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.