When I started secondary school at the age of eleven, I was concerned to discover that we would eventually be learning some Shakespeare plays. They were compulsory as part of the syllabus, if we wanted to go on to take English exams at sixteen. By the time I was handed copies of the books we would be studying, I had never read a word of Shakespeare, nor seen a play of his on the stage. But I had seen the films of Richard III and Henry V, both starring Lawrence Olivier. Other than that, I only knew that he was from Stratford-Upon-Avon, had been married to Ann Hathaway, and his plays had been performed in circular theatres on the South Bank of The Thames, close to where I lived.
For us working-class kids in a run-down area, Shakespeare was considered to be very ‘highbrow’. His plays were something that posh people paid a lot of money to go and see in smart theatres, with famous thespians spouting even more famous lines and quotes. I had read a lot of Dickens, but his world was one I could identify with readily, as it had hardly changed in the hundred or so years since he had described it. I had also studied History, so knew something of the wars with France, and the Wars of The Roses in England. But I couldn’t bring myself to consider how the style of William Shakespeare might improve my appreciation of British History.
The plays in question were ‘Macbeth’, and Henry IV Parts One and Two. At first, I struggled with the prose, and the frequent use of words and sayings unfamiliar to me. But I was soon fascinated by the characters, who were described so well, and spoke in ways that admirably suited their roles. Within a few months, I found myself reading them avidly at home. And not because I had to, but because I wanted to. Prince Hal is the young man who would soon become Henry V, hero of Agincourt, and a popular king. But in the play, he is a reckless young man, spending his time in the company of drunkards like Sir John Falstaff, and boasters like Pistol. I wondered how his apparently dissolute lifestyle could ever prepare him for his future, when I came across this famous passage, a speech by Prince Hal, out of the hearing of his companions.
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work,
But when they seldom come, they wished-for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promisèd,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glitt’ring o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will.
I read it twice, realising that I had got it completely. The Prince was deliberately carousing with these people, in the hope that others would think badly of him. But he was pretending to enjoy himself, and not allowing himself to get drunk, despite appearing to be so. When the time was right, he would cast off these false friends, and become the brave Prince that England expected him to be. Because of these adolescent bad habits, his change of heart would be revered all the more, and his subjects would love him.
In this way, Shakespeare combines gossip with history, presenting his own version of what might have happened. He was writing about events that occurred over two hundred years before he wrote the play, virtually inventing the concept of ‘Faction’, a mix seen so often in today’s historical novels. In the same play, Falstaff fears he may be left behind, possibly even banished by the Prince. When he is described as ‘That villanous abominable misleader of youth, Falstaff, that old white-bearded Satan’, he responds by describing himself, in his own defence. (Sack is the old name for Sherry, a fortified wine that Falstaff drinks in copious amounts)
But to say I know more harm in him than in myself,
were to say more than I know. That he is old, the
more the pity, his white hairs do witness it; but
that he is, saving your reverence, a whoremaster,
that I utterly deny. If sack and sugar be a fault,
God help the wicked! if to be old and merry be a
sin, then many an old host that I know is damned: if
to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh’s lean kine
are to be loved. No, my good lord; banish Peto,
banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack
Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff,
valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant,
being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him
thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s
company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.
Long before I watched any actor say these lines in the stage play or film versions, I got that desperation; the fear of his exclusion, perhaps because of his drinking, his obesity, or his advancing years. In that short speech he summed up so many of the worries of a man past his prime, one who had attached himself to a Prince he thought might honour him, despite his misdeeds. A man who sees his dreams fading before his eyes, and resorts to little more than begging to retain his valued position.
In this play, Shakespeare does what the great writers do best. He shows us the faults of mankind, set in a time and place that seems pertinent, but could actually be in any time, past or present. The lust for power, the need to be admired and recognised, and the lamentations of those left behind when they expected to profit from their associations.
What I feared would be impenetrable prose, spoken by characters who were meaningless, in settings that were otherwise mundane, all turned out to be a treasure trove of perception, character description, and simply marvellous insight into human nature. If you have never read a Shakespeare play, I suggest you should. Any of them will do, as they are equally wonderful. But the ones I studied at school will have a place in my heart forever.