On Reading Shakespeare

There is - or certainly was when we lived there - a most wonderful used / antiquarian book shop in central Winchester. We spent many a profitable half hour browsing its dusty stock in between less important stuff like shopping. One day, in there, I came across a slim volume which was, in those hackneyed words,  to 'change my life'. Literally. Apart from what follows it taught me why and how the words and they way they are assembled can be of greater importance than the story they tell.

The book was written in 1928 by one Professor Logan Pearsall-Smith. It is called 'On Reading Shakespeare'.

In yesterday's Sunday Times columnist India Knight wrote '...I know perfectly intelligent adults who've never read Shakespeare and who, on seeing his work performed, find themselves unpleasantly and slightly humiliatingly baffled.'  She goes on to write; '... the most satisfying and joyful moment of my entire school career came when I finally - after years of being given notes and elucidations - was able to read Shakespeare on my own, and found it made beautiful, perfect sense. To deny a child this seems to me to be a piece of actual cruelty ...'  All this was provoked by Helen Mirren's statement that schoolchildren should not be subjected to reading Shakespeare and that they should see it performed instead.
Like Ms Knight, I am a great admirer of Mirren as an actress but ... 'The play's the thing', Helen. Twentyfirst century entertainers 'strutting their hour upon the stage' have nothing to do with it.

Here's an aside: I was shocked and horrified to read that the great one was currently starring in a new filmed version of The Tempest - a female playing the ultra old male Prospero! Is there no end to this nonsense of artificial male/female sameness? Yes I know small boys played the female roles in Shakespeare's day, but that was merely because the law did not permit females on stage. Our bard wrote enough amazingly good female parts for the ladies of the stage to want to perform his amazing male parts these days. Fifteen years ago we saw Vanessa Redgrave - another wonderful if genetically self-worshipping British actress  - play this same Prospero on stage at The Globe. Sorry folks, Ms Redgrave may have acted her socks off but her presence in the role spoiled the day to which, for years, I had been looking forward.

Professor Logan Pearsall-Smith's little book, apart from being in its own right possibly the most perfect piece of English prose I have read, advised the reader to get the Arden editions of the plays. These are the paperbacks with copious footnotes page by page that, if you read them carefully enough, will finally unveil for you the ise of language not just of England in the 16th/17th century but the true beauty of the bard's words and phrases. I read all thirty one accredited palys over a period of two years, during which time I read no other books, and still most days I will consult one of other of them. Since then I have seen many of the plays performed on stage and/or screen but the pleasure I found in the actors' / actress's interpretation of the roles pales into insignificance versus the same in my own, reader's, imagination.

Soom after this 'unveiling' I wrote a narrative poem describing my personal journey through our literary / poetical heritage. This is a part of my tribute to the good professor's little volume  ...


The book lies open in my hand
and as when something flashed
brightly in a muddy field
and you stooped to pick it up
and you were looking
into the bright sun-colours
of a diamond,
it opened the door, switched on the lights
and there for me that wondrous treasury
to brighten all my days,
to hold an explanation for my nights:
and thus in the beginning
and the ending
are the words.

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