How did ‘Shakespeare’ first enter your consciousness – mysteriously coded, like algebra, or docking at your school desk, like a huge cargo vessel, or, perhaps, magically, in a film or in the words of a gifted English teacher, introducing you to your first tale, from a store that would last you for the rest of your life?
For me, Shakespeare’s words came before I knew his name: romantic and empathic from my mother (‘Oh that I were a glove upon that hand, that I might touch that cheek’ and ‘If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh?’), dramatic and awe-inspiring from my father (‘Is this a dagger, which I see before me, the handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee…’ and, as we stood on the village bridge, looking fearfully down at the swirling brown flood-water of the Warwickshire Stour, transformed for me into the troubled Tiber chafing with her shores, ‘Dar’st thou, Cassius, now leap in with me into this angry flood and swim to yonder point? Upon the word, accoutred as I was, I plungèd in and bade him follow; so indeed he did. The torrent roared and we did buffet it, with lusty sinews…’).
Yes, Shakespeare’s characters soon began to emerge, taking independent form in my mind after I had seen them onstage at Stratford – Prospero, Ariel and Caliban were first to arrive, when I was seven, and Michael Redgrave, Alen Badel and, most vividly of all, Hugh Griffith as Caliban, were playing in ‘The Tempest’ at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. Much later, Shakespeare’s stories began to clarify, but long before the stories or the characters, it was the words of Shakespeare that captivated me. And so it has always been in my teaching: the words first – speaking, listening to, thinking about…the words. For these, dear William, ‘thanks and ever, thanks’. Happy Birthday!
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