What Shakespeare means to me

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My introduction to William Shakespeare was in the form of a scratchy film print shown in the school hall. I was 9 years old at the time. The film was Laurence Olivier’s classic film adaptation of Hamlet.

I found it fascinating to watch this young, noble, heroic and troubled prince, in an encounter with the ghost of his murdered father, and the fact that his mother would marry his uncle within a month of his father’s death. Betrayal by some of his friends, and his girlfriend Ophelia going mad, and drowning herself in a river, were further challenges Hamlet had to deal with throughout the course of the play. The famous ‘to be or not to be...’ soliloquy struck a chord with me. Years later I read that Laurence Olivier described this film as ‘more of an engraving than a painting‘.

The Sunday following my viewing of Hamlet, I watched another classic black and white film, John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, where Doc Holliday played by Victor Mature recites ‘to be or not to be…’ in a very moving performance. Then, ‘Have Gun, Will Travel’, a TV show that would become my favourite as a young boy, featured Richard Boone as the character Paladin, who regularly quoted Shakespeare.

Years later I became involved in amateur dramatics, playing in Much Ado About Nothing, in the Lantern Theatre, and in The Taming of the Shrew and The Merchant of Venice, staged by The Dublin Shakespeare Society. By this time I had several copies of Shakespeare plays on my bookshelf, including a ‘Complete Works of William Shakespeare’.

Attending speech and drama classes at the Royal Irish Academy of Music added to my love of old Will’s work. A weekend ‘pilgrimage’ to Stratford-upon-Avon, and I was signed up for life! I bought a little book of his sonnets and sat reading and reciting them by the Avon river, to an audience of swans, moorhens, and fluttering swallows.

Performing under the direction of Edwards and MacLiammoir in the Gate Theatre production of The Merchant of Venice, attending Hamlet with Ian McKellen and The Tempest with Paul Scofield in London, and over the years watching very many interesting interpretations of Shakespeare’s works including the Disney animation The Lion King, based on Hamlet, have made me appreciate more than any other writer or poet, William Shakespeare could understand the human condition, as expressed in every facet of his extraordinary plays, sonnets and poems.

I’ve completed for publication a story that had been going around in my head for quite some time: it’s called Shakespeare and Ratbag. In it my aim is to introduce young people to Shakespeare’s works, in a novel way.

So, in remembering the greatest writer in English literature on the 400th anniversary of his death, I leave you with a quote from Hamlet:

‘Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.’

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