This may brand me forever as a literary Philistine, but I confess that I have never been able to work up much enthusiasm for Shakespeare’s comedies, and I can’t help wondering how much we would still be bothering with them were it not for the tragedies, histories and sonnets. I remember a conversation with a classmate at school as we struggled to see the point of ‘Twelfth Night’, mysteriously chosen as a set text suitable for thirteen-year olds.
‘Dave, why are we reading this tosh?’
‘Because the guy wrote “Hamlet”.’
‘Then why aren’t we reading f—–g “Hamlet”?’
Which were my sentiments exactly. So it is necessary to remind myself from time to time of certain things, and it doesn’t take long: a passage like this from Act 1, Scene 1 is enough to do the job. Come back, William, all is forgiven.
It faded on the crowing of the cock.
Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.
So have I heard and do in part believe it.
But, look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill:
Break we our watch up; and by my advice,
Let us impart what we have seen to-night
Unto young Hamlet; for, upon my life,
This spirit, dumb to us, will speak to him.
The cock, the ‘bird of dawning’, has long figured in folklore as symbolizing the powers of light. Tolkien readers will remember how the crowing of a cock marks the arrival of the Rohirrim and the start of the great battle of the Pelennor Fields: ‘Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of of war and wizardry, welcoming only the morning…’.
Finally, it’s a very brave man or a very self-deluded one who will offer one of his own poems as an accompaniment to Shakespeare’s, but just in case there should be any doubt that when it comes to the serious stuff I am as bardolatrous as the next man, I append my own Hamlet-inspired piece….
I like to think of when your words were new
And came like scalding lava, before they cooled
Into a long familiar fantastic
Or to try, like you, always another image,
Of that long summer when our language bloomed
And you went stumbling like a drunken bee
From wayside herb to blossom-laden bough –
Never such harvest, nor such honeycomb.
But most I like to think of that first night,
The crowd spilling out, to walk by the starlit river
Full of it all: the ghost, the poor drowned girl,
The sword-fight at the end, and quoting lines
That smouldered on, like coals in thatch: and then
That bit about the undiscover’d country,
How did it go, To be or not to be?
Neat, anyway; you’ve got to give him that.