Wednesday, 30 April 2014

The impact of Shakespeare


It is St George’s Day and it is also the 450th birthday of Germany’s National Poet. Before you think I am confused, Shakespeare for a time in the early 19th century was venerated by German writers such as Goethe as having qualities that they believed that Germans  should aspire to. Of course although Shakespeare is English Midland born he has been adopted by many different cultures and is flexible enough to be turned into “West Side Story”, a Japanese film epic of Kurosawa such as “Ran” or modified and set as a recent “Julius Caesar” production in contemporary war torn East Africa. And he may have had North Staffordshire roots as Doug Pickford, a former editor of the Post and Times claimed he had ancestors who moved from Trent Vale to Warwickshire during the 15th century. Perhaps he was a Stokie after all! As a form of proof I came across the word “sneap” in “Henry IV Part 2”.

I began to appreciate Shakespeare from an early age. I was first exposed to him through a BBC production of the “Age of Kings” and the very funny portrayal of Falstaff by Robert Hardy in 1962. I was given the” Complete Works” for my 10th birthday and earlier this year when my daughter a volume when she reached that milestone. I hope she treasures it. It could be for her the beginning of a life long passion. Over the years I have seen many memorable productions, Robert Stephen in “King Lear”, Emma Thompson in “Midsummer Night Dream, Simon Russell Beale in “Richard II” as well as some of the infrequently performed plays such as “Pericles” or “Henry VIII”. I firmly oppose the argument that the plays have no relevance to the modern day a view expressed by a Stoke Councillor at a meeting I attended a few years ago. He cited “Romeo and Juliet” as having no significance, a poor choice, as it is a play that features arranged marriages, gang warfare and the relationship between the old and the young. What a fool!

It’s impossible to say when the people of the Moorlands first saw Shakespeare’s play. My guess is that during the 18th century with improved roads touring companies would have visited. There is a playbill  I have seen of a production of “Othello” at the Red Lion in Leek in the 1840s as well as a 1877 “King Lear” at the Swan where one of the actors was accidentally stabbed. The Mechanic Institute in Russell Street would have had lectures and talks on the plays a tradition that carried on into the next century with courses put on by the Workers Educational Association. Shakespeare before the First World War would have been well embedded into the culture of Leek.


The “Complete Works” I bought for Phoebe contained an essay by the great Victorian actor Henry Irving rubbishing the theory that the provincial, low born Shakespeare could  not have written the plays, but they were created by the well- placed Oxford educated Francis Bacon 1st Baron St Albans. I have always thought that this belief is founded on pure snobbery.  Three great cultural figures living in the 17th Century Shakespeare, Newton and Bach all came from provincial towns- a fact that we who live and work in a provincial town should hold on to this April 23rd.