“The bit with the dog,” ventured Queen Elizabeth (as played by Judi Dench) in Shakespeare in Love. As ever she was Spot on. Yes, the dog scene is indeed the most entertaining part of the Two Gentlemen of Verona!
Which doesn’t say very much for Shakespeare’s first play. He writes about love, friendship betrayal, gender identity – and dogs.
“I think Crab, my dog, be the sourest-natured dog that lives,” his owner Launce announces.
During a family episode of high emotion, it seemed that the mutt “sheds not a tear nor speaks a word.” Even the cat, Launce says, was “wringing her hands.”
This Monday Jacqui and I made our way to the Everyman theatre to see Crab and Launce (brilliantly played by Charlotte Mills) in the Shakespeare’s Globe production of the Two Gents.
Right at the outset, as soon as a Dansette record player was placed centre stage, I knew it was going to be different. Shakespeare was about to be given the Everyman treatment. No deference here.
Set in Swinging Sixties, the production was more of a rock show than a classical performance. The cast each play a whole range of instruments with some expertise and often sing their lines. Even the love letters are written and played out on 33⅓ singles.
A great romp and we loved it. But the skill of the production couldn’t disguise the fact that Shakespeare still has much to learn.
So Proteus pursues and sexually assaults his best friend’s true love, Sylvia (within 3 feet of row BB, incidentally, where I sitting – nearly put me off my Ovaltine), and is then instantly forgiven. Just like that.
And the conclusion of the play is confusing and forced. So many issues are left hanging in the air, so few of our questions are fully addressed. The play just stops as if the Bard has reached his word count and it’s bedtime.
Only when the cast lined up for the curtain call did we the audience realise the show was over. (It didn’t help there being no curtain). No wonder the play is rarely performed.
I remembered my college friend David once telling me that he and his fellow students on the English course invariably groaned when they were given as an assignment the early works of some great writer. They’re rarely that good; they’re still learning to write great novels. (Harper Lee is an obvious exception).
Which makes the New Testament even the more remarkable. You would never know that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were writing their first, even their only Gospel. No one had ever written a Gospel before.
Totally new genre, such is the impact of Jesus and the creativity of the Holy Spirit. Modern scholarship recognises their sophistication.
And you would never know which epistle the apostle Paul wrote first, such is the maturity of his theology. It could be 1 Thessalonians but there again, depending on whether Paul is writing to a tribe or a Roman province, it could be Galatians.
“We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labour prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.( (1 Thess 1:3) Right at the outset Paul presents God as Trinity.
However, years ago I heard a sermon showing how Paul’s letters apostle had developed in his understanding. His understanding of himself.
Writing to the Corinthians in 53/54 AD Paul describes himself as “the least of the apostles” (15:9). Ten years later in writing to the Ephesians he confesses “I am the least of all the saints” (3:8). Then towards the end of his life, in his letter to his apprentice Timothy, Paul speaks of himself as “the chief of sinners” (1 Tim 1:15).
I’m sure you can make too much of this. After all Paul is always writing in context. However, the essential point is certainly true, that the more we grow in Christ, the more we grow in self-knowledge.
This can be unsettling for some Christians who think that they are going backwards when in fact they are growing in Christ. It the truth, not least the truth about ourselves, which sets us free.
So through the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit we become more aware of our own motives. That if the truth be known, we seek to advance our own glory rather than God’s. We help old ladies across the road to further our own reputation. We aim to live holy lives to impress. Me-first sin is in our bones.
As Touchstone muses in As you Like it:
Why, thou sayest well. I do now remember a saying,
‘The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man
knows himself to be a fool.’
But we also learn that God in his grace and compassion still continues to love and nurture us. As ever we are a work in progress. And the good news is that God will never give up on us. He’s started and so he will finish.