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Saturday, 25 January 2014

To be or not to be - who cares?

My sister is a big Shakespeare fan. Me, not so much.

"Hamlet is a long evening of nothing happening, at the end of which everybody dies," I tell her, as we're sat in the living room of her house, during a long evening of nothing happening, at the end of which nobody dies.

"I'd rather be stuck in a lift for the weekend with Noel Edmonds than sit through four hours of Hamlet's self-obsessed chuntering," I say.

"No you wouldn't," she says.

"No, I wouldn't," I say. "But it's close." 

"Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet - these are wonderful plays," she says. "A Midsummer Night's Dream is packed with poetry."

"I'll give you that," I say. "'I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows, where oxlips and the nodding violet grows...' Lovely stuff." 

"'Quite over-canopied with lush woodbine, With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine...,'" she says. "The first time the teacher read that to us, it sent shivers up my spine."

"But you need more than evocative words and clever rhymes," I say.

"Like what?" she says. 

"Like plot," I say. "Humour. How about a happy ending once in a while? I'm with John Cleese. You can be serious without being solemn."

"I think when you're young you're drawn to that dark side," she says. "I know I was. I read a lot of other serious writers like Graham Greene. All that tragedy to other people is comforting when you're struggling with adolescence. 

"And there is humour in Shakespeare," she says. "For a long time after his death he wasn't taken seriously by critics, because he mixed humour with tragedy. But humour doesn't last. You think people will laugh at Peter Kay's jokes in five hundred years?"

"Dunno why they laugh at them now," I say. "But it's not just the depressing endings and black-hearted behaviour. It's how Shakespeare says the same thing in forty different ways. There's a preening quality to that. He reminds me of Paul Jones."

"Who?" she says.  

"Blues singer. You thought he was lovely when you were 14."

"So I did," she says. "He was."

"Well he's still performing and my pal Iain tells me he's one of the best harmonica players in the world. But he's got a narcissistic personality that comes through somehow in his music. Don't ask me how.

"I get the same feeling with Buddy Rich on drums and Shakespeare with words. It's like 'Look at me; I'm wonderful.' It damages the art by drawing attention to the artist."

"But Shakespeare is so inventive," she says. "I love that about him. Half the clichés in the English language weren't clichés then. He made them up. Language and literature would be hugely impoverished if Shakespeare had never written a thing."

"I'm not so sure," I say. "Dickens is just as fluent, inventive and articulate. But what he's got is humour in his phrasing and rhythms. And he says something once and moves on. He's absorbed in the story, same as you are. He's like Steve Gadd on drums or Dylan on the harmonica."

"I can't take all the dirt and squalor in Dickens," she says. "It's repulsive."

"I see," I say. "Murder, suicide, rape and incest are fine in Shakespeare. But you can't take dirty fingernails in Dickens?"
"No I can't," she says. "The one thing I agree with you about is Hamlet. It's not a great plot and the hero does go on a bit, I'll give you that. The best criticism of Hamlet I ever read was in a school essay by your son David."

"Now he is clever," I say.

"Funny too," she says. "His essay had just one sentence in it. His teacher wasn't impressed, but I thought it was great."

"Yeah, what did he say?" 

"'Hamlet is a big girl's blouse."

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