Why Shakespeare?

By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.

I went to Stratford-upon-Avon the other day, and I hated it.

Words touristy and theme park come to mind. There was the Iago’s Barbershop, of course, and the Bard’s Barbers, as well as an Alice shop, a Peter Rabbit shop, a let’s-see-how-Hogwardy-we-can-make-it-without-getting-sued shop, dozens of shops selling Union Jack everything, and of course all those bronze statues depicting characters from Shakespeare’s plays, with carefully chosen quotes scattered around. At the birth house, we were shown the floor on which Shakespeare walked, and the room in which he was born, and in the courtyard an actor was playing lute and singing Elizabethan pub songs with the sort of hammed-up gusto that tends to suggest that he would rather be anywhere but there.

I can’t blame him.

It is a tale
told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

I went to Stratford hoping to be inspired but came away with the sort of crushing feeling that follows when being forced to exit through the gift shop selling the sort of tasteful but generic stuff all gift shops everywhere are full of – lavender soaps, V&A Museum Collection aprons, mugs with quotes on them, usually a token locally sourced alcoholic drink and pots of jam with pretty labels. The Shakespeare Centre at least has a book shop, even if the collection of “serious” books is much smaller than the selection abridged, straight-narrative picture books, Elizabethan cookbooks and the stacks of Star Wars scripts rewritten in Shakespeare’s Iambic pentametre (I kid you not). One couldn’t but to feel that the heritage industry has produced and packaged Shakespeare straight out of Shakespeare in its desire to create a pleasant, inoffensive visitor experience.

While one exits through the gift shop, the entry is through a dark room in which a short film plays continuously, reflected on a semi-circular screen. Words and lines from the plays whirl on this screen, broken by scenes from the RSC productions of past, the greatest actors in the country speaking the greatest lines ever written. It was there that I finally felt the kind of awe that I had been expected to feel all along. The floor on which the author walked matters little. That his words still exist, are still performed, still hold the audience in their thrall, does. Authentic-looking glace kid gloves tell us nothing about who Shakespeare was. What he wrote tell everything.

I’m a tiny bit embarrassed to confess that though I have seen countless film adaptations of the plays and read them on my own, I have never seen a Shakespeare play on stage. He isn’t regularly performed in Finland, and somehow during the years I have lived in the UK, I have managed to pass by all those trips to Stratford and London the English department in my workplace frequently organises. So, after paying my respects to that infamous floor the Bard of Stratford walked on, it’s time to really discover Shakespeare.

So, I have set myself a mission: see all of Shakespeare’s plays on stage. Since some of them are not all that often performed, setting a deadline would be madness – I fully expect to drag myself across the finishing line 16 years from now, having finally seen a rather obscure, controversial university drama society production of Pericles at the Fringe. Along the way, I hope to have learnt something, experienced something, met people worth knowing, discovered something new. So, better go and see where this journey (gag) will take me.

Expectation is the root of all heartache.

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