Saturday, 26 May 2012

Peter Porter on Shakespeare

To distract myself from fretting about Shakespeare's great words being presented thus by the Globe Theatre:
- (That's Troilus and Cressida, don't you know) -

I turned again to The Best Australian Essays (a Ten-Year Collection) and started to read Peter Porter's essay, called The Old Good Books *. Here's what he has to say about Shakespeare:

"Shakespeare ... is everything. The church, rather than the academy, should sanctify him ... To this day, what Bottom tells us about his dream is the only notion of felicity I have ever believed in. 'I have had a dream past the wit of man to say what dream it was ... Methought I was - there is no man can tell what. Methought I was - and methought I had - but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had.' Bottom goes straight to Heaven, and Titania and Oberon linger in the world of their all-too-ubiquitous magic. I still see the play as I saw it then. A magical starburst of words.

The only possible maturity I have come to in my reading of Shakespeare (and watching his plays being acted) is of a widening of my sense of wonder. The more you put yourself in Shakespeare's world, the more you become a connoisseur of brilliance. Once I would have gone for the extremities of Macbeth, Hamlet and Lear. Today, you are more likely to find me luxuriating in Love's Labour Lost. Moth looks at the verbal show-offs in that play with affection and cool assessment. 'They have been at a great feast of languages, and stolen the scraps.' The frissons spring up momentarily in the middle of so much disputed action. 'Why all the souls that were were forfeit once,' says someone in Measure for Measure. Those looking-over-the-fence 'weres' are worth giving your life for. As Michelangelo told a patron of Raphael's who complained about the fee charged for a painting of Isaiah he'd commissioned, 'The knee alone is worth the price.' Throughout the corpus of Shakespeare the great moments survive and new ones keep arriving. The words of Palamon soliciting the aid of the goddesss Venus in The Two Noble Kinsmen are a perfect valediction of sexual love:

Thou that from eleven to ninety reignest
In mortal bosoms, whose chase is this world
As we in herds thy game, I give thee thanks
For this fair token; which being laid unto
Mine innocent true heart, arms in assurance
My body to this business."

Wise words, (I'm referring to Porter's on Shakespeare's, rather than Shakespeare's on sexual love [not that I'm knocking those]). If you need more convincing though, let me cite a single beautiful line - not even a full line, in fact - from Antony and Cleopatra to try to demonstrate why I think the Globe project is so mad. The line is "The bright day is done. And we are for the dark." What an exquisite phrase: each word is simple, everyday, monosyllabic, and yet it resonates. It is Shakespeare's almost unerring ability, seen in this example and in countless other instances, to choose the right words and to put them in the right order - apparently effortlessly - that makes him so extraordinary. For me at least, he appears to have been a man whose mind was more completely in tune with the English language than anyone else's ever has been. He had an uncanny feeling for our words. He handled them as if they were music. And that is why I think that, in an English-speaking country, presenting his plays in translation (let alone Hip Hop) is purely perverse.

Still, if you are more interested in novelty than the 'magical starburst of words' that is Shakespeare's greatest achievement, if you are in fact a modern day 'verbal show-off' who prefers 'scraps' from the 'feast of languages' to a dish that is perfect and whole, pop along to the Globe before 9 June for a dose of Shakespeare made incomprehensible to English speakers and served up instead in Swahili, Urdu, Albanian, Juba Arabic, Lithuanian, Gujarati, Yoruba, British Sign Language (Macbeth) or, yes, I promise, Hip Hop (Much Ado about Nothing).

*For more on Peter Porter, listen to my brother's interview with Clive James, which includes the latter's touching reminiscences about his old friend.


  1. I remember reading in John Gielgud's obituary the remark of a New York critic, who said that when Gielgud spoke he could hear Shakespeare thinking.

    1. There were the two great actors of the time, weren't there - Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. I don't know about hearing Shakespeare thinking, but I always had a softer spot for Richardson, because he played Lord Emsworth in the television adaptation of Uncle Freddie in the Springtime, and Emsworth has always been one of my main heroes.