It was just Shakespeare being Shakespeare – taking a few individual experiences and making them universal
William Cash on the facts (and otherwise) of William Shakespeare’s life, whom Simon Callow is embodying in ‘Being Shakespeare’ at the Trafalgar Studios until 23 July
About half an hour before Simon Callow walked out onto the stage of his new one-man show, Being Shakespeare, at the Trafalgar Studios in Whitehall, I encountered Callow in the street, casually walking past Drummond’s Bank at Admiralty Arch – on his way to the stage door.
He looked relaxed, was laughing with a friend and was wearing a dark jacket and trousers. How many actors, I thought, show up for work just half an hour before the curtain goes up, not the least when they are doing a one-man show that lasts nearly two hours? Only the very best, is the answer.
It’s invariably the same with artists, sportsmen, musicians or even journalists. When Jeff Thompson was opening the bowling for Australia in the seventies, demolishing the English batting with his friend Dennis Lillie, he would often show up at the Test ground just a few minutes the players took to the field, still wearing his swimming trunks, his old surf board tied to the top of the car, having just been for a long surf to sort out his hangover from the night before. And just ten minutes later he would be marking out his run and bowl like a demon possessed.
In the magazine world, as an editor, it’s usually the better copy that comes in late – or close to the wire. It’s rare for the best critics to file a month before publication. In Shakespeare in Love, I don’t know on what factual basis Tom Stoppard (who co-wrote the script) had Shakespeare ‘burning the candle’ – to use Dr Johnson’s phrase – in order to meet his deadlines, but for Shakespeare to be a playwright deadline junkie has the sniff of truth about it, just as Mozart (also played by Callow in the original stage production of Amadeus) was a serial composer deadline junkie who fuelled up on alcohol as a stimulant to keep him awake through the night to meet his obligations (to meet his debts). Dickens (also played by Callow in a previous one-man show) worked best when pushed to the inky wire (again because he had to meet serialisation obligations and had bills to pay).
I mention this because Being Shakespeare is not really a play about the life of Shakespeare, some sort of dramatic biopic that goes over the familiar biographical details: it is a play about the artistic temperament, and what it is that makes an artist an artist. Callow is magnificently relaxed, confident and authoritative in the role in which he does not actually play Shakespeare but rather plays an Ariel-like omniscient narrator – a Marlow-esque figure (I mean Marlow, Conrad’s narrator, not Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare’s rival) dressed very much as I saw him in the street just half an hour before the performance started.
WRITING OR PERFORMING in a one man Shakespeare play cannot be easy as the facts of his life are so scarce and yet also so familiar; it would be so tempting to start reading – or writing – the life into the works, and produce a show that covers the facts: the grammar school in Stratford; the shotgun wedding to local farmer’s daughter Anne Hathaway, five years his senior; his father’s social fall and financial ruin; followed by the the lost years either on the road with a troop of actors or teaching in the North, then the ‘upstart crow’ who takes London theatre-land by storm; the mystery of the Sonnets; the squabbles with the law; Shakespeare the popular and famous playwright turned theatre co-owner; and then the establishment bard and chief playwright to the court of James I with his own coat of arms and silk velvet court suit ordered for the Coronation who has redeemed the family honour by buying back the most expensive house in Stratford, and some nice land, before suddenly retiring from plays and dying aged just 52 – in his hometown where he is buried.
But such a chronology, were it to have been simply dramatised, would be the sort of production that you might expect put on for teenage school children as part of the the RSC school education programme.
The reason that ‘Being Shakespeare’ works so memorably and so well as a one man show is that Callow (and helped by an intelligent script by Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate) allows the idea of Shakespeare the Elizabethan outsider to surface convincingly – at a time when the very idea of individual consciousness was changing and the idea of the ‘individual’ in society, and his role, and his duties, both philosophically and politically was at the very forefront of intellectual debate across Europe.
Officially, the show takes as its ‘spine’ as Callow puts it, the cliched ‘Seven Ages of Man’ speech from Jaques in As You Like It, and takes us on a Shakespearean journey – helped by extracts and monologues from scenes ranging from Hamlet, A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream to Julius Caesar and The Tempest – that deals with the various aspects of Shakespeare’s life…
‘And one man in his time plays many parts His acts being seven ages’ (Act 2, scene 7). Jaques is the king of melancholia in the Forest of Arden – a fantasia upon the theme of the banished, exiled and outsiders, where Shakespeare not only would have felt at home but was actually at home (the Forest of Arden, just outside Stratford, is where Shakespeare would have tramped through on his way to court Anne Hathaway, whom he made pregnant aged 18).
Yet taking this idea of ‘All the world’s a stage” and hanging it to another character’s suggestion in the play that the stage of man – or the world – is ‘a wide and universal theatre’ was already a pretty tired cliche in 17th century poetry and theatre, and the truth is that many of the lines in the famous speech simply don’t add up in terms of referencing Shakespeare’s own life – he never made it to seventy; he was never – as far as we know a soldier – and it would be absurd to take that single speech as being especially autobiographical.
It was just Shakespeare being Shakespeare – taking a few individual experiences and making them universal. What I most liked about the production is that this Seven Ages theme is really just a red herring – its just a device to get the audience. Being Shakespeare really has little to so with this rhetorical scaffolding.
IN TRUTH, THE show is more of a witty and illuminating dramatisation not so much of the famous flogged Jaques speech – which Shakespeare designed to be understood as a slightly hackneyed piece of rhetoric, like an old actor dragging a well worked set piece out of the dressing up box, I think, but rather is Callow’s own personal, affectionate and electrically sympathetic nod to the much more realistic, truthful and real portrayal of Shakespeare the man – or The Man from Stratford as the Callow one man show was originally going to be called – as we know from Ben Jonson’s tribute to his old friend, whom he knew all too well. In his poem written in memory of his friend he warns against the perils of heaping praise or trying to understand the ‘sweet swan of Avon’ through ‘blind affection’ and false flattery and praise.
‘When it sounds at best, but echoes right’. Callow is precisely this: an echo or spirit chamber. The play has a Tempest like quality to it; the set and shimmering use of language is like bio-pic as a sea-change; we see the man emerge through the time tunnel and dark, cruel and rich and deeply dramatic social energy of Elizabethan England to today where the narrator seems to exist in contemporary time.
Callow strips away much of the myth of Shakespeare to reveal the the essence of Shakespeare’s life and works – neither one dominating or obscuring the other, neither reading too little or grabbing onto too much to tell his tale – through some extraordinary acting alchemy where time, history, and above all language merge into one and we start to have a better understand of that question which has baffled and puzzled scholars, academics and playgoers for so many centuries: how on earth did a young middle-class man from Stratford, in the provinces – a son of a glove-maker who never went to university, who had no money of his own, whose father was bankrupted and shamed (having to stand down as mayor because of being informed against as a money lender and illegal wool trader), who disappeared from about eight years, suddenly move to London in the 1580s and within just a few years had become what Jonson described – with awe and without jealousy – as ‘not of an Age but of all time’?
In his brilliant 2004 literary investigation, Will in the World, ‘How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare’, the Harvard Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt wrestles with this very question. The book is a welcome counter blast to the turgid Leavisite and Cambridge school of Shakespearean criticism that declared that the works were all and the life irrelevant. In it Greenblatt states – rightly – that one of the chief characteristics of his art and genius is ‘the touch of the real’.
Here he is talking about the Zola-like gift of taking a detail from real life and transforming it – through his own life and experience – into something sublime. Before a gifted actor takes what Sahkespeare has written and makes the page come alive, the words on the printed page contain the ‘vivid presence of actual, lived experience’.
The young poet, once caught poaching a deer as a teenager in the deer park at Charlecote Park – just outside Stratford, home of the aristocratic Lucy family – describes a trembling hare in a deer park as being ‘dew-bedabbled’; the husband who tells his wife that there is a ‘purse in the desk That’s covered o’er with Turksih tapestry or who has a prince recall than a broke and ruined friend of his only owns two pairs of silk stockings, one of them peach-coloured – such are some details that Greenblatt picks out to illustrate his compelling point.
THE SHOW CONTAINS some nice details which confirms that Shakespeare is the poet of character and the ‘real’. But the show misses some big themes which cannot simply be dismissed – in a show called ‘Being Shakespeare’ without explanation: there is no reference to Shakespeare’s Catholic roots (his family, especially on his mother’s side were devout Catholics and were implicated in the Gunpowder plot) or his shadowy and doubtless conflicting allegiances to both the ‘old faith’ and – out of necessity – the new religious order of Elizabethan England – especially if you were young, without money, and socially ambitious – all of which applied to Shakespeare.
Callow’s show makes much of Shakespeare’s education at Stratford and much is squeezed from the famous line of the Seven Ages speech, referring the the second Age: ‘And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel And shining morning face, creeping like snail, unwillingly to school’. But what is impossible to forget – and which is not touched on in the show – is that from 1571 to 1575, the schoolmaster at Stratford grammar was a one Simon Hunt, a classicist who received his BA from Oxford in 1568.
He was therefore Shakespeare’s teacher at the deeply formative ages of seven to eleven, when he was supposedly pulling himself with great reluctance to school. As Greenblatt notes, this same Simon Hunt then became a Jesuit priest in 1578, indicating that ‘Shakespeare’s early teacher was a Catholic, which is consistent with the whole pattern of experience of his youth’.
This deep internal conflict between what Shakespeare chose to keep hidden and that which he chose to dramatise in his works is part of the very key to understanding the essence of what made Shakespeare who he was and it is a shame that the subject is swept under the stage. Nor is Shakespeare’s love life much speculated on or examined; a subject that surely holds so much of the key to who Shakespeare really was.
My own theory is that once Shakespeare got to London and started to become famous, the ‘upstart crow’ had his wings badly burnt, or possibly a few times; and he became another artistic victim of disappointed love, whom the world of literature owes much.
The idea of loss is integral to understanding how Shakespeare became Shakespeare – not just romantic loss, but a sense of the Old world, falling away into the new. As Jonson fnishes his personal elegy: ‘Which, since thy flight from hence, hath mourned like night, And despairs day, but for thy volume’s light’. The show captures this bleak, beautiful and Prospero-like spirit of melancholic forbearance; and it is not to be missed.