The Bard just leaves me bored - Why I’ve never quite ‘got’ Shakespeare
- Credit: PA
Yet another 'I'll-get-me-coat' moment as I'm forced again to admit that I've never quite 'got' Shakespeare. How can you, they ask, 'not like' the man who single-handedly created much of the English language? Easy: I don't like him. A lot of what he writes, I find boring, ponderous and sometimes, downright silly. I'm in good company: Shaw, Pepys, Samuel Johnson, Voltaire, Tolstoy and Tolkien didn't go much on him either.
Following news in 1994 that the RSC had secured new sponsorship to the tune of about £2.5m from Allied Lyons, a well known cakes & ale conglomerate, I was commissioned by a newspaper to compose a letter 'from Shakespeare' to the Allied Lyons chairman. I was given 48 hours. I knew little of Shakespeare and had forgotten most of what I did know. I took the job of course, because, like many jobbing writers, I have all the lofty principles of a rat on a bombsite.
I did some scrabbling around. It seems that during the early 1990s, the RSC were experiencing a little financial turbulence. From what I could gather, some of their sponsorship had previously come from the long-running West End production of Les Miserables. I also learned that certain RSC actors often moonlighted on Les Mis, in order to bump up their wages
My question at the time, which still stands to this day, is that if Shakespeare, is so important, so loved, then why does the RSC need sponsorship at all? Surely the eager public would be queueing outside theatres like stage-door johnnies, in order to rain kisses on the lovely upturned faces of the fully-employed thespians who emerge glistening from within? Not a bit of it, apparently.
My unrepentant submission, therefore, is that much of the discerning public couldn't actually give a fig about the Immortal Bored and yet daren't say so, lest they be belaboured by culture snobs for being the unlettered peasants which they obviously are. It's not entirely Shakespeare's fault, however.
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Even some of the people who do like him become bogged down in snipey little debates about whether his work was that of a committee of writers, or of another man entirely: Chris Marlowe or Eddie De Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.
Such people, typically, form special societies in order to support their spurious causes. This is an action which, rather touchingly, they believe endows them with some kind of authority. It doesn't. In reality, it's trainspotting, albeit in another guise, wearing university degrees, rather than anoraks.
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Back to my Shakespeare and Allied Lyons letter. Upon consulting a quotation dictionary, I found no less than 56 pages of small-print quotations attributed to Shakespeare. Daunted that there was so much to wade through, but heartened to discover so much fuel for the composition of a spurious letter written entirely in his own words, I set to work. After finishing the piece, I came away with a grudging respect for Shakespeare. He'd written some words, all right. I still quibbled, nonetheless, with some of the combinations in which he'd arranged them.
Idle summary might put my churlish attitude down to me being an inverted snob, who at 15 left school with a monumental chip on his shoulder and a burning hatred of those who would govern me. I was a normal healthy teenager in other words.
But this Shakespeare: it was not enough for me to hate him merely for being my enemies' golden boy. To truly see them off I needed to come at them from a position of strength, Before I dismiss him, I must first understand him. I've tried many times. Decades later, I'm no wiser. He is possibly brilliant. I may never know, since I still find him utterly boring. Every so often, just in case something within me has changed, I'll try him again. This time I'm struggling with The Taming of the Shrew. The story so far: Some lord or other sees a drunk in a pub, saying to his henchmen, 'Look chaps, I've got a wizard jape. Let's get this old turps-nudger and put him in my bed, right? So that when he wakes up, you all pretend that he's me and that he's lost his memory for 15 years.' That's as far as I get, then I fall asleep. It's deadly.
I can also give you a small list of the Bard's plays which have sent me off to the Land of Nod. I simply don't go to the theatre any more, unless I'm actually performing in one, of course. I'm a yob at heart and always will be.
Shakespeare films which I've slumbered through include Richard III, Henry V, and Romeo and Juliet. I was watching Henry V, the Olivier version, last night. Again, I tried hard to understand it and failed. It involved middle-aged men in tights wearing Joan Crawford eye make-up, all speaking in 'Heppy, Dahling?' accents. Over-acting wasn't in it. Ever seen Michael Caine in The Ipcress File? Now, that's an actor. He does it all with the eyes. He doesn't galumph about like an extra in a Cindy Lauper video, does he?
Now look, I actually bought this classic film on DVD, with my own cash. I've never quite had the heart to take it back to Cat Rescue. As Andrew Marvell, another poet, as well as son and heir to the famous dried milk empire, once said: 'Had we but world enough and time...' Well, I haven't, as it goes.
• Martin Newell is an East Anglian poet and singer-songwriter