My Literary Epiphany: 'The Winter's Tale'

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September 28th 2021
Published: September 28th 2021
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I am a retired English teacher. I taught for 39 years all over the world – in the UK, Africa, South America and Vietnam. My greatest love in English teaching was teaching Shakespeare and poetry. I often reflect on the epiphany I had in 6th form, which turned me into a Shakespeare- and poetry-lover.

From a very early age I had been bookish. Starting with Enid Blyton’s ‘Secret Seven’, I had worked my way through the Greek and Norse myths, Rosemary Sutcliff, Ian Fleming, Dennis Wheatley, H.P. Lovecraft and innumerable books about UFO’s and the occult. Our English teacher, ‘Sooty’ Coleman, encouraged us to keep a log of all the books we read, and I remember his dismay at my appetite for books about weird phenomena.

That was the first phase of my reading life. I had not yet discovered ‘serious’ literature or poetry. My literary epiphany happened when I was 17, studying for ‘A’ level English. The text that did it, that made everything I had previously read seem rather thin, was Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. I had read Henry 1V Part 1 for ‘O’ level but that hadn’t inspired me. Perhaps I'd been too young or the teacher was boring. The Winter’s Tale, however, blew me away.

It was the language that did it. Not the story or the characters but the words. Shakespeare’s use of English struck me as absolutely wonderful. I borrowed the Argo LP recording of The Winter’s Tale from the school library and played it over and over in my bedroom, savouring the exquisite speeches. Having professional actors read it aloud added an extra dimension. I liked the little phrase meaning pregnant: ‘big with child’. I loved Polixenes’ description of Perdita as a ‘fresh piece of excellent witchcraft’. I found Leontes’ insanely jealous soliloquies, culminating in the ‘Nothing’ speech, thrilling. Shakespeare had hooked me. Never before had I heard such powerful language.

My appreciation of The Winter’s Tale was deepened by a school trip to Stratford to watch Trevor Nunn’s brilliant production, starring Judy Dench, Barry Ingham and Richard Pasco.

From then on I became a serious student of literature. All my reading had hitherto been prose, but now I devoured poetry: Shakespeare, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin, Gerard Manley Hopkins, W. B. Yeats.

I reread The Winter’s Tale a year ago and it had lost none of its magic. But the excitement of hearing it for the first time on those old Argo records will stay with me forever.


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