the book Shakespeare Found?, edited by me, in which e g x-rays are reproduced.

  • Cookrb1

    Interesting that in the sonnet you replaced “my state with kings' ” with “my heart with kings' “

    The encounter with WS matters more than precision in recollection of his words. He gets us in the heart.

  • Leedurkee

    For some reason my original comments to this post were erased, so I thought I'd repeat my questions to Dr. Wells.
    I do agree with him that the Cobbe portrait has a fair claim (as do all the portraits around the Janssen group); however I disagree with Dr. Wells' claim that there is a strong resemblance between the Cobbe portrait and the Droeshout engraving from the First Folio. I would say instead there is very little resemblance and almost a comical disparity, especially if you examine the Halliwell-phillips First Unique Proof of the Droeshout in the Folger SS Library, and I think this kind of lack of objectivity in regards the Cobbe portrait might explain why people have been so skeptical to accept the Cobbe. I also wish Dr. Wells' blog post had explained to me why Alec Cobbe, in restoring his portrait, removed a four-hundred-year-old layer of paint believed to be contemporary to SS's life (and I would love to see a photograph of the portrait previous to this controversial restoration performed by its owner). As to the strange inscription on the Cobbe, I will argue that such a cautionary inscription–if Dr. Wells is correct in it being an allusion to Horace–would strengthen the argument that the portrait portrays the murdered Thomas Overbury far more than it would support the argument it's Shakespeare, who, as Wells states, prospered under James I. Most importantly, I would argue that it's very obvious that this inscription has been painted onto two large patches of overpaint. Nothing could be more obvious. These patches are visible even in high-resolution photographs available on the internet; and yet we've never seen the x-rays of the Cobbe, nor have we seen its infra-red reflectographs. Considering the 400-year-old parade of frauds that has plagued the search for SS's face, I think it very fair that the public require any owner who makes such a grand claim to supply us the public with his portrait's x-rays, reflectographs, etc. We should also be supplied with all historical photographs and descriptions. So, I would ask, where is all of this evidence in relation to the Cobbe portrait? Why am I have to ask to see it's early photograph, its x-rays?

    And btw, Dr. Wells, why was my original comment erased? I am a big admirer of Wells' scholarship, and I don't mean to be too contentious here, but what I'm asking for is fair play: the evidence to support your claim. Where can I find this information, the photos, the x-rays, etc? Why hasn't the SBT set up a web page where this info can be accessed?

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