Ah, the sweet smell of ... Shakespeare
Smells, they say, are fiercely reminiscent things. I'll go along with that.
There is an old-fashioned soap, for instance, that is shot through with a perfume that takes me straight back to my grandmother's bathroom and her uncomfortable bath.
The whiff of chrysanthemums makes me 5 or 6 again, gazing in childish wonderment at masses of gigantic blooms atop stiff stems jammed into buckets the night before market day. The sniff of newly mown hay and I am back again, in the '70s, at the Yorkshire farmhouse, the meadows freshly shaven, the hay carted and on its way to the barn.
It is all quite logical, really. But then there is the pungent, pervasive smell of paraffin. Even the slightest hint, the faintest rumor of it in the air, reminds me of William Shakespeare....
The boys' school I went to at age 14 boasted an open-air theater. During summer terms, a Shakespeare play was performed in it. How long this had been a tradition, I don't know. I simply assumed it was as fixed as Valentine's Day or Guy Fawkes Night.
From the start I was smitten with the whole event - the weeks of rehearsals building up to the final performance. The confident articulation of the older boys as they strode around proclaiming those sonorous, word-rich speeches. The Elizabethan costumes. The makeup. The applause. The entire ritual of it.
The stage was a circle of sandy gravel. The entrances were breaks between thick bushes. The auditorium was gently raked in gravel steps edged with concrete, a woodland amphitheater. Chairs were set out for the long-suffering parents who had to sit through "Henry V" or "The Merchant of Venice," being eaten alive by mosquitoes. The sacrifices parents make so their children can have a good education!
I'd spend my spare time watching rehearsals. I just sat on the gravel, oblivious to the discomfort. I was riveted - particularly, I remember, by Shylock.
He was impressively, no, shiningly, played by a senior boy. Mr. Taylor, the director, explained that this boy, with his approval, had decided to play Shylock sympathetically - and not, traditionally, as a villain. I admit such an idea was novel to me. Naively, I had never considered the possibility of radical recharacterization against the text.
I can't say I was persuaded out of this attitude. Something about Shakespeare's words still forced a degree of exciting wickedness on this central character regardless of any actor's attempt to make us feel for him. In the end, however, what I totally admired was the vivid, intelligent, passionate voice, the tongue-trippingly crisp intonation, of the actor. And it was this, above all, that filled me with a secret longing to act.
It was, though, a few years before I managed to get even a minor part. I suppose by then there must have been a shortage of competition. Then the next year I was surprisingly moved up a notch. I got to play Malcolm in the Scottish play, "Macbeth."
Mr. Taylor was in particularly adventurous mode for this production. In the closing sequence of the tragedy, Malcolm is a significant figure in an army marching north from England. This army is bent on dealing once and for all with the murderous usurper of the Scottish throne. According to the witches' prophesy, Macbeth would know his comeuppance was imminent when (among other unlikely events) a wood began to move. What could be a better setting for this than ... a real wood?
So there we all were, scattered among the birches and sweet chestnuts and hazels far behind the stage area. The idea was that we would each carry a leafy bough so that "Birnam Wood" could, as required, be seen coming "to Dunsinane." We started far away from the audience. We approached gradually, letting them have progressively closer glimpses of our strategically marshaled, relentless, foliaged advance. At each new glimpse, we shouted (talk about crisp intonation!) appropriate speeches.
They were good speeches, as befitted heroic soldiery destined to effect a much-needed regime change. But I suspect we actually looked like a disparate rabble of schoolboys in burlap tunics.
At last, presumably to the vast relief of the audience, we were to make our triumphant entrance. But first we still had to negotiate our way past a dark, stagnant pond that lay in the undergrowth just behind the stage. A more authentically military force would have probably marched straight through it to arrive, frighteningly covered in mud, at the castle. Not us. We knew better.
It happened that this shadowy pool was suspected by the school groundsman of being a potential hatchery for midges and mosquitoes. So each summer it was unecologically blitzed. It was soused, in fact, in ... paraffin.
And that is why I can't smell even the slightest rumor of paraffin in the air without - immediately - thinking of William Shakespeare. It's quite logical, really.
William Blake (1757-1827) rated William Shakespeare highly. But the English artist made few paintings or prints after Shakespeare, compared with his many after Dante; Milton; and the poetry of Thomas Gray, Edward Young, and himself.
This enchanting watercolor, however, illustrates the happy ending of Shakespeare's romantic comedy "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The play is set in a fanciful ancient Greece, and revolves around the nuptial festivities of Theseus, king of Athens, and Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons. The mayhem occurring in the dream is perpetrated by the king and queen of the fairies, Oberon and Titania, with Puck and four other fairies in attendance. Puck calls them all "shadows," and Blake accordingly painted them softly.
Blake has been accused of not illustrating Shakespeare but feeding him into his own vision. But Blake's close reading of the play is now seen in such details as the butterfly-wings headdress of one fairy (the one named "Moth," presumably).
Blake's weightless circle of fairies, following Oberon's command to "hop as light as bird from briar," also suggests familiarity with a passage in Homer's "The Iliad" describing a dance Vulcan is supposed to have engraved on a shield for Achilles: "Hereon there danced youths and maidens.... Sometimes they would dance deftly in a ring with merry twinkling feet, as it were a potter sitting at his work and making trial of his wheel to see whether it will run...." (This Samuel Butler translation was published in 1898.)
The simile of a potter at his wheel may not have been lost on Blake. He had probably seen dancing figures painted circling around Greek pots and was translating such remembered images into the gentle world of his watercolor.
• This painting is to be included in 'Shakespeare in Art,' July 16 to Oct. 19 at London's Dulwich Picture Gallery.