Monday, December 22, 2008

Was Shakespeare in the Army?

I came across this passage in Quartered Safe Out Here: A Recollection of the War in Burma, by George MacDonald Fraser, and could not resist sharing it:

I got two paperbacks from home which I had requested: Henry V, which we had done in my last year at school and for which I had developed a deep affection, and Three Men in a Boat.... I was laying on my groundsheet... when Sergeant Hutton [who, like most members of the Border Regiment, was a Cumbrian] squatted down beside me.

"W'at ye readin', then? W'at's this? 'Enry Vee - bloody 'ell, by William Shekspeer!" He gave me a withering look, and leafed over a page. "Enter Chorus. O for a muse of fire that wad... Fook me!" He riffled the pages. "Aye, well, we'll 'ev a look." And such is the way of sergeants, he removed it without by-your-leave; that's one that won't be away long, I thought.

I was wrong. Three days later it had not been returned, and having exhausted Jerome and the magazines, I was making do with the Fourteenth Army newspaper, SEAC.... I was reading a verse by the paper's film critic... when Hutton loafed up and tossed Henry V down beside me and seated himself on the section grub-box. A silence followed, and I asked if he had liked it. He indicated the book.

"Was Shekspeer ivver in th'Army?"

I said that most schoalrs thought not, but there were blanks in his life, so it was possible that, like his friend Ben Jonson, he had served in the Low Countries, or even in Italy. Hutton shook his head.

"If 'e wesn't in th'Army, Ah'll stand tappin' [ie, "I'm crazy"]. 'E knaws too bloody much aboot it, man."

This was fascinating. Hutton was a military hard case who had probably left school long before 14, and his speech and manner suggested that his normal and infrequent reading consisted of company orders and the sports headlines. But Shakespeare had talked to him across the centuries - admittedly on his own subject. I suggested hesitantly that the Bard might have picked up a good deal just from talking to military men; Hutton brushed the notion aside.

"Nivver! Ye knaw them three - Bates, an' them, talkin' afore the battle? Ye doan't get that frae lissenin' in pubs, son. Naw, 'e's bin theer." He gave me the hard, aggressive stare of the Cumbrian who is not to be contradicted. "That's my opinion, any roads. An' them oothers - the Frenchman, the nawblemen, tryin' to kid on that they couldn't care less, w'en they're shittin' blue lights? Girraway! An' the Constable tekkin' the piss oot o' watsisname -"

"The Dauphin."

"Aye." He shook his head in admiration. "Naw, ye've 'eerd it a' afore - in different wurrds, like. Them fower officers, the Englishman an' the Scotsman an' the Irishman an' the Welshman - Ah mean, 'e's got their chat off, 'esn't 'e? Ye could tell w'ich wez w'ich, widoot bein' told. That Welsh booger!" He laughed aloud, a thing he rarely did. "Talk till the bloody coos coom yam, the Taffies!" He frowned. "Naw, Ah nivver rid owt be Shekspeer afore - Ah mean, ye 'ear the name, like..." He shrugged eloquently. "Mind, there's times Ah doan't knaw w'at th' 'ell 'e's talkin' aboot -"

"You and me both," I said, wondering uneasily if there were more passages obscure to me than there were to him. He sat in for a moment and then misquoted (and I'm not sure that Shakespeare's version is better):

"There's nut many dies weel that dies in a battle. By Christ, 'e's reet theer. It's a good bit, that." He got up. "Thanks for the lend on't, Jock."

I said that if he'd liked it, he would like Henry IV, too. "Falstaff's blood funny, and you'd like Hotspur -"

"'Ev ye got it?"

I apologised that I hadn't, and promised to write for it.... he went off, leaving me to reflect that I had learned something more about Henry V, and Shakespeare. In his own way Hutton was as expert a commentator as Dover Wilson or Peter Alexander; he was a lot closer to Bates and Court and Williams (and Captains Jamy and Fluellen) than they could ever hope to be. And I still wonder if Shakespeare was in the Army. (128-30)
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