A Man From Stratford

Who was William Shakespeare really? Simon Callow looks for the answer using Shakespeare's history and work in this ambitious one-man play

A midsummer evening at Portora Royal School in Enniskillen. In the Steele Hall the stage is set; bare boards, a rude wooden armchair, and a simple soap box. Headmaster Neil Morton, a contemporary of Simon Callow at Queens University, has invited the actor to perform the world premiere of A Man from Stratford, a monologue about William Shakespeare. Written by Jonathan Bate, and directed by Ulsterman James Cairns, the script scans the bard’s life and quotes well known extracts from his plays and sonnets.

Dressed informally in jeans and dark jacket Callow makes his entrance to loud applause: ‘All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.'

William Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564 in the sleepy town of Stratford upon Avon. Son of John, a glove maker and actors’ agent, Shakespeare was brought up at his mother Mary’s knee. He wore dresses until he was breeched (wore breeches) at the age of seven, whereupon he entered one of the new grammar schools to learn Latin grammar, and rhetoric. ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears…’

Still only 18, Shakespeare married Ann Hathaway (26), who was already pregnant, in 1576. He learned about love. 'I take thee Rosalind for wife. I do take thee Orlando for my husband.'

But it was in London that Shakespeare put the whole world on the stage. It took him three days to walk there. He passed the Tyburn gallows at Marble Arch then entered the multicultural, multilingual city of 25 church spires, stench and open sewers. The English language was evolving apace and it was Shakespeare who, in an astounding body of work, contributed more phrases and sayings than anyone else.

The playhouses were offering new works like Christopher Marlow’s Dr Faustus. Young Shakespeare tethered the horses, then helped backstage and soon began to write. Just when he was getting into his stride with Titus Andronicus and Henry the Sixth, bubonic plague ravaged the city. The theatres closed and actors went on tour in the provinces.

Shakespeare visited his patron Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton at Titchfield, his country seat in Hampshire and dedicated his entire oeuvre to him. ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day thou art more lovely and more temperate’…`So long lives this and this gives life to thee’. (Callow brands the Complete Shakespeare).

End of part one. Interval. Relief from hard chairs. Drinks on the terrace.

The play resumes. Henry the Fifth encourages his soldiers before battle. 'Once more unto the breach my friends, once more... for Henry, England and Saint George.' In Elizabethan times war was an everyday reality with 60,000 soldiers in the pay of the crown. The Queen died aged 70 and her successor, the limping, lisping James VI of Scotland and 1st of England ended war with Spain and reconciled Protestants and Catholics.

In his new town house in Stratford, Shakespeare mellowed into the age of the ‘lean and slippered pantaloon’ enjoying his role as grandfather and the wealth accrued from the success of the great tragedies, King Lear, Othello, Macbeth… In The Tempest, Miranda reflects on ‘how beauteous mankind is’. Soon it will be the age of childishness, ‘sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything’. Shakespeare made his will and prepared for death, ‘Night’s perpetual kingdom’ which came on April 23, 1616, his 52nd birthday.

It would be disingenuous to criticise the sound quality or the stage presentation of this performance. When the touring show opens in Plymouth Theatre Royal on 10th June it will include projected images, video and sound effects. Callow’s veritable tour de force of memory and multiple accents, changes of pace and mood, vividly conveys the fascinating detail of Shakespeare’s life and times. The famous lines are not declaimed but delivered with clarity, humour, affection and respect.

Jenny Cathcart