My own schooling was very different to Shakespeare’s. I didn’t have to arrive at school by 6.30am most mornings; I didn’t have to speak Latin and Greek in the classroom; I wasn’t ever threatened with the birch. I went to Huntington Comprehensive School in York and that is where I fell in love with Shakespeare.
I was fourteen and about to start GCSEs that September. One afternoon, in our English class, we were all handed a copy of Romeo and Juliet (the Penguin edition, as I recall). We were asked to open it at the beginning of act three, scene one, and there we read:
‘I pray thee, good Mercutio, let’s retire.
The day is hot, the Capels are abroad.’
These are, of course, not the most famous lines in the play, nor are they are as straightforward as some of the most famous lines. We might have started at the very beginning:
‘Two households, both alike in dignity
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene.’
Or dipped into the middle of act one, scene five when Romeo first sees Juliet:
‘Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight,
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.’
It didn’t matter. The two unremarkable lines were used to show us Shakespeare’s metrical beat, his rhythm. Until that afternoon ‘Shakespeare’ had been only a name for me; now he was beginning to take on a voice. I began to try and read the rest of scene that evening. Around the same time York Theatre Royal presented a production of Romeo and Juliet. I asked some of my classmates if they would be interested in going and ended up organising tickets for about fifteen of us.
The first full play we studied (with a different teacher) was Macbeth. Slowly, line by line, we were taken through it, and our teacher did a wonderful job at making the poetic and dramatic world come to life: ‘hangman’s hands’, ‘ditch-delivered by a drab’, ‘this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen’. We had to create a set-design for the three Weird Sisters’ opening scene, and one morning I was able to read the part of Macbeth in a classroom staging of the haunted banquet. Studying a whole play sent me off on my bicycle to York Public Library where I found Macbeth (an Old Vic production with Sir Alec Guinness) on vinyl record. I listened to it very privately with the printed play open in front of me. Macbeth was fascinating, too, because of its supernatural and bloody elements. My school report that year said: ‘Paul responds most pleasingly to Shakespeare.’
Next came my first trip to Stratford-upon-Avon. Another teacher, who happened to love Shakespeare, had spotted the reviews of John Caird’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the R.S.C., jumped for some tickets and organised a trip. Never had we seen Shakespeare done like that! We were all bowled over by how genuinely funny it was. The following week, I decided to return to Stratford with my mother and sister (my family enjoyed free travel on what was then British Rail). We visited Shakespeare’s Birthplace, walked out to look at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage. That day, my love for Shakespeare was sealed.
I have worked for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust for eleven years. Each day of my working life I am reminded of the overwhelming cultural value of Shakespeare and how people all over world seek to make him relevant. On any day of the year you can hear almost any language in the world being spoken on Henley Street outside Shakespeare’s Birthplace. He is truly a global writer. People everywhere can enjoy him in their own language. Through the centuries Shakespeare’s articulations of strong human emotions have spoken to people in oppressive political regimes, to people in prison, to people in love, to people at war. His mind invites us to inhabit a space much larger than ourselves.
There is no moral obligation to enjoy Shakespeare we can only try to make him attractive to people who are new to Shakespeare and hope for the best. I’m not going to tell anyone that Shakespeare is ‘relevant’ or ‘good’ for them. Classical music isn’t ‘relevant’, but it enhances life and can be a great sustainer. All I can do is speak from experience: Shakespeare captures and enhances the imagination, if we are prepared to put a bit of effort in ourselves.
Here at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust we’re doing our best here to lower the barriers and to make people feel at ease with Shakespeare. Last evening at Central Hall, Westminster, we launched Shakespeare Week (the first one will be in 2014 for the 450th anniversary of his birth). We’re working with partner organisations throughout Britain to bring Shakespeare vividly to life for every primary school child in the land. We’re trying to show that Shakespeare can be fun in a whole variety of ways. Whether it’s for a geography or maths lesson, science or music, English or drama, we are making freely available a range of resources which we hope will help to introduce Shakespeare to young people – before someone tells them he’s too difficult for them. Every pupil who takes part will be given a Passport to Shakespeare in which he or she can mark off special Shakespearian experiences. Well, it’s a start.
Find out more by clicking here.