William Shakespeare: The Greatest Briton

When asked to muse on the subject of The Greatest Briton, I will admit I found myself torn. I didn’t wish to discount the achievements of anybody. Keir Hardie? Mary Wollstonecraft? I am deeply interested in the history of the common man, how one person can rise to make a difference to the world, no matter how small. This is how I came to make my final decision. A man from modest beginnings who became the stuff of legend. A man who inspires like no other, even 400 years after his death. A man who has influenced my own choice of career more than any other: William Shakespeare. Perhaps an obvious choice, but his popularity shouldn’t make him any less valid…although far be it for me to succumb to bardolatry.(Thank you for that phrase, George Bernard Shaw).

The mystery that shrouds Shakespeare has excited conspiracy theorists for generations. The Oxfordian theory suggests that the real author of Shakespeare’s plays was Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford, inciting support from actors such as Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance. After all, how could a humble boy from Stratford with terrible handwriting and little knowledge of the world pen such beautiful tales of far away countries and exotic lands? For my own part, I believe that the tale of that humble boy is far more thrilling than any other alternatives.

Little is known of his early years. We know he was born in 1564 to John Shakespeare – a glover and whittawer – and Mary Arden, the daughter of local gentry. Young Will attended the local grammar school. In the 1570s, Stratford-upon-Avon was a popular stop for touring companies and may have given Shakespeare his first taste of the theatre. He married Anne Hathaway in 1582 and had three children. Thus ends the sum total of knowledge on his early life.

Shakespeare’s first documented appearance in London comes from dramatist Robert Greene who dubbed him ‘an upstart crow.’ We do not know how he had come to be there – it has been suggested that he replaced a murdered actor in The Queen’s Men and followed them to the capital – but the years following established him as an actor and playwright of great esteem.

Shakespeare’s plays often subtly queried the morals of Elizabethan and Jacobean society. Theatre had the power to influence the masses and all would feel the messages in his plays keenly. Gender, race, sexuality and the divine right to the throne; all were questioned at Shakespeare’s quill.

The latter would once bring him close to danger. In 1601 the Earl of Essex sponsored Shakespeare’s company for a performance of Richard II at the Globe, hoping to fan the flames of rebellion as he plotted to overthrow the Queen. Elizabeth I herself saw the parallels in the play whereupon a monarch is deposed and murdered. Upon trying to march upon the City of London, Essex was arrested and beheaded for treason. Thankfully, Shakespeare and his company were left unscathed by this brush with the revolt.

Othello tells the story of a Moorish general who marries a white woman, only to be driven mad by his scheming ensign. Two years prior to the play’s creation, Queen Elizabeth I had demanded the removal of “blackamoors” from Britain. For Shakespeare to write of an interracial marriage with the black protagonist corrupted by the whim of a jealous white colleague was extremely shocking. Despite Othello’s murderous actions, the audience are asked to sympathise with him at the hands of Iago’s manipulation. In the seventeenth century, this was utterly unheard of. It has also been suggested that Shakespeare himself had a love affair with black prostitute Lucy Negro– the ‘dark lady’ of his sonnets.

English Jews had been expelled in 1290 and not permitted to return until Oliver Cromwell. Shylock in The Merchant of Venice is often viewed as anti-semitic stereotype, but sympathisers point out that Shylock is given a beautiful speech that celebrates tolerance and understanding “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons…If you prick us, do we not bleed?” How can this be read as anything other than a plea for equality? It is a tragic twist of fate that the Nazi Party used the image of Shylock as anti-Jewish propaganda; they corrupted him as they corrupted the Swastika, an ancient symbol of luck and eternity.

In Romeo and Juliet, two youths defy their family for love. In Twelfth Night a young woman uses her own intelligence and wits to survive alone in a strange land. In The Tempest he questions colonisation, a common endeavour for the period. Time and time again, Shakespeare uses his plays as a platform to encourage non-conformist thinking. With theatre, he challenged and he provoked; reaching the people of England like no other medium could.

After the death of Elizabeth I and the ascension of James I, Will found wealth and renown. The new King favoured him greatly – Shakespeare wrote Macbeth for him and James responded with a coded birthday message in the King James Bible. James was supposedly a descendent of the real Banquo and the Witches’ assertion that Banquo’s children would be kings proved Will’s loyalty to the new monarch. He was greatly rewarded: his company was renamed ‘The King’s Men’ and offered the patronage of the sovereign.

William Shakespeare died in 1616, a writer sponsored by the King and a gentleman with a coat of arms. Not bad for a grammar school boy from the Midlands.

Will Shakespeare from Stratford was the master of words. He spun magic with his quill; magic that is still a fundamental part of modern life. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, Shakespeare wrote close to a tenth of the most quoted lines ever and invented over 1700 words of our language. He is the second most quoted English writer, after the authors of the Bible. He wrote women beautifully and although men performed those parts in his time, he unknowingly provided the first role for an actress. Margaret Hughes appeared as Desdemona in Othello in 1660 thus paving the way for female actors everywhere, myself included. He started my own career; my first few jobs were exclusively in Shakespeare plays. He is many people’s first experience of the theatre and his tales have been adapted into countless of modern stories. I doubt there are many people in the world who have not heard of him; who cannot name at least one of his plays.

I marvel when a person of humble beginnings rises up out of their designated station in life. When one is not born of aristocracy or royalty, to have the ear of the king and to influence the thoughts of a nation is nothing short of miraculous. For his contemporary achievements, for his posthumous ones and for the everlasting legacy he has left behind, I whole-heartedly believe that William Shakespeare is the Greatest Briton.

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Mrs Norman Maine

Before today I have never seen The Artist. Shocking, isn’t it? I have always wanted to, but I believe it was showing in cinemas at a particularly brassic time (just out of interest, I googled brassic. Apparently it’s actually spelled boracic. As in boracic lint, cockney rhyming slang for ‘skint.’ There’s a fun fact for you, language fans). Where was I? Oh, yes. I was poorer than a church mouse –  I say that as if things have changed – and the unfortunate necessity of eating took precedence over celluloid entertainment. Thank you BBC iPlayer, for providing me with this second chance. As I thought, I loved it. Poignant, beautiful and touching ~ a homage to a veritable plethora of classic movies.

A very brief description of the film will now ensue; I believe nearly everybody has seen it. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin – gosh, he’s lovely isn’t he, with his Gable moustache?) is a silent film star at the top of his game. Loved by all, he has the world at his fingertips. But it is 1927, and talking pictures are taking over Hollywood. As his career spins into decline, Peppy Miller’s (a gamine Berenice Bejo) – the woman who loves him – goes from strength to strength with the advent of the talkies.

It was tempting ~ and, admittedly my first thought ~ to draw a movie parallel with Singing’ in the Rain’ – that wonderful Gene Kelly/Debbie Reynolds classic. Again, talking pictures dominate the world of 1927. Again, silent film stars must learn to adapt. Again, a young dancer falls in love with a matinee idol. But Singin’ in the Rain is lighter in tone and while superb, does not portray the real tragedy of this time, when careers and lives were ruined.

I was reminded instead of A Star is Born ~ the 1954 version, that is. Not the 1937 original with Janet Gaynor, nor the 1976 rock musical with Barbara Streisand. No, I’m talking the heartbreaking, rich technicolor masterpiece with Judy Garland and James Mason. Singer Esther Blodgett (Garland) is discovered by alcoholic movie star Norman Maine (Mason) whilst singing in a downtown club. Incidentally, her performance of The Man That Got Away is, to my mind, the perfect example of vocal brilliance. I have long harboured a secret fantasy of singing this in a jazz club. Should probably learn how to sing better. Here she is. Judy, not me: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ooeuybwJAsE

They fall in love and marry. Esther is advised to change her name to Vicki Lester and she is thrust into the world of Hollywood; her career flourishing. Norman, however sinks into depression as his own falls by the wayside, liquor his only solace. On the night of Esther’s Academy Award win, Norman arrives at the ceremony drunk and inadvertently smacks his wife around her face. Realising what he has become, he willingly enters rehab. Upon his exit however, he overhears Esther’s confession to a mutual friend that she intends to abandon her career to nurse him. Riddled with guilt at what he has done, he drowns himself. Indeed, the title of this post comes from the last line of the film – Esther/Vicki’s re-entry into the world of entertainment after Norman’s death, introducing herself by her married name.

Now, I am an actress and can only speak of my experiences of this industry. Perhaps the same is applicable to other careers, but all I can say is this. The acting industry really can be a horrid one. It saddens me greatly to write that. I adore the theatre and quite clearly I adore film (hence this blog!) but the actual day-to-day business of being a part of it is tougher than I ever thought possible. I know some quite brilliant actors who have segued into other jobs and have found themselves happier for it. For as The Artist and A Star is Born suggest, if the industry doesn’t want you (and for the most part… it doesn’t) it’s a soul-destroying and confidence wrecking lot.

You can be as talented as you like, but despite hours and days and months and years of writing, auditioning, networking and wishing, you can still find yourself rejected.This is unbelievably hard not to take personally. It is even harder not to be destroyed by it if you have a partner or a close friend in the same business who appears to be doing well. You want to be happy for them, of course you do, but it is so very difficult not to compare your own lot to theirs. It is natural and it is human. I will never forget when an ex-boyfriend and I each wrote to the same agencies. He received six invitations to audition, I received none. I loathed myself, but was seething with jealousy ‘But I’ve been out of drama school longer that him. I have more experience. It’s because I’m a girl. It’s because I’m too posh.’ (Nb: I’m not that posh). To be fair, the same ex-boyfriend listened several times as I cried down the phone for not getting this audition, not getting that role. I told him on many occasions that I was giving up. For I know of no other job where talent and ability can get you so little as this one. Working hard does not always equate success, unfortunately.

I was lucky. After five years of uncertainty and low self esteem (although I did have some wonderful jobs, they just never lasted beyond a month or two), I found myself working for the theatre company I am now a permanent part of. I love being with them – it is one of the closest thing we actors can get to a full time job and I feel my work is rewarded and recognised. I have been performing with them since January 2012 and will be soon be undertaking my fourth production. The common thing that seems to bind us players together is a love of the theatre but a wariness of the industry as a whole. This is possible, believe it or not – I still feel more at home on the stage than anywhere else and love discovering new characters –  but I despise the fickleness of this business. Perhaps this is naive of me, but I think we all deserve to be a part of a career that recognises endeavour.

If not for this brilliant company, or if – heaven forfend – it should ever come to an end, I would not pursue acting any longer. I am so proud of my wonderful, talented friends who have done well in this industry and who seem to be able to make a living from it without driving themselves to distraction, but equally I do not like seeing other friends despair because they are getting nowhere. They don’t deserve this. It is a terrifying thing to put a long held dream aside and pursue other options, but my goodness. I do hope happiness can be found in other areas. Love, friends, a pub. A job that offers some prospect of promotion. I believe many actors (and I count myself in this) adopt this career because of a need to make other people happy, a need to tell stories and – as much as I am loathe to admit it – a need for validation. If we can find these in other aspects of our life, do we really need to put ourselves through the mill anymore?

I don’t want to end up like Norman Maine or like the real life stars Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford et al. If my career falters, I want to be able to pack up and move on, not be destroyed by perceived failure. There is no shame in walking from one path to another.

However, it may be that my musings are all complete tosh. I am still a working actress and I intend to be a working actress for as long as this company wants me. If anything changes, who knows? Perhaps fear of the unknown and a deeply rooted sense of belonging to this world will keep me from pursuing anything else. Perhaps, just like many other actors, I just don’t know what to do for best.

This I do know. The dog in The Artist was probably the best dog I’ve ever seen.

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