Shakespeare at 400


2016-04-21 By Kenneth Maxwell

April 23, 2016, will mark the four hundred years since the death of William Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon. There will be many celebrations.

Not only was Shakespeare the greatest writer in the English language.


He has also been gloriously translated into many foreign languages, including most notably into Portuguese by the great Brazilian poet, Manuel Bandeira. But the commemorations bring back memories of my school days.

I went to a private boarding school in the southwest of England. I was there mainly because I failed my “11- plus examination” with meant I would not be admitted to the local “Grammar School.” The examination was intended to separate the “brighter” students from “the rest,” who would be streamed into a “secondary modern” schools, which they would leave at 15 year of age and destined for more “mundane” jobs.

The system was abolished in the 1980s in an effort to “democratize” secondary education.

The overall effect was, however, to greatly stimulate private education at the secondary level, and diminish the quality of education which had long been the hallmark of a public “Grammar School” education, something which William Shakespeare had enjoyed in the late sixteenth century in Stratford-upon-Avon.

In fact I may inadvertently have had a role in the ending of the “11- plus” examination. A family friend of my room mate at Cambridge University, George Thomas, was a labour member of parliament and was later the Speaker of the House of Commons.  He introduced broadcasting into the proceedings of parliament.

George Thomas had been a poor scholarship boy from a broken family in industrial South Wales. He was shocked when I told him of my failure of the “11-plus” examination, and he was very impressed that despite this early setback I was now a student at Cambridge University.

I was very lucky that my parents could afford (with difficulty at times) to sent me to a private school. But one of the great and permanent advantages of this was that I was able between the ages of 12 and 18 to play various roles in the school’s annual Shakespeare play.

I began as “Miranda” in “The Tempest” (it was an all boys school at the time). And I ended my school career playing Henry V, which was notable because we had the first girls from the local private girls school playing the female roles.

Kate, the daughter of the King of France, who after Henry’s victory at the battle of Agincourt was to marry Henry, was played by Diana Hoddinott, who later became famous as a professional actress.

She played Annie Hacker, the wife of  the government mister, and later prime minster, in the wildly successful and hilarious BBC TV sitcom  “Yes Minister” and “Yes Prime Minister” in the 1980s.

Paul Eddington played Jim Hacker, her husband, and Nigel Hawthorn played Sir Humphrey Appleby, his permanent civil service secretary. Jim Hacker “thought” as a minister, as later as the prime minister, that he ran the country.

Sir Humphrey “knew” that it was the civil service that in fact did so.

I had been invited to join the National Youth Theatre while at school.

But since I had already been offered a place at St Johns College, Cambridge University, I turned down the opportunity. I had intended to continue with acting after I went up to Cambridge. And I had gone for an audition.

But I was entirely put off by the arrogance of the then chairman of the Cambridge Dramatic Society, Corin Redgrave, one of the decidedly lesser talents of that very talented theatrical dynasty. He sat in majesty, on a very large throne, in the middle of a very small stage, from which he was reviewing the performances of the applicants.

I left before it was my turn. I did not act again thereafter.

But I never forgot Shakespeare’s plays or the parts I played in them at school.

It was the very best part of my education. And a truly magnificent introduction to the English language. Miranda in “The Tempest” was very first role in my very first play. I was thirteen at the time .

“The Tempest” was Shakespeare’s last play written in 1610-11. It was based in part on the ship-wreak of the “Sea Venture” on the island of Bermuda in 1609, during a ferocious Atlantic hurricane, while en route for the new settlement of Jamestown, Virginia.

Screen Shot 2016-04-21 at 1.21.45 PM

My sister, who is the family historian, recently discovered that among those marooned on Bermuda was Henry Bagwell, the grandson of Thomas Chappell, the mayor of Exeter, one of our ancestors. He was among those who constructed the pinnace “The Deliverance,” from out of the salvaged wood from the wreak of the “Sea Venture” and from Bermuda cedar.

When “The Deliverance” eventually reached Jamestown, Virginia, in 1610, those from the Bermuda ship-wreak found that only 50 of the 500 early English settlers at Jamestown had survived the winter.

Henry Bagwell was later to become the first clerk of the county court of Accawmack, Virginia.

But I well remember the words of Caliban from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” from all those years ago:

“The clouds methought would open and show riches

Ready to drop upon me; that when I wak’d,

I cried to dream again.”

Credit for second graphic: