"It is a good divine that follows his own instructions; I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done than to be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching."
Portia, The Merchant of Venice, Act I, Scene II.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Happy Shakespeare's Birthday!

Happy Bard Day everyone!  I have responded to the call for a personal statement about what Shakespeare means to me....

To start with I inherited my love of Shakespeare from my parents. My mum, Prue, pulled a copy of As You Like It out of her dad's small bookcase when she was 11 or 12. She says that marvellous characters leapt out of the page at her and she was mesmerised. At her high school (Wellington East Girls' College) she was in the Classics stream which studied two Shakespeare plays every year, so by the time she left school (no 7th Form in those days) she had 9 plays under her belt and enjoyed every moment of them. She went on to become an English teacher and one of her proudest achievements was directing a full production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at Kerikeri High School.

My dad, Martin, was also hooked on Shakespeare. He did his Master of Arts thesis on Shakespeare's character additions - i.e. original characters Shakespeare added to his found plots. He had a prodigious memory and used to tell the story about how someone came over to him in the university common room one day and asked him to identify a quotation from one of the plays. He immediately gave the correct play, act, scene and character. His enquirer went back over to his companions and reported; money changed hands! Dad too went on to become an English teacher.

When I was born I was named after Jessica in The Merchant of Venice, with a nod to the Scottish family name of 'Jessie'.  I remember going to see dad as Baptista in The Taming of the Shrew done by the Hawera Repertory Society, and I remember mum and dad rehearsing students for the Sheilah Winn competition in the 70s in Hawera. Any Shakespeare production on TV or in a town near enough to travel to and great would be the excitement. Afterwards the production would be analyzed in the lounge over cups of tea, no aspect escaped discussion: the casting, the mise en scene, the costumes, the acting, the delivery of the text, etc, etc. Was the interpretation justified by the text? Bits we liked, bits we would have done differently: "I would have said/done it like this..."

My parents quoted Shakespeare in every day conversation so much that when I finally was old enough to begin reading the plays I kept recognizing family sayings.  My mother is given to muttering things like: "Marry, well bethought!" when someone has a good idea, or "A murrain on thee" when someone annoys her. My dad, who died quite young, over 30 years ago now, was quoting Hamlet on his deathbed!

My mum belonged to the Wellington Shakespeare Society for many years and was involved in judging their award at the Sheilah Winn National Festival a couple of times. The years she did this I went along too and sat through the whole weekend, which is just a delight - seeing hundreds of teenagers performing Shakespeare, loving it, having fun and thinking that it's cool!

All my siblings like Shakespeare too, but I guess I got the genetic double-whammy: after 40 years of doing other things I finally realized that I was fighting destiny and also became an English teacher. I get a special kick out of introducing my students to Shakespeare for the first time. I tell them that as far as I am concerned he is the greatest writer in the English language. His plays are still read and performed around the world every day, hundreds of years after his death.

He is a great writer because he understands people and can show their different motives and reactions. He is a fantastic poet and his language is intricate, clever, memorable, funny. His plays deal with issues and situations which are still fully relevant to human society today. He can wrench your heart or make you laugh. Above all, his plays are entertaining and thought-provoking.

As well as teaching the plays and sonnets in the classroom, I have been involved with preparing students for the SGCNZ University of Otago Sheilah Winn Festival of Shakespeare in Schools for some years now. I don't think I am the world's greatest director but I do my best. I love the plays and try to involve all the students that want to participate. I love seeing students who are tentative at the start grow in confidence and realize that Shakespeare can be a lot of fun.

One morning last term I met one of my Sheilah Winn cast in the staff carpark. She is a tiny year 7 student who spends her entire onstage time grinning (whether this is in character or not) because she is having so much fun. She called out, "When do we have Shakespeare, Miss?" When I replied that we were rehearsing at lunchtime that day, she cried, "Yay! I love Shakespeare!" in tones of rapture, and ran up and threw her arms around me in her enthusiasm!  It's moments like this that make all the effort that goes into a production worth going the extra mile.

Here are some of the Romeo and Juliet cast rehearsing during the school holidays last week. We are doing the prologue and first scene - the fight in the market place. The Regional Festival is coming up this Saturday 28 April so we are on the last lap.

Happy Birthday Shakespeare! - still alive and well and being performed in Otaki, New Zealand in 2012.

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