New Shakespeare MOOC

courseraI’ve only recently heard about a new Shakespeare MOOC that has just started  so you still have time to sign up if you want to join in. As with all MOOCs the course is free. It’s called Shakespeare in Community, and is sponsored by the University of Wisconsin Madison. All the Shakespeare MOOCs I’ve done so far have been Futurelearn, a UK platform, and this one is the first I’ve encountered on the international Coursera platform. Four plays are being discussed over the four weeks of the course: Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing and The Tempest. It runs from 23 April to 22 May.

As well as helping participants to learn about the plays themselves, the course will look at the whole idea of Shakespeare in the digital age:

The goal of this Shakespeare in Community course, then, will be to discover Shakespeare while also considering together what it is for us to discover and un-cover Shakespeare in the digital age.

Ultimately, this course will be focused on building a global community around the study of Shakespeare. And so one of our central goals will be to use Shakespeare’s plays as an occasion for creating important conversations that bridge cultures, languages, and geographies. Students in the course will also increase their digital literacies, learning new tools for reading, writing, critical analysis, and collaboration. The course will be both about Shakespeare and also about the digital humanities, encouraging learners to think critically about how digital tools (including MOOCs) can be used to investigate literary texts.

Over 16,000 people are signed up world-wide and it sounds as if it will be a stimulating course. Here’s the link.

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Cakes, ale and hearing the chimes at midnight

The 2015 Shakespeare birthday cake. Photograph courtesy of Helen Hargest

The 2015 Shakespeare birthday cake. Photograph courtesy of Helen Hargest

Last weekend we remembered, again, the birthday of William Shakespeare. In Stratford tradition is important, so the boys of Shakespeare’s school still head the procession as they have done for over a century. The celebration is also a birthday party, so it’s perhaps surprising that 2015 was only the second time that a birthday cake has been part of the proceedings, with a horse-drawn giant cake in the procession and cupcakes distributed on the day. We make special cakes to mark important events in our lives: birthdays, weddings, Christmas. In Twelfth Night the killjoy Malvolio tries to put a stop to Toby Belch’s late-night party, and Toby dismisses him “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”

The giant panettone

The giant panettone

Cakes are more than just an indulgence: the celebrations of which they form a part are spent with those who are most important to us, and make up some of our strongest memories. A fortnight ago I spent an enjoyable weekend with friends, relatives and neighbours, raising a bit of money for charity at the same time as sharing a giant Panettone cake made by the Giampaoli company in Ancona in Italy. I was lucky enough to win the cake by guessing its weight (a massive 11kg). The cake had previously been raffled at the Plough Inn in Stretton on Fosse and raised £150 for Shipston Home Nursing, a charity offering hospice-type care at home.

It seemed appropriate to donate the money raised to a charity that works with memory, and we raised over £150 for the local charity Warwickshire Reminiscence Action Project (WRAP) that helps to improve the quality of life for dementia sufferers and their carers by encouraging reminiscence. Their latest venture is Cafe WRAP where people can drop in on Friday afternoons at Bishopton Community Centre.

Shakespeare’s characters often recall events from the past, and their stories give depth and humanity to them as well as being entertaining in their own right. In Romeo and Juliet the speech in which the Nurse remembers Juliet as a toddler is one of the most memorable moments in the play and one of the greatest speeches for an older female actor.
On Lammas Eve at night shall she be fourteen.
That shall she; marry, I remember it well.
‘Tis since the earthquake now eleven years,
And she was wean’d – I never shall forget it –
Of all the days of the year upon that day.
In the same play Capulet and his cousin reminisce about feasts thirty years before: “you and I are past our dancing days”.

It’s not just the old who remember: Shakespeare gives memory tremendous power over his people: the Ghost in Hamlet commands “Remember me” and Hamlet promises: Remember thee?
Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe.

In Twelfth Night Viola and Sebastian use their memories of their dead father to identify each other: “My father had a mole upon his brow. And so did mine”. “O that record is lively in my soul” says Sebastian. The Macbeths think they can (literally) wash their hands of the murder of Duncan and live unaffected by it, but the past takes an unexpectedly tight grip on them both. Macbeth can’t forget the predictions of the weird sisters, and Lady Macbeth is haunted so vividly by her memories of the murder of Duncan that she walks and talks in her sleep, condemning herself.

Jim Hooper as Silence, Antony Sher as Falstaff, Oliver Ford Davies as Shallow in the RSC's 2014 production of Henry IV Part 2. Photo by Kwame Lestrade

Jim Hooper as Silence, Antony Sher as Falstaff, Oliver Ford Davies as Shallow in the RSC’s 2014 production of Henry IV Part 2. Photo by Kwame Lestrade

But memory is most often associated with old age. In Much Ado About Nothing, Dogberry says of Verges:
A good old man, sir; he will be talking: as they
Say, when the age is in, the wit is out.

Talking to Reynaldo in Hamlet, Polonius forgets what he was about to say, and in Henry IV Part 2 Shakespeare writes one of the warmest and most nostalgic of scenes.  Justice Shallow reminisces with Justice Shallow about the people they knew in their youth many years before: “Jesu, Jesu, the mad days that I have spent! And to see how many of my old acquaintance are dead!” Shallow asks Falstaff, “O, Sir John, do you remember since we lay all night in the Windmill in Saint George’s Field?”, fifty-five years before. Falstaff responds “We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow”.

Memories can recall happy or sad events, but it’s sometimes just the act of remembering that’s important. We have recently also been marking one hundred years since the start of the Gallipoli campaign, honouring the thousands of servicemen who died there, men who never had the chance to recall the days of their youth with cakes and ale.

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Shakespeare’s Birthday Celebrations 2015

2015 DSCN6944Yesterday, 25 April 2015, Stratford put its party hat on and celebrated Shakespeare’s 451st Birthday again in style. It’s always a great occasion consisting of lots of different elements: street entertainment, dancing, bands playing, the big procession, a lunch party. And it continues on Sunday with a Shakespeare Service at the church and the RSC’s Birthday Bash. To quote the publicity published by the local newspaper, the Stratford Herald “It’s the highlight of a feast of entertainment throughout the festival weekend which has something to please everyone”. At the same time it aims “to remember the fascinating legacy of William Shakespeare, playwright and poet, to his home town and the world of literature and celebrate it here for generations to come”.

2015 DSCN6949This morning a Facebook friend has commented that although he saw a lot going on yesterday, Shakespeare’s work was not to be seen. The question “What is the most appropriate way to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday in his own town?” has been debated for centuries. The very first home-grown celebrations consisted of a procession of local artisans dressed in allegorical costumes relating to their trades. In 1879, once there was a theatre to perform one of his plays in, the question was seen to be mostly solved. Before that processions of people in Shakespearean character, on foot, horseback or pageant-style on carts, had been tried. Later the idea of inviting people from all round the world was seized on and developed into a colourful procession of people in international costume, still fondly remembered. Today we have a mix of local organisations and schools taking part, and people dressed in a mixture of national dress, Tudor costume, academic and government regalia. If you’ve got suggestions for how the day could be improved, I’d be happy to pass ideas on, and photos of the event can be sent to the Shakespeare Celebrations website given above.

2015 DSC04896To me, though, the point of the day is to pay tribute to Shakespeare’s life and work by laying flowers on his grave. This tradition was established by the boys of Shakespeare’s school over a hundred years ago and they still take a leading role in the procession. But anyone can join the end of the procession with an offering of flowers, and late in the afternoon I went down to Holy Trinity Church to enjoy the blooms that are arranged on the floor and monuments in the chancel. The sight and smell of the spring flowers is intoxicating and appropriate given Shakespeare’s known love of them. Some of our photos of the event follow:


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Shakespeare, Rupert Brooke and World War 1

RubertBrooke_NewBioImageExactly 100 years ago, on 23 April 1915, the poet Rupert Brooke died aged 27 in the Aegean en route to battle in Gallipoli.  He’s often described as a World War 1 poet, but he was already an established poet destined for great things when war was declared in August 1914. He came from a privileged background, educated at Rugby School and Cambridge University. He was charming and attractive, and when he died “all England mourned the poet-soldier’s death”

Brooke’s poems reflect the prevailing mood before the war. His most famous poem The Old Vicarage, Grantchester was written while abroad in 1912 and is full of yearning nostalgia for a life already past.

After the outbreak of war Brooke enlisted in the Navy, and at the end of the year he wrote a series of five sonnets about war under the title Nineteen-Fourteen. The first of these is Peace, in which Brooke suggests, as the Poetry Foundation says, “war is a welcome relief to a generation for whom life had been empty and void of meaning”. Going to war is seen as a cleansing act, with death bringing a peaceful release.

Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!

Oh! we, who have known shame, we have found release there,
Where there’s no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending,
Naught broken save this body, lost but breath;
Nothing to shake the laughing heart’s long peace there
But only agony, and that has ending;
And the worst friend and enemy is but Death.

His poems have been condemned as naive, but this is more than a little unfair since he died before the awful slaughter on the battlefields of France. Again on the Poetry Foundation’s website, John Lehmann is quoted: “What soldier, who had experienced the meaningless horror and foulness of the Western Front stalemate in 1916 and 1917, could think of it as a place to greet ‘as swimmers into cleanness leaping’ or as a welcome relief ‘from a world grown old and cold and weary’?” The great poets of World War 1, including Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, are rightly revered, but they wrote after experiencing the realities of war.

It seems appropriate that Rupert Brooke died on the same day of the year as Shakespeare. Both men shared an attitude to the country for which soldiers were fighting that was romantic and nostalgic. Think of the scenes in the Gloucestershire orchard in Henry IV part 2. The fifth and most famous of the Nineteen-Fourteen sonnets is The Soldier:

Rupert Brooke's grave on the Greek island of Skyros

Rupert Brooke’s grave on the Greek island of Skyros

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

The sonnet entitled The Dead is the one that references Shakespeare most directly. Before Agincourt, Henry V declares:
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition.

Brooke’s poem is a tribute to the ordinary soldiers who by their sacrifices have made themselves noble and brought honour to their country:

Statue of Rupert Brooke in Grantchester

Statue of Rupert Brooke in Grantchester

Blow out, you bugles, over the rich Dead!
There’s none of these so lonely and poor of old,
But, dying, has made us rarer gifts than gold.
These laid the world away; poured out the red
Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be
Of work and joy, and that unhoped serene,
That men call age; and those who would have been,
Their sons, they gave, their immortality.

Blow, bugles, blow! They brought us, for our dearth,
Holiness, lacked so long, and Love, and Pain.
Honour has come back, as a king, to earth,
And paid his subjects with a royal wage;
And Nobleness walks in our ways again;
And we have come into our heritage.

The battle of Agincourt is six hundred years ago this year, and on Saturday in Stratford-upon-Avon the celebrations for Shakespeare’s birthday are taking Agincourt as their theme, recalling this famous victory and inevitably making the link with events of 1915.  On Sunday 26 April The Rupert Brooke Society will also be marking the anniversary of Brooke’s death with events in Grantchester and Cambridge.

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Cheek by Jowl’s Measure for Measure coming to your laptop!

A scene from Cheek by Jowl's Measure for Measure

A scene from Cheek by Jowl’s Measure for Measure

Cheek by Jowl’s Russian-language production of Measure for Measure, currently at the Barbican Theatre in London until 25 April, has received fantastic reviews. It’s been sold out for over a month, astonishing considering it’s being performed in Russian with surtitles. It’s also going to Oxford Playhouse from 28 April-2 May. And now, on Wednesday 22 April there’s to be an opportunity for us to watch this production at home via a live stream: we don’t even have to go to a local cinema, though I suspect a fast broadband link is necessary.

The live streaming will be available via Cheek by Jowl’s website or by the Telegraph website. It begins at 7.15  and will run for under 2 hours without an interval.

With an all-Russian cast, the production has already been a great success in Moscow where it was hailed as “a shattering portrait of contemporary Russia”. (Novaya Gazeta). This quote is from the company itself:
“A ruler who doesn’t know how to rule, a bureaucrat seduced by his newfound position and a novice nun faced with an appalling dilemma. In this chaotic world, where prisons, convents and brothels are policed by a corrupt regime, only conflict and self-interest prevail.

Shakespeare’s brew of laughter and high seriousness asks questions about the relationship between ordinary citizens and those in power. Declan Donnellan draws out their topicality with his taut modern-dress update, matching Russian theatre traditions with swiftly changing scenes played out in vivid abstract settings“.

In this country it’s not only being seen as a critique of Russian politics, but of our own. Sexual politics, and corruption at all levels from government and the justice system are hot topics, particularly in the run up to a general election. It’s also a play about religion and the relationship between public and private behaviour. Measure for Measure provokes many difficult questions and leaves many of them hanging in the air at the end of the play. Famously, Isabella has no words to speak after the Duke asks her to marry him, but this is only one of the unresolved issues. Who is to blame for the events of the play; the Duke who absents himself leaving an inexperienced person in charge, or that person, Angelo, who shows himself to be no better than those he condemns? Is it right to  punish Lucio for slandering the Duke when he has been misled? Is Isabella right to put her religious faith ahead of the life of her brother?

This production has been called “gripping”, “thought-provoking”, “breathtaking” and “uncompromising” and Kate Bassett in The Times said “Declan Donnellan’s Russian cast are so electrifyingly intense and disturbing that they make your hair stand on end.” Here is the Guardian’s review, and this is from the Telegraph. Don’t miss it!

If you’d like to see more about the production, this is the trailer,

and this video includes a discussion about the production by the creative team.


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Celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday on foot and screen

The statue of Shakespeare in Central Park New York

The statue of Shakespeare in Central Park New York

My last blog post looked at some of the more official celebrations of Shakespeare’s birthday being held in Stratford, London, New York and Washington DC.  This time I’m filling in some of the gaps by including some links to other celebrations or resources that those of you who aren’t able to take part in in person might find fun during this special week.

First of all,  I’ve been told of a free, open to the public, celebration of Shakespeare that will be held at the outdoor Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park from 1-4pm on Friday 24 April. It”s the 5th Annual Sonnet Slam, during which each of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets will be read out in numerical order by 154 different volunteers. Readers include the British Deputy Consul General Nick Astbury, author Adam Gopnik and as you might expect several Broadway stars.

Stacy Keach reading a sonnet

Stacy Keach reading a sonnet

The photo shows renowned actor Stacy Keach who took part in 2012 and this clip is of actress Dana Ivey kicking off the proceedings in 2014 with a reading of sonnet 1. The Sonnet Slam is the creation of Melinda Hall who describes it as “a unique opportunity for the Sonneteer and Shakespeare to be together on the Bandshell stage, even if it’s only for a minute”. With readers of all ages taking part it should be a lot of fun so do go along if you’re able to.

Plus a video clip of Sonnet #18 as performed last year in ASL:

New York has a long history of performances of Shakespeare. There is a record of a possible amateur production of Romeo and Juliet in 1730, and in 1750 Richard III was performed, followed in 1751 by Othello. For many decades, though, Shakespeare was the preserve of English actors on tour. One of the greatest, who had enormous success in New York between 1820 and 1825, was Edmund Kean who played a wide range of roles including Richard III, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear.

Separate from the Sonnet Slam, there is also a project in progress at the moment to film each of Shakespeare’s sonnets “through a New York lens”. Each one is being filmed at a different  location. The Sonnet Project is the work of the New York Shakespeare Exchange: the films appear on the Sonnet Project website, and Sonnet 108 will appear on 22 April. Sonnets are linked with locations, so for instance “the legal-minded Sonnet 46 [is filmed at] the State Supreme Court building.” The sonnets can be searched by location and they are also hoping to build a walking-tour app.

Part of the Agas Map of London

Part of the Agas Map of London

In London, to celebrate Shakespeare’s Birthday on 23 April the walking tour company Footprints of London are holding a day of walks celebrating Shakespeare in London. You can choose between Shakespeare in Shoreditch, Shakespeare on Bankside and Shakespeare in the City. You might think there is little left of  the London Shakespeare knew but these guided walks will reveal more of the city as it was.

In addition to these walks, there’s a great new interactive map of Shakespeare’s London now available from the University of Victoria in Canada. It’s based on the Agas Map of the city that shows it in great detail and is the brainchild of Janelle Jenstad. As well as the map there is information about the early modern period and about the different buildings it shows. There’s an introductory video on this page.

Another wonderful resource on the early modern theatre in London is the ShaLT (Shakespearean London Theatres) website. There’s a walking map with five suggested walks, and on this page there are about 20 films on lots of different aspects of the subject.

On the subject of walking tours, I must mention the prize-winning Stratford Town Walks. They offer walks every day of the year, even Christmas Day and Shakespeare’s Birthday, and are led by knowledgeable and enthusiastic guides. Stratford-upon-Avon is an ideal size for a walking tour and I’d recommend these to any visitor to the town.

Enjoy Shakespeare’s birthday this week, whether you’re able to get out and about, or just enjoying the virtual experience on your computer screen.

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Celebrating Shakespeare’s 451st birthday on both sides of the Atlantic

Stratford's procession

Stratford’s procession

April is a special month for Shakespeare-lovers, as we celebrate both the birth and death of William Shakespeare in 1564 and 1616. The birthday is traditionally celebrated on the 23rd, three days before his baptism at Holy Trinity Church was entered in the parish register. This year the birthday falls on a Thursday, and in Stratford-upon-Avon this is when the fun begins, continuing until Sunday afternoon. Unusually, then, this year’s celebrations cover the whole period from the date on which it’s assumed Shakespeare was born right up to the date of his baptism on 26th. The main site is here  and don’t forget you can support the celebrations even if you’re not able to attend in person.   This page contains a summary of what’s going on as well as a link to the full timetable for the day for all the events including those organised by the Royal Shakespeare Company and Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

1915 procession in Stratford

1915 procession in Stratford

Processions on foot through Stratford have been held off and on for almost two hundred years. The British Film Institute features on its website a clip showing the 1915 procession beginning at the Birthplace and approaching the door to Holy Trinity Church. The actor-manager Frank Benson features prominently.  This clip is similar but includes the unfurling of the flags in Bridge Street.

globe birthday partyYou can begin to celebrate the birthday by visiting London’s Shakespeare’s Globe on Sunday 19 April. They are holding a free family fun day with lots of activities and events including free visits to the exhibition, cake, and a showing of the Hamlet films by Olivier, Branagh and Zeffirelli, and the Disney version The Lion King, for £5.

For those not able to get down to London, on the same day Shakespeare’s Globe is also launching Shakespeare’s Globe 360.  This is a free app available from the Apple Store that allows anyone in the world to stand inside and explore a 360-degree photo-real virtual version of the famous ‘Wooden O’ theatre. It will use augmented reality to digitally recreate a fully interactive Globe Theatre, the space for which Shakespeare wrote most of his plays.  Patrick Spottiswoode, Director, Globe Education is excited that the Globe Theatre will be available to everyone: “Sam Wanamaker, the Globe’s founder, asked over and over again what we might do for the “child in Stornoway” who was not necessarily going to be able to come to Shakespeare’s Globe in London. He would have loved the digital world and would love this app which allows students in Stornoway or Shenyang in China the opportunity to explore the Globe Theatre for themselves in their homes or classrooms.”

Across the Atlantic in Washington, DC, the celebrations have already begun. The Folger Shakespeare Library’s annual Shakespeare Birthday lecture took place on Thursday 16 April. Professor Lynne Magnusson gave a lecture which was the opening event of the Folger Spring Symposium on Shakespeare’s Language, that continues on 17 and 18 April.

Then on Sunday 19 April the Folger Shakespeare Library holds its annual celebration of Shakespeare’s Birthday with a family party from 12-4pm. There will be swordfighting demonstrations, the chance to speak in the Folger’s own theatre, and the opportunity to tour the Folger’s beautiful reading rooms. And like all birthday parties, there will be cake.

Bottoms Dream Romeo and Juliet

Bottoms Dream Romeo and Juliet

All the events I’ve mentioned so far have been going for years, particularly those in Stratford itself. But this year the first annual New York Shakespeare Convention will be held to mark the author’s 451st Birthday week, on Saturday 25 April at Speyer Hall, 184 Eldridge Street, Manhattan, from 2-5pm. Many of the events are free, and as this is all new, I’m reproducing most of the press release below.

In response to the outpouring of public interest in the plays of William Shakespeare,the independent community of artists and companies that produce his works in New York City are collaborating on a one-day spectacular to celebrate his 451st birthday week.
ShakesCon, in its inaugural year, will feature booths by Puppet Shakespeare
Players, Adirondack Shakespeare Company, Manhattan Shakespeare Project, and
many more! While networking, visitors to the exhibition will enjoy live music, industry
panels, and birthday cake for Mr. Shakespeare.

At 7pm, host company Bottoms Dream will debut a one-night-only performance of Romeo and Juliet, in collaboration with five convention companies. Each company
will perform an act of the play in their signature style. 5 Ways Shakespeare gives
audiences one play with five artistic interpretations.

Convention producers Nat Angstrom and Caitlin White, of Bottoms Dream, hope that visitors to the convention will experience firsthand the groundbreaking work and potential for creativity in their community.

“ShakesCon is a destination for all actors, audiences, and educators, regardless of
their familiarity with Shakespeare’s plays,” says White. “They can browse for
programs that appeal to their individual tastes.” Adds Angstrom, “This is an
opportunity for those frustrated and alienated by Shakespeare’s language to finally
find an interpretation that connects and makes sense.

Shakespeare’s Birthday will undoubtedly be celebrated in many other places around the world. I hope you’ll find somewhere near you to raise a glass (or maybe eat a slice of cake) to honour the memory of the greatest dramatist in the English language.

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The sweet birds, O, how they sing!

A swallow at Mary Arden's House

A swallow at Mary Arden’s House

Standing on the aptly-named Swallow Point, a promontory overlooking the Bristol Channel a week or so ago with some local birdwatchers, I was reminded what an exciting time this is for wildlife. They noted how many of the birds flying over were migrating from their wintering grounds to wherever they would be nesting and bringing up a family before, in late summer, making the return journey. Sand martins flew above our heads, and whimbrel waded on the shore. The Severn Estuary and many rivers are signposts guiding birds in from the Atlantic to their summer homes.

Migration has been going on for thousands of years, but most of us now don’t really notice it. Shakespeare was aware that birds came and went: he noted that daffodils flowered “before the swallows dare”, and although he knew of this annual cycle, he wouldn’t have known where they went. It’s only in the last few decades that it’s been possible to track birds as they migrate, finding that swallows fly each winter all the way to Africa.

My husband used to be in charge at Mary Arden’s House in Wilmcote, the home of Shakespeare’s mother, and would note in the diary the day on which the swallows returned, always to the same place. It’s amazing to think that swallows have probably been doing this, coming back to nest in the same barns, since Shakespeare’s time, and people must have found it an exciting moment when the birds arrived back, a time to celebrate “the sweet o’the year”. According to the diaries they most often arrive in Wilmcote between 10 and 14 April, though the date has varied between 3 and 23 April depending on the weather and wind direction.

Even birds that we think are “ours”, may not be. We see starlings all year round, but some birds winter here having migrated from Russia to the UK’s relatively mild climate, while some of the birds that have brought up their families in the midlands in the summer might migrate further south in the winter.

A blackbird

A blackbird

In our garden a blackbird, nesting in a thick bush next door, has been singing loudly and tunefully. Blackbirds also migrate, so our cheery neighbour might well have spent the winter further south. Shakespeare calls the blackbird by its traditional name, the ouzel-cock, in the song which Bottom sings to show he is not afraid when he is left alone in the wood at night in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
The ousel cock so black of hue,
With orange-tawny bill,
The throstle with his note so true,
The wren with little quill,
The finch, the sparrow and the lark,
The plain-song cuckoo gray,
Whose note full many a man doth mark,
And dares not answer nay;

All these birds are still found in the midlands. This name for the blackbird is recalled in the name of the ring-ouzel, only found in rocky areas, the male of which is similar to a blackbird but with a white bib.


The myth of the barnacle geese

The myth of the barnacle geese

A less-common bird owes its name to the mysteries of migration. Barnacle geese are now known to breed in the arctic, wintering on the coast of Britain and North-west Europe. In the British Isles, then, they are never seen nesting, or as juveniles. The myth grew up that the geese did not hatch from an egg in the usual way. John Gerard’s 1597 Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes, includes a long section “Of the Goose tree, Barnacle tree, or the tree bearing Geese”. “There are found in the North parts of Scotland…, certaine trees wheron do grow certaine shells…wherein are contained little living creatures: which shells in time of maturity doe open, and out of them grow those little living things, which falling into the water do become fowles, which we call Barnacles”.

Gerard claims to have seen how the barnacle shells that were washed ashore attached to driftwood developed with his own eyes. This is supposed to have taken place in Lancashire: he calls it “one of the marvels of this land”. “When it is perfectly formed the shell gapeth open, and the first thing that appeareth is the fore-said lace or string; next come the legs of the bird hanging out, and as it groweth greater it openeth the shell by degrees, til at length it is all come forth…and falleth into the sea…where it gathereth feathers, and groweth to a foule.”

Gerard is clearly aware that many would be unconvinced that trees could produce living birds, but there was no evidence to contradict it. How else could the sudden appearance of the adult birds in the summer be explained? The idea that birds could fly thousands of miles twice a year would probably have been seen as equally unlikely. It’s a great example of how stories were made up to explain the mysteries of the natural world before scientific theories based on evidence were developed.

If you would like to hear the beautiful sounds of British wildlife, in particular “the sweet birds”, you can listen to some of the British Library’s  British Wildlife recordings here.

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Shakespeare’s undiscovered play?

The Arden edition of Double Falsehood

The Arden edition of Double Falsehood

A few days ago I read the announcement that a new play by Shakespeare had been discovered. Well don’t get too excited because this is another bit of research looking at the Cardenio/Double Falsehood issue. I wrote a summary of the evidence for this back in January 2014, and you’ll also find descriptions of the whole intriguing story if you follow some of the links below.  The new study does, however, claim to break new ground by being based on a scientific analysis by the University of Texas.

“The authors of this research, Ryan Boyd and James Pennebaker, used computer software to analyse the text of the play to recognise linguistic patterns and signatures common to Shakespeare’s widely recognised works. These include the use of pronouns and prepositions, and words that fall into certain thematic categories, including emotion, family and religion.”

Using computers to do this kind of statistical research is nothing new: Stylometry has been around for decades and is notoriously unreliable, at least with identifying early modern writers. This post for instance suggests that stylometry has been used to prove that Marlowe and Shakespeare’s work is indistinguishable and therefore Marlowe was Shakespeare. I can’t help feeling a little sceptical about all these results, though I’m sure the tools developed by the University of Texas are advanced, and the attempts are genuine. This article explains a little more:

“University of Texas researchers have unveiled a sophisticated new study of Double Falsehood that used text-analysing software that helped create a ‘psychological signature of the playwright.”

“I am quite confident that Shakespeare had a direct hand in writing Double Falsehood. Put me down for 97 per cent confident,” University of Texas social psychologist James Pennebaker, co-author of the study published in the journal Psychological Science, said on Friday.”

It’s a play that Michael Billington suggested “is as full of echoes as a whispering gallery”. And traditional scholars can see the point of using computers to analyse data. In 2011 Gary Taylor wrote a piece explaining that what was needed to get back to Shakespeare in this play was “a lot of painstaking (read: boring) work with databases, a bit like paleontologists slowly brushing away the stone that surrounds dinosaur bones.”

Gary Taylor has spent years looking at the play and concludes that if you’ve read or seen a version of it you’ve almost certainly been disappointed “because what you have seen has contained a lot of Lewis Theobald, and Theobald will never satisfy anyone’s expectations of Shakespeare or Cervantes. The first thing we need to do is get rid of Theobald.”

Alex Hassell and Pippa Nixon in the RSC production of Cardenio, 2011

Alex Hassell and Pippa Nixon in the RSC production of Cardenio, 2011

And in his introduction of the version of Cardenio staged by the RSC in 2011, Gregory Doran notes that Theobald admitted he had adapted the play for the tastes and sensibilities of the London audience of his time.

Theobald had edited Shakespeare’s plays and was immersed in his writing, so it would be no surprise if he was able to imitate Shakespeare’s style. And there would have been no shame in doing so. His plays had been rewritten to suit the fashions of the time ever since the Restoration period of the 1660s. Indeed most of the versions of Shakespeare’s plays that were seen at the time Double Falsehood was staged, in 1727, had been substantially rewritten.

What’s most surprising is the suggestion (again) that this is a new discovery. With a complete edition for the Arden in 2009, edited by Brean Hammond, a republishing of the play in the RSC’s collection of Collaborative Plays in 2013, and several productions of a variety of texts, Double Falsehood/Cardenio is not exactly news.

The Independent at least credits Brean Hammond, and quotes his generous view:

“In 2010 scholarly discussion was reignited when Professor Brean Hammond of the University of Nottingham published the play in its fully annotated form claiming that he believed it to be a collaboration between Shakespeare and the dramatist John Fletcher.

He hailed the Texan researchers for having “a more objective view” than some literary scholars but suggested their work might “draw suspicion” for its analysis of the words belonging to content categories which are arguably arbitrary.

“I think that Shakespeare’s DNA can be found in the play so anything that supports that view is good in my opinion,” Professor Hammond told the Independent.”

In his own introduction, though, Professor Hammond notes that the play could also have been at least part-authored by James Shirley, Philip Massinger, as well as Fletcher.

Hammond also noted that Double Falsehood “could be substantiated beyond all doubt only by the discovery of an authenticable manuscript or altogether disproved by other equally convincing forms of external evidence”. We’re not there yet.

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Christopher Marlowe’s Jew of Malta

Christopher Marlowe

Christopher Marlowe

At the beginning of the RSC’s current production of Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta a young man, unacknowledged in the programme, bounds on stage and reveals beneath his jacket a T-shirt bearing the logo Royal Marlowe Company in the RSC’s house style. He delivers the prologue to the play: this is Machevil, or is it Marlowe, getting his own back 400 years on?  It’s a jokey start to this irreverent play and one that tells the audience not to take any of it too seriously.

How different to the RSC’s previous production of the play on the same stage back in 1987 when the RSC veteran John Carlisle, gaunt, thin-faced and gravelly-voiced, delivered this speech, returning as the Governor of Malta who confiscates all Barabas’s goods, even his house, so the island can pay its outstanding tribute to the Turks. I don’t remember being struck by the injustices done to Barabas, only by his outrageous crimes, in particular the murder of his own daughter Abigail and her competing lovers. The play piles horror on horror until Barabas is killed by being plunged into a boiling cauldron. He dies unrepentant:
Had I but escaped this stratagem
I would have brought confusion on you all,
Damned Christian dogs, and Turkish infidels!

John Carlisle as Ferneze and Alun Armstrong as Barabas, RSC 1987

John Carlisle as Ferneze and Alun Armstrong as Barabas, RSC 1987

Alun Armstrong as Barabas turned in a fine comic performance, but I felt little sympathy with him: at the end he deserved everything he got.

The production is a reminder of how times have changed in other ways. At the beginning of the play Barabas is respectable, his only “crime” being his wealth. How far, Marlowe seems to ask, can we go in humiliating people before they fight back.  The Daily Telegraph review of this production suggests that his persecution frees Barabas “from the shackles of convention and discovers what he’s made of…The production leaves it to us to decide when to part company with his amoral stratagem spree but defers that cut-off point by accentuating the way he’s part and parcel of a dirty, scheming world”.
For he that liveth in authority,
And neither gets him friends nor fills his bags,
Lives like the ass that Aesop speaketh of.

In the Guardian Charles Nicoll describes the timing of the production as “almost uncanny”. The play “seems tailor-made for more topical fears. It is a story of religious tensions and racist violence, of tangled motives and shifting sympathies, played out against the backdrop of a cynical society whose true creed is neither religion nor ideology but grasping materialist greed.. The eponymous Jew, Barabas, … Brutalised – or as we now say “radicalised” – by ill treatment, …goes on a spree of cold-blooded killings”.
Compassion, love, vain hope, and heartless fear;
Be moved at nothing; see thou pity none.

When I saw the play before, I found it uncomfortably anti-semitic, though the Jewish Chronicle noted “it is also anti-Christian and anti-Moslem. Indeed it is anti-everything except a good laugh”.  In this production Jasper Britton as Barabas makes it clear we shouldn’t take what he says seriously. The much-quoted lines:

Jasper Britton as Barabas, RSC 2015. Photo by Ellie Kurttz

Jasper Britton as Barabas, RSC 2015. Photo by Ellie Kurttz

As for myself, I walk abroad o’nights,
And kill sick people groaning under walls;
Sometimes I go about and poison wells.

are spoken to test Ithamore, perhaps a challenge to see which is the tougher. The Daily Telegraph suggests Britton “has the ironic measure of the part, at times camply bored with his crimes, very much “playing” the villain”.

TS Eliot, writing around a century ago, suggested it should be seen “not as a tragedy … but as a farce”, written in a tone of “serious, even savage comic humour”. Post-holocaust, Lois Potter, writing in the Cambridge Companion to Christopher Marlowe, asks “Is turning the play into a riotous comedy an evasion of responsibility?” It’s an awkward question, and there can be few members of the audience who have laughed at the play who feel entirely comfortable doing so. Charles Nicoll, again suggests that “Marlowe’s purpose in presenting us with this pantomime Jew is surely to satirise the crudity of the stereotype”. How appalled would the original audiences have been by it? Would the wrap-around stages on London’s first playhouses have enabled Barabas to engage his audience in the way Jasper Britton manages to do in the Swan?

Back in 1965, on the old RST stage, Eric Porter played both Shylock and Barabas in the same season, inviting comparisons between the plays. The reviewers disagree about Porter’s performance as Barabas: “subtle”, “ironic”, “intelligent”, with “a touch of hiss-the-villain burlesque”, though one reviewer complained “he does nothing to make the flesh creep”. Porter was an actor of real weight, not known for comedy. The Financial Times critic felt the whole thing was too close to farce, getting “far more laughs than Marlowe can ever have imagined”. We’ll never know what Marlowe might have imagined, but we do know, as Charles Nicoll puts it, he was “a trenchant critic of religious superstition” who bothered much less than Shakespeare did to conceal his real views. It’s hard to imagine that audiences didn’t find this savagely funny play just as entertaining as we do now. Productions of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, though, find themselves having to tread on eggshells to avoid the charge of anti-semitism. Marlowe would probably have been amused.

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