(with apologies to Cole Porter. This is my all-time favourite bit of Shakespearean fan fiction – take a look here to see why …
It turned out that as well as simply bringing along the June 2017 Ponytail text – Two Gentlemen of Verona – I had packed the Complete Works with me for my trip, in my mind, at least. The plays haunted me wherever I went, fighting tooth-and-nail (if you’ll pardon the pun) against the constant impulse to declaim lines from Dracula in my best Bela Lugosi Romanian accent, to make even worse puns than the one I’ve just used, and to call my other half ‘Nadia’ (until she lost patience).
In Brașov, I was highly excited to find a poster for King Lear (which I couldn’t read) at an arts centre. But the greater part of our stay was in a different Romania, high up in the Carpathians: a region where the harvesting is done by scythe; where the horse-drawn carts vastly outnumber the ‘Chelsea Tractors’, despite the roads being appalling; and where the leather-skinned ‘bunică’ put us to shame with their capacity for hard work in the blazing sun.
So, a much harder life. Also a simpler one, and not necessarily unhappier.
We were taken aback by the hospitality of Mihae and Rodica, the couple we stayed with. At dinner, they and the other Romanians staying at Casa Hille seemed to delight in nothing more than conversation at the dinner table, the good fellowship fuelled only by Mihae’s excellent home-made wine and an accompanying drop or two of Palinka. English is taught now in the schools, but it’s not that long since Russian was the mandatory second language. We learned a fair bit about a very young country sitting on the shoulders of a very ancient one. In ‘the melting pot of Europe’, the Romanians seemed proud, above all, of being ‘survivors.’
As usual at the Boar’s Head, after a certain amount of rambling, the question always returns to “has this got anything to do with Shakespeare?”
No, and yes – because I’m always looking for Shakespeare, I always find him, I guess. This is what happens when you get really stuck into an author’s works. On another appropriate occasion I might I quote from HV Morton’s travels in Scotland, where a local found comfort – under the most trying of circumstances – in Robert Burns. The essential human dilemmas and themes might remain, but Shakespeare’s texts seemed a little out of place. Interestingly, they became a BARRIER, not an AID, to mutual affinity, so I let them lie. My vanity was stroked a bit by being described as a Profesor of English, but I never quite felt comfortable in forcibly wedging Shakespeare into our conversations. Maybe it’s because the people we talked to weren’t Dukes, Bishops or Kings, but the kind of ordinary folk that Shakespeare seemed to take great care in drawing into every play. People affected by the doings of the ‘good and the great’, but without the agency to effect real change. People who enjoy jokes, drink, and good company. Patrons, perhaps, of The Boar’s Head?
As I grew more familiar with details of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s dreadful era, I tried to resist the temptation to compare him to Orwell‘s Animal Farm, which I have just finished teaching, and instead mapped him to every despot in the plays I’ve read – perhaps the closest I got in terms of own Shakesperience was Angelo in Measure For Measure. Like so many despots, he didn’t practise what he preached, and he had some ‘interesting’ views on sex and procreation. But as I sat round the table, with no internet, no TV, and large parts of the conversation taking place in an unfamiliar tongue, I was reminded of the Forest of Arden in As You Like It. Maybe that was because one of my enduring memories of the country is its amazing abundance of trees compared to the UK.
They say he is already in the Forest of Arden, and a many merry men with him; and there they live like the old Robin Hood of England. They say many young gentlemen flock to him every day, and fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world. (ACT I, sc i: Charles)
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
I would not change it. (Act II scene i: Duke)
And I wouldn’t change anything about our trip – except perhaps I would have taken pains to learn more Romanian before I got there …
Quotations are taken from www.opensourceshakespeare.org