A personal Shakespearean biography

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.

I’m told there were long moments after I first saw light of day when all concerned really were concerned. I was to all intents, purposes and appearances one stillborn baby boy. But I’m told that, after being swung by the ankles I ‘came alive’ - and did much more than my fair share of ‘mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms’. I remember little else until sitting with my family around the radio as the Prime Minister announced his famous ‘… no such assurances have been received and therefore we are at was with Germany.’ .

And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school.

Oh, how I hated it!  Having moved out of our London suburb at the outbreak of WW2, now living in Walton-le-Dale, Lancashire, on my first day at school I absented myself, ran home. Loathe to return and subsequently slow, very slow to learn, one of my earliest memories is of my interview as a five or six years old with an imposing headmaster. Referring to my materrnal grandfather’s status as General of the Salvation Army I was accused of ‘letting my family down.’ Shameful indeed. Tears public and private.

                                                And then the lover,
Sighing like a furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow.

I see her still: Jacqueline. I’m a boarder at Abingdon School and I’ve climbed a forbidden apple tree, am looking over the kitchen garden wall at a ‘crocodile’ of equally young girls from Our Ladies Convent. They’re en route to their hockey field. Some of the girls have seen me, redfaced amongst the leafy branches. They’re giggling. One of them, the prettiest one, isn’t giggling and I’m in love. ‘Oh, Jacqueline!’ says another. I know her name! The next day I write her a note and throw it over the wall as the crocodile passes. Don’t know if she got it or read it. Never saw her again. That’s life.

                                                Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth.

Doing my National Service I was nicknamed Fritz for my short haircut and belligerant attitude. ‘Whoever took my bike is in big trouble’, I announced to all and sundry at RAF Full Sutton, Yorkshire. It was Saturday night and I had a date with Joan, twelve miles away in York but no way of getting there other than on foot. So I walked. Well, Sunday morning came and word came back. Glaswegian Ingles in the cookhouse had my bike. Ingles was a ‘teddy boy’ when not in uniform, given to long draped jacket, velvet collar rolled around a bicycle chain. A fair crowed had assembled, awaiting the carnage as I faced him down. “You took my bike, Ingles?” I asked, hoping for some face-saving excuse from him. “Yeah,” said he, po-faced. (He was an ugly bugger, Ingles.) Courage failed me. “Don’t do it again,” was my only rejoinder. Shakespeare would have understood that discretion is often the better part of valour. (He coined the phrase, so he should!)
                                                And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;

Marriage, family, mortgage and moderation in all things. But happy enough as I climbed my career ladder: salesman, area manager, sales manager, company director, company owner. Of course in imagination I would rather have been writing and painting in some garret but we can’t all be Hemingway or Picasso and the money was good. And so I hired and fired and made speeches filled with ‘wise saws and modern instances and developed the statutory fair round belly in the process. As I grew older it seems to me, looking back, that I actually grew more happy.

And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound.

‘Happy’ or merely ‘contented’? Whatever, we are as we are. And yes, we are indeed ‘as dreams are made on’. The older I get the more I see the truth of it. I would dispute Shakespear’s ‘lean and slippered pantaloon (don’t know what a pantaloon is, anyway), but I am spectacled and my manly voice is definitely developing that harsh whistle of old age. That’s no problem as they say today. And I am not done yet with all those youthful dreams.

                                                Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Of course! Not nice, but whatever will be will be, and one day not all that far distant I shall proceed - or should that be progress? - from one dream to another as do all things living, all that have lived.

The seven ages of a man are from the preface to Shakespeare’s As You Like It. I’ll end this brief personal commentary with another quotation, this time from The Scottish Play. King Macbeth has just lost his Lady wife …

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

I’ve heard that Nelson Mandela, imprisoned on Robin Island with other anti-Government protesters, was allowed a single book. He chose to take with him The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. At some point during the long years that followed he sent his copy around to the other prisoners, asking each of them to mark the passage that meant the most. Mandela himself apparently marked the foregoing beginning with; ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow …’

For me the wonderful words are partially contradicted by themselves; at least in the case of our Bard.

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