My brother’s about to go into his final year of secondary school and he’s told us that he’ll be studying Macbeth in the run up to his final GCSE exams.
Of course, that reminded me of when I had to study Macbeth for my GCSE exams. Unfortunately, and honestly, I remember that it was boring. How? It’s a play about MURDER! Lots of murder! Can you see where I’m baffled by the lingering feeling of boredom surrounding that period of my life? Have you ever had a teacher who went over one tiny, insignificant point over and over again? Yeah, that’s basically what it felt like back then. Thanks to that experience, I wasn’t exactly fond of Shakespeare at the time. That changed.
Thankfully, college turned that around. In my final year we were assigned the play King Lear. I didn’t know anything about it when we started and now it is one of my favourite plays (It’s on at the Globe Theatre in London until the 14th October and I would LOVE to go and see it performed if I get the chance).
In a nutshell, the play begins with King Lear who is about to divide his kingdom between his three daughters but before he does, he asks them which one of them loves him the most. Obviously, he just wants to be flattered and pandered to but it doesn’t work out like he expects it to. The opening scene does an amazing job of setting up expectations for the rest of the play as well as suggesting that many expectations will be broken in the following acts.
Can I just say that in my opinion, King Lear has one of the best subplots of Shakespeare’s plays. A big part of this subplot the character Edmund, Gloucester’s illegitimate son, is fascinating from his motivations to his actions because he’s somehow complicated and simple at the same time. He’s definitely what I would call an interesting villain. From a literary point of view, King Lear is packed with themes, etc. and the tragedy has so much to offer for analysis if you’re studying it. I find it to be such a clever play whether you’re reading it or you’re watching it.
As an audience member I have seen the play performed live and it was captivating. There’s a lot of emotion packed into the play as it follows King Lear, among others, who is stripped of his rights as a ruler, his family, his support network, his independence and his own mental faculties at various points in the play. I will admit that seeing Shakespeare performed is a much different different experience to reading it. Obviously intended for the stage, understanding Shakespeare comes with seeing the story come to life in front of your eyes.
College showed me just how clever Shakespeare is and how he wrote about humanity more than anything else. There are so many relatable elements if you look. I also took the chance to see Henry V performed at the Globe Theatre and it was the most incredible experience. Being at the theatre itself was amazing but the actual play was so compelling and powerful that it was absolutely worth the two to three hour train ride to London and back.
I’m lucky that my mum also rediscovered an interest in Shakespeare at approximately the same time I was studying at college and finding my own interest in the plays because they started showing a few of the Globe-on-Screen productions on Sky Arts. Filmed at the Globe Theatre each production offers wonderful casts of actors and actresses. Her favourite is probably Twelfth Night where it’s an all-male cast like it would’ve been when the plays where originally performed and it honestly makes the gender confusion in the play even funnier, plus Stephen Fry gives a fantastic performance as Malvolio.
I think that my favourite production in that series is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s a delightfully complicated play as well as being funny and I just adore the performance between Oberon and Puck, played by the fantastic actors John Light and Matthew Tennyson.
Combined, we both love As You Like It. It’s the play with the famous ‘seven ages of man’ speech but as all of the characters stumble their way towards a happy ending there is a lot of joy to be found in the play.
My enjoyable experience in studying King Lear and finding those fantastic Globe-on-Screen productions went a long way towards my decision to take the Shakespeare module during my third year at university even though there was an on-campus exam (I was used to handing in coursework by that point). There were a lot of plays packed into one semester but my lecturer, Dr Alison Younger, was wonderfully enthusiastic and every week had something different to look forward to.
We went from Richard ii to The Tempest in one hour lectures and two hour seminars and I will admit that I have never had so much fun in an exam. Stay with me here, where else can you write an English exam about cross dressing in literature?
Yes, I focused on Twelfth Night and The Tempest and I was actually prepared to write one paper about gender play and another about power imbalance and abuse of power in all of the relationships. I am totally proud to say that I got a first for that exam.
Actually liking Shakespeare made a huge difference in how calm and ready I felt for that final exam (I also did that well in my coursework by the way) which is why I hope that when it comes to my brother’s studies he won’t have the same discouraging experience that I had.