Tuesday, 3 January 2017

A slightly surprising project. Or, Shakespeare is my boy.

Yesterday, I said to a friend: ‘Shakespeare is stitched into my heart.’ We were talking about cultural references. I put all kinds of references into my writing: blood, toil, tears and sweat; fight them on the beaches; not in single spies but in battalions; do I dare to eat a peach; the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune; the woods are lovely, dark and deep; take down this book and slowly read; fear in a handful of dust; the thousand shocks that flesh is heir to.

I was talking about this because I’d been replying to a story on a horse forum I follow and I wrote, slightly joking, that getting my horse right had taken ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’. Then I thought: what if they don’t know that is Churchill? What if they take it literally, and picture me weeping and bleeding and sweating in my Scottish field? So I took it out, just in case.

I was telling my friend about it as we walked out with my horse and her daughter and I said that it made me realise how much Shakespeare crept into my ordinary writing, because they started me off with Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest when I was nine years old and the serious mistresses at prep school used to gather us on the lawn on sunny evenings and get us to read those plays out loud. I said that I suddenly wondered about the people who did not get those references. Then I laughed and said: ‘Perhaps they will just think I’m a really good writer.’

My story to myself has always been that I love Shakespeare, that he is my boy, that he walks beside me like a doting old hound. He came all the way through school with me and stayed with me in my adult life. Even in my wildest years, when I was staying up all night in illegal drinking holes in Soho where all the cross-dressers went after hours, I still had time for Shakespeare and would totter off to the National and the Barbican and the storied theatres of London’s glittering West End. When Kenneth Branagh did his first London season of Shakespeare plays when he was about twelve, I was so excited that I went to see them all twice. I took my mother to see him, and I can still hear her voice as she reminisced about seeing Olivier and Gielgud playing Shakespeare when she was a girl. Her father had been a fine stage actor, and theatre ran through her like Brighton through a stick of rock.

But as I made my faintly grandiose statement a little mouse-scratch of doubt started in the back of my mind. What I really meant, I realised, is that there are a few Shakespeare plays that I know quite well. I know Hamlet and Much Ado and Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra and As You Like It and Henry V and Richard III and The Taming of the Shrew and King Lear. I went to see Coriolanus once, because someone I knew was in it, and I’m afraid I will not be dashing back for a second viewing. I could not tell you the first thing about Cymbeline, and The Two Noble Kinsmen, whoever they are, have never so much as hovered onto my radar. (Although I suppose, to be fair, there is a slight attribution argument about that one.)

In the spirit of self-improvement and not just saying stuff but actually meaning it, I decided that it was time to go and read the lot.

This is the kind of thing I do at the beginning of January. There is a very real chance that by the time dour old February rolls in, with its bleak reality and its lack of sentiment, I shall have decided that what with the four different projects I am working on and the animals to look after and the usual demands of daily life, there simply is not time for such a flight of fancy. It may die a quiet death, and lie in an unvisited tomb. Many of my ideas, so galvanic and antic at the time I think of them, come to this. But for now, I’m going to try to read ten minutes of Shakespeare every day. I’m going to try to make a little note of it. I would love to look back on this year and see that it had literary beauty in it. The world of geo-politics is so mad and ugly at the moment that beauty is needed, as an antidote.

So, I started this morning with All’s Well that Ends Well.

Even as I began to read, I realised that I don’t know this play at all. There was not even a glancing sense of recognition. Within moments, there was already a famous passage of wisdom, the one that goes ‘Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none’. It is advice from the Countess of Roussillon. I am ashamed to say that I did not recognise her name. So much for my vaunted scholarship.

Another ravishing phrase stuck me: ‘Twere all one that I should love a bright particular star’. Write that down, write that down, said the chattering voices in my head; you will use that one day.

And then there was a very startling question: ‘Are you meditating on virginity?’ I found this oddly comic. Did people really ask each other such questions in the 17th century?

‘Bless our poor virginity from underminers and
blowers up! Is there no military policy, how
virgins might blow up men?

And Parolles answers her with a long speech which has this dilly in it:

What was Shakespeare thinking? Had he had a little drink? Was he making virginity jokes for a bet?

By the time I got to the second scene, I was in a hysterical state of love. I was loving everything, even the stage directions: Flourish of cornets. Enter the KING of France, with letters, and divers Attendants.

Everyone, I thought, should have ‘divers Attendants’.

I scooted on, enjoying myself. I had set a timer for ten minutes, and when it buzzed I impatiently switched it off and kept on reading. I watched the ailing king face his mortality, and the young lords dashing off to war, and feisty Helena standing up to the countess and then going to Paris to see the old king with the intention of making him better. This all felt very radical. She is not a grand lady, but young and orphaned, and yet off she goes, off her own bat, to cure the king with her beloved father’s secret remedies. And when she gets there she is not abashed by his scepticism but says something very wise:

Expectations, I often think, are the enemy of happiness. I stopped there, long after my ten minutes were up, gazing happily at words to live by.

Even if this nutty project only lasts for one day, it was worth it. I do love Shakespeare and he is indeed my boy. I know he is not for everyone but he is for me.  

PS. Formatting apology. I don't know why some of the quotes have come out as links. They don't lead anywhere. I copied and pasted them from a brilliant page which has all of Shakespeare's plays for free on the internet. This, I thought, would be quicker than typing them out from the Collected Shakespeare which my dear old dad once gave me for Christmas. I have no idea how to fix this little glitch, so please forgive me.


  1. Love the picture and all those wonderful words! Yours as well as his. I only know Macbeth (from my 'O'level days), alas after that my own wild years took over and I don't remember much, so you've given me lots to get stuck into. Thank you dear Tania.
    Val Symonds

  2. Jeez ... I've gone from thinking, 'Brava, you have higher aspirations than I do right now' to reaching for the Shakespeare. Studied All's Well That Ends Well long before I had any ability to appreciate it, and either completely missed or had forgotten that expectation line. Thanks. Nutty project, perhaps, but in these beyond-nutty times, a little sanity, not to mention beauty, is to be valued.


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