Had I sat that test, I might never have met Cecil Dormand, a teacher at the secondary modern where I ended up, who would change my life when I was 12, by putting Shakespeare into my hands for the very first time. It was The Merchant of Venice. He gave copies to most of us and told us to look up Act 4 Scene 1 (or the famous trial scene, as I was to learn). He cast all the speaking roles and told us to start reading. We all did, but silently. “No, no, you idiots, not to yourselves!” he yelled. “Out loud! This is a play, not a poem. It’s life. It’s real.”
The first words – “I have possessed your grace of what I purpose” – was the first line of Shakespeare I ever read. I barely understood a word, but I loved the feel of the words and sounds in my mouth. A 400-year-old writer reached out a hand in invitation to me that morning. I felt a sense of an internal, private me being released and connecting with something mysterious, alien and exciting. I was hooked.