Wendy Cope Reads Her Shakespeare Poem

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Photo by Angus McBean

Photo by Angus McBean

Wendy Cope O.B.E. took up her post as The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s Writer in Residence about a month ago. She’s been living nearby in a beautiful cottage that belongs to The Hosking Houses Trust for women writers.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust commissioned her to write three poems as part of its 60th Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival. Wendy has kindly agreed that four of her Residency poems can be posted here, accompanied by recordings of her reading them.

The first is her commissioned poem about Shakespeare.

She’s chosen to recall her first ever visit to Stratford-upon-Avon in 1961 when she saw, among other sites and productions, As You Like It. Vanessa Redgrave was a famous Rosalind, but the poem is about the Jaques, played by Max Adrian.

It’s a perfectly turned Shakespearian sonnet which evokes theatrical memories, the excitement of a young person seeing Shakespeare performed, character criticism, and shows how the effect of seeing Shakespeare in performance can stay with us even after over fifty years.

Her poem, which she read at The Shakespeare Centre last Sunday, is illustrated by a photograph of Max Adrian from the archives of The Royal Shakespeare Company which are cared for by The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

IN MEMORY OF MAX ADRIAN 1903-1973

It’s sad to think the actor never knew
About the teenage girl who saw him play
In As You Like It long ago and who
Can still recall his face and voice today:
His Jaques dignified, aloof and dry –
No bellowing, no sawing of the air,
Nothing that could offend the author’s eye
Or ear, if you imagined he was there.
More than fifty years have passed since then
But when I read the text it’s him I see,
And when I watch it on the stage again
Jaques doesn’t stand a chance with me.
Max nailed the part and no-one else will do.
And that, it’s possible to hope, he knew.

by Wendy Cope

(reproduced by kind permission of the author)

Listen to Wendy read her poem by clicking ‘play’ on the bar below:

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson
  • richroach

    Wendy Cope’s sonnet about Max Adrian is beautiful and reflects what a
    lot of people experience when Shakespeare is done right. She adds a
    slight touch of Hamlet’s acting advice about not sawing the air and
    adding nothing to offend the eye or ear, but seamlessly. I imagine
    Shakespeare himself would adore this poem because it speaks about why we
    all love Shakespearean theatre; it stirs us, it allows us to identify
    with characters AND actors. How many times, after a performance, does
    one actor’s performance stand out in your mind, or perhaps it was an
    actor’s voice, mannerisms, or something else that tied you to the
    performance. In Wendy Cope’s eyes, Jaques was performed with dignity, a
    full and wonderful character in his own right, and her final lines are
    her greatest gift. May all actors know that such thoughts harbour in
    their audience’s hearts for them too. What actors do DOES matter. This
    poem wonderfully captures the bond that exists between the characters,
    the actors that bring them to life, and the spectators: it is an
    incredibly intimate bond. Bravo, Wendy, for using the Shakespearean
    sonnet form to perfection as well!

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