Friday 28 July 2017

First Remembered Read ~ Shakespeare

Those of us who read, and who are influenced by books, tend to squirrel away our memories of all the stories we have read over the years. 

And yet, there is always that one special book tucked away in the far corner of your mind which reminds you just why you love reading so much…

During July and August I've invited a few friends to share their First Remembered Read

My First Remembered ~ Shakespeare

I'm thrilled to welcome

Anne Stormont, author of Displacement

By the time I started high school at Leith Academy in Edinburgh in 1968, I was already a keen reader and a bit of a writer too. I'd also had parts in several plays written by my maternal grandmother for the local children's drama group. So as well as writing stories for my younger sisters, I also liked writing plays for me and my friends to act out. Sometimes the plays were completely my own work, other times I'd dramatise part of a book I was reading.

But I'd never heard of William Shakespeare until my first-year English teacher introduced him to the class when she handed us out copies of The Merchant of Venice. Our teacher, Mrs Harkness, was blonde, glamorous, strict and all-round awesome. She was passionate about all aspects of literature, but most especially about the work of Shakespeare.


Mrs Harkness taught us about Shakespeare, about who he was, about the Elizabethan times in which he lived and wrote, and about how his plays would have been staged at Stratford.
And in order to study the play, we didn't just passively listen to the play being read out. Oh no, we were assigned parts, and we read those parts out loud, getting a feel for the language and meaning of the script, and stopping from time to time to discuss what we thought was going on.

The Merchant of Venice is classified as a comedy, but I remember it as more witty than comic.

It has love and romance, but it also has darker themes of bigotry, anti-semitism, sexism and injustice, and there is much suspense and intrigue. The story centres around Bassanio and his wooing of Portia. He borrows money from his friend, Antonio (who is the Merchant of Venice) to help with his wooing, but Antonio in turn has to borrow that money in order to lend it.

But when the time comes to repay the loan to its provider, the Jewish moneylender, Shylock, Antonio is unable to do so and Shylock therefore demands the agree bond of a pound of Antonio's flesh. And when Shylock takes Antonio to court over the unpaid bond, it is Portia who acts ( in disguise as a man) as Antonio's defence lawyer. None of the men come out of it all particularly well and it is Portia who cleverly brings proceedings to a satisfactory conclusion.

Sometimes, as the class read the play, I was assigned the part of Portia. I loved Portia.

There is a fairy tale quality to the sections in the play that deal with Portia's suitors as they try to win her affection, but Portia is no passive Sleeping Beauty. Yes, Portia is wealthy and beautiful, but she's also clever and resourceful. Her speeches, such as the one on the quality of mercy, (which I can still recite nearly 50 years on) are stunning.

This introduction to Shakespeare made quite an impression on me. It was an ideal play at an ideal time. Portia was a role model who not only helped me stand up to classroom bullies, but who also showed me that it's possible to be assertive without being aggressive – and that women are way smarter than men.

Rowan Russell Books

Kate Dunn, author of The Dragonfly

Shakespeare is in my blood - almost literally: my great-grandparents were leading Shakespearean actors during the Edwardian era and are commemorated in the Benson memorial window in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford on Avon, so I pretty much drank him in with my mother's milk when I was tiny. She even used quotes from Shakespeare to tell me off with : 'How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have an idle daughter,' she'd wail when I hadn't tidied my room.

The first play I remember reading was The Merchant of Venice - we acted out selected scenes when I was in the second year at school and I played the Prince of Aragon - I could probably still recite great chunks of it now, if you asked me nicely! Although it technically counts as My First Shakespeare, it isn't my favourite, nor is it one that has influenced me much. I'm a fanatical book-lover and collector - ask my husband - but the Shakespeares that have meant the most to me are probably ones I have seen. When I was eleven, in the space of two short weeks my mum took me to see two seminal productions: Ian McKellen as Hamlet was the first Shakespearean tragedy I ever saw and the legendary director Peter Brook's A Midsummer Night's Dream was the first comedy. Both of them, in their different ways, were transfiguring experiences: the written word, spoken, resonating in my head and heart and virtually every other vital organ. I devoured Shakespeare after that, on the page and in performance - oh brave new world that hath such people in it! My first job was as an usherette at the RSC and I watched the History plays night after night after night, dazzled, like a rabbit caught in the headlights. I still feel he is in the marrow of my bones.

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The first Shakespeare I'd grab from a burning building? 


A copy of Twelfth Night my grandmother gave me. She was a leading lady at the Old Vic Theatre in London during the 1930s and played Viola in a production by Lilian Baylis - another theatrical giant. The copy my granny gave me still has her moves written in pencil in the margin. She handed it on to me when she was too old and frail to write anything other than 'My lovely Kate' in shaky letters on the fly leaf.

That's my first Shakespeare.

Aurora Metro Publishers

Huge thanks to Anne and Kate for sharing the memories 

of their First Shakespeare with us today.

Next week : My First Grown Up Story


  1. Thanks for inviting me to be part of this 'firsts' series, Josie. I enjoyed lookin back at 'The Merchant'. I enjoyed reading Kate's rich recollections too.

    1. Thanks for being part of the fun, Anne and forsharing your memories with us. Glad you enjoyed it :)


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