Most of the poems were written over a six-month period prompted by the 400th Shakespeare anniversary. For research I watched performances and read the texts. All the poems, except ‘Viola’ and ‘Crab’, are in unrhymed sonnets. I wanted to reference the plays in language and tone but also to bring out aspects that might pass unnoticed. This could be on a personal level – Emilia (Othello) is a street-wise, good-time girl who gets into something much more sinister than she realises, the Duke of Albany (Lear) begins as a weak yes-man but ends by taking responsibility. Or it could be political: Cressida is a female victim of war, Boy (Henry V) a child soldier, Aegeon (Comedy of Errors) an imprisoned migrant. Returning to the plays after several years’ absence gave me a different take on them, none more so than The Merchant of Venice which I hadn’t read since school. I discovered Dorothy Wordsworth binge-reading Shakespeare in summer 1800. What connections could she make with the harsh satire of Timon? I needed some light relief. Enter Autolycus, the loveable rogue from A Winter’s Tale. Minor characters – what about a nonspeaking character? It had to be Crab from the Two Gents, a low-life four-legged character whose words are in prose. How to conclude? What a wonderful take-off of the theatre Shakespeare wrote in Midsummer Night’s Dream. Puck ends the play and my sequence (I perform this poem with broom in hand). The title: ‘A Comonty’. No, I don’t know either.
Sly. Is not a comonty a Christmas gambold or a tumbling trick?
Page. No, my good lord, it is more pleasing stuff.
Sly. What, household stuff?
Page. It is a kind of history.
(William Shakespeare The Taming of the Shrew Induction scene ii)
I watch my lady fall in love. She drinks
the General’s words as if they are her life’s
elixir. He is the barque laden
with all her fortune. As for me,
before my wedding I had second thoughts.
It was arranged, of course – a bargain
in an alehouse – and I reasoned
all men are much the same (A good match,
my father said, he has expectations).
Ensign Iago’s full of closet secrets
now he’s back from warring, and his clothes
are tainted with the stains of villainy.
Tonight I spread her wedding sheets,
smooth them softly lest my hands begrime them.
(The Comedy of Errors)
They were the sons of our middle age –
so alike we knew them by coloured threads
we tied around their wrists. I bought two boys
to be their slaves, never considered parents
forced to sell their children into servitude
or watch them starve.
The shipwreck changed everything –
I lost half my family, then, in seeking them,
the others disappeared. Here in Ephesus
my face is wrong, my skin, my voice, my clothes,
even the prints of my feet in the dirt.
Two states at war and I am condemned
for a tyrant’s actions.
It is a sin
to give up hope, they say, even on death row.
What fancy could redress my fortune now?
I’m always Boy, a word to call a dog.
I served Sir John but now he’s dead,
killed by the king’s I know thee not, old man.
I tag along to war, not knowing why
we fight, follow Bardolph, Pistol, Nym
to France, but all they do is pocket up
more wrongs, enough to buy a gallows rope.
How the king swaggered at Harfleur!
I heard his threats, matching his soldiers
with Herod’s slaughtermen. It made me retch.
Now, hungry, worn out with marching,
we’re quick to quarrel. The little I can do is keep
the baggage train, pray that the French know not
there’s none to guard it but boys, child soldiers all.
(Troilus and Cressida)
Because you won’t believe me I will speak
the truth. I woke up one morning and knew
that war would go on for ever, each side
claiming victory (only the merchants do well –
the procurers of flour, fish and flesh).
With one night’s pleasure Venus took my name
for a debt I cannot redeem. In Troy
there is nowhere to hide. Once, as a child,
I rolled a loom-weight down the stairs and watched
it smash on the final step. A hostage exchange –
that’s all it ever was. When I entered the Greek camp
the common soldiers pawed my skin, the lazars
begged with cop and clapper. Read me truly –
sister of the first casualty of war.
Shakespeare’s orphaned girl
within sound of the sea
Dorothy Wordsworth reads Timon of Athens
Sauntered in the garden – with William away
my mind fidgeted, thought of tasks
that needed to be done, checked on plants
(the turnips wanted weeding), looked for wild flowers
– bluebells’ sweetest scent.
Read Timon of Athens –
what held me seated, closed my ears to birdsong?
That he knew about eating roots (new potatoes
almost ready, carrots showing frilly tops)
and where to find spring water? That he reminded me
of a vagrant whose wits were so in tatters
they could not be mended?
I would not argue
with the simple moral, but as I walked
that evening I felt the deepest melancholy
for him who could find no one to love.
The Duke of Albany
I married Goneril. Her face was painted,
her head weighed down with jewels, her breasts
full and bare. I held back, let her speak
and make decisions. Suddenly
she was in command of soldiers, spies,
half a kingdom. I blame myself I was not there
when she and Cornwall blinded Gloucester,
that I could not decide which pretext
would justify a call to arms, that I forgot
Cordelia and the king until it was too late.
When Lear died, his daughter in his arms,
tears drowned my eyes. In my heart
I go over it again and wonder
what difference I could have made.
You were a royal heir and I a scholar
whose good spirits were his only revenue.
I never saw you in the library
yet your arguments were unassailable,
the tutors silenced by your rhetoric.
I came to Elsinore to see your father’s funeral,
alas, too late. You were distraught with mourning.
In my philosophy there were no ghosts
until my mind recalled the dead who walked
Rome’s streets ere Julius Caesar fell.
There’s none left now but I
to chronicle your deeds, set down the causes
of this bloody, senseless slaughter.
Sweet prince, you were the best of us at Wittenberg.
Re-reading The Merchant of Venice
How could Antonio, whom all Venetians loved,
spit and watch his spittle lodge in Shylock’s beard
and laugh at his misfortunes and call him rotten
to the core?
We had no Jews at school,
or if we did they had, like Jessica, converted.
No mention made of Hitler, or the starved spectres
of Belsen newsreels. We learnt by heart
the quality of mercy is not strained
and did not know why there were Polish girls in class
with long hair and longer names that plaited
round the teacher’s tongue.
Why did Antonio,
whose surety was his body, offer his flesh
so that his bosom lover could be decked
in diamonds, lace and velvet to chance
upon a wife? And Portia – our ‘role model’ –
a sixth-form youth whose lips disturbed our dreams.
(As You Like It)
I, who have had death at my heels,
hear my courtiers shuffling up to me,
their feet beribboned and rosetted,
buckled up with jewels.
I grieve the fellowship of the forest –
there I was almost one of them,
singing their lusty songs after they’d poached
the deer that once was mine. I’ve kept
my leathern shoes. I slip on pattens,
like the servants, to go outdoors.
I miss my daughter’s laughter, her footsteps
round the hall.
They whisper at my back
how quickly I have changed,
adapted to the seasons like the ermine.
(The Winter’s Tale)
Of course you know me – all together now:
a snapper up of unconsidered trifles!
There – you’re smiling already. You don’t need me,
I’m not important for the plot, but I make you happy.
You can’t resist my ballads, sing them long after
I’ve taken my final bow. I’ve wares to sell –
ribbons, damasks, silks – and that good feeling
spending brings. You laugh at my tricks, never notice
it’s your purse I’m filching. Then there’s the costumes –
I get to change clothes twice and end up
wearing the prince’s three-pile velvet.
All this from a simple stage direction
Enter Autolycus singing
and I shift the play from winter into spring.
(The Two Gentlemen of Verona)
Launce is loyal, but I thank heaven I have more wit than he. When his two-timing master bids him take me to the Duke’s daughter as a gift, he – Launce, that is – depends on me – Crab – to get him out of it. My strategy is scent. How my hormones twitch as I anoint myself in the milkmaid’s dunghill, its luscious sweet and sour odours.
The palace chamber smells of beeswax, pomanders, roast meats. The capon leg slips from Sylvia’s plate into my mouth. I slive under the table, watched by the Duke’s drooling deerhounds. I’ve more brains in the twitch of my tail than they have in their inbred skulls. The rushes need a good pissing to make them smell properly. The Duke holds his nose, Out with that cur! he yells. I cock my leg against his daughter’s farthingale and run.
Loyal as ever, Launce takes the blame. He tells me everything, his hand stroking my fur. He loves my hazel eyes, my glistening nose, that trick I have of lifting one ear to listen. He assumes my affirmative.
(Midsummer Night’s Dream)
I’m a jester, a prankster, a mathematician –
forty minutes precisely to circle the globe.
Love potions are my speciality, but lovers –
they all look the same to me.
A stroke of genius that ass’s head.
I transformed a hempen homespun weaver, but the plot
unravelled – what a rush to mend it for the nuptials
(when they talked through all of Pyramus and Thisbe).
Now it’s ended and I’m here with a broom
sweeping up flowers and bits of forest,
putting the stage to bed, dowsing the lights:
assistant stage manager, that’s my job.
It was just a jolly romp, in case you hadn’t guessed;
leave open the casement and let the moonlight in.