In 1954, when I was 10, the first twelve-inch, black-and-white television to arrive in St Monans was wheeled into the upstairs living-room of our neighbours across the street, where it caused an immediate sensation. Not even the Coronation the previous year, with all its bonfires and fireworks and beflagged fishing vessels fluttering on the firth, made quite the same impression. The Coronation had been a nine-day build-up and a one-day wonder, disappearing as fast as the bar of chocolate I was given, bearing the new queen’s image. But that television altered the very fabric of life.
In fact life died in that first house to usher in the new dispensation. Its owner had a passion for collecting dung, which on a daily basis he dug and raked lovingly into his vegetable patch. He was forever scouring the streets in the wake of the horses that brought round our morning milk in churns, and his was a familiar figure to be seen with sack and shovel, bent over the steaming heaps of newly laid manure. Now the horse dung grew cold on the roads and the green weeds strangled his leeks. The lights went out in his living-room, never to be seen again in my village lifetime.
They were replaced by a cold blue flickering against which the black humps of heads and shoulders gloomed like phantoms. The whole family sat in a stone circle, gorgonized by technology. Soon the circle widened, became a double circle, three tiers, a congregation – the neighbours were pouring in, to a house previously unvisited, arriving on all sorts of pretexts (‘Grandad had a good catch this morning – thought you could use these extra haddock’) – and staying till the Epilogue and what was now ‘God Save Our Queen’. Folk even huddled in knots on the street outside BBC House, as we called it, straining to catch a glimpse of the future, though the upstairs location made it, of course, quite impossible to see a single inch out of the twelve. Football and boxing matches were in full flow,
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In 1954, when I was 10, the first twelve-inch, black-and-white television to arrive in St Monans was wheeled into the upstairs living-room of our neighbours across the street, where it caused an immediate sensation. Not even the Coronation the previous year, with all its bonfires and fireworks and beflagged fishing vessels fluttering on the firth, made quite the same impression. The Coronation had been a nine-day build-up and a one-day wonder, disappearing as fast as the bar of chocolate I was given, bearing the new queen’s image. But that television altered the very fabric of life.In fact life died in that first house to usher in the new dispensation. Its owner had a passion for collecting dung, which on a daily basis he dug and raked lovingly into his vegetable patch. He was forever scouring the streets in the wake of the horses that brought round our morning milk in churns, and his was a familiar figure to be seen with sack and shovel, bent over the steaming heaps of newly laid manure. Now the horse dung grew cold on the roads and the green weeds strangled his leeks. The lights went out in his living-room, never to be seen again in my village lifetime. They were replaced by a cold blue flickering against which the black humps of heads and shoulders gloomed like phantoms. The whole family sat in a stone circle, gorgonized by technology. Soon the circle widened, became a double circle, three tiers, a congregation – the neighbours were pouring in, to a house previously unvisited, arriving on all sorts of pretexts (‘Grandad had a good catch this morning – thought you could use these extra haddock’) – and staying till the Epilogue and what was now ‘God Save Our Queen’. Folk even huddled in knots on the street outside BBC House, as we called it, straining to catch a glimpse of the future, though the upstairs location made it, of course, quite impossible to see a single inch out of the twelve. Football and boxing matches were in full flow, and the deprived stood on the pavement below, intent on those windows, as if it were possible to interpret the firefly flashes of light as goals scored or knock-out punches landed; though in reality the wireless commentaries were far more dramatic than anything the eye could witness. But the age of the ear and the inner eye was gone for good. The need to see spread madly and a rash of televisions broke out in every window. Soon the streets became like graveyards, the eeriness increased by the phantom flickering that played like lightning in every grove, in every crescent. A forest of masts rocked gently on the roofs, mimicking those in the harbour. ‘The light burns blue,’ says Brutus, as Caesar’s ghost appears in his tent on the eve of Philippi. And blue indeed was the colour of the ghost-town we became. Once I looked out of our televisionless living-room, still healthy with light, to see an amazing sight. An elderly accountant, whom I’d never seen travelling at anything less dignified than a snail’s pace, was propelling himself at startling speed from the bus-stop to his house, just a few yards round the corner. His umbrella preceded him like a rifle, and his scarf and hat were flying as he yomped his way home. England and Scotland were playing at five. I looked at the clock. It was a quarter past. He’d missed the first fifteen minutes. This was serious stuff. And it struck me that an invention which emptied the streets, fossilized families, gave grey hairs wings and allowed me to raid the neighbour’s strawberry patch unhindered, simply had to be reckoned with. I began to join in the chorus of childish treble voices begging for a television to be installed ‘in our house’. Within a short time my entreaties were answered. For me it proved a huge let-down – the stilted studio dramas, Children’s Hour, Andy Pandy, the intermissions, the breakdowns, the white noise. I quickly rediscovered my playgrounds on the bouldered beaches and in the cobbled closes of the village where I’d grown up: a village of a thousand souls whose ten (yes, ten) churches spouted a hell-fire far more fascinating than anything that television could invent. I then proceeded to secondary school in Anstruther, spent four years ignoring the perfectly decent education which my teachers tried to instil in me, and at the end of 1959, having failed all my exams, contemplated my sixteenth year and a career in the Navy. Which very nearly happened. And I could never have guessed that it would be television that was destined to alter dramatically the course of my life. Up to no good as usual, pinching apples possibly, I fell from a tree and hurt my skull, not seriously, but painfully enough to go reeling home to recover. As I sat there dazed in front of the television, a film started. It was Laurence Olivier’s version of Richard III. I was 15. And I was transfixed. More than transfixed. I was transformed. I persuaded my mother to spend 16 precious shillings on the Oxford Shakespeare and proceeded to work my passage through the plays, starting with The Tempest on p.3 and ending with Pericles on p.1072. I read all the poems and sonnets too, and even the glossary. Then I began all over again. I completed this Elizabethan readathon five times in the course of my (repeated) fourth year of secondary schooling, a year of sheer intoxication in which not a day went by but I read a Shakespeare play. At weekends and in the holidays I found I could devour five plays a day. I must have read Hamlet alone fifty times at least during that year. After that I threw myself into reading all the great criticism and scholarship, all the standard works, one teacher supplying me with books of his own and with dozens more borrowed from university libraries. Actually my teachers thought (not without enthusiasm) that I’d taken leave of my senses. And, in a sense, I had. I was beside myself with the sheer joy of literary discovery. I was, in the true meaning of the word, ecstatic. A further two years of secondary schooling, four years of university and three decades of school teaching did much to calm the initial excitement and intellectualize the emotion; but while greater understanding inevitably increased and enhanced enjoyment, there was no recapturing that mad blaze of first love, with all its dizzy raptures. That is what I want to share with you, the reader: the remembered experience of first literary love. Because, in spite of the fact that it was a film that acted as the trigger, the affair that followed was wholly a matter of reading – solitary, silent, secret, almost illicit – a drama enacted not so much in the closet as in fields and woods, on beaches and haystacks and buses and trains. Anywhere but on a stage or screen. Above all else, it was enacted in the mind. And I want to ask you a question: how long is it since you actually sat down and read a Shakespeare play, for the sheer pleasure of it, as you would read a novel, for example, or a volume of verse? How long is it, come to that, since you read a Shakespeare play at all? Schooldays? Student days? Last time you had to teach it as a text? – all of which involve reasons and feelings that tend to counteract and contradict the pleasure. I have no doubt that if you set out now anew, with pleasure alone in mind, you might be surprised at the kind and degree of it that awaits you, coming over you with the thrill of forgotten delight – like the sweet sound that breathes upon a bank of violets, stealing and giving odour, so I am tempted to add. For this is what it is all about: language, and the use of it by the world’s greatest writer. In his Poetics, Aristotle outlined the different kinds of pleasure obtainable from drama: Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Music and Spectacle. Leaving aside music, you may interest yourself primarily in questions that attach to the structure, psychology, language and themes of the play. Alternatively you may leave all that to the scholars and simply go to the theatre, though spectacle does not appear to rank high in the Aristotelian analysis. You can see why if you read Charles Lamb on Shakespeare. He says in his essay ‘On the Tragedies of Shakespeare’ (1811) that he went to the theatre ready to be enthralled by the spectacle of humankind battling against the forces of nature – elemental nature and human nature – and what he saw instead was an old actor with a fake white beard tottering about the stage with a stick. I experienced something similar recently when I went to see Michael Radford’s film version of The Merchant of Venice, starring Al Pacino as a tired old Shylock and Jeremy Irons as a hopelessly English Antonio, with little of the deep venom you would expect from a hot Hebrew-hater of Renaissance Venice, effete as he may appear in the play. By contrast (apart from reading the play itself) you would do well to return again to Lamb. Have you ever read his essay ‘On the Sanity of True Genius’, in the Last Essays of Elia (1833)? Don’t miss it. The relevance to the Merchant, I would say, is that Shakespeare may have started out with the idea of writing a play that caricatured a vengeful Jew, but in the end his essential humanity got the better of him and upset the scheme of the drama. Shakespeare was not one to be controlled by the madness of racism, even though his dramatic genius may have lost control of that confused play, and Shylock emerges, in one memorable speech at least, as the mouthpiece for subjugated minorities throughout our world and its shocking history. If you prick us do we not bleed . . .? And have you ever read Coleridge on Shakespeare? During one production he stood up in the stalls and bellowed to the actor playing Shylock to stop grovelling on the ground, to get up on his feet and speak the lines worthy of Shakespeare’s creation. Shylock is the tragic hero of the play, for God’s sake! (A critical response bettered only by that of the American Civil War soldier who rose from his seat during a production of Othello and fired his pistol at the actor playing Iago, just at the climax of the ‘fit’ scene, where Othello falls to the floor, foaming at the mouth, and Iago gloats, Work on, my medicine works! It must have been a convincing performance. The soldier shot Iago dead. The two were buried in the same grave, and their joint epitaph reads: Here lie the perfect actor and the perfect spectator – a theatrical critique which might well alarm the acting profession.) Going back to Coleridge, you won’t find inspirational material like his in much of the criticism written since the 1960s. Forget all those clever Oxford men who inhabit the Empire of Dullness. If you want to read criticism which takes you right back to the glowing heart of the drama and rekindles what may be a lost adolescent enthusiasm for the text itself, get yourself a selection of all that Romantic criticism, not forgetting Hazlitt and his dazzling books, Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays (1817) and Lectures on the English Poets (1818). And with all thy getting, get understanding! As opposed to obfuscation. My own first experience of Romantic criticism was taken from that marvellous little volume edited by D. Nichol Smith, Shakespearean Criticism: A Selection, first published in 1916 and still easily obtainable. This World’s Classics gem was given to me when I was 16 by my History teacher, who gleefully added the extra faggot to the Shakespearean fire that was consuming me. It contains the superb essay by Thomas de Quincey, ‘On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth’ (1823), a piece of writing which exemplifies the truth that the best pieces of criticism should be minor works of literature in themselves, best done by writers, not by dons. There is simply nothing like this in contemporary criticism which, with few exceptions (such as John Bayley), takes you away from the text and replaces it with the ivory-towered academic himself, self-admiring on his pedestal. In the early part of the last century Shakespearean academics were still producing criticism which could be read for its own aesthetic pleasure, besides fulfilling its business of illuminating the text. Aristotle referred to the Plot as ‘the soul of tragedy’. Think of a few Shakespearean plots and you may well disagree – till you read Wayne Booth’s essay ‘Macbeth as Tragic Hero’ (1951) or R. S. Crane’s The Language of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry (1953). If the thematic approach stirs up hateful memories of F. R. Leavis, read L. C. Knights’s essays, ‘How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?’ (1933), and ‘An Approach to Hamlet’ (1960), still published in various selections. Or read the great J. Dover Wilson, ‘What Happens in Hamlet’ (1935). The title is apt. Wilson sets out to tell you what is really going on in a puzzling play, and he succeeds brilliantly. All of the above essays feature in a splendid selection of critical extracts put together by Laurence Lerner in 1963, Shakespeare’s Tragedies: An Anthology of Modern Criticism. Here A. C. Bradley also makes his appearance. First published in 1904, his Lectures on Shakespearean Tragedy brought the psychological focus on character to such a point of exhaustive analysis and illumination – so it seemed at the time – that it was felt there was simply nothing left to learn: the bible had been written and the heart of Shakespeare’s mystery had been plucked out. One obscure academic even committed suicide. I think, however, that I can safely recommend it. The aura of Edwardian admiration in which Bradley basked is encapsulated in a piece of doggerel which appeared in The Times shortly after the book’s first publication:
I dreamt last night that Shakespeare’s ghost Sat for a Civil Service post. The English Papers of the year Contained a question on King Lear, Which Shakespeare answered very badly Because he hadn’t studied Bradley!Of course it was all based on the assumption that you could treat plays like novels, even like biographies, and assume that the characters really did have offstage lives, Macbeth and his wife dressing for dinner between foul deeds, an approach on which L. C. Knights famously heaped ridicule in that essay on Lady Macbeth’s procreative powers. Nonetheless Bradley’s book demonstrates the Shakespearean magic. The master had made you believe, and the disciple (Bradley) helped your unbelief, certainly suspended your disbelief. That suspension had quite a long run. In my own case, if I’d met Hamlet contemplating suicide in St Monans, I’d not have taken him for a ghost. Our rocky coast was Elsinore and beetled o’er his base into the sea – a sea of troubles. It was complete captivation. But in the last analysis it was primarily, as I have said, a matter of language. The plays are great dramatic poems, extended metaphors, and it is in the slightly mad writings of G. Wilson Knight that the poetic worlds of the individual plays are brought brilliantly alive. Read The Shakespearean Tempest (1932) or The Crown of Life (1947). Above all The Wheel of Fire (1932) made me look at Hamlet as I’d never seen it before, and though clouded now by some doubt as to its validity, the original impression remains. It is like being guided through Elsinore by William Blake. It is only when you actually read Shakespeare, however, rather than watch him in action, or study Wilson Knight, that you appreciate the extent to which each play possesses its own peculiar verbal ambience, imparted in its imagery, from the sickening claustrophobia of Hamlet (‘Denmark’s a prison’) to the mystical airiness of The Tempest (‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on/And our little life is rounded with a sleep’). The Elizabethans went to the theatre to hear a play, not to see it, and although it’s impossible even for our comparatively cloth ears not to hear familiar lines and phrases being struck like new-minted gold crowns, these verbal atmospheres are at their most pervasive only to the armchair theatre-goer. That solitary experience is what truly allows you to breathe them in and to marvel at the linguistic arrangements, whether it be verbal echoes or leitmotifs, or simply registering the dramatist’s endless ability to do different and surprising things with words. The most banal of utterances, by simple repetition, produces a line from Macbeth that resonates with all the world-weariness and despair ever experienced by man – tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow – while the musical pull and counter-pull between the Latinate and the Anglo-Saxon elements in the language, polysyllabic and monosyllabic, are thrown into greater prominence by the act of reading, of actually looking at the words, laid out on a page:
Absent thee from felicity awhile And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain To tell my story.When Hamlet follows this with ‘The rest is silence’ (a statement brimming with double meaning) you feel the curtain should come down there. The remaining lines are mere tidying up. And from your fireside chair, while memory holds a seat in this distracted globe, you can flash back and direct as you see fit. That moody, introverted, adolescent silence is in fact the way to get the most out of your Shakespeare and his honoured bones. This year Stratford is going to present the Complete Plays. It would be wonderful to attend them all, if practically impossible to achieve. But I have a suggestion to make. Why not read them all first – or instead? If you’re busy it might take you a couple of months. If you’ve nothing else to do it would be a nine-days’ wonder. And I’ll give you one guess as to who coined that last phrase.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 9 © Christopher Rush 2006
About the contributor
Christopher Rush’s memoir of his childhood in St Monans, Hellfire and Herring, was published in January 2007.
Most of the books mentioned here are out of print but may with luck be tracked down in a public library, or via www.abe.com.