SPEAKING THE SHAKESPEARE

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By Yang Yu

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‘To speak, or not to speak?’ This is the title of my first Shakespeare-themed poem, written in 2014. The poem, which focused on the civil struggle for liberty and equality under a totalitarian regime, was recited at the University of Sydney’s Festival of Democracy later that year. My knowledge of Shakespeare back then was minimal, as I grew up in a non-English speaking country where Shakespeare was not taught.

I decided to read the works of Shakespeare in the original Early Modern English, and managed to cover his most famous comedies and tragedies before my first trip to England this June. Upon concluding each of his plays, I always tried to write a sonnet as a ‘response’ or continuation of the story, often in the tone of one of the characters in the play, such as the repentance of the blind Earl of Gloucester in a monastery, as shown below:

 

Woe to me! O my glorious King Lear, fare thee well!

Leaving a solitary me behind thy Heavenly Majesty, thy grace never fell!

Manipulated was me, by my bastard son whose ambition swelled,

Plotting evil ‘gainst justice, trading virtue for vice that hypocritically dwelt.

 

Bastard Edmund! May thee thy boundless sins from me repent and repel!

Of adultery, defamation, usurpation, and many more we cannot tell.

Created thou two warring states, with dukes against dukes, knights slaying knights,

All for two princesses’ hatred of their father, and their lust for thy bodily smell!

 

Thou reap what thou sew. For thee I toll this monastic bell.

May the Father, Son and Holy Spirit bless Edgar, my rightful heir

In loyal service to the kingdom, and in clear conscience, to Satan never sell!

 

Whilst I plead to Thee for generous mercy on my poor Edmund in hell,

Forever when Thou art seated on Thy awesome chair.

May Thou spare him and me from Thy Judgment’s spell!

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So here I came, walking past the statue of the Jester at the centre of Stratford upon Avon, critiquing my past works, as if a pilgrim was about to cleanse himself before entering the holiest shrine of Shakespeare: his family house. Excited that I will soon reveal some of the most tantalizing puzzles in my heart about Shakespeare, I attended to every detail that I could find in the Shakespearean sites. I visited Shakespeare’s family house before lunchtime, followed by the New Place and the Hall’s Croft in the afternoon, all of which were well preserved and impressively presented by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. My day at Stratford was concluded by the visit to the Church of Holy Trinity, where Shakespeare was interred.

It was not just a day for me, but a snapshot of Shakespeare’s life, as well as a dialogue that I, as a time-traveller called George Wordsworth, was honoured to have with him:

On a morning of April 1564, I came to the family house to visit the newborn William who was struggling with the harsh medical conditions of the time. I received a warm welcome from his father John:

Welcome to our humble lodge, Lord Wordsworth,

To see our latest child who joins us this morning by birth!

It’s been quite difficult for us and for others in the villages

Whose children are combating Black Death in small, cold cottages.

My wife and I have got two daughters prior,

Alas! They both lost the battle, despite attentions from a doctor and a friar.

Hope this little one is the first of our many issue,

That extends our genealogy into times far beyond my view.

Sitting at the family’s dining table and sharing their bread and wine, and smelling the odours of animal skins from the glover’s workshop in the house, I ‘prophesized’ about Shakespeare’s forthcoming fame as a playwright, a job that was despised by the Englishmen in ancient times.

Midwife:           I can tell from his resonant cry, O Madam,

That he will one day become an orator in this kingdom!

John:                 A minister, a statesman, a lawyer, or an alderman like me, well respected,

Or inheriting my skills as a glover or a tanner, selling leathers much needed.

George:             Not quite, sir, you shall find out by the time I next come,

I’d be curious to see if you are amused or amazed:

At the worth of his fame for a lifetime to consume

Notwithstanding the toil he needs to have, after many wild geese he chased.

John:                Very well, let time reveal to us all.

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Three decades passed before I returned, this time to a larger house at the New Place. It was an afternoon in autumn 1597, when the playwright was approaching the zenith of his popularity. I bumped into the mayor of the city, and was asked to go with him to the housewarming party at Shakespeare’s. Here I portrayed Shakespeare in the midst of his family and his fellow townsfolk, receiving an award from the mayor for his contribution to the nation. Shakespeare paid tribute to the unsung heroes of England, who fought against the ills of the society:

I feel humbled today to receive this award from you, Mr. Mayor!

For I am simply motivated by a passion that is loving and fair.

It’s enough honour for me that you gentlemen are all here,

Celebrating with me my happiness that spreads everywhere.

By creating those characters of justice and dare,

Through struggles of all walks of life, as we are aware;

I wish to lay to our fellow countrymen evils of this society bare,

And to offer those pioneers who sacrificed their everything my prayers:

‘May you, O the spirits that have, for any reason, departed us,

Never look back! But heavenward shall your motives be!

Though you’ve today received a traitor’s judgment,

Tomorrow you shall be forever free!

It’s in heaven that you receive what you deserve,

Leave the unfinished cause for us here to achieve!

We the average people shall wake up from our sleep,

Igniting courage and determination, no more mourn or weep!

Let’s pursue our rights and the betterment of our society,

Through our everyday labour and collective responsibilities.

To the Providence, but to all our fellow brethren more importantly.

So that with inner peace we reconnect to each other eventually,

Proclaiming to the world loudly, proudly and sincerely:

“We the citizens from this world have no enemies!” ’

The final sentence here contains a quote by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo, a freedom fighter who was murdered in July 2017, for speaking out on behalf of his people, my people.

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So did Shakespeare pass away in April 1616 as a liberator of the souls of the populace. Here at the Church of Holy Trinity, I listened to the evening sermon of the local priest during Shakespeare’s memorial service:

Today our dearest brother, Mr. William Shakespeare,

Has departed from us, to a land of greener pasture.

Through his hard work and humour have we enjoyed his company.

Through his profound thinking have we questioned our way of life.

Through his vivid mind have we seen his portrayal of our reality:

A reality of life full of hapless ends, and one final end that relieves our life!

Through his creative words have we conversed more diversely in English.

Through his wisdom are we inspired to venture out of the skills we cherish.

Through his analysis and critique of politics have we realized how selfish

It is, for our authorities to taint God’s Will, by abusing our specialties!

Let us always remember what this great man has said!

Let us always review our words and deeds through his plays we read!

Let us always pray to our God for the commendation of our brother,

A playwright, a father, an elder, in the Land of Peace and Eternity! Amen.

I joined the Shakespeare family’s prayer for the deceased playwright, before speaking no more, and dissolving into the crowd of the mourners who bade farewell to him in the gloomy darkness.

 

These are the ‘Birth’, ‘Fame’ and ‘Death’, three scenes of ‘A Day at Stratford- upon-Avon’, my mini-drama that serves as my commemoration of Shakespeare’s most essential legacies. I have written poems about other key figures from the countries where I travelled this June, including William the Conqueror, Chaucer, Anne Boleyn, Guy Fawkes, St. Joan of Arc, Marie Antoinette, Robespierre, Napoleon, Hugo and Socrates, to name just a few. Yet it was Shakespeare who provided me the most generous literary inspirations that echoed powerfully when I arrived at his home. My mere words of this mini-play cannot possibly express my full gratitude and joy for this spiritual journey, a journey of constant revelation of one’s own potentials, and a journey of speaking one’s virtuous free will.

To speak, or not to speak? This is a question that will live on in me.

 

The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.

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Author:Yang Yu

I was awarded a Master of Commerce degree by the University of Sydney, and a Bachelor of Commerce-Accounting by Macquarie University. I'm currently working with Westpac Banking Corporation, the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection, and several other government or education institutions in various capacities. I am also a paraprofessional violinist, performing on many occasions for cultural events of a wide range of ethnic groups. interpreted for an Australian prime minister, who was the longest-serving Labor prime minister.
  • Yang Yu

    Thanks for sharing your experience with me Josse! I will definitely continue my journey to find out more about Shakespeare.

  • Josse Colley

    Hi, Yang Yu! That’s very impressive. I have a Masters in Teaching Shakespeare and absolutely share your intrigue and love for Shakespeare’s birthplace, but live in HK. I teach in a local Chinese Primary School. Although I try and visit Stratford whenever I go to Europe, this is not really a possibility. Anyway, thanks for the pictures, they are so clear! They make me feel nostalgic. Gorgeous. Continue writing. Good job!

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