Mirrors, or The Play Chooses You

This is an edited version of an essay that first appeared on thespellofwakinghours in March 2012.

O, is all forgot?
All school-days’ friendship, childhood innocence?
A Midsummer Night’s Dream [III.2]

People often talk about having a favourite Shakespeare play, the one play that they love and admire above all the others, for any number of reasons. While it’s a fantastic thing, I also think it’s not possible to have just one favourite Shakespeare play for life, for the simple reason that as we mature and grow, so do our tastes; we keep looking in the mirror and seeing new things reflected back at us. Throughout my early teens, like a lot of people, Shakespeare was just this guy, you know, who wrote some plays about four-hundred years ago, and people think he’s pretty okay still, but I never really ‘got’ why Shakespeare was Shakespeare, why he held such a godlike position in the literary canon. Mum and Dad took me to see The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) when I was twelve, and I ‘got’ enough of it to thoroughly enjoy myself. (I particularly remember the ‘balcony scene’ in Romeo and Juliet. One actor knelt in front of a chair with three tiny flowerpots strapped to his head, while another actor stood on the chair with a small watering can. ‘The balcony scene,’ the waterer said, deadpan, and the audience roared and applauded.) You could say that was the beginning, if you really wanted to. But if you think about it, this idea of having a sequence of ‘favourite’ Shakespeare plays is actually a part of our education whether we like it or not (or at least it was when I was at school; I believe the continuity and design behind it has been amended and inverted somewhat since then). Consequently, I have a theory happening, and I’m beginning to think it’s more purposeful and subtle – more conscious – than we’d ever assumed at first.
Year Eight, aged thirteen-notquite-fourteen. We ‘did’ – I’ve never understood why you ‘do’ Shakespeare; surely ‘doing’ implies acting and reading and speaking, not studying – things you can do on a stage, on a physical level as opposed to a literal one – we did A Midsummer Night’s Dream in year eight, and as an introduction to Shakespeare, it’s pretty unbeatable. I remember wanting to be Puck because he was Puck, I was the smallest in the class (not by much) and because he got the best scenes (or so I thought). It was the first Shakespeare play I read, the first play that I had an inkling of why this Shakespeare guy was Shakespeare. Aged thirteen (or whatever we were then), you’ve still got a bit of innocence left in you, in your world view, you’re still a bit of a kid, and your eyes are wide with wonder and anything seems possible. If people suddenly emerge with a donkey’s head, why not?! I guess I’m trying to say that at that age, A Midsummer Night’s Dream seems pretty good – nothing terribly groundbreaking happens in it, nothing terribly bad anyway, it’s a light-hearted comedy and there’s a happy ending, what more could you want from it? 

Year Nine, aged nearly-fifteen. Year Nine was the year of Romeo and Juliet and Baz Luhrmann’s hyperactive reimagining of it. You’re fourteen, at an all-boy’s school (not for long though), hormones are flying everywhichway and along comes this play about love and all its heady adrenaline-thumping rushing glory, and it’s fantastic. It’s got everything for nearly-fifteen year olds: swordfights, love, exile, (with only the slight hiccup of a death (or two or four) to dampen the mood). Luhrmann’s film, moreso than the play (at least on the page), sucks you in, catches you up in its frenetic exuberance and brashness, and disgorges you at the end, exhausted and exhilarated. (For many years afterwards, I couldn’t listen to Radiohead without thinking of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hawaiian shirt or Clare Danes’ angel wings). The play – the film – are their own clichés, but when you’re that age you don’t care one jot; it’s just the best play in the world.

Year Ten, aged sixteen. Macbeth – the ‘Scottish play’ if you’re a superstitious bugger – was Year Ten, and it was the year girls came to the school (my school was, at the time, only co-ed from years Ten to Twelve). While everyone was trying to impress each other, trying to work out where they stood and where everyone else fitted in around them, from where I was – not so much on the sidelines as passing through it untrammeled – it seemed like we were, in our own way, enacting Macbeth. There were those who mongered gossip (the Witches, weird sisters), those who believed them a bit too much (Macbeth) and those who egged them on, desperately wanted the rumours to be true (Lady M); there were ones who had to be removed from the equation (Duncan), the ones who had to suffer almost unnecessarily (Banquo), the ones who were hurt in the process (Macduff and his family); there were the ones who came through it on their own steam (Malcolm and Donaldbain), and those who stumbled through it under a cloud of godknowswhat (the porter). And for many people, there was the mother of all parties before a downfall, kind of like… As a revenge-cycle play, it’s brilliant, and is certainly the fastest moving of all Shakespeare’s plays. (The less we say about Polanski or Geoffrey Wright’s film, the better.)

Year Eleven, aged seventeen. By my own admission, this is where the theory comes a bit unstuck, if only by my own fault. I never really paid much attention in year eleven, and only understood The Taming of the Shrew through 10 Things I Hate About You, its comparative descendent. I suppose what I did understand from it, is that love’s a bit of a struggle, isn’t it, a bit of a cruel mistress. People will always dig their heels in, refuse to be moved by others’ attentions, until bitbybit, they grow to ‘see’ the person underneath the bluster and the swagger, the human beneath the disguise, if only people would stick around long enough. My sister did Othello in year eleven which, like Shrew, kind of represents the next thematic stage from Romeo and Juliet, in that it is a more cynical, skeptical, distrusting viewpoint of the world. You’re seventeen, not really sure of much anymore, not even those who you thought you were close to, and sometimes you hear things you wish you hadn’t and wish never to see people again. (I haven’t read or studied Othello, though I know the barest of details about it, and I’m rather disinclined to.)

Year Twelve, aged eighteen. To finish school, we studied The Tempest in Year Twelve, a play about endings and forgivenesses, reconciliations and the end of the dream. “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” Prospero says, “and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” From its tempestuous opening (and not incestuous, as one classmate said) and its kindly shipwreck, to its haunting and weirdly erotic songs, and its bizarre love story (even by Shakespeare’s standards; I find it a bit incredulous that it happened all in just one afternoon), it’s a pretty good way to end school and step into the biggest adventure of them all, to drown your books and hang up your cloak, sotospeak.
In HamletShakespeare writes that “the purpose of playing…was and is, to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature;” [III.2] whether we are conscious of it or not, whether we like it or not, the sequencing of the plays set for study in the English classroom at school effectively mirrors the emotional development and maturation of our ideas and tastes. From the seeming innocence of the wood outside Athens, to the giddy passions and driving ambitions, to the island where truths are made apparent, tempests are kind and shipwrecks save souls, our lives are reflected back at us, however obliquely, even though most of us would probably wish we could do without it. It’s not just the people who write the curriculum though; it’s also got a lot to do with Shakespeare and the way he writes – that his plays can be studied at school and then, years later, they can be unearthed again, rediscovered, and can seem as fresh, new, and relevant as they ever were.

Good old Billy the Bard.