Q: Where did your interest in Shakespeare begin? Was there a particular line, play, or sonnet that hooked you?
A: At Manchester Grammar School – the school dramatic society was very active and we did the Tempest in my first year, aged 11. I played assorted goddesses, dogs and demons! I was completely hooked. Around the same time we saw the Olivier films – especially Hamlet with Jean Simmons.
The ghost scene with William Walton’s music was just mind-blowing. To someone brought up in Wythenshawe, it was the gripping stories and the other-worldly power of the language. I’ll always be grateful to our wonderful and inspiring teachers Bert Parnaby and Brian Phythian, who directed us in plays, took us on trips to Stratford to see Shakespeare, and generally were the spirit guides to our younger selves.
“To someone brought up in Wythenshawe, it was the gripping stories and the other-worldly power of the language. I’ll always be grateful to our wonderful and inspiring teachers…”
Q: What do you believe was the single biggest influence on a young Shakespeare? How does it manifest itself in his work?
A: That’s a long story and there’s no one answer. That’s what I’ll be talking about in my lecture!
First: Family: As with anyone family is really important – his mother and father, his father’s rise to become mayor of Stratford only to be ruined financially;
Second: Religion – he’s born at a crucial point in the Protestant Reformation. In the twenty years, or so, before he was born there had been four official changes of religion: His parents obviously were born and brought up Catholic. He was born on the cusp of the new world and had a foot in both. The way forward wasn’t really resolved till the 1590s, so his generation are part of the change; the target generation.
The third is politics, national and local. Warwickshire was a battleground for the struggle between the old Catholic community of the shire and the new Elizabethan powers that be; especially Elizabeth’s favourite, the Protestant enforcer Robert Dudley. This struggle touched William’s family.
Fourth is school, through which he discovered poetry. He had probably decided he wanted to be a poet before he left Stratford at some point in the 1580s.
Q: How has our understanding of Shakespeare changed over the past few decades? Have older models of literary analysis — New Criticism, Textual, maybe even Biographical — been eclipsed? How do you personally prefer to contextualize his work?
A: Older models have not been superseded. I think they’ve all given something to the mix which these days is very rich indeed. Some terrific biographies have come out over the last twenty years.
And the documentary discoveries continue. I’ll be mentioning twenty new documents concerning his father’s various crises. They are not published in full yet but a summary came out in a new book this year. In terms of personal preference, I’m a historian so my approach is historical. He’s made by his times and cannot be understood except through history – and that of course includes the twenty years or so before he was born. He’s a late Elizabethan.
“He’s made by his times and cannot be understood except through history – and that of course includes the twenty years or so before he was born.”
Q: As the English literary canon is constantly morphing, what case would you put forward that Shakespeare should continue to be taught throughout educational institutions?
A: A big question!
It is after all an extraordinary thing that where, say, the Book of Common Prayer and the Bible have been modernised, his plays remain as 16th-century texts in the forefront of public culture. Things are gradually being cut back now, even in university English courses (e.g. Old and Middle English, Langland and Chaucer, etc.) but he’s so important to our literary culture that I think he will stay at the centre of it for some time yet. His ‘difficulty’ (language, ideas etc.) after all is part of what makes him fascinating to study.
And in today’s world of Me Too, BLM, LGBT, his texts are still capable of endless reinvention, although they are 16th-17th texts. I saw a production of Measure for Measure at the Donmar the week Brett Kavanaugh was being vetted for the Supreme Court and the scene with Angelo and Isabella said it all in the space of a few minutes.
Q: Are you currently working on any new projects? What have you got planned for 2022?
A: I’ve been working in China since 2013 where we have made a dozen films. My last Shakespeare contributions were more recent: a chapter on his mother for Shakespeare’s Circle (Cambridge 2015) and an introduction to Finding Shakespeare’s New Place (2016).
Our last film was on the Chinese poet most compared with Shakespeare – Du Fu (China’s Greatest Poet, BBC 2020 with Sir Ian McKellen doing the readings). And I am currently writing a little travelogue with lovely photos and maps, following Du Fu’s life journey – especially the last fifteen years when he was constantly on the move with his family as a refugee in time of war.
The journey describes a great arc from the Yellow River Plain up to Xi’an and Qinzhou, over the mountains south to Chengdu. Then all the way down the Yangze through the Gorges to Changsha and Pingjiang where he died. A labour of love I guess you could call it. Needless to say, distant as he is in time and place, there will be comparisons with Shakespeare!
Everything for me comes back to Shakespeare!
Thank you to Michael for taking the time to answer our questions.