I read the other day that one of the reasons why kids often don’t ‘click’ with Shakespeare – or find his comedies funny – is that his jokes were terrible. They were also topical, and the one thing that dates faster than last week’s old fish is a topical joke.
I can’t help thinking – at least on my experience – that high school English teachers also have a bit to do with the calculation. The one I had, back in the late 1970s – a fellow named ‘Frog’ McKenzie- was a pleasant and well-meaning guy, but he had an unerring ability to make anything he taught dull. He obliterated class interest in literature. All the reading on the curriculum – not just Shakespeare but Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and even Heller’s Catch -22 – were rendered dull, dull, dull. Forever.
The reality, carefully hidden by the teacher, was that Shakespeare was the hot writer of his day – sharp, fast and witty. Interesting.
I don’t buy into the debates over whether the plays were written by Will Shakespeare or some other guy with the same name. Nor do I think they were penned by his wife Anne Hathaway (who got his second-best bed in his will, and is apparently now a Hollywood actress), or the Duke of Bedford, still less the Queen’s nurse, Bernard (who Shakespeare parodied in Romeo and Juliet’s The Nurse).
I think the plays were written by the guy we usually say they were. They were rollicking good stories.
Back then Londoners went to The Globe for an evening’s entertainment – much as later generations went to the cinema, and we blob around on our own couches with our X Boxes. So the pressure was on the Immortal Bard to hit the spot – and he did. If you happened to be living in Elizabethan England, his plays were up to the minute, jokey, bawdy, and often geared to subtly tweak the nose of the regime. This last was quite risky, because the place was being run as a police state. But Shakespeare managed it, usually by setting his play in some historical period. Some of his history plays were also designed to bolster the Tudor regime (a deep defamation on Richard III, but hey….)
Shakespeare produced, in short, a jolly good evening’s entertainment that was edgy enough to be good – but not so edgy it had him thrown into the Tower. (‘I only let him off because he blubbed on the way to the gallows’). And that’s the sort of stuff I wasn’t taught at school by my English teacher, who instead presented Shakespeare as high literature and a looooong afternoon’s bore.
That said, it’s hard to ‘get’ every last subtle in-joke, in all its complex detail, unless you’re a close scholar of the Elizabethan period. I’m not, which means I probably miss quite a lot, except the bit about ‘sack’, which was the Elizabethan term for cheap imported sherry, usually in a sack-wrapped bottle. Today we’d probably call it ‘chateau cardboard’ – you know, 3 litres of terrible wine packaged in a plastic bladder held in a cardboard box with a small slot for a tap.
Now, the last time I saw ‘chateau cardboard’ on sale in a pub was in a bar in Reefton in 1997, where my wife ordered a glass of house savignon. The woman behind the bar fished out a plastic bladder (sans cardboard case) from the chiller, opened the valve, and schpritzed a glass-full of this vinegary, sugary liquid. Conceptually? Sack. So began an evening that continued with the local ‘Man O Man’ contest, fuelled by an astonishing amount of drinking (we sat at the back, watching in amusement) and to my mind all this was not entirely unlike the sort of bawdy fun in the kind of Elizabethan bars that Prince Hal and Sir John Falstaff might have frequented. Falstaff, anyway.
See what I mean? I could go on like this for quite a while, because a lot of what Shakespeare wrote cut to the heart of the human condition, which everybody can identify with today because it’s still going on – I mean, a rowdy bar is a rowdy bar. It’s all interesting, if we know where to look. My English teacher didn’t, but that’s another story.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015