Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;On the first day of my second year of uni, I met Ali, a girl who for several years was my best friend. Ali's father was an English professor, but he hadn't been able to work for several years before I knew her, because he was suffering from a serious mental illness. The condition made him very difficult to live with, and Ali and her siblings were afraid to take friends home for fear of what Dad might do next. It was therefore with much trepidation that I made my first visit to her family home for dinner and to 'meet the family'.
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer'd it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest--
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men--
Come I to speak in Caesar's funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.
(Sounds like a first date, doesn't it? I can assure you that it was all completely innocent, but I must say I was as nervous that night as the one where I really did meet my in-laws-to-be.)
Anyhow, when we arrived, Ali's dad was in fine form, holding court in the living room. Now at this stage, I realise that I need to make a confession. When I was in second year uni I had pink hair. Not pink-rinse pink; beetroot pink. With my pink spiky hair I wore pink clothes. Pink everything. Including a pink tweed op shop coat. I was most decidedly odd looking. Actually, it is probably a toss up which of us was odder - him or me. Anyhow, in Ali and I walked to the living room. He looking me up and down, raised an eyebrow, stared disconcertingly at my hair, and told me to take a seat. Which I did.
He rose from his, stood over me, and quoted the first immortal phrase of Marc Antony's speech: Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.
Quick as a wink, from somewhere deep inside me came the reply: I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones;So let it be with Caesar.
His eyebrow raised and he glared at me. The rest of the family stopped to listen. Personally, I was astounded. Where did that come from, I wondered? When precisely in my tender 20 years had I memorised that? Anyhow, he hadn't finished.
"When is it acceptable to use 'If I was' in a sentence?" he barked. "Well, if I was a grammar scholar somewhere in the past then I certainly am no longer one now," I replied just as quickly. He started to smile. I started to smile too. His was a smile of approval; mine was a smile of victory.
There was one more test question that night. I must phone Ali and see if she can remember what it was. Regardless, whatever it was, I passed that one too.
Ali's dad and I were friends until he died. He always treated me well, and was always delighted to see me. I miss his charming repartee and his quick wit. I realise that he was a very disturbed man, but I will always remember him with affection. I cried when he died.
I was reminded of this long buried memory during this past week when I read the second scene of Julius Caesar aloud to Jemimah. It all came flooding back.
Despite having studied Shakespeare's plays since AO1, it was the first long portion of his works that I'd read aloud. We have been studying Plutarch's Life of Brutus, and I wanted to read her Shakespeare's version of Antonius/Marc Antony's speech.
"More, more," she cried when I'd finished. I want to hear more!"
When I heard that I knew we were on the right track with our Shakespeare studies. I smiled my smile of victory.
Shakespeare is not somebody to be feared - he wrote for the ordinary people, not only royalty and the educated. His words when read aloud with feeling come alive. They sparkle with wit and humour, and his characterisation is peerless. They think the same way we do. They have the same dilemmas, the same conflicts. They make the same mistakes, and as a consequence we can relate to them.
Shakespeare’s plays were written to be performed - not to be studied as part of the cannon of literature, although clearly they stand up to be used in this way...when the time comes. But not now. Not for us.
For now on, we're concentrating on getting to know Shakespeare and enjoying him. We're listening to his language, his rhythm, his poetry. We're laughing at his jokes. I think we're doing pretty well.
The romantic comedy, Much Ado About Nothing, is a terrific play to see first:
“What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?Oh, the dripping scorn! Love it!
Beatrice: Is it possible disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick?”
I was a little bit afraid taking Jemimah to Romeo and Juliet a couple of weeks ago, but I needn't have been. Although after the death of Mercutio this play is, without doubt, a tragedy; the jokes and funny elements of the first half more than compensate. Not to mention that the slap-stick comedy of Juliet's nurse appealed to my Mr Bean loving daughter from the first.
If you haven't introduced your children to Shakespeare, may I encourage you to do so? Read his stories in a version for children like those by Edith Nesbit or Charles and Mary Lamb. Read them, enjoy them, talk about them. Read other books with great literary language - Parables of Nature, Howard Pyle's stories, Charlotte Yonge, Andrew Lang's fairy books.
Then when you're ready, see a play. Chose it carefully - The Comedy of Errors or A Midsummer Night's Dream is probably better than Hamlet, King Lear or Othello. Reread the story. Discuss any interesting bits. Then just sit back and let The Bard entertain you as he has been doing for hundreds of years.
I think you'll be pleasantly surprised at how easy it all is.
One day, you children might just be able to impress their friends' fathers with their impressive oratory skills. Or maybe not. At least they will have heard the stories of one of the most remarkable storytellers the world has ever known.
If you cannot understand my argument, and declare "It's Greek to me", you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger, if your wish is father to the thought, if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool's paradise - why, be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare; if you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage, if you think it is high time and that that is the long and short of it, if you believe that the game is up and that truth will out even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reason, then - to give the devil his due - if the truth were known (for surely you have a tongue in your head) you are quoting Shakespeare; even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I were dead as a door-nail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blinking idiot, then - by Jove! O Lord! Tut, tut! for goodness' sake! what the dickens! but me no buts - it is all one to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare.
Bernard Levin in The Story of English, Robert McCrum, William Cran and Robert MacNeil, p145