I don’t know how they arrange things these days but when I was in secondary school Shakespeare was de rigueur. Looking back, it must have been a nightmare for our English Literature teacher, trying to civilise and enlighten a classroom full of boys with snotty noses and hair trigger erections who were more interested in Newcastle United and guessing what colour Caroline Biggs’s knickers were than in a fine appreciation of Elizabethan drama in the context of cross currents in English literature of the 16th and 17th centuries.
Mrs Simpson certainly had her work cut out. She persevered however, and one of her great achievements against all the odds was as far as I was concerned taking us all to see Polanski’s ‘Macbeth’ in Newcastle when it first came out. The lashings of blood, guts, severed heads and axes in the groin managed to bring the play finally to some semblance of life for teenagers with all the emotional empathy and curiosity of a pile of bricks.
I myself only started to love reading Shakespeare in my thirties, when the reactions and confusions of schooldays had finally begun to recede. Now, with the reconstructed Globe only half an hour away by Tube and the theatres of the West End even closer, I can delve into his fabulously rich, entertaining and enlightening world as often as I like.
Seeing a performance at the Globe gives some faint inkling of what it must have been like in those bawdy and bloody days, when the nearby brothels of Southwark were doing a brisk trade, bear-baiting was taking place next door and a customer at the Globe was stabbed to death by an usher for complaining about the price of admission.
The Bankside stretch of the Thames has loads of attractions apart from the Globe, including the creaky old Anchor Pub where Johnson used to drink, the converted old power station of the Tate Modern and a replica of the Golden Hinde, Drake’s flagship. The old Clink Museum and ‘Vinopolis World of Wine’ are also well worth a visit. Away from the river there’s Southwark Cathedral, old Borough Market and a bit farther off the site of the Marshalsea debtors’ prison where Dickens’s father was banged up and visited by his son every night after his day at the hated rat-infested blacking factory had ended.