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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Happy birthday, Shakespeare!

Or possibly baptism day, as we're not sure. We don't have his actual DOB, so we use April 23, his date of baptism. And today is the 450th anniversary.

I have a confession to make: I'm a total Bardoholic. I've been addicted to this guy's writing since I was about eleven. My sister had done Julius Caesar in Year 10 and her copy was still lying around. I was into ancient history at the time, so I opened it, thinking it might be a history book. Imagine my surprise to find out it was a play! And it started with these two guys trying to persuade the mob that they really, really, shouldn't be celebrating Caesar's victory over Pompey, who'd been so nice to them.

This was great stuff! Drama, poetry, characters killing each other, all while speaking in verse! Of course, I just had to read it all and find out how it ended, and then declaim speeches from the most dramatic scenes, aloud in the house. I couldn't wait to study it in Year 10.

My Year 10 English class was a disappointment. The teacher was a terribly nice man, but dull, dull, dull! Most periods we did grammar from the textbook, something I hated because I already knew it. And Julius Caesar? We watched the 1950s movie with Marlon Brando as Marc Antony, John Gielgud as Cassius and James Mason as Brutus, then listened to a recording of the same cast.  That was it. Fortunately, the next year we had a more rewarding experience with our nex teacher and Richard III.

 In Year 12, I studied King Lear in Literature. Our Literature teacher was not the best - among other things, he told us not to bother studying Childe Harold for the end of year exam because Vision Of Judgement was much more typical of Byron, just as well I ignored him! - but the play itself took my breath with its beauty and power. We were going to see it performed by the Melbourne Theatre Company before doing it in class and I thought I'd better at least take a look first. My book fell open at the scene  where Lear is cursing Cordelia. I gasped at the utter magic of the speech. 

This, I knew, was going to be my kind of play.

At university, we did a lot of Shakespeare, even performing two plays, Coriolanus and The Winter's Tale. We were excused one essay if we took part in the faculty production. Somewhere at Monash University, if thy haven't thrown it out, there's a recording, hopefully on DVD by now, of me at the age of twenty- one, playing Mopsa the shepherdess and Second lady in waiting to Queen Hermione. In Coriolanus, I was Third Citizen, Second Messenger and Second Officer(Second Officer was done as Second Cleaning Lady, sweeping up the palm leaves after Coriolanus's triumphal procession).  I also got to carry the banner and die in battle.

I love not only his writing but his humanity. His characters are believable. Even his villains are three dimensional. You are allowed to understand why they are that way. I can even forgive the popular plays written because that's what people were watching, such as Titus Andronicus, a play I studied at uni, but can't watch! 

If you think there's no connection between Shakespeare and speculative fiction, think again. The Tempest, as someone once said, is the origin of every SF story about a scientist, mad or otherwise, and his beautiful daughter. It is certainly the inspiration for that classic, Forbidden Planet. When Robert Bloch wrote a Halloween episode for Star Trek, he slipped in the three witches from The Scottish Play, and any Terry Pratchett fan knows what he did with them in the Discworld series. Poul Anderson's A Midsummer Tempest is set in a world in which everything Shakespeare wrote was true; he's called The Great Historian.

And all those words and phrases that were first heard in Shakespeare!  I do a Shakespeare introduction with my Year 8 class each year and they gasp at some of the words they use every day which came from the Bard.

I could go on and on, but you get the point. I would like to add, I don't subscribe to the conspiracy theories put out by folk who have nothing better to do. As far as I'm concerned, those plays and poems are not by Francis Bacon,  the Earl of Oxford, Christopher Marlowe or anyone else but the boy from Stratford!

Happy birthday, Will!

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