Yes, old Will is 450 today; and yet, like the figures on Keats’ Grecian urn, he remains forever young. I rejoice today in the fact that he and I have been buds for almost 60 years.
I was introduced to Shakespeare, of course, in high school. In Mr McLean’s English classes at Lord Byng Secondary School, we studied “Romeo and Juliet,” “MacBeth” and “Julius Caesar.” Interesting, I now reflect, that when later in this email I tell you about the uses I’ve recently made of Shakespeare, two of those uses come from those plays.
The most memorable moment in our study of “MacBeth” came very close to the beginning, in the three witches’ episode. A certain Linda, peace be upon her, had been assigned to read the part of Third Witch. Thus:
First Witch – Where the place? / Second Witch – Upon the heath. / Third Witch – There to meet with (and so she pronounced it) MacBeeth.
Mr McLean put his hands over his face and groaned, then said to the unfortunate Linda, “What is the name of this play, Linda?” “MacBeth, sir.” “Then why did you pronounce it MacBeeth?” “Isn’t it poetry, sir?”
Many years later I learned that Linda was right about the poetry, or the rhyme, at least, and the aggrieved Mr McLean was mistaken. In the 16th century, I learned, “heath” was pronounced “heth”–so it *did* rhyme. (I once met a gentleman, indeed a baronet, Sir Francis Heathcote, whose surname was pronounced heth-cut.)
Then in the summer of 1955 I went on my first long trip, to Ontario, where I stayed with my mother’s first cousin, and her favourite cousin, Frank Houston, who lived at 90 Sorauren Avenue in Toronto, an address which was always uttered in our house in tones of the greatest respect, for was it not where Cousin Frank lived? Frank took me to Stratford, where the Shakespeare festival was in its infancy. The festival theatre had not yet been built, and the plays were performed in a huge tent. We saw three: “Oedipus Rex,” “Richard III” (with Alec Guinness, no less, as Richard) and “The Merchant of Venice.” Memorable, and very exciting for a bookish teen.
At UBC I did an English degree, and of course took the mandatory Shakespeare course, taught by the delightfully self-designated G. Philip V. Akrigg. When he read, he used a different voice for each character, leaping athletically from one side of the podium to the other, being first Romeo, then Juliet, and so on.
Over the years I have been to a number of Shakespeare festivals: Stratford in England, where (you can tell this was a while ago) I saw Judi Dench as Juliet; Stratford in Ontario, where in addition to Alec Guinness I saw the great William Hutt as Prospero transfix the audience with the slow movement of his magic staff from one side of the theatre to the other; and Ashland, in Oregon, from which I remember magnificent performances of “Twelfth Night” (always my favourite, since I played the part of Feste, the clown, in a very amateur Vancouver Shakespeare Society performance in 1957 or so) and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Here I salute those friends who sojourned with me on those Ashland trips: Nan Goodship, John Mills, Andréa French, Nathan Elliot, Sarah Kantner, Mary Aitken, Larry Green, Ellen Federman, Christina Thiele, and all the other students who came with us. The festival at Stratford, Connecticut, awaits.
And as for Vancouver’s own “Bard on the Beach,” under the consummate directorship of Christopher Gaze (and why do I find myself wanting to say “Sir Christopher Gaze”? He would surely by now be a knight if he had stayed in his native Britain), it can hold its own with any of the larger and older festivals. I heard him on the CBC this morning, celebrating the anniversary in his luscious accent. Yes, it’s the voice that moves me to believe he ought to be a knight!
Thinking back over this past year, I recall a number of occasions on which I have had a happy recourse to the Bard for the mot juste. The first of these was the golden wedding anniversary of Helen and Doug, my sister and brother-in-law, last October, which Doug pointed out to me was going to be celebrated on St Crispin’s Day, October 25 (in Shakespeare’s spelling, Crispian). That it was this day took me immediately (I had been entrusted with making some remarks introductory to their renewal of vows) to “Henry V,” in which there is a memorable reference to that feast. Henry is addressing his troops before the Battle of Agincourt, the decisive battle in the Anglo-French war of the time, and here’s what he says.
This day is called the feast of Crispian; / He that outlives this day and comes safe home / Will stand a tip-toe when this day is named, /And rouse him at the name of Crispian. / He that shall live this day, and see old age, / Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours ….
And so we did, and a fine feast it was.
Then on Valentine’s Day, I could find no better way of greeting my friends than with the sort-of sonnet that Romeo and Juliet exchange as their first conversation, and here it is in all its sauciness.
OK, the last line is a bit of a downer, although we know from the rest of the play that it didn’t discourage Romeo.
Then about two weeks ago, I had the privilege of my first audience with our new bishop, Melissa Skelton (MA in English, among other degrees). I was making the point to her that the upbeat mood of the diocese since her arrival seemed to me to offer opportunity for bold initiatives; and who else could I quote in that regard but Brutus to his fellow-conspirators, in Act 4 of “Julius Caesar.”
There is a tide in the affairs of men, / which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; /omitted, all the voyage of their life / is bound in shallows and in miseries. / On such a full sea are we now afloat, / And we must take the current when it serves, / or lose our ventures.
And then there is always Polonius’ advice to Laertes in “Hamlet”:
This above all: to thine own self be true, / and it must follow, as the night the day, / thou canst not then be false to any [one].
Because it is part of a sententious speech, it is sometimes dismissed as itself sententious. But not so. It remains a litmus test for all of our behaviours.
And because I am come unto an age in which thoughts of mortality occur more frequently than in earlier years, I venture to crave that at my departure, when words are being sought to speed me on my way, someone will remember Horatio’s envoi to Hamlet–is this too much to ask? [ ]
Good night, sweet prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!
William Shakespeare, 450 today; what a guy!