In the beginning

In sooth, I know not why I am so sad. It’s September 1987, the first week of the new school year, and we’re doing Shakespeare. We’re allowed to do Shakespeare because we’re in the top set. It gives us a sense of importance, of privilege: we square our shoulders and underline our headings and brace ourselves for the task ahead. There are two top sets, one in each half of the year, and the other one is doing Twelfth Night. We’re doing The Merchant of Venice. We’re in Mrs Ferns’ class. I’ve never had her before, but my friend Catherine has, and says you don’t want to get on the wrong side of her. Mrs Ferns has half-moon spectacles that she will lower occasionally, peering over the top of them and fixing some poor unfortunate with a beady glare. She keeps singling me out to answer questions, and for a while I think she’s picking on me, until my mum says that she’s probably just trying to test me out. Then I start putting my hand up more often, and she moves on to someone else.

It seems a bit weird, this Shakespeare business. My impression of studying Shakespeare has been formed by Adrian Mole, who writes in his diary of ‘translating Shakespeare into modern English.’ It takes us a while to get Salarino and Solanio sorted out, and we whinge about why it didn’t occur to him to choose names that were a bit easier to distinguish. We suspect that Mrs Ferns is playing mind games, sometimes, when she asks us to interpret what kind of language Shakespeare has used, why he’s used this particular word and what it might suggest. We complain that we’re reading too much into it. (Reading too much into it: that thing that every English teacher will be accused of, at some point. Surely Shakespeare didn’t mean to use all those metaphors and things?) But we’re a biddable class, and we do our homework diligently. We’re doing this new qualification, the GCSE, and know that it’s important to work hard right from the start: we’ll be doing coursework soon, and it’ll go towards our final grades. Shakespeare is all part of this. He’ll help us to do well.

In Venice, things are afoot. Antonio is borrowing money from Shylock because his friend Bassanio wants to marry a woman called Portia, who lives in Belmont. We’re not quite sure why he needs money to do this (new clothes? hiring a carriage?) or why Antonio is getting himself in debt for him. Mrs Ferns tells us that Antonio is sometimes played ‘a bit queer’, and because it’s 1987, nobody thinks to pull her up on this, although I know it’s a comment that at least one of my classmates still remembers over thirty years later, citing it as one of the things – the slow drip-drip of ingrained thoughtlessness and prejudice – that made him feel different, and isolated, without any hope of ever fitting in. Mrs Ferns also tells us about the roots of anti-Semitism, and about stereotypes of Jewishness. We think of Shylock in his gaberdine, a bogeyman, another outsider, pleading for acceptance. If you prick us, do we not bleed? In Belmont, the Prince of Morocco chooses the wrong casket, and learns that all that glisters is not gold: the Prince of Aragon, not wanting to opt for what many men desire, picks the silver, and is rewarded with the portrait of a blinking idiot. We know, from long-ago fairytales, that both of them were obviously misguided, that the third casket, the least special, is the right one to pick. But the story is trying to teach us something, as well as to entertain us, and so we let it.

There is news on the Rialto. Antonio’s ships have run aground on the Goodwin Sands: immediately after Bassanio claims Portia as his, he hears that his friend’s ventures have failed. All the riches of Tripoli, of Mexico, of Barbary and India, all lost. We picture silks and spices, rich brocades and woven cloths, all floating on the sea or sunk at the bottom of the English Channel. None of us has ever been to Venice. We know it’s in Italy, and that the streets are canals filled with gondolas, but that’s about it. We know that the Rialto is a bridge, but not what it looks like. We imagine somewhere busy and bustling, alive with colours, the scents of distant lands. Shylock is ready to exact his bond, and Portia puts on her disguise, ready to make her speech. The quality of mercy is not strained: It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath … Mrs Ferns makes us learn it off by heart, and I can still remember it even now, reciting it as my party piece whenever my students complain about having to learn quotations.

Our GCSE coursework is to write the front page of a newspaper, reporting on the trial. I have an idea of what I want to write but can’t make it work. I don’t know how to get the sentences to sound right. I get 16 out of 20, and ‘Good’ in red biro, but I don’t know why I got 16 out of 20, or how I could have got 17 or even 18. That wasn’t how schools worked, then. Today we’d have been given assessment criteria and mark schemes; we’d have been shown examples of what a good piece of work looked like and had the chance to get feedback on a draft of our work before having a go at the finished version. But it’s 1987, so we accept what we’ve got, and move on to our piece of work, on the War Poets, where we do even more reading-things-into-things and where our answers never seem to match up to the ones in Mrs Ferns’ head.

*             *             *             *             *

We tried to go to Venice in 2000, but there was an air traffic control strike in Italy and all the planes were grounded. Then life got in the way, as life does, and we didn’t try again until 2016. This time, we made it. It was February half-term, the week after the Carnevale, and we arrived in a misty Cannaregio towing our suitcases and hardly believing we were here. Venice! But backstreet Venice, away from the tourist hubs. Humpbacked bridges and buildings scarred with graffiti and patched with damp. Elderly men and women with wheeled shopping trollies and small dogs, going about their daily business. I remembered something I’d read in a biography of Edith Wharton, about how the interesting places were always to the side of the important monuments, hidden away.

And then we were at the Rialto. Covered in scaffolding, but still, the Rialto! Shylock wouldn’t have recognised it. The silks and brocades were cheap scarves; the spices were sachets of dried herbs for making different types of pasta sauce. There was Murano glass and fake designer handbags and bottles of olive oil. The bridge sloped under my feet and I stood and bounced, absorbing it through my soles. This was the Rialto and this was Venice and in some ways, this was where it all began. I thought of Mrs Ferns’ lessons and of everything that had happened since, and the people flowed past me on either side, oblivious.

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