Home > Stage > Real People, Not Things: My First Encounter With Shakespeare

Real People, Not Things: My First Encounter With Shakespeare

London seemed to be old hat at the time. I mean, I was still excited to be there, of course, but I had the distinct feeling that I had seen everything and now mostly were there to wonder at the things. The material things that money, my father’s money in particular, could buy.

We strolled through the streets of the Capital of the World once a year back then, dad and me; a bonding experience that never meant more to me than today and will only grow in importance the longer I have to consider what a treasure it was for a young boy to go travelling to what is undoubtedly one of the greatest cities on the face of the earth, especially if you happen to be a member of the western culture that came into its own there first.

To be – from an early age – familiar with the rich heritage of Great Britain to the degree that one feels at home in a city where no one speaks your language is a true gift, and I did not appreciate it enough when I was being given it first. As I said, my main interest at this point in time was things.

You have to understand that even though things were by no means scarce and hard to come by in my homeland, the things were different and the times were different. The changing of the times is easy enough to understand. There was no internet. This obviously meant that I could not simply order anything I wanted from anywhere in the world, but it also meant that there were literally millions of things I would never even know existed, if I didn’t see them in a shop, and there were shops in London, believe me.

I gravitated towards music, book and film shops, where I perpetuated and instigated love affairs to last a lifetime. The objects of my desire were myriad and to a certain degree all of them childish, but they all had one thing in common: I found them. I was exploring the ocean of ideas back then, now I surf it. It is, I guess, a part of childhood as opposed to at least young adult life that you have not locked yourself into the terrible, terrible constraints of interests. A child loves without limits and without shame, what the elder man hides away from the view of the world.

Nevertheless, I was wholly unprepared for what was about to enter my life as my father and I – in accordance with the agreement he had hammered out that we had to attend at least one instance of proper culture during each of our yearly trips – swung by the Barbican Center in the curious concrete world of the Barbican Estate to see if there were any more tickets left to that evening’s performance of Othello by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

There was.

I can go back over the records and locate the production for you, and I will at the end of this blog post. I can – now in this time of instant access to stores of information all over the globe – tell you the names of all the people involved in the production, although I believe you would not be interested in most of them, being as they are anonymous essentials in the machinery of running a theatre.

However, the main thing to understand is not the particulars, but the complete intellectual, sensory and existential overflow that hit me during this production. I fancied myself good at English, yet I knew barely half of the words the people on the sparingly decorated scene uttered. My father has confessed being puzzled at many of the phrases as well; neither of us are native English speakers. But we understood it all nonetheless.

The burning desire. Iago’s thirst for destruction, Othello’s thirst for possession and power, and all the people of smaller ambition who had to drown to let these giants of men have their wishes – and eventually to drown in their thirst.

I learned things I never knew about being alive during that performance.

To think that a man can be driven so singularly by his need to simply destroy that it does not really matter to him why he destroys. Iago was frightening in a way I had never thought of before. I had always been afraid of the unnatural and the ghosts and goblins of horror movies and folk tails. But this was something else. This was a man that stood before me, and he was capable of such dedication and skill that it was hard to accept that he would use it in such a decidedly arbitrary way. Iago was not always evil, the performance seemed to whisper under all the words, but he was always skilled. He was good at what he was doing, but he was driven by his need for destruction, and finding no suitable outlet for this need when not at war, he turned upon his own commander.

And Othello. He begun to teach me what Seneca and the stoics would later finish, once I had grown up enough to learn of them. That man can strive for possession and power but in the end he himself is his only true possession; his only power is over his own life.

These were not mere characters, it seemed to me. They were nothing like the fictional people who populated the songs and TV Shows and movies that I did – and still to this day do – love. These people knew things and they made choices that did not seem to fit according to a script, but to flow from their peculiarities and their arbitrary will. They were – in short – real.

I must have grown an inch during that play.

I was not dumbstruck afterwards, but my words made little sense. I was in awe and I knew not how to process this. Thus I made it an interest. I began to wish for annotated editions of Shakespeare’s plays for birthdays. I put them on my shelf and sometimes got them down and read a bit.

I tested the waters around me: had my friends found this magical world as well? No. And why should they? They were exploring the world just as much as I was, and this was just one more thing they could stumble upon and a rather difficult one at that. Having the words in front of you on the page made you acutely aware and embarrassed of the fact that you did not know what half of them meant. Soon, the books stayed on the shelf, although they were joined by more colleagues regularly.

So without peers to discuss him with, Shakespeare became a thing and an interest for me but not a passion. This changed much later and in a much more gradual fashion, the nature of which I will chronicle here from time to time, but it would never have become the passion that it is for me now had the initial spark not been lit half my lifetime ago when I happened to walk into the Barbican Center with my dad.

You see, the child dives in while we surf, because we are embarrassed by the possibility of getting our clothes wet. We will not risk looking stupid by professing a love for something that we are not sure we are allowed to love. But sometimes the love that we feel for things as a child will hide out in the material world, biding its time until it can again enter our minds ad make a bid for a part of our soul. For me it was like that with Shakespeare.


This was a review of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1999 production of Othello directed by The Honourable Michael Attenborough. The first Shakespeare play I ever saw. The above image was taken from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/shakespearebt/page3/

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