On the banks of River Avon | Sunday Observer

On the banks of River Avon

14 March, 2021
River Avon
River Avon

As a boy curious of his surroundings, young Shakespeare spent all his mornings walking up and down the banks of River Avon. He was fascinated and delighted by the hundreds of white swans gliding, frolicking, splashing water on each other while a few would fly away. Some made swirls to the music of sweeping winds.

This system gripped his young mind. Slowly steadily, Shakespeare dreamed of future sonnets, unaware that several mysterious characters will remain to baffle the literati world.

Try interpreting Shakespeare’s plays in the light of Shakespeare’s stage.

But he had already effectively pointed the way forward for what has become the dominant ideal in the production of Shakespeare’s plays in the 20th century. This involves the attempt to resolve a paradox: to be faithful to the play, while also making it modern. A production may be in period clothes, or modern clothes or clothes of no particular period at all, but it must speak to the audience.

This is partly because the growing complexity of theatre equipment required that someone try to co-ordinate the performance. But it is mostly a question of cultural diversity and confusion. We evidently feel that Shakespeare needs to be interpreted by some coordinating intelligence or rather that he needs to be re-interpreted, for Shakespeare’s plays can now be seen again and again in many different productions. Sometimes this re-interpretation has resulted in a needless striving after novelty for its own sake. Often it has been revelatory.

National companies

The huge, publicly funded national companies of today, the Royal National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, are the inheritors of shoestring revolutionary ventures of the turn of the century and between the wars. Their very structures indicate how little we can agree upon. Both organisations retain proscenium-arch auditoria. But they also have studio spaces (the Cottesloe, the National Theatre Studio, the Pit, the Other Place), and the huge Olivier in London, and the more intimate Swan in Stratford.

It seems we cannot agree among ourselves on what a theatre is. We are conscious primarily of diversity. This is true of our approach to Shakespearean production. Though director’s theatre is still dominant, it has not precluded the work of actor-managers such as Sir Donald Wolfit. Indeed, some actor-managers, such as Sir John Gielgud, Sir Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh, have been able to work within director’s theatre. But director’s theatre is designed precisely to multiply the available interpretations. It is not itself a style.

Today we feel as if we live in a baffling matrix of many different voices and points of view. There is scarcely any sense of a single, dominant way of doing Shakespeare (though in hindsight, future theatre historians may perceive patterns which we, being in the thick of it, cannot yet apprehend). Related to this is the sense of there not being any single audience for Shakespeare with shared standards, values and expectations, but there being a variety of audiences- ultimately simply being the many individual audiences that assemble night after night around the world, to let the theatre attempt to perform one of its most important functions: that of taking a collection of diverse, separate individuals, and turning it into a group where many differ- which enjoys a collective identity, if only for the duration of the play, so that we can test what values we share, and how we might live together.

Shall I compare thee to a
Summer’s day
Thou art more lovely and
more temperate
Rough winds do shake the
darling buds of May
And summer’s lease hath
all too short a date
Sometimes too hot the eye of
heaven shines
And often is his gold
complexion dimmed…..

Apparently the Bard compares his best days as a paragon of youth but lays his feelings on one young nobleman and also on a woman but finds him lovelier and mild than the often punishing days of Summer. But, later changes his mind in the latter sonnets. The young man’s good looks will endure as the eternal Summer keeps fading only to come back later. His youth will endure forever as this sonnet. How right he was because centuries later it is still temperate and awakens our minds to shower praise on it. And Shakespeare questions, ‘shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?’ and contrary to thinking, he is different. His love is not measured against summer but summer is measured against a lover, who is this lover; obviously the Earl of Southampton.

We have to lean more on sonnets to find his inner feelings. He never confessed any feelings to anyone but there came a time when his mind nor soul could cope up the tensions within and he had to bear it out. So, he poured them into sonnets, confusing the reader about a young good-looking nobleman and The Dark Lady. We still do not know whether both are the same person on whom he lavished his ardour. But we do know the nobleman to be the Earl of Southampton. Yet, the Bard pours out his heart as though on a beautiful woman.

Let me confess that
we two must be twain
Although our undivided loves
are one.
So shall those blots that
do with me remain
Without thy help,
by me borne alone
In our two loves there is but
one respect
Though in our lives a
separable spite….

Surely, he is not referring to Anne Hathaway. Then, who is it? The Dark Lady or the Earl of Southampton. During Shakespeare’s time, any book that was printed was entered upon on a list known as the Stationer’s Register. In April, 1593 Shakespeare’s poem, Venus and Adonis was entered by its printer, Richard Field who was a Stratford man like the poet who had made a successful move to London. They clicked very well as a combination but, The Rape of Lucrece was registered on May 9, 1594 by another printer called John Harrison. Both poems were dedicated to a young nobleman. Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton who was rich, dashing and influential. Why?

Let’s find out.

Earl of Southampton

Shakespeare was swept off his feet by his looks and passions aroused. Shakespeare tried hard to win his patronage as well as his affection. Getting a patron meant getting some financial support and an influential friend. The dedication to the young earl follows the fashion of the time and they exaggerated his high position making the poet very humble.

Shakespeare’s sequence is not conventional as we find his expressions in sonnet CXXX when he describes his mistress’ eyes, lips, breast and hair but turn on his heels to express that the ideal mistress should be white-skinned, blonde and red-lipped and like Juliet, blessed with eyes that rivaled the sun. However, with the Bard the situation is not that easy to the extent there is any kind of story. The poet’s two loves both in the sense of persons who he loves with an intense friendship with the man as in sonnet XX where homosexual interests is disapproved. But a sexual relationship with a woman of whom he speaks in harsh terms and with disgust but indicate that man and woman seem to get together to betray him.

One reason that Shakespeare’s marriage never brought him happiness is that he was very disdainful of women. He considered the whole lot to be vain, proud, deceitful, murderous, homicidal, suicidal, unfaithful and betraying, as most of his plays and sonnets reveal.

Did that make him gay or homosexual? A reason he showered his affections on a young nobleman. Shakespeare never let himself down. Whatever the cause was, he left it in mid-air and today, scholars are still investigating. In sonnet 98 he complains; ‘From you I have been absent in the spring but in a man’s absence, the poet feels no such feel, ‘As with your shadow I with these play’.

In trying to connect all elements, he is caught with his pants down with the central problem arising from his affection to The Dark Lady and a young man. The poet faces more dilemma that the more his imagination dwells on the young man, he risked dissolving into an image which became merely imaginary. Other sonnets sequences tend to be addressed to women so idealised that virtually ceases to be flesh and blood his changeable nature set against her perfect immutability. Still on the face of all these and others, he denies his homosexual leanings even if it was in the case of a single person’s affection; that of the Earl of Southampton. My guess is that even the Dark Lady was a man.

I can go no further. He has also confused me.