Writing Heroes – William Shakespeare

“It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.”

My first experience of Shakespeare was a performance of The Tempest on a school trip; I hated it. Three years later I was given a copy of Macbeth as one of my ‘O’ Level books: I loved it. I read it and studied it and wrote about it. I achieved a good grade. After that, until I reached middle-age, I had very little to do with Shakespeare; I don’t enjoy the theatre much and found his plays difficult to follow. I went to see Roman Polanski’s Macbeth at the cinema in the 70s and loved that (it is still the best version), but It was only when I began helping students with their English that I started to appreciate him, and, only then, through the filmed versions.

Since then, having studied him on and off for a few years, I have discovered that I like Romeo and Juliet, Othello, The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It and A Winter’s Tale; I love Macbeth but baulk at the walking wood. I don’t like Hamlet or King Lear. I do like Julius Caesar, Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure and Coriolanus, all rarely performed, although Coriolanus does seem to be having a revival, partly due to its supposed similarities with today’s society.

wsquote-001All of the Henry plays are good but particularly Henry VIII, one of the least performed. I like Richard II and love Richard III, even though it is a complete fiction (Tudor propaganda); I like Much Ado About Nothing but don’t yet understand The Tempest; Anthony and Cleopatra is marvellous; I enjoyed bits of Cymbeline, but the version I watched had a young Helen Mirren dressed as a boy (impossible to believe). I don’t like Pericles or The Taming of the Shrew. I am indifferent to Love’s Labour’s Lost, Twelfth Night and All’s Well that Ends Well. I know nothing about the Two Gentlemen of Verona, A Comedy of Errors, The Merry Wives of Windsor or King John.

I think that just about covers them all; forgive me if I have forgotten anything. I enjoy watching Hamlet even though I don’t like him. Such a fuss is made about his tortuous journey and his suffering and tragic death, but I just find him a terrible whinger and get fed up with him very quickly. He is responsible for the deaths of Polonius (harmless old fool), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (to be fair they would have had him killed otherwise, but only because of his awful behaviour), his mother and Ophelia, the one true innocent in the play. I found Ophelia the only sane person in the play and she is destroyed by Hamlet. Kenneth Branagh’s four hour film is quite entertaining but the best I’ve seen so far is Zeffirelli’s version with Mel Gibson.

hamlet-001King Lear and Hamlet are two of the most popular plays today. It is easy to obtain copies of performances and there are many films of both; I have seen quite a lot of them (the best King Lear is a Russian version by Grigori Kozintsev). As I said, I enjoy watching performances of Hamlet but have no sympathy at all with the play’s theme, which to me is: spoilt, self obsessed brat prattling on endlessly about his problems and dealing with them far too late, thereby causing the deaths of many. I suppose I get fed up with critics taking Hamlet (the character) so seriously (I grant his language is wonderful) when I find him very unlikeable.

King Lear is a play often performed and analysed. I hope I’m wrong, and one day might be convinced otherwise, but I find the whole thing ridiculous. I know it is about a foolish old man mistaking flattery for love and not recognising true love, of not understanding that the giving away of territory would change everything – of not understanding anything until it is too late; but it is told in such convoluted fashion, with too many characters and too many ridiculous scenes. I cannot watch the scene on the beach near the end without laughing.

I find Macbeth one of the most watchable of plays, partly because it is so short (the shortest). Its theme is simple: overarching ambition and female manipulation. There are one or two parts where I have to suspend disbelief: the walking wood, Lady Macbeth collapses into madness too quickly, but it is a marvellously entertaining example of what Shakespeare was best at: taking basic human emotions and dramatising them; of course all drama should do this but only Shakespeare did it so well.

One thing that stands out in all the plays though, is the language; there is wonderful language in all the plays. I’ll make a ridiculous understatement and say that Shakespeare had a way with words. Like no other before him or since, he could encapsulate the most profound thoughts and feelings in what is, when studied, beautifully simple language. His best plays are a joy throughout – I can watch them once or twice a year. The recent BBC series of Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 & 2 and Henry V was superb.

The way I found access to Shakespeare was through film. Watching his plays in the theatre I find that, unless one knows the play by heart (difficult), the language is lost – while thinking about one line, it is quickly followed by another and another and so much is lost, simply because it is impossible to keep up. With film, and today almost everything has subtitles, it is possible to pause and think, to absorb and understand and thereby find a way in to the plays.

This has been only a brief and haphazard introduction into my thoughts on Shakespeare. I have already written a rather self-indulgent review of Throne of Blood, Kurosawa’s film version of Macbeth. But bear with me. I would like occasionally to share my thoughts on Shakespeare, particularly the ridiculous authorship controversy, in the future. How do other writers feel about this – any other Shakespeare lovers out there? Or am I merely wallowing in my own enjoyment of him?

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Myths, Legends and outright Lies

rainbow_overperranI’ve often wondered about the many myths we believe in. There must be thousands, more. I know of only a few, but in many ways modern life is based on myth, what we believe to be true, but which is only partly true or not true at all. You probably wonder what I mean. Well, everybody knows now, for example, that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction – it was one of the many stories concocted by people determined to go to war with Iraq. I’m not sure, but surely most people know now that WMDs were a myth. Of course there are still those among us who believe the war was justified, and they may well choose to believe the claim. But they believe a myth. It simply isn’t true.

Likewise, when the USA chose to attack Iraq, Americans were told that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the destruction of the twin towers. None of the nineteen people responsible for 9/11 was from Iraq; Iraq had absolutely nothing to do with it, but apparently 60% of Americans believed it to be so. For those who do not want to believe that the war was a mistake, an ongoing mistake that is still costing hundreds of lives, it is much easier to believe that Iraq was responsible, to believe in the myth.

Myths do not need to be quite so important, to have such dire consequences, for example, it is popularly believed that one is never further than six feet from a rat. I’ve no idea where this originated, but the BBC’s More or Less team calculated that there are 3.1 million rats in urban areas; even if they were spread absolutely evenly (which they are not), this would give each rat 5000 square metres, which means that you are never further than 164 feet (minimum) from a rat. But of course, urban myths are a good topic of conversation; it is often more fun to believe them than to coldly consider the truth.

A rather more serious, but archaic myth, is that of King Richard III, who is, or was, widely believed to have murdered the two young princes in the tower. He is the perfect villain, hunchbacked and unappealing, with a record for ruthlessness and murder throughout his very short reign (1483-85). The first time I doubted this was on reading Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, the title taken from the proverb, Truth is the daughter of time, written in 1951, and included in a fictional detective story. It is a forensic debunking of the whole Richard III myth; there is much detail, but basically, most of the evil attributed to Richard was Tudor propaganda, started by Henry VII, his successor, and continued throughout the whole Tudor dynasty, which lasted until the death of Elizabeth in 1603. But, the propaganda was marvellous stuff, Shakespeare’s play was based on it (written in Elizabethan times) and the story became embedded in the public consciousness. I’m sure that many people still believe in Richard’s villainy.

Less seriously again, it is widely believed that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle simply got fed up with writing about his fictional detective and stopped, and that it is only by popular demand that he resurrected him. The truth is more prosaic. In 1903, McClure’s magazine in the United States offered Doyle $5000 ($60000 today) per story; he told them he’d be a fool to refuse, so after a ten year hiatus, Holmes returned. Doyle hated writing the stories; he wanted to write more serious stuff, but continued writing Sherlock Holmes stories for another 25 years, and it is a credit to him that most of them remain of a very high quality.

Apparently, if you ask anyone how many immigrants are in this country (the UK), they will say about a third or 33%, and over half the population (57%) believe that there are too many immigrants. This is the highest figure of many countries surveyed, including the US, Germany, Italy, Spain and France. The UK population that was foreign born represents 11.1%. The unusually high belief that this is otherwise is probably mainly due to the media, papers such as the Daily Mail propagate the myth of immigrants daily, and politicians, especially today’s will soon jump on the bandwagon. Benefit fraud is another popular myth, mainly encouraged by the media. Surveys revealed that people believe that 27% of their money is lost to fraud. In fact the figure is 0.7%, rather a wild difference. These are just two of the many myths that a large percentage of the population live by; their whole belief systems, their philosophies and the way they behave are based on myths.

Lastly, I would like to mention a myth of my own, that of Mother Theresa. In 1992, I was in Bucharest, Romania, during the crisis of abandoned children; I was part of a many faceted and international aid programme that intended to help, and as far as I can see, did help in many ways. I was there for two weeks at the Sisters of Mother Theresa Orphanage in Bucharest. It was a fairly small orphanage, with little room in the building but extensive grounds and playing areas. There were two small rooms where the children, of varied disability, very few were normal, played; there was also a small school room where very basic stuff was taught. The children were allowed into the garden during the day, but only on request from the volunteers (there were about eight of us); the nuns wanted to keep the children inside, where there was little space, because it was easier to control them, perhaps not even control them because they ran wild, but at least they knew where they were.

After a few days Mother Theresa arrived on an inspection visit. She briefly surveyed the premises, not looking at the children once. She ordered that the school be closed ‘God will provide’, so that there would be more room and that the doors to the garden be locked. She did not speak to any of the children or the volunteers. And she was gone. The school remained closed, but we managed to persuade the nuns to allow the children into the garden, as long as we took responsibility for them. The encounter aroused my curiosity and when I got home, I investigated her. It emerged that her sanctuary in Calcutta (now Kolkata) was extremely basic: an iron bed, minimal food and toilet facilities. Nothing else was provided for the children in care under her name. Nothing. Doctors observed a lack of hygiene, unfit conditions, a complete lack of care, inadequate food, and no painkillers. Presumably God would provide.

Over the years I kept an eye on her. Her political contacts included the murderous Duvalier regime in Haiti, Charles Keating of Lincoln Savings and Loans and Donald Trump, in whose private jet she travelled. Of the numerous disasters in India, she offered medallions; no funds were forthcoming from the massive donations she received. In Bhopal in 1984, between 16000 and 30000 people were killed when Union Carbide’s pesticide plant leaked. No compensation has ever been paid and Union Carbide changed its name. Mother Theresa visited Bhopal not long before her death. She walked around while villagers begged her to do something, to spur some kind of action and help them; it was not only a case of people dying, many thousands were injured and since then there have been birth defects. Mother Theresa wandered among the suffering, hands held in prayer, and said merely

‘Forgive, forgive’

she couldn’t wait to be out of there.

Without my Romanian trip, I suppose I would be like anybody else, and believe that Mother Theresa is a saint. Just an example of one of the many myths we live by. Well, in reality, Mother Theresa is not a saint, very far from it. I would go as far as to say she was a very wicked woman.