Shakespeare’s family and the “lost years”

the shakespeare circleIn the last week or so I’ve been hearing about, and reading about, Shakespeare’s parents, who they were, what they were like, and how his family life might have impacted on his career. In her afterword to the new book *The Shakespeare Circle, Margaret Drabble suggests “to receive interesting answers you have to ask interesting questions”, and the authors I’ve been reading, David Fallow and Helen Moorwood, have asked questions about whether the conventional view is the right one. The answers that they’ve come up with, though, are completely different.

For some perspective I’ve also been looking at the more conventional biographies by Stephen Greenblatt and Michael Wood. Greenblatt’s book Will in the World is subtitled How Shakespeare became Shakespeare“, and he spends a good deal of time picking over the “mountains of speculation” relating to the years after Shakespeare drops out of the official records in Stratford before he reappears as an actor and playwright in London some seven years later: during this period he somehow became Shakespeare.

Neither Fallow nor Moorwood try to establish exactly what Shakespeare was doing from around 1582 to 1589. Neither has uncovered new documentary evidence, for instance. but both have done vast amounts of research, and try to persuade us that their perspective is correct. For both of them, what Shakespeare was doing in his “lost years” depends on his family connections and their backgrounds.

Hoghton Tower

Hoghton Tower

Helen Moorwood’s latest book on the Lancastrian theory, Shakespeare at Hoghton Tower, 1579-81 is over two hundred closely-packed pages long, so I hope she’ll excuse me if I offer only a sketch of her ideas. She’s already examined the epitaphs for the Stanley family in the church at Tong in Shropshire, traditionally said to have been written by Shakespeare, and she now closes in on the theory that I first encountered in Ernst Honigmann’s book Shakespeare in Lancashire. This links Shakespeare with the Catholic Hoghton and Hesketh families, and in particular with Alexander Hoghton’s 1581 will in which a man called William Shakeshafte, probably a player or musician, was mentioned. In his book In Search of Shakespeare Michael Wood examines these theories but concludes they are “curious coincidences” rather than facts.

Moorwood herself comes from a Lancashire family, and her investigations lead her to believe that “William Shakespeare’s blood was from Lancashire”. She proposes that John Shakespeare, William’s father, was actually John Shakeshafte, who is registered as a glover in Preston in 1562 and 1582, and not related to the Shakespeares of Snitterfield. She suggests he set up business in Stratford in the 1540s or 1550s and by 1552 had married a wife with whom he had a number of children including William. After this wife’s death around 1574 John then married the widowed Mary Arden, daughter of Robert Arden of Wilmcote, whose family was originally from Cheshire. As Mary Arden was not his mother Shakespeare could not impale the Shakespeare coat of arms with the Arden one, though this had been approved for John Shakespeare. Heraldry certainly isn’t my subject, but this explanation of the inconsistencies relating to the Shakespeare coat of arms seems, well, far-fetched. I apologise if I have missed Moorwood’s explanation, but surely if John’s first wife had died and he had remarried in the 1570s these events would feature in parish records. There are gaps in the record, like Shakespeare’s own marriage, but the Stratford records and those of neighbouring parishes accurately record most births and deaths. Helen Moorwood’s book is not available for purchase but there is information on her website.

David and Mrs Fallow at the Shakespeare Club

David and Mrs Fallow at the Shakespeare Club

On Tuesday David Fallow, who has a formidable background in finance, spoke to the Stratford Shakespeare Club on his research into the life of John Shakespeare for which he has earned a doctorate. His argument (again I’m summarising a complex theory) is that John Shakespeare never lost his money as the conventional story goes. Instead, after a government crackdown on illegal wool trading he lowered his profile, tactically “selling” his land at giveaway prices to relatives to avoid paying tax. William left school early in order to help his father run his business and went to London to act as his father’s agent, looking after his business concerns. This idea has received quite a lot of press attention and Fallow has contributed a chapter to the recently published book *The Shakespeare Circle where the argument is set out more fully. Documents certainly show that John Shakespeare was more than a humble glove-maker, and was involved in illegal dealing in wool, but there are still lots of questions. If John Shakespeare was not in financial difficulties, but merely lying low, why did his colleagues on the Council in Stratford protect him from paying fines like the 1578 levy on strengthening the militia, or, particularly, the levy to cover poor relief?

As a Stratfordian through and through I can’t say I’m convinced by the theories of either Helen Moorwood or David Fallow, thought-provoking though they both are: there are at least as many gaps and suppositions in them as there are in the “official” histories.

bearman shakespearesmoneyAt the end of March archivist Robert Bearman’s book Shakespeare’s Money: how much did he make and what did this mean? is to be published by Oxford University Press. Bearman has been studying the Shakespeare documents, and the documents relating to Stratford, for over forty years, and I believe he comes to very different conclusions from Fallow. We shall have to wait and see.

* The Shakespeare Circle: an Alternative Biography, edited by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells. Published by CUP 2015.

Posted in Legacy, Shakespeare's World, Stratford-upon-Avon | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Shakespeare at King’s College London

lscdressbannerA number of exhibitions and productions celebrating 2016 as the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death are already under way, but there’s on organisation that’s getting in early by staging a weekend of great one-off Shakespeare events at the end of this week.

From Thursday 11 to Sunday 14 2016 February King’s College London is holding King’s Shakespeare Festival Weekend. The weekend is going to be a terrific blend of academic lectures and more popular events. Thursday evening sounds like a great evening to start it off: first they will mark the publication of the anthology On Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A Poet’s Celebration with a performance including poems by Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage, Jo Shapcott and others. This will be immediately followed by a performance by Ashley Riches (baritone) and Emma Abbate (piano) of a selection of twentieth century Shakespeare songs. On Friday evening there will a lecture by Professor Gordon McMullan, director of the London Shakespeare Centre, on the compelling and topical subject Remembering and Forgetting in 1916: the Shakespeare Tercentenary and the First World War, and a Q&A with scholar and author James Shapiro.

On Saturday the events begin at lunchtime with a lecture by Lena Cowen Orlin on The Second-Best Bed that Shakespeare famously left to his wife in his will, followed by “an exploration by professional actors and King’s academics of the glimpses we see of Shakespeare’s life through the brief records he left behind.”, which sounds intriguing. Later on there will be a showing of new animated films and a series of lectures. The musical theme continues with “a multidisciplinary reflection on the character Tom O’Bedlam in song, history and lived experience”, and the day ends with an evening of nineteenth century Shakespeare songs and scholarship.

On Sunday afternoon there’s a staged reading of a new play by Emma Whipday, Shakespeare’s Sister, marking its publication by Samuel French, followed by David Scott Kastan’s deliberations on the subject of Shakespeare’s Will, looking at the materials on display in the By Me William Shakespeare exhibition (see below). The weekend rounds off with acclaimed actor Simon Russell Beale in conversation with Sonia Massai. Simon has already performed many of Shakespeare’s leading roles and will be making one of the most striking contributions to the year’s celebrations by taking on the role of Prospero in The Tempest for the RSC towards the end of 2016.

I love the way the organisers of the weekend have tried to mix entertainment and a lighthearted look at the history of popular culture with lectures by highly-esteemed academics. During the year, Shakespeare 400, described as “a consortium of leading cultural, creative and educational institutions in and around London” will be putting on lots of other talks, debates, performances and film screenings: this is just the start of what promises to be a year full of delights for the Shakespeare enthusiast.

kings college feb 2016Already on, from 3 February – 29 May at the Inigo Rooms, Somerset House, is an exhibition co-curated by The National Archives and the London Shakespeare Centre at King’s College, London, By Me William Shakespeare,  that puts on display Shakespeare’s Will alongside other unique documents. It’s described as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to see key documents, including fours of Shakespeare’s known signatures among the nine most important documents held by The National Archives relating to his life.

Presented together for the first time, these are some of the most significant documents in the world that track Shakespeare’s life as a citizen of London, a businessman, a fmily man and servant to the King and even possibly a thief and a subversive. They explore both his domestic and professional lives, what it meant to live in the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras and the social impact of his plays.

And also on, but with much less fanfare, is an exhibition in the Entrance Hall to the Strand campus of King’s College, entitled Shakespeare in 1916 that shows how Shakespeare was remembered a hundred years ago and how his work was studied at the time.

Posted in Legacy | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

National Libraries Day 2016

national libraries daySaturday February 6 is National Libraries Day, our annual chance for Libraries to show off some of the great work they do. In 2015 there were 265 million visits to public libraries, but government cuts mean these wonderful institutions are under threat, with opening hours slashed and increasingly reliant on volunteers who, useful as they are, aren’t going to be able to offer the help that properly trained and experienced staff can. 

National Libraries Day now offers a wide range of events designed to show off areas of the Library’s work that people might have missed, or to bring in people who might not normally drop in. The website includes lots of events such as storytelling, story writing, poetry workshops, local history sessions, and events with a Harry Potter theme.  

I’ve had a browse through the website and haven’t spotted any Shakespeare-related events, but perhaps everybody is saving themselves for April when the 2016 celebrations will reach their height. Maybe its due to the pressure of staffing cuts that the only event listed for central Birmingham including the city’s landmark building, the Library of Birmingham, is a special Saturday storytime in the childrens’ library.

In the Stratford-upon-Avon area no events are listed, though several Warwickshire libraries, including Warwick, are holding “Poetry Everywhere” sessions.  

Seems to me that even if there aren’t any special events lined up, we should all go along to our public libraries, browse through some books and magazines, ask a question, consult a map, or borrow some books. These enjoyable pastimes also help to boost the statistics that give some indication of how much these resources are valued. I’m enormously fortunate in that I have several of my favourite libraries, including two specialised Shakespeare libraries, within walking distance of my front door. I’m going to be sauntering down to two of them and I encourage you to do the same. If you want to comment on the day, you can do so on Twitter using #librariesday

Posted in Legacy | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Post-war British theatre: Finlay, Gaskill and British Black and Asian Shakespeare

Frank Finlay as Iago and Laurence Olivier as Othello

Frank Finlay as Iago and Laurence Olivier as Othello

Almost swamped by the understandable outpouring of tributes for the late Sir Terry Wogan, the death of the fine actor Frank Finlay at 89 has passed with little attention this week. Most people remember Finlay for his screen and TV work including Casanova on TV and The Three Musketeers on film. Among the obituaries is one from Michael Billington (another national treasure himself). This link is to Finlay’s own website,  And this to the Telegraph obituary.

Frank Finlay’s portrayal of Iago to Laurence Olivier’s Othello at the National Theatre in 1964 was his most famous Shakespeare role, not least because the production was filmed, going on release in 1965. One of his other Shakespeare parts was the Gravedigger in the first National Theatre production of Hamlet starring Peter O’Toole. According to Daniel Rosenthal, Finlay’s Iago was “excessively restrained, an unassuming chap whose matter-of fact tone suggests destroying Othello is a bit of a chore”. Olivier, by contrast, gave an “outsize, elaborate, overwhelming” performance: “When jealousy takes hold he roars and howls like a wild animal”. Olivier had himself played Iago and knew how powerful the role could be: as well as speaking directly to the audience Iago is a much larger role than Othello. Finlay was a successful foil to Olivier, remaining straight-faced even in close-up. The relationship between all four leads (Olivier as Othello, Finlay as Iago, Maggie Smith as Desdemona and Joyce Redman as Emilia) worked so well that when the film was released all four were nominated for Oscars.

Adrian Lester as Ira Aldridge in Red Velvet

Adrian Lester as Ira Aldridge in Red Velvet

Olivier blacked up to play Othello, a tradition going right back to Shakespeare’s day when Richard Burbage first played the role. Nowadays it is almost impossible for a white actor to play Othello: last year at the RSC Iago too was played by a black actor, but colourblind casting is a long way off. Red Velvet, Lolita Chakrabarti’s play about Ira Aldridge who was in 1833 the first black actor to play Othello, has recently opened at the Garrick Theatre in London’s West End and plays there until 27 February. It was originally produced at the Tricycle Theatre in 2012, again with Adrian Lester as Aldridge. Lester himself played Othello to acclaim at the National Theatre, among other successful Shakespeare roles. As well as charting the career of Aldridge, it examines changes in acting styles, where gesture told the story as much as words: “It’s a fascinating glimpse of a forgotten theatrical language, but when Aldridge imbues Othello with naturalistic, bone-rattling fervour, it’s electrifying: man discovering fire.” Perhaps most, though, it’s a play about racial politics. Aldridge was patronised and treated with appalling prejudice, and although he also played traditionally white parts such as King Lear the play is a reminder of how far there is still to go before we have equality in casting.

This too is the subject of the British Black and Asian Shakespeare project at Warwick University, which has now launched its database. This “was originally conceived as an historical record, acknowledging, documenting and celebrating the contribution of Black and Asian artists – especially performers – to the development of Shakespearean production in modern Britain”. It has “developed into an ongoing record of contemporary casting practices”, demonstrating how many (or how few) black and Asian actors have appeared in productions of Shakespeare plays in the UK from 1930 to 2015. The construction of the database has also “coincided with increasingly urgent calls for greater diversity within the entertainment industries” and will support the case for change. The database is organised around people, plays, companies and roles: there are valuable biographies, I particularly enjoyed searching for plays to see which roles are played most often by black and asian actors, and when. I was pleasantly surprised to see how many Romeos and Juliets are on the list as well as the obvious Aarons, Othellos and Princes of Morocco.

Director William (Bill) Gaskill

Director William (Bill) Gaskill

As I was preparing this post, news came in of the death of another person who changed post-war British theatre, director William (Bill) Gaskill. He had directed Olivier and Maggie Smith in The Recruiting Officer for the National Theatre at around the same time as Othello, and most importantly was responsible, while Artistic Director at the Royal Court, for the production of Edward Bond’s play Saved. This play, with its graphic presentation of the stoning to death of a baby, fell foul of the Lord Chamberlain and had to be put on as a private performance. The controversy surrounding the play was one of the leading factors that led to the abolition of censorship on the stage in 1968.


Posted in Legacy, Shakespeare on Stage | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The making of the First Folio

making of shakespeare folioI wrote a week or so ago about Emma Smith’s new book The Making of Shakespeare’s First Folio, published by Bodleian Library Publishing, and the stories relating to the Bodleian Library’s own copy. One of the books I inherited from my father is another book about the Folio, R Crompton Rhodes’ Shakespeare’s First Folio, published in 1923 as a tercentenary tribute. My copy is inscribed with the name of my grandfather, W F Tompkins, Stratford-upon-Avon, July 1923. He had not long started working as the Guide at Shakespeare’s Birthplace after over 20 years at Holy Trinity Church, where one of his responsibilities was, again, guiding visitors. At the Birthplace, one of the SBT’s treasures was a copy of the First Folio, so I guess he was keen to learn all he could. The two books would seem to cover the same ground, but it’s been interesting to see how much the approach to this enigmatic volume has changed in the past 90 years or so.

Rhodes approaches his subject with detective-like zeal, assessing evidence from a wide range of sources and coming up with a series of solutions. Studies of the First Folio were few, and copies of the original book were mostly still in private hands where they could not be accessed. In 1902 Sidney Lee had published a “reproduction in facsimile of the First Folio edition, 1623, from the Chatsworth copy in the possession of the Duke of Devonshire”, the same year he also published a Census of original copies. Emma Smith today knows that anyone with an internet connection can access several copies of the Folio online. Whereas Rhodes feels he must quote the whole of Heminges and Condell’s preface (well worth a read, incidentally), Smith can quote the highlights and leave her readers to look the rest up for themselves.

The Title page of the First Folio with the Droeshout engraving

The Title page of the First Folio with the Droeshout engraving

Rhodes transcribes other rare sources of information such as entries from the Stationer’s Registers and evidence from other writings of the period, valuable context for anyone interested in the period. In his judgements he exhibit a decisive confidence sometimes seen in the presenters of history documentaries on TV, but rarely employed by modern scholars. Writing about the authorship of Pericles, for instance, he states “Pericles was not Shakespeare’s”, giving a few reasons, and justifying its omission from the Folio. Smith, by contrast, reflects modern critical thinking by explaining the complexities of collaborative writing in the early modern theatre. She describes Pericles as a play “where Shakespeare’s part-authorship is not in doubt”. Where Rhodes presents us with evidence followed by definite conclusions, Smith poses questions. “Can we feel confident that Heminge and Condell actively excluded rather than mistakenly omitted Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen and perhaps other plays too, and if so what was their operative principle of selection?”. We obviously don’t know the answers, but being open to debate is no longer a sign of weakness.

I’m fond of Rhodes’ book, not least for the amount of raw information which he has gathered together and transcribed. Much of it must have been new for almost everyone coming to study Shakespeare’s plays. I enjoy his forthright opinions, and it’s fun to find he does occasionally admit defeat. Trying to work out whether the printers were working from Shakespeare’s own manuscripts or the theatre’s prompt books, is one such case. “The problem is, at least to me, insoluble”. Since Rhodes’ day many people have devoted years of their time to studying the differing texts of the Folio, and I’m sure there are still differences of opinion. Emma Smith is able to take advantage of this mass of modern academic research and, taking us by the hand guides us through conflicting evidence, letting us see how difficult it is to be as decisive now as Rhodes was. She’s not trying to find definitive answers, but, to quote the blurb, “telling the human, artistic, economic and technical stories of the birth of the First Folio”.

King John from Shakespeare's First folio

King John from Shakespeare’s First folio

One of the most enjoyable sections of Emma Smith’s book is the section on an area that Rhodes did not look at in detail: the actual printing process. Perhaps he thought of printing as a merely mechanical process, while he was trying to work out more intellectual questions: the complex relationships between the acting companies and the printers, the issues of who owned which copies and the right to print them. For us, used to printing at the press of a button, hand-printing and the work of a print shop are both completely foreign and fascinating. And without knowing how printing and book publishing worked it’s almost impossible to understand how many of the idiosyncrasies of the First Folio came about. Smith explains carefully and clearly the whole business of setting, proofing, printing and binding. She calls the publication of the Folio in November 1623 “the end of a protracted process, and of a period of considerable effort by its many makers. It is the product of a number of very specific social, cultural and commercial contexts, and of numerous individuals with different skills and different agendas.”

Many of the mysteries that perplexed Rhodes are still not completely solved, but Emma Smith’s admirable book provides us with many of the answers and guides us through the complex web of events and relationships that together created Shakespeare’s First Folio.

Posted in Legacy, Plays and Poems | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Tibor Reich’s centenary

Tibor Reich in 1957

Tibor Reich in 1957

This year the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester is celebrating the centenary of one of the most influential textile designers of the post-war years, Tibor Reich. Reich was born in Budapest in 1916 of a Jewish weaving family, studying textile design in Vienna. Leaving an increasingly anti-Jewish continent, he moved to England where in 1937 he continued his studies at Leeds University.

Hungary and Austria’s loss was England’s gain: just after the war, in 1946, he moved to Clifford Mill, just outside Stratford-upon-Avon. His timing was perfect, experimenting with bright colours and new yarns that must have been refreshing after years of wartime drabness. He quickly gained an international reputation, contributing to the refurbishment of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre and to the Festival of Britain in 1951.

Panel designed by Tibor Reich for the bicentenary of Garrick's Jubilee, 1969

Panel designed by Tibor Reich for the bicentenary of Garrick’s Jubilee, 1969

Although his Hungarian background influenced his work, in particular with its vibrant colours and bold use of graphics, he was also inspired by the natural world, and loved the Warwickshire countryside where he settled after his years in Yorkshire. He became very anglicised, and it’s noticable that he was often selected to work on projects that celebrated England’s achievements in a global setting, such as Concorde and the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral. The curator of Manchester’s exhibition, Frances Pritchard, mentions in her interview on Front Row Reich’s work at the Memorial Theatre, where he gave different fabrics the names of Shakespearean characters such as Macbeth and Cymbeline, sadly now long gone.

She does not, however, mention his work at the Shakespeare Centre, opened in 1964 as the headquarters and study centre for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Here he created carpets, curtains and hangings, many of which still survive. His relationship with the Trust was long-lasting. I remember him, during the 1980s, visiting the Library’s Reading Room with the then-director Levi Fox, and describing how he got the idea for the carpet that graced many of the rooms, including the Reading Room, from an aerial view of a local forest. The design was called “The Forest of Arden”, and its subtle medley of dots in green, brown, and black were perfectly matched against the Gordon Russell furniture and warm wooden panelling.

The Age of Kings panel

The Age of Kings panel

Elsewhere his love of bright colour came out: “The Age of Kings” in blue and green was used for curtains on the stage of the Stratford Room, and in 1969 he designed another zesty panel to celebrate the bicentenary of the Garrick Jubilee. In the Birthplace Trust’s shops his hangings and tea towels were sold to tourist for many years.

Tigo Ware

Tigo Ware

He also designed tapestry, and a panel of scenes from Shakespeare’s plays hung on the landing of the Shakespeare Centre next to the Conference Room. This included Romeo with Juliet on her balcony, Romeo’s swordfight with Tybalt, Hamlet with Yorick’s skull and several others. His interests were wide-ranging. Not content with designing fabrics, he created a range of striking black and white pottery, Tigoware, which was manufactured by Denby, and designed many Royal Mail First Day Covers. I’m indebted to my husband for remembering that he exhibited his collections of stamps and miniature cars at the Tiatsa Gallery in Ely Street.

Tibor Reich tea towel of the Birthplace

Tibor Reich tea towel of the Birthplace

The exhibition of his work in Manchester is timely. Archives of his work are easily available to study at the International Textiles Archive at Leeds University. His grandson Sam, still at Clifford Mill, is hoping to revive the Tibor brand, employing modern designers to be as inventive and innovative as his grandfather was. Following years of being unfashionable, his work is now highly collectable, and much of it looks extremely modern. A search on Ebay shows that even the humble linen tea towels are prized, and maybe it won’t be too long before they’re back on sale again to visitors to Stratford-upon-Avon.

The exhibition at the Whitworth in Manchester will be on until August 2016, and further information about Reich, and photographs of his work in the Shakespeare Centre, can be found on two posts by Rosalyn Sklar on the Finding Shakespeare blog, here and here, and in this obituary from the Independent. I’m also grateful for many details to the late Marian Pringle, who wrote an article about Tibor Reich’s fabric designs for the Shakespeare Centre in the magazine Shakespeare at the Centre.

Posted in Legacy, Stratford-upon-Avon | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Tibor Reich’s centenary

Another immigrant’s tale

I’ve just heard about a case in which an American Shakespeare academic hoping to remain in this country has been arrested and remains in custody.

Dr Paul Hamilton received his PhD from the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford in 2015 and remains a local resident, applying for funding to continue his research, and assisting in running conferences for Kingston Shakespeare Seminar in Kingston-upon-Thames. His application to remain here was turned down before Christmas, though it appears he was not told of this fact, and he is due to be removed from this country on 1 February. He was arrested on 17 January in Stratford and is being held at an Immigration Removal Centre near Lincoln until his deportation. The authorities took this action because they judged that, without close family ties, he was likely to disappear.

I do not know Dr Hamilton, but his treatment strikes me as shameful given the fact that he has contributed significantly to the cultural life of this country during his 10-year stay and has done nothing to deserve being treated like a criminal. In this year above all we are celebrating Shakespeare’s worldwide status, and showing off our Shakespeare assets such as theatre companies, museum collections and educational establishments. This treatment can do nothing but harm to our reputation as a civilized country in which to come and study.

A fuller version is told by Timo Uotinen in this blog, and in the piece being published in Times Higher Education on Thursday 28 January 2016. See the online version here.

If you wish to support Dr Hamilton’s case you can add your name to the list at the end of Timo’s blog, or you might like to write to your MP, or put something on Facebook or Twitter.

Posted in Legacy | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Another immigrant’s tale

His most potent art: the library of John Dee

Portrait of John Dee, at the Ashmolean Museum Oxford

Portrait of John Dee, at the Ashmolean Museum Oxford

A new exhibition has just opened in London that explains more about one of the most intriguing people in Elizabethan London, John Dee. The Royal College of Physicians in Regents Park is hosting Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee, until 29 July 2016. To quote their site, he was “a Renaissance polymath, with interests in almost all branches of learning. He served Elizabeth I at court, advised navigators on trade routes to the ‘New World’, travelled throughout Europe and studied ancient history, astronomy, cryptography and mathematics. He is also known for his passion for mystical subjects, including astrology, alchemy and the world of angels.” This film is designed to accompany the exhibition.

This extraordinary man was also obsessed by books. He claimed to own 3000 of them, and 1000 manuscripts, making his one of the largest libraries in the country, larger than those owned by either Oxford or Cambridge Universities. Dee’s hunger for foreign travel where he met scientists from mainland Europe such as the geographer Mercator also proved the downfall for this great collection. While away, others plundered his library, and he never got the books back. Over 100 of his books eventually found their way to the Royal College of Physicians. Many others have been found in other collections including the Bodleian Library in Oxford, the British Library, the National Library of Wales and that of Trinity College Dublin, but the RPS has the largest collection of his books in one location. They include books on many of the subjects in which he was interested, including mathematical, astronomical and alchemical texts.

One of John Dee's annotations showing a ship

One of John Dee’s annotations showing a ship

His books can be identified because he annotated them so distinctively, and this video by the RCP’s Rare Books Librarian Katie Birkwood demonstrates some of his methods.

The exhibition is very much about the books Dee owned, and here is a film showing Peter Forshaw of the Ritman Library, Amsterdam, talking about Dee’s life and the books he actually wrote rather than those he read.

It’s often been suggested, and the idea is repeated by Peter Forshaw, that Dee was in some way the inspiration for Prospero in The Tempest. Both men certainly loved their books and studied them intensively. When Prospero recounts to Miranda the story of their exile from Milan he particularly mentions that Gonzalo,
Knowing I lov’d my books, he furnish’d me
From mine own library with volumes that
I prize above my dukedom.

Dee’s reputation as a magician and astrologer made him famous in his own time, and his name is still well known. In 2011 a musical, also called a folk opera, was written and performed that focused on Dee as magician. It was described as an attempt to connect with “haunted, magical England”.

John Dee performing an experiment before Queen Elizabeth I. Oil painting by Henry Gillard Glindoni; Wellcome Library no. 47369i

John Dee performing an experiment before Queen Elizabeth I. Oil painting by Henry Gillard Glindoni; Wellcome Library no. 47369i

He was however a serious scientist, originally studying mathematics, which he at first taught along with navigation. He instructed some of the most famous explorers of the time including Frobisher and was involved in the search for navigable North-East and North-West passages that, had they been found, would have had a profound effect on trade and travel. Astrology was another of his specialities: in 1555 he was imprisoned for working out Queen Mary’s horoscope (presumably because it might have foretold her death). Later on Queen Elizabeth valued his skill enough to ask him to choose the most auspicious day for her coronation and in 1579 consulted him about the matter of her possible marriage. She became his patron, supporting him intellectually if not financially. He dabbled in the occult, running séances. Later he became obsessed with the idea of conversing with angels and spirits, another link with Shakespeare’s Prospero.

William Hamilton's painting of Prospero and Ariel

William Hamilton’s painting of Prospero and Ariel

Dee has also been suggested as the inspiration for Marlowe’s Dr Faustus and Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, and if this is the case it’s interesting how different authors interpreted the man and his achievements. Dr Faustus is a scholar who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for earthly knowledge and pleasure, while in The Alchemist the con men Subtle and Face cynically exploit greedy and gullible people who are willing to believe in alchemy and the philosopher’s stone that could turn metal into gold. Prospero’s magic powers have been honed, and are used, to right a wrong: “with my At least two societies exist to promote John Dee’s memory. The John Dee Society is primarily interested in his scientific and philosophical work, and creating resources to promote its serious study. The John Dee of Mortlake Society was formed to begin celebrating Dee’s connections with Mortlake beginning with the four-hundredth anniversary of his death in 2009. They continue to promote these connections, placing a plaque in his memory in St Mary’s Church where he was buried.

Towards the end of his life Dee dropped out of view and died in poverty and obscurity, and his remaining book collection seems to have been split up. This free exhibition is the first occasion on which many of his books have been put on display, an opportunity not to be missed.


Posted in Legacy, Shakespeare's World | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off on His most potent art: the library of John Dee

Looking at the First Folio in 2016

first-folio-the book that gave us shakespeareIt’s still seven years until the four hundredth anniversary of the publication of the First Folio, arguably the most important book in the English language. But this year, when Shakespeare’s achievement is being celebrated, the first collected edition of his plays, known as the First Folio, is also getting a fair share of attention. Without it, we would have only around half his output, and we wouldn’t have lines like “If music be the food of love, play on”(Twelfth Night), “Is this a dagger that I see before me” (Macbeth), “We are such stuff as dreams are made on” (The Tempest) or even “All the world’s a stage” (As You Like It).

The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, have certainly embraced the idea of sharing the First Folio as widely as possible with their project First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare. Of the roughly 240 copies of the Folio still in existence, the Folger contains 82, and this national travelling exhibition will bring an original copy to each of the 50 states, plus Washington, DC and Puerto Rico, for around a month each. There’s more information about the tour here, and a digitised version of one of the Folger’s folios here.

smith making of first folioIn the UK, Emma Smith’s new book The Making of Shakespeare’s First Folio, has been published by Bodleian Library Publishing, aiming to tell “the human, artistic, economic and technical aspects of the birth of the First Folio”. She looks in detail at how the book itself, rather than the plays it contains, came into being. One of the most charming stories relating to the Folio is that of the Bodleian’s copy which had been acquired in 1624 shortly after publication. It contained the first plays ever added to the library: Sir Thomas Bodley had ordered in 1612 that no plays and other “riffraff” should be acquired. It’s interesting that Shakespeare’s plays (not Ben Jonson’s) were the first to be recognised as having literary merit.

At some point it in the 1660s, faced with the brand new third edition that included several additional plays, the then-librarian made the choice often made by librarians to get rid of the redundant first edition. Needless to say, in the centuries that followed the Library regretted this decision, but the book’s location was not known. It was only in 1905 that the copy was discovered and bought back by the Library with the help of many subscribers. The book’s original binding, by Oxford man William Wildgoose, helped in its identification. You can still see the hole in the binding where the book was once chained in Duke Humfrey’s Library. Emma Smith tells the story, and shows off the book, in a delightful video on this page.

The spur for Smith’s book was the 2012 campaign to digitise the Bodleian First Folio, called “Sprint for Shakespeare”. Like the drive to buy the book back, this was achieved through public contributions, and the result is that the book is now available online here.

Writing about the book, Smith notes that the First Folio has acquired the status of a relic to be shown to devout cultural pilgrims, and “it’s in the nature of a relic that the circumstances of its production tend to be obscured”.

One of the panels in the Folger's Exhibition

One of the panels in the Folger’s Exhibition

I’ll be looking again at Smith’s book, but that idea of the Folio as a semi-religious relic brings me back to the Folger’s travelling exhibition. I’m indebted to Dr Miriam Gilbert for sharing with me information about the event at the University of Iowa where she has taught for several decades. The Folger supplies the book and accompanying exhibition panels, but then it’s over to the venue to arrange events and complementary exhibits. All the venues are aiming to bring in as many people as possible, in particular children. And they’ve really embraced the idea: in New Mexico among many options there will be a staged reading Enter the Twain: Shakespeare in Mark Twain’s America. There will be an exhibition Shakespeare Comes to Hawaii in, of course, Hawaii, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival will perform both Folio and Quarto versions of the first scene of King Lear, followed by a discussion. Between 29 August and 25 September The University of Iowa will receive its copy, particularly appropriate since Iowa City is the only UNESCO City of Literature in the United States. The University also boasts The Center for the Book, that merges research into the history of the book in the techniques of bookmaking, and their exhibition will concentrate on these areas. Greg Prickman, Head of Special Collections, commented “In addition to showcasing the First Folio, the Libraries will be highlighting other examples of English early printed materials in an expansive exhibition. An understanding of hand-printing, binding and the book trade are all essential if one is to understand how the First Folio came into existence. These subjects are also covered in Emma Smith’s book, and I’ll be returning to it in another post soon.

Posted in Legacy, Shakespeare's World | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Looking at the First Folio in 2016

Royal Shakespeare Company’s plans for 2016

Gregory Doran and David Tennant on the Andrew Marr Show

Gregory Doran and David Tennant on the Andrew Marr Show

All the large Shakespeare organisations are celebrating the four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016 with events to show that Shakespeare is universal, appealing to people of all ages and backgrounds. As befits the best-funded Shakespeare company in the UK the Royal Shakespeare Company have big plans for the year in which, Artistic Director Gregory Doran has said there will be “something for everyone”.

In fact the RSC has already begun: Shakespeare on Screen, highlighting films of RSC staged productions, or films re-conceived for film or TV, has been running at the Barbican since 9 January. The season is curated by John Wyver who masterminds the RSC’s Live from Stratford-upon-Avon relays. Sunday’s showing of the 1990 Othello with Willard White, Ian McKellen, Imogen Stubbs and Zoe Wanamaker, directed by Trevor Nunn, was sold out. The season of showings continue until 31 January, and still to come is As You Like It, originally directed by Michael Elliot in 1961, with Vanessa Redgrave, Max Adrian and Ian Bannen. The production, coming in the same year as the Company was renamed under its new Artistic Director Peter Hall, was enormously important in establishing the new Company. The film is being shown on Tuesday 19 January, and will be introduced by Vanessa Redgrave herself, whose radiant Rosalind captivated theatregoers over 50 years ago.

Poster for the RSC's film of A Midsummer Night's Dream

Poster for the RSC’s film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

On Saturday 23 January at 3pm the 1971 film of Peter Brook’s King Lear will be shown. Based on the 1962 production in Stratford, filmed on location in a grim black and white landscape, it features a towering performance in the title role by Paul Scofield. Adrian Noble’s 1994 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was reimagined for the screen in 1996, and retained much of the feel of the original stage production, seen as the dream of a young boy. It is being screened on Sunday 24 January at 3pm. Finally on Sunday 31 January at 2pm Gregory Doran’s film of his production of Hamlet is being shown complete with its original distinguished cast including David Tennant, Patrick Stewart, Penny Downie, Oliver Ford Davies and Mariah Gale.

The season is designed to complement the RSC’s cycle of History Plays currently running at the Barbican under the title King and Country. The plays that make up the cycle are Richard II with David Tennant as the King, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, with Antony Sher as Falstaff and Henry V with Alex Hassell in the title role. The final performances of the cycle are over the weekend of 22-24 January and are, not surprisingly, sold out.

But back to the RSC’s 2016 announcements: Gregory Doran and David Tennant appeared on the Andrew Marr TV show on 10 January to talk about their plans.

Further details of the summer season have been announced in a very full press release.

The main Shakespeare season has an unconventional look, beginning with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, subtitled A Play for the Nation. This is being performed in collaboration with fourteen amateur companies, who will provide the mechanicals and schools who will supply Titania’s fairy train in what director Erica Whyman has called Shakespeare’s “love letter to amateur theatre”. Schools up and down the country are being encouraged to take part in a “nationwide celebration of the play”. There will be a “searing” new production of Hamlet with Paapa Essiedu, a Cymbeline with a female Cymbeline (Gillian Bevan) and many other male characters played by women. Later in the summer Antony Sher will play King Lear, supported by RSC veterans David Troughton as Gloucester and Antony Byrne as Kent.

Simon Russell Beale as Ariel, Alec McCowen as Prospero, RSC 1993

Simon Russell Beale as Ariel, Alec McCowen as Prospero, RSC 1993

Then the grand finale of this year will be an “extraordinary and innovative” production of The Tempest in which “you will see the ship sink, Ariel fly, Juno in the masque arrive in her chariot drawn with peacocks”. The aim is to use the most cutting-edge 21st technology to produce the spectacular effects which Shakespeare describes in the play. The production will see the return, after over 20 years, of Simon Russell Beale as Prospero. Ironically Sam Mendes’ production of The Tempest, with Beale as an earthbound Ariel, was one of the last in which he appeared in Stratford-upon-Avon. With the company Imaginarium providing the CGI effects this will be performed as the RSC’s winter production, and will provide a perfect introduction to Shakespeare for families. There is more on the whole winter season in a second press release, here.

Over at the Swan Theatre there will be new productions of Christopher Marlowe’s great play Dr Faustus and with 1616 also the publication date of Ben Jonson’s First Folio, The Alchemist. Remembering Cervantes’ death in the same year as Shakespeare’s, there will also be a new adaptation of Don Quixote. There is more about productions towards the end of the year in the winter season press release.

There is much more happening in 2016, from the re-opening of the Swan Wing with a new exhibition The Play’s the Thing, to a season at The Other Place, an educational symposium, The Shakespeare Show on 23rd April, and tours to China and the USA. As Gregory Doran has said, “If you’ve never been to his home town in Stratford-upon-Avon, or seen his work on stage, this surely must be the time to do so.”

Posted in Legacy, Shakespeare on Stage, Stratford-upon-Avon | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Royal Shakespeare Company’s plans for 2016