Given that I’ve only seen ten of his plays performed onstage, plus film & TV versions of a few others, this can’t be the most comprehensive post ever. And, as with many things, it is liable to change with different moods and be influenced by current interests. However, there is one of Shakespeare’s plays that I will always come back to: Twelfth Night.
On the face of it, just another Shakespearean comedy. But if you look a little deeper, it has some of the most beautiful phraseology and wordplay in literature. I am a big fan of puns, so the fact that this play starts punning within the first couple of minutes is greatly satisfying! Then there’s possible the best dirty joke in Shakespeare’s entire canon of work: “these be her very ‘C’s, her ‘U’s, and her ‘T’s, and thus makes she her great ‘P’s.” Twelfth Night is eminently quotable – I surprised myself recently when I re-read it & knew so many lines!
“If music be the food of love, play on..”
I first saw it as the film version (starring Helena Bonham Carter, et al.), which downplayed the humour, going more for the romance & drama. I knew it was a comedy, but from this version it was actually quite difficult to see how! Luckily, not long after this I was lucky enough to see a theatre production with only five cast members, so a lot of doubling up & an abridged script, which was thoroughly entertaining.
But, most recently, I was lucky enough to see Scena Mundi’s production five times. Thanks to a group of brilliant performers, and a fantastic creative team, it showed exactly how funny the play was – never before have I cried with laughter at a Shakespeare production! Mostly this was thanks to Martin Prest’s superb portrayal of Malvolio. As soon as Twelfth Night was announced as Scena Mundi’s next show I had mentally cast him in this role; the performance was everything I’d hoped for & more. The ‘set piece’ yellow stockings moment was one of many highlights that had everyone rolling in the aisles!
Twelfth Night was the first Shakespeare play that I properly studied at school, for our Year 9 SATs. Naturally, we didn’t read the entire play, but the scenes we focused on were enough to hook me in – it also helped, I suppose, that I seemed to be rather good at understanding & writing about it. I do now wish that I had continued to study English a bit more, but you can’t do everything I suppose…
As well as essays, we also did some ‘performances’ in class to help with comprehension – and I was chosen to read the part of Olivia. Whilst it was only in front of our group of about 30, this was actually quite a confidence-booster for someone with seriously low self-esteem. That was half my life ago (there’s a scary thought), but it stays with me still.
I do also have a bit of a soft spot for the history plays, in particular Richard II through to Henry V, as I love that period of history. Obviously they’re fiction rather than fact, but to me that actually makes them doubly interesting. Knowing the context in which they were written adds another layer to what you read or see performed onstage – yes, this is true of all of his plays, but I’d argue that dramatising history would have been a far more delicate procedure, given the perpetually volatile politics of the time.
Do you have a favourite Shakespeare play you’d like to share?