Shakespeare the Man from Stratford
Simon Callow’s new one man show, Shakespeare The Man from Stratford, is written by Jonathan Bate. Like Bate’s earlier biography of Shakespeare,Soul of the Age, this theatre piece is also framed by Jaques’s speech ‘The Seven Ages of Man’ taken from As You Like It. Over the past fifteen years Callow has performed other literary characters on stage. His first one-man play was Michéal mac Liammór’s The Importance of Being Oscar, and he followed this some years later with The Mystery of Charles Dickens, written by Peter Ackroyd. His latest offering on Shakespeare follows the same format as the two earlier plays: he relates the stories of the writers, whilst also bringing to life various characters that they have created. Writing in the Richmond and Twickenham Times, to coincide with the play’s week long run at the Richmond Theatre, Callow looks back over these two earlier dramatisations and states that his ‘adoration for Dickens has been eclipsed by the man from Stratford’.
Callow translates Bate’s words from the page to the stage and entertains the audience in the process. He doesn’t entertain the possibility that anybody but Shakespeare wrote the poetry and plays attributed to the man from Stratford and begins his monologue with the birth of the baby William: ‘the infant, / Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms’. He points out that the young boy survived an outbreak of the Plague and illustrates the mature dramatist’s depiction of children by using an extract from The Winter’s Tale in which Mamillius, Hermione and her ladies discuss tales. ‘A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one / Of sprites and goblins.’ He later describes the dramatist’s depiction of adult grief in the face of childhood mortality, using, as an example, Lady Constance’s suffering after the death of her son, Arthur (in King John). However, he relates this back to the sorrow that his mother, Mary, must have suffered after the deaths of his elder sisters, Joan and Margaret. He emphasises that Tudor families were close knit and that the deaths of children would have never been forgotten.
After pointing out that William survived childhood, the next phase in his life is would have been ‘the whining schoolboy, with his satchel / And shining morning face, creeping like snail / Unwillingly to school’. Bate is at pains to point out that sixteenth-century schooling was rigorous and that the boys learned grammar and Latin, with a strong emphasis on rhetoric. They would be drilled in the use of the latter, using figures of speech, from antimetabole to zeugma, that are unknown to modern day schoolchildren. The acquisition of this command of language was more than enough to provide the future dramatist and poet with the skills of his art. This section of the play anticipates the later debates regarding the authorship of the plays and can be enjoyed as a companion piece to James Shapiro’s Contested Will. Callow used Mark Antony’s speech at Caesar’s funeral (from Julius Caesar) to illustrate the effectiveness of a rhetorical argument and how it can influence the beliefs of listeners.
The soldier from Jaques’s speech prompted a discussion of the wars that were never too far away during the 1580s and 1590s and of how soldiers form a solid corpus of characters in the plays: if we are not watching a war being fought on stage, men are often marching off to fight, or returning from battle.
It would be too boring and formulaic if each ‘age’ were to be introduced with lines from As You Like It so Callow also discusses the other stages of Shakespeare’s life in terms of his return to Stratford (the sixth age) and then moves on to the seventh, and final, scene: ‘Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything’ and relates it to Macbeth’s speech on the death of Lady Macbeth: ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’ before coming full circle and reminding us that Shakespeare was a playwright writing in a metatheatrical style. Inasmuch as Jaques’s speech foregrounds the conceit of life as acted out on the stage, Macbeth also reminds us that
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
As mentioned earlier, the play doesn’t bother entering into the authorship debate. There is no question that the basis of Shakespeare’s command of the English language was laid down at the King’s New School in Stratford, and his vivid imagination and descriptions of people, both high and low, were fuelled by his time in London. The capital city was a bustling, busy place and the dramatist could or would have honed his imagination by watching people as they went about their daily work. In Renaissance Italy, Leonardo Da Vinci sketched people in the streets, and in Renaissance London, a provincial man from a market town in the West Midlands observed and listened. In the programme notes, Jonathan Bate opines that Shakespeare:
was a working craftsman who had to make his daily living and to face the problems that we all face every day. His life was ordinary – it was his mind that was extraordinary. His imagination leapt to every corner of the earth and every age of history, through fantasy and dream, yet it was always rooted in the real
Jonathan Bate metadramatically brings the dramatist to life and Simon Callow, sometimes a little hyperbolically, speaks the words and acts the parts (a little like Nick Bottom greedily wishes to play many characters). I almost wished the play would have ended with Puck’s words from A Midsummer Night’s Dream ‘Give me your hands, if we be friends’. Anyway the audience showed their appreciation and enjoyment without the need for encouragement to applaud.