The title Mad about Shakespeare has a few layers of meaning: first of all, it’s about Shakespeare’s life and works; secondly, it’s about the author’s love for Shakespeare since he was young – he’s ‘mad about it’; the third layer relates to the word ‘mad’, especially about depression and mental illness. The book talks about different kinds of ‘madness’ in writers throughout history as well as in his own family. The book asks a question: are genius and madness linked somehow?
The content of the book can be categorised into two circles: the memoir part, the literature part, and a big overlap in between.
The book starts with the author as a teenager. After his father’s death, he discovered a wealth of things about his father that he previously didn’t know – stories of his father’s brave deeds in the Second World War, the war-time diary entries the officers wrote in turns, the Shakespeare productions they watched, and the mess of war.
One thing I was fascinated with was his very cool school in Sevenoaks, a town in the South East of England.
I happen to have randomly read Henry VI part 2, where the rebel leader Jack Cade said “thou hast most traitorously corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar school”. The author reckons his school in Sevenoaks was the grammar school Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote the speech.
Even without this connection to Shakespeare, the school was extraordinary.
Because it was a lay foundation, it was unaffected by the upheaval of the Reformation. Because it was in a backwater, it escaped the Victorian reforms whereby many grammar schools became ‘public’ (i.e. private) schools, which had the effect of excluding local boys. It also bypassed the Education Act of 1944 in which grammar schools lost some of their autonomy and resources through the exclusion of fee-paying pupils. When a reforming headmaster called Kim Taylor arrived in the late 1950s, he described the school as ‘medieval-modern’: it was, he said, ‘as though a clock had got so far behind the time that it seemed ahead of it’.
There he had excellent teachers, who fed his young mind with Shakespeare and other literary works, in the ways that spoke to teenage boys.
So that’s just a taster from the memoir side of the book. The second part is,
The author goes deep into the characters of Shakespeare, for example, the madness of King Lear and how actors interpret and perform him differently: does Lear have dementia for example? Why and how Prince Hal forsakes friendship and breaks the heart of Falstaff. His understanding and appreciation for Titus Andronicus which Dr Johnson called ‘barbarous’. His dislike for Hamlet. His interpretation of Twelfth Night and why it’s special to him.
He also introduces many other authors, e.g. John Donne, whose ‘poem after poem was about sex’. The chapter on Edward and Helen Thomas is one of the most simple and beautiful chapters in the book. We also spend some time with Dr Samuel Johnson, Virginia Woolf, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, Charles and Mary Lamb.
Because the author’s life is so saturated with literature, at times it’s difficult to put markers on the pages: is this about his life? or is this about literature? One of the obvious examples is him playing the role of Macbeth when he was in school:
The adaptation was a clever choice for a young amateur cast: only eleven parts and the text stripped down to little more than an hour. We were agog to know who was going to play the lead when Bob explained that Marowitz had split the part into three. It was as if there was Macbeth himself, along with his good angel and his bad. The lines were carved up between them in order to represent different aspects of the character’s personality: the Ambitious, the Nefarious and the Timorous, as Marowitz had it. I was to play Macbeth 3, the good buy, the conscience, a.k.a the Timorous.
Macbeth is not just text on pages, he would see it happen around him, breathe the lines and think the thoughts.
Another example is that in order to prove to the world Shakespeare indeed wrote the plays, he did a collaboration with Simon Callow and created a show called ‘The Man from Stratford’, where the author wrote the script for the show and Simon Callow told the story of Shakespeare’s life, along with dramatised readings from his plays and sonnets. By the end of the chapter I thought, it was performed for seven years, where was I?
The book ends with a personal story, it’s also the climax. It’s incredibly moving and brought tears to my eyes. In the midst of personal suffering, Shakespeare was his comfort and Shakespeare gave him words when he was too tired, too sad or too anxious to find words himself.
But most of the time I was in awe and envy. I wrote on the margin of page 111, ‘this feels like eavesdropping on his lessons and picking up crumbs under the table of his education, and even the crumbs are all pearls!’
I love hearing his descriptions of many theatre productions of Shakespeare he watched and the brilliancy of the directors and actors. I guess it was a golden era of theatre, there was not much TV and no internet. I wish I could go back and watch all those productions. I love hearing about his schooling and uni lectures with so many excellent teachers. I wish I was a fellow student, go through the same vigorous exercises and train my mind to think critically and confidently. I love his knowledge and insight into literature. I wish I could be his student, to make note of all he teaches, to take part in his projects and productions.
He suggests a few times in the book that Shakespeare gives him words to express his feelings in many life circumstances – in short, Shakespeare makes him more alive. But I think the author also makes Shakespeare more alive – when he acts on stage himself, Shakespeare’s great plays literally come alive, moving and speaking through him; when he creates the show with Simon Callow, Shakespeare as a person comes alive to the audience; when he writes about different characters and different plays in this book, they come alive in my head, I feel I’m so behind but I can’t wait to catch up; by editing the Complete Works of Shakespeare, he makes the plays accessible to more people so that Shakespeare lives in and through more souls; by writing this book, he excites a passion in me, no doubt many other readers, a love for Shakespeare and for literature.
Curiously, the author also generates in me a love for beauty and life, I can’t quite explain how – I think that’s ultimately why I love this book. I don’t love it just because of the knowledge it imparts or the writing style, it created many magical moments for me and I’ll carry it always in my mind’s pockets, like orange peelings – you’ll have to read to find out what I mean!