Since my early teens I’ve felt stirred, frustrated and inspired by the greatest writer who ever lived (in my humble opinion), William Shakespeare. I was only 13 years old when my English teacher, Mr Conte, brought Julius Caeser to my world and slowly he taught me about the value of studying and memorising significant passages.
But it wasn’t until I became a father that I started to see a need to share my rekindled passion with the people I love.
My daughter Isabel shares this love for literature. One day, when Isabel was eight years old, she came home happily spouting a line of Shakespeare: “I know a bank where the wild thyme grows.” Her teacher was an woman who took a particular interest in the hero of her youth, and she had decided to pass the torch on to the younger generation.
When I heard my daughter quoting this line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a light went on in my head. We should go somewhere to see the places that inspired these stories. But where? There are so many. Together we made the decision. Italy sprang to mind. And after further thought and deliberation we settled on Verona, the city where we could retrace the narrative of Romeo and Juliet.
Why Romeo and Juliet? I recalled how I was in Mr Conte’s class, acne faced, with my hormones changing – falling in and out of love in successive failed plots, that served only to reveal my emotional unreadiness at that age. Looking back I realise that rather than trying to understand Julius, I needed to know Juliet and what it was that drove her and Romeo to play out their cosmic dance of longing, passion and tragedy.
So under the famous balcony in Verona and I’m hoping to inject the spirit of shakespeare, of human drama within Isabel’s grasp of the world and the oceans of emotions she will no doubt face in her own time. I’m hope the Shakespeare’s message will stay with her somehow. Nothing can stop her heart breaking, not even her father’s over-protection, but she may have the vocabulary to recognise it – seeing it in both a personal and universal way – and, more importantly, be able to express it in a meaningful way.
This is what matters I feel. I want Isabel to get Shakespeare’s message: to never give up on the all pervasive, everlasting flame within her soul. And I hope too when it comes to nursing her broken heart she remembers that not all human activity, including love, is folly. But this will take more than a single trip to Italy, it will take practice, and lots of it.
Rather than follow the hordes of lovelorn visitors who flock to the former inn known as the Casa di Giulietta (or Juliet’s House) to leave the letters and messages in the courtyard beneath the balcony, sticking notes of love against the brick wall with chewing gum. Isabel and I will walk away quietly leaving nothing behind. But we’ll take away this vow to practice.
Isabel and I will set up a routine. We will spend time together reading each day and memorising small quotes from Shakespeare’s play. These hours will be spent together learning, starting with Romeo and Juliet then everything else from As You Like It to King Lear. We’ll started with short accessible passages from the comedies and, gradually over time, increased the length and complexity of the passages. These hours we will sit next to each other totally engaged in something we both love, and we will have enormous fun doing it.
I feel that learning passages from Shakespeare is a lot like learning a foreign language. Some of his words are unknown to us, even as adults. Shakespeare’s sentence structure can sounds odd to our modern ears and Shakespeare is constantly speaking in complex metaphors that can sometimes be difficult to understand. I certainly struggle with it. So what I’ll do is teach Isabel how to understand every word in the Shakespeare passage being studied, then memorize the passage so that her knowledge of Shakespeare become fluent, the way a foreign language can become fluent.
And as each passage is discussed, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to The Tempest (with a lot more plays in between), we will talk about the stories, the characters and the meanings of the works so that Isabel gets the kind of knowledge of Shakespeare she’ll need to become a student, thinkers, and ultimately, a teacher of Shakespeare.
There is no doubt in my mind that
knowing Shakespeare will help prepare Isabel for the years ahead. Or as Hamlet says: It will better prepare us for the joys, as well as the whips and scorns of time. If we practice, practice, practice, it will introduce Isabel to the rich world of literature, and, from there, to the universe of cultural references embedded in that literature.
Shakespeare will give Isabel confidence and it will, ultimately, by giving her Shakespeare’s perspective on the world, teach her to be a more moral human being, when it comes to dealing with adolescent romance and it’s many pitfalls. She will be stronger and wiser. Her knowledge of true love will pull her through. And to quote Hamlet again, it’s a consummation devoutly to be wished.