I was in the bottom group for English at school (I know) so I wasn’t allowed anywhere near Shakespeare. Instead of Julius Caesar, we read My Darling, My Hamburger. It was trash. A dumb story about school life calculated to appeal to the lowest common denominator and therefore appealing to no one. Next door, we would hear through the plasterboard walls, our friends in the top class, reciting passages from Julius Caesar, but we couldn’t make out the words, just the rhythm. It sounded more fun than what we were reading. But when we spoke to our friends in the top group, they hated Shakespeare as much as we hated My Darling, My Hamburger. Still, I felt like I was losing out.
I left school at sixteen and went to work in a factory. I hadn’t enjoyed school and the thought of continuing my education filled me with horror. But by the age of nineteen, I was hungry for literature. Not My Darling, My Hamburger, but the stuff we weren’t allowed anywhere near. I enrolled in a night class in A-level English Literature. There were two Shakespeare plays on the reading list: The Tempest and King Lear.
The very first class I went to we read the first scene of The Tempest. It’s the famous storm scene and I remember coming across the line describing the ship as being ‘as leaky as an unstanched wench’. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. We discussed its meaning. Could it mean, as leaky as a woman who was menstruating, or could it mean as leaky as a prostitute who had been with many men? My mind boggled. I was knocked sideways. I had thought Shakespeare was ‘posh’; full of ornate, decorous language. I had no idea he could be so bawdy and coarse. Later in the play, I fell in love with Caliban. Here was a reviled monster, who could utter such exquisite language as this:
When thou camest first,
Thou strokedst me and madest much of me, wouldst give me
Water with berries in’t, and teach me how
To name the bigger light, and how the less,
That burn by day and night: and then I loved thee
And show’d thee all the qualities o’ the isle. (1.2.3)
Or even better:
Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again (3.2.18)
I was practically in tears (my eyes are welling now as I read it again). We argued a lot in that class. Some of the students accused him of being a rapist and were on Prospero’s side. But I was firmly on Caliban’s side and I could not see the fairness in the counter-argument. It was a valuable lesson.
Later we read King Lear. If anything, this impressed me even more. I fell in love again. This time with Edmund:
Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moon-shines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us
With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?
Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take
More composition and fierce quality
Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,
Go to the creating a whole tribe of fops,
Got ‘tween asleep and wake? Well, then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land:
Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund
As to the legitimate: fine word,–legitimate!
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top the legitimate. I grow; I prosper:
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!
Every word rang true.
After that I was hooked. I don’t know if I’d be so crackers about Shakespeare if I had been made to read him at the age of twelve or thirteen. I think being in the bottom class may have just done me a favour.
This blog was originally written for The University of Huddersfield here.