Stratford in November’s lockdown, 2020

The River Avon and Royal Shakespeare Theatre as the sun sets, November 2020. Photo by Richard Morris

November 2020 is drawing to a close in Stratford-upon-Avon, and although we haven’t yet experienced the cold of winter “when blood is nipped”, we have had enough rain for “ways [to] be foul”, as Shakespeare describes at the end of Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Luckily, during this second period of lockdown to help reduce infection levels, we have rarely had to put up with the days described in Thomas Hood’s poem November:

No sun – no moon!
No morn – no noon –
No dawn – no dusk – no proper time of day.
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member –
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! –

In town, takeaways are busy, as are riverside walks as people stroll in careful pairs. Locals were looking forward to fewer limitations on life after 2 December, but a few days ago it was revealed that Stratford-upon-Avon, along with the rest of Warwickshire, was to be placed in Tier 3 of restrictions when lockdown ends, to be reviewed on 16 December.

It’s bad news for all of us, but in particular for the town’s Shakespeare-related attractions. Shakespeare’s Birthplace had been welcoming visitors again since August, and was hoping to re-open again in December, but these plans have now been put on hold.  Although only that one out of the five Shakespeare houses has been able to open this summer, the influx of UK tourists must have helped businesses in a town that depends so much on visitors.

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre has been even more severely hit, with no live shows at all since March. They had been hoping to begin live performances again from 12 December, but these are now being delayed to 19 December assuming that the town will be lifted into Tier 2 and then we move into the lighter restrictions planned for Christmas.

The last nine months has been particularly difficult for theatres, and having to restrict even further their live performances is painful for all. This is an extract from the RSC’s latest press release.

Following the latest government announcement, the RSC will now offer live-stream only versions of all shows taking place between Saturday 5 and Saturday 12 December which will be available for one week after broadcast, with a view to welcoming audiences back to the theatre from Saturday 19 December. Full Covid-19 safety measures will be in place to make sure that up to 200 audience members can see events socially-distanced in a safe atmosphere, with the RSC welcome remaining as strong as ever.

One of the offerings from the RSC, which will it seems go ahead as a live stream no matter what, is Festive Tales, a weekend of music and reflection, on 19 and 20 December. This will feature carols, songs and festive readings celebrating the spirit of Christmas and the Royal Shakespeare Community. We all hope that our theatres, museums and other cultural events will be able to resume soon.

The Christmas lights in Bridge Street, Stratford-upon-Avon. Photo by Andrew Anderson

Both SBT and RSC are still running their online shops for those Shakespeare-related Christmas presents, and both are putting on online events.

And although so many shops are closed, the town is still putting its party hat on with the traditional Christmas lights burning bright after dark, bringing some cheer to the dark evenings. The photo of the lights in Bridge Street was taken recently by another Stratford resident, Andrew Anderson.

Like the Duke’s court, exiled to the forest in As You Like It, we have to remain isolated for a few more weeks, and to make the best of it. Shakespeare knew how important it is to find solace in the natural world in times of hardship.

And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.

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Shakespeare and Black History Month 2020

October is Black History Month, and this year, 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement has raised awareness of issues relating to race in both the UK and USA.  Although it was founded in 2013 Black Lives Matter protests began in earnest after the death in May 2020 of George Floyd at the hands of white police officers.

Race is proving to be a major factor in the build up to the US presidential election in early November, and here in the UK racism is constantly an issue, often linked to social deprivation and poverty. Much attention has focused on our colonial past, particularly slavery: one of the highest-profile events ended with the throwing of a statue of a Bristol slave trader into the river.

David Olusoga

David Olusoga specialises in the long history of the relationships between Britain and the  people of Africa and the Caribbean. His book Black and British: A forgotten history, published in 2016,  traces the evidence that there have been black people in this country back to Roman times, including some quite well documented from the Tudor period. Africans, who probably reached this country via Portugal, worked at the courts of both Henry VIII and Elizabeth 1 and Shakespeare was familiar enough with them to include them in his plays, most obviously Othello. Olusoga writes about the complexities and contradictions within English attitudes and belief. It is, he says, “impossible to get a full sense of how he or his audiences at the Globe regarded the black Africans about whom they had read, or the black people they now encountered in the capital”. He warns against looking at Shakespeare “through the optic of the forms of racism and racial thinking“ that emerged after his time. There was no organised slave trade until later in the seventeenth century and “the word race did not mean to Shakespeare and his contemporaries what it means to us”. The colour black had symbolised evil and the devil since medieval times, just as Queen Elizabeth’s white skin was a symbol of purity, virtue and virginity, rather than race. And in spite of contradictions, what is notable is  ”the depth of Shakespeare’s apparent empathy for Othello even as he destroys that which he loves”.

There is just time to hear David Olusoga at Sheffield University’s Off the Shelf Festival on 29 October. The subject of the discussion is Black History in the age of Black Lives Matter.

Joseph Marcell as King Lear, Shakespeare’s Globe 2013. Photo by Ellie Kurttz

The role of Othello and other black characters such as Aaron in Titus Andronicus, are now normally played by black actors, though for most of their history these roles have been played by white actors “blacking up”. The history of black actors performing Shakespeare is one of the most interesting, and has been made much easier by the work of Dr Jami Rogers for the AHRC project Multi-Cultural Shakespeare at the University of Warwick. She collected and input the data for the British Black and Asian Shakespeare Performance Database  that covers 1288 UK productions from 1930 onwards including black and Asian actors. While the number of actors involved sounds impressive there is still a long way to go and for Black History Month she has published a post on Shakespeare’s Globe site, Pioneers and the Glass Ceiling examining the careers of Rudolph Walker and Joseph Marcell.

Shakespeare’s Globe have also published another blog post to coincide with Black History Month, a piece entitled Pleasure and Pain in black Shakespearean Performance History written by Vanessa Corredera on the history of the first black theatre group, the African Company, founded in New York in 1821. Shakespeare was always important to them. The first play they staged was Richard III, followed by King Lear, Romeo and Juliet and Othello. It was the place where the young Ira Aldridge learned how to act before forging his successful career in Europe.

This link will take you to my post about Ira Aldridge, written a few years ago now.

I’ve also written a number of posts for Black History Month that you can find by using the search box on the right of your screen.

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The Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon goes virtual

The second week in October is when Stratford-upon-Avon’s Shakespeare Club normally begins its season, when up to a hundred members meet in the Music Room at Mason Croft, Marie Corelli’s house and now the home of the Shakespeare Institute for talks by a range of lecturers, followed by questions and a lot of chat over refreshments. It’s a traditional setting that suits the Club, which is now nearing its 200th anniversary.

2020 is of course very different, and rather than give up until conditions improve, the Club’s committee has decided to try something a bit more 21st-century. So on Tuesday 13th October we are offering our first virtual meeting. We’re hoping this will still have the flavour of a Shakespeare Club meeting so will follow roughly the same format. It’ll be pre-recorded, avoiding (we hope) technical glitches and will be available for three days.

The talk on Tuesday will be one of those we had to cancel earlier in the year because of lockdown, Dr Rebekah Owens on the influential academic Frederick Samuel Boas  who was one of the first University Extension lecturers. In her words, “ In the fifteen years he worked for the scheme, Boas encountered some very familiar problems for teachers in higher education. In trying to realise the social and reformative aims of the Extension programme, Boas struggled with the question of how such a scheme should be funded and what its value to the wider society could possibly be. In discussing how he overcame these problems, this talk provides an insight into the sometimes troublesome, but never dull process of getting not just Shakespeare, but English Studies itself recognised as a suitable subject for teaching in schools and universities.”

Shakespeare Club banner 2017

While we all regret the temporary loss of the live event, delivering meetings virtually may have some benefits. Normal meetings are only available to those able to get here for Tuesday evenings. Now people can listen at a time that suits them. While we would normally have to charge for our sessions, we are able to offer the first couple of sessions to anyone who signs up to our free mailing list. For the first time, wherever you are in the world you’ll be able to take part. And this is extremely appropriate: the Shakespeare Club was set up by locals, for locals in 1824, but over the two hundred years since it was formed, it has contributed significantly to the world-wide celebration of Shakespeare with Stratford-upon-Avon as the centre. If, of course, you would like to join the Club you will be more than welcome to do so and full information is on the website .

To be put on the mailing list, email and on Tuesday 13 October we’ll send you an email containing the link you need to access the meeting. This will remain live for three days. We look forward to hearing from you and we hope you will enjoy the meeting, though you’ll have to supply your own refreshments!

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Charles Dibdin and the music for Garrick’s Jubilee

unknown artist; Called ‘Charles Dibdin (1745-1814)’; Royal College of Music;

Early in the morning of 6 September 1769 the Shakespeare Jubilee began with cannon fire, bell-ringing and, charmingly, a group of musicians walking the streets of Stratford-upon-Avon singing The Morning Address, with words by David Garrick and music by Charles Dibdin.

Let Beauty with the sun arise,
To Shakespeare tribute pay,
With heavenly smiles and sparkling eyes
Give lustre to the day.

Although it was Garrick’s Jubilee, it also belonged to the musicians and composers. The two most important composers were Charles Dibdin and Thomas Arne. Arne’s Oratorio Judith was performed,  and he composed the music for Garrick’s Ode, but it was the young Dibdin’s music that permeated the three-day festival. Most of it has never been recorded, but in 2019 Retrospect Opera released their CD The Jubilee making Dibdin’s compositions for the event available at last. The Jubilee was the first Shakespeare Festival anywhere in the world, and it was very different from what we expect today from a Festival. Its aim was never to perform Shakespeare’s plays, many of which were regularly staged in London and were available in print. The notes accompanying the CD explain that is was seen as:

a proper opportunity to pay homage to the sublime genius behind the plays, a man whose total imaginative reach far transcended what any one play…could hope to achieve. But Garrick had no intention of placing Shakespeare on a lofty pedestal, remote from popular culture. Quite the contrary; part of his play was to establish the Bard as a sort of folk hero, the people’s poet – the literary equivalent of Robin Hood…To this end, Garrick penned the lyrics of a number of songs celebrating Shakespeare not just as a literary genius but also as … a likeable rogue.

Part of the last verse of The Warwickshire Lad describes Shakespeare:

There never was seen such a creature,
Of all she was worth he robbed nature;
He took all her smiles, and he took all her grief,
For the thief of all thieves was a Warwickshire thief.

Dibdin and Garrick inevitably fell out, but were reconciled just in time and the songs were some of the most successful parts of the Jubilee. The CD includes them, as well as other little-known delights. Rarely mentioned in accounts of the Jubilee are details of the concert that participants heard after dining in the Rotunda on the first day. It included Dibdin’s cantata Queen Mab. The CD notes again: “Of everything heard on the first day, this gave clearest expression to the Bardolatry inspiring the Jubilee…[The] sentiments closely anticipate those of Garrick’s great Ode”. Based around the Queen Mab speech from Romeo and Juliet that is based on popular folklore, it praises Shakespeare as “heaven’s most favor’d creature, Truest copier of Nature”, and fantasises about the queen of the fairies’ arrival on the banks of the Avon (with echoes of Cleopatra’s barge):

Mounted on a nut-shell car;
Six painted lady-birds the chariot drew…
A thousand glow-worm torches glimmer’d round.

The cantata was so successful that Dibdin published both words and score, but it has not been previously recorded.

While the Jubilee is thought of as a disaster, the first day was in fact a triumph. On days two and three the weather prevented the pageant of Shakespeare characters from taking place, but only a few weeks later Garrick took the idea and turned it into a spectacular presentation at his London theatre Drury Lane. In order to make it work, Garrick added some comic scenes featuring Warwickshire rustics and an unfortunate Irishman. These scenes, together with Dibdin’s successful songs, were performed as The Jubilee, premiering on 14 October 1769. It was performed 91 times in its first season, setting a record. For the first time, Retrospect Opera attempts to present it, focusing on the songs and including large chunks of the dialogue (all the words are reproduced in the pamphlet accompanying the CD).

Retrospect Opera’s CD The Jubilee

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed listening to this CD and finding out about Charles Dibdin’s work. It also includes another piece with Shakespearean connections, Datchet Mead, or The Fairy Court, written nearly 30 years later, with obvious references to The Merry Wives of Windsor. Dibdin (1745-1814) is nowadays little-known, but some of his melodies are familiar. The tune of The Warwickshire Lad, written for the Jubilee, is the regimental quick march of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Dibdin’s most famous song, though, is Tom Bowling, a lament to a Royal Navy lieutenant who died in the service of his country. It is now part of the medley of British Sea Songs performed at the Last Night of the Proms. This link takes you to the lively event in 1993, and this one to a recording by baritone Roderick Williams (who happens to live near Stratford-upon-Avon).

I would like to acknowledge the help of David Chandler, Executive Producer of Retrospect Opera, who wrote the admirable notes which I have quoted, as well as providing me with a copy of this delightful recording.

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Sally Jacobs and A Midsummer Night’s Dream after 50 years

Alan Howard as Oberon and John Kane as Puck, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

When you think of the Peter Brook production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, what springs to mind? Of course, an image of the famous white box set, perhaps with actors swinging on trapezes, Titania’s bower of blood-red feather boas, or Bottom in his string vest, oversize boots and ping-pong ball nose. The set, costumes and props are still instantly recognisable, all the work of designer Sally Jacobs who has died in August 2020. Unlike Peter Brook’s, her name is not particularly well known. He remembers their work as a fine collaboration and I would guess that although he provided much of the concept, the detail was hers. Together they created a series of visually-striking productions. These included, for the RSC, plays at the New Arts Theatre Club, the Theatre of Cruelty season, the Marat-Sade, and the anti-Vietnam play US at the Aldwych. In 1978 she designed Antony and Cleopatra with him. Her other work for the RSC during the 1960s was rather conventional, but her omission in Sally Beauman’s 1982 book The Royal Shakespeare Company: A History of Ten Decades just goes to show how little designers, particularly women, have been regarded in the theatre.

The white box set for Peter Brook’s most famous production: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

It is now exactly 50 years since this, the most famous Shakespeare production of the twentieth century, had its press night. Up to that point the season had been good but not exciting. They could not have known how it would change on 27 August 1970, when instead of polite applause before the rush to the bar the audience gave a standing ovation at the interval. Another followed at the end. The following morning the newspapers, which had not always praised Peter Brook’s productions, were almost unanimous. This was a revolution in Shakespeare production, a genie that could not be put back in the bottle. It was significant that this happened in the rather old-fashioned town of Stratford-upon-Avon, rather than London. A Midsummer Night’s Dream was associated with the town: the fairies came from local folklore, the mechanicals were Warwickshire working men, the forest was inspired by local woods known by Shakespeare as a child. But now the cosy, familiar traditions had been swept away and instead of being a rural backwater, Stratford led the way, redefining the Royal Shakespeare Theatre as a place where radical experimentation could go on.

Not everybody welcomed it: Rosemary Say, writing in the Financial Times, was not smitten, but her description is clear: “Peter Brook ……. is more determined than ever to compel us to take a creative part in his production. This time we are to be bullied into getting our imaginations to work. His method, lively and inventive, just gets by – particularly when he allows Shakespeare to take some part in the proceedings from time to time. The stage is white-walled and empty. An iron gallery runs round the top where those members of the cast not immediately taking part stand to look down on the play in the manner of overseers supervising a factory floor. Two trapezes hang on black cords and a vast red plume is splashed across the back wall. The actors spill on the stage, a garish mixture dressed in King’s Road-type shirt and trousers, white silk cloaks and dresses of hard primary colours. Last come the artisans, a gang of workmen carrying planks, sandwiches and mugs of tea.’ It’s rather shocking to us today, isn’t it, to find that she resents the idea that the audience might be made to use their imaginations?

Peter Brook had set out his ideas about theatre in 1968 in his book The Empty Space: ‘It is up to us to capture [the audience’s] attention and compel its belief. To do so we must prove that there will be no trickery, nothing hidden. We must open our empty hands and show that really there is nothing up our sleeves. Only then can we begin’. The bright white set that Sally Jacobs designed was the embodiment of these ideas. The reviewer in the Sunday Times understood that it was designed in order to stimulate the imaginations of the audience, rather than limiting them. He gave a list of possible interpretations that had occurred to him as he watched: ‘circus big top’, ‘squash court’, ‘polar bear pit at the zoo’, gymnasium, play-room – even the Elizabethan stage, with its tiring house-wall, two large upstage doors and gallery above and behind the stage.

Designer Sally Jacobs

There’s surely something in Peter Brook’s ideas for us today, trying to redefine what theatre means at a time when packing an audience into an auditorium is impossible. Again in The Empty Space Brook wrote “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space, whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged”. It’s the act, not the venue, that defines theatre. In his 1995 book The Quality of Mercy he wrote “The life of a play begins and ends in the moment of performance… No form nor interpretation is for ever. A form has to become fixed for a short time, then it has to go. As the world changes, there will and must be new and totally unpredictable Dreams.”

Let’s hope there will and must also be designers like Sally Jacobs, freelancers who can use their skills to lead audiences towards those new Dreams, and new forms of theatre.

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Unfreezing the statue: rescuing the arts

It is always said that “The show must go on”. But since 16 March 2020 when theatres and other cultural venues closed, shows have not gone on. And while shops and pubs are now able to open again, live performances are not allowed, and no timetable is attached to the Culture Secretary’s five-point-plan for the arts. High-profile people from the sector have been putting pressure on government for several weeks, and at last a rescue package has been announced. It came on the day after pubs were allowed to re-open, on Sunday 5 July, as the RSC’s production of Much Ado About Nothing screened on BBC4. £1.57 billion, a serious amount of money, is being made available.

Edward Bennett as Benedick, Michelle Terry as Beatrice, Much Ado

It won’t solve all the problems, however. The main criticism is that this money is for venues and institutions, not for individuals. In Greg Doran’s interview with the Stratford Herald several weeks ago he called for “a package of support for the army of freelances who are self-employed who have been so badly hit”, and violinist Tasmin Little has tweeted that “a huge proportion of freelancers (40%) simply don’t qualify for this scheme & fall completely through the net… we haven’t been able to earn anything.” Meanwhile National Treasure Dame Judi Dench has spoken about the closure of performing spaces. “It doesn’t just affect the public, it affects all of us – not just actors, but the crew and the people who make wigs, the people who dress us, the stage doormen, the lighting… the people in the box office – everyone’s affected by it, and none of us have any security or knowledge to know when it will come back”.

At the same time as the government’s announcement came another, that seems to have been completely overlooked. The Theatre Artists Fund has been given £500,000 by Netflix to help individuals who are struggling, and has come out of the suggestion by Sam Mendes that commercial organisations which gain from the work of performers could put some money back.

Life in the theatre has always been risky. Professional theatre was relatively new in Shakespeare’s time, and during the regular outbreaks of plague, all public assemblies were banned in the capital, for months or even years. Early in Shakespeare’s career, in 1592, an epidemic began that would last two years. With no support at all, theatrical companies were forced to go on tour to the provinces, but Shakespeare chose to go in search of a patron by writing his long poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. When the outbreak came to an end in 1594, Shakespeare probably became a founder member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men along with Richard Burbage and Will Kemp, under the patronage of Henry Cary, first Lord Hunsdon. The end of the plague signalled the start of an enormously creative period of Shakespeare’s life.

Gregory Doran notes that Shakespeare’s response to a later spell of plague, in 1603, could have been quite different. “The plays suddenly seem to plunge into an abyss – you have dark tragedies: King Lear, Othello and Macbeth… I had never really contemplated how insecure the plague must have made everyone – it must have removed people’s sense of certainty and intensified their anxiety.”

It will be many months before live performances can take place again in theatres and concert halls, but who knows what the results might be for our creative artists. Some progress is already being made: in a spirit of optimism, perhaps even defiance, Ian McKellen, at the age of 81, is going to play Hamlet. The play will be performed at the Theatre Royal Windsor, the “first major UK theatre production post-Covid to start rehearsals”. No matter how unusual the circumstances will be for the audience, it will be sure to help everyone’s emotional wellbeing to see a return to normality. Greg Doran has spoken about how important it is to get Shakespeare’s plays back onstage: “Seeing the statue unfreeze at the end of The Winter’s Tale will be like a lifting of that weight”.

The National Theatre bathed in red light for #lightitinred

The government’s money won’t solve all the problems of the Covid-19 crisis so how can individuals help? You can support your favourite venue or organisation by making a donation, and write to your local MP asking him/her to keep pushing for help for freelancers. If you’re on Twitter, you might like to follow the #lightitinred campaign that is drawing attention to the critical condition of the UK’s live event and entertainment industry. And let’s all hope it won’t be for too long.

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Getting creative. Did Shakespeare write King Lear in lockdown?

The title page of the First Folio, 1623

When lockdown was first imposed, in March 2020, it was pointed out that Shakespeare had written King Lear while under lockdown himself during a period when the theatres were closed because of plague, in 1605-6. James Shapiro discusses this as well as much else to do with Shakespeare’s relevance at the moment, in this interview. Andrew Dickson, too, asks if it’s likely in this Guardian article. It seemed like a bit of a challenge: if Shakespeare could write King Lear, what can you achieve given a few uninterrupted weeks?

As the weeks have turned into months, though, there has been a real shift. During Mental Health Awareness Week back in May the message was that we shouldn’t expect too much of ourselves. I do know people who have been learning a new language or remodelling their garden, but I also know people who’ve been struggling. Anxiety levels are particularly high among those who are isolated and for some, it’s enough to just get through the day. Maybe the idea that Shakespeare shut himself away and wrote a masterpiece while the plague killed many of his fellow-citizens is looking a bit optimistic.

We know very little about how and when Shakespeare wrote, but I’ve always thought it likely that when writing for the theatre Shakespeare needed a deadline. Many of his plays show signs of being completed in a hurry, with loose ends tied up in a rush in the final scene of the play. For someone who was used to living under pressure a long period of uninterrupted time might in itself have been worrying. King Lear, though, is full of the feeling that the familiar world is changing, a feeling many of us now share. Gloucester identifies the symptoms:

“Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide; in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked ’twixt son and father … we have seen the best of our time.”

Shakespeare wrote about the workings of the mind in a time of isolation. He gives the deposed King Richard II, in prison, a speech in which he talks about the challenge of being alone.

Samuel West as Richard II

I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world:
And for because the world is populous
And here is not a creature but myself,
I cannot do it; yet I’ll hammer it out.
My brain I’ll prove the female to my soul,
My soul the father; and these two beget
A generation of still-breeding thoughts,
And these same thoughts people this little world,
In humours like the people of this world.

Many creative people have been active in recent months: some composers have been commissioned to write music for lockdown for instance. Maybe you too have been busy getting creative. If so, you have just enough time to enter the King Lear Prizes. These prizes are intended for older people stuck at home because of Coronavirus (over age 70, but there is one category for over 60s) who are not professional writers, musicians or artists, to create new works of literature, poetry, music and art. The closing date is 19 June 2020 and each prize is worth £1000. They are of course named after the idea I’ve already mentioned that King Lear was written during a period of plague.

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Happy 90th birthday, Sir Stanley Wells!

Sir Stanley Wells

21 May 2020 is the 90th birthday of Sir Stanley Wells, without a doubt the greatest living Shakespearean scholar. There can be few people who have not encountered his work, as a writer, lecturer, teacher, editor or mentor. I wrote a post about him back in 2016 when he was awarded his richly-deserved knighthood.

Just reaching 90 is quite an achievement, but he is still active in the field of Shakespeare studies. In his career he has considered Shakespeare from every point of view: the performance of his plays, his poetry, his life, and the world in which he lived. He’s been working with Shakespeare for considerably more years than the playwright was alive, and knows him inside out. He was planning to present a series of four lectures to try to answer the question “What was Shakespeare really like?”. But in the current circumstances this has been impossible so they have been recorded and are now available through the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s website. As well as being able to hear them being delivered by Professor Wells, and introduced by a range of distinguished Shakespeareans, a transcript is also provided.

Whatever his plans were for his big birthday, it’s almost certain that it will be a quieter day than he hoped. But there are certain to be many people raising a glass to him and wishing him many more years to come. Happy Birthday Sir Stanley Wells!




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#SaluteToStratford: Shakespeare and Welcombe

Ridge and furrow markings in the field, Clopton House behind

As their contribution to Shakespeare’s Birthday this year, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has created #SaluteToStratford, where people can share what makes Stratford special to them. Most people have just put up a photo and note about a favourite place, but my husband Richard Morris, Stratford born and bred, wrote the following about the Welcombe hills. It’s an area that is close to his heart, and that has an intriguing Shakespeare connection. Just a short walk from the town, it’s usually quiet, though during lockdown many locals must be taking their exercise there.

As a child the whole area of Welcombe hills was my playground, in fact there is even a photo of my mother holding me as a baby outside the hotel. So I have a long and deep association with these lovely hills north of Stratford.

Later I became interested In archaeology and joined evening classes on field archaeology at the local college. Naturally I was particularly fascinated by the history of the Welcombe hills. We knew there had been a medieval village of Welcombe and the inhabitants had been forced out, but couldn’t locate the position. After mapping all of the medieval ridge and furrow the location was still inconclusive but it was decided that the village is probably buried under the hotel.

Shakespeare seems to have had some involvement, though his role is unclear. On 1st May 1602 he paid £320 in cash to William Combe and his nephew John for four yardlands (about 120 acres) of arable with rights of common for livestock on the Welcombe hills. The Combe family were notoriously rich, greedy usurers, they were also interested in enclosure as there was profit to be made. However the Town Council were opposed to any enclosure of common land and the Town Clerk Thomas Greene, who was also Shakespeare’s cousin, was determined to do something about it. On the 17 November 1614 he was in London and called on Shakespeare who had recently arrived from Stratford. He wrote:

“At my cousin Shakespeare coming yesterday to town I went to see him how he did. He told me that they assured him they meant to enclose no further than Gospel Bush, and so up straight (leaving out part of the dingles to the field) to the gate in Clopton hedge, and take in Salisbury’s piece, and they mean in April to survey the land, and then give satisfaction and not before”.

However instead of waiting until 1 April, Combe’s men started digging and during December they dug a trench surrounded by hedge mounds extending over 50 perches. A couple of local men attempted to fill in the ditch but were beaten up by Combe’s men. Then overnight women and children from Stratford and Bishopton arrived with spades and mattocks and began filling in the ditch and flattening the hedge mound. On the 28th March 1615 Warwick Assizes issued an order restraining Combe from making any enclosure of common land, which was against the laws of the realm.

However Combe was determined to get his way. He had the poor tenants beaten and imprisoned, he also impounded their pigs and sheep. Ultimately by buying up land and houses he depopulated the entire village.

That September Greene made an entry in his diary that Shakespeare “was not able to bear the enclosing of Welcombe”.

The Welcombe Hotel

What do we make of this ambiguous note? Did Shakespeare mean he couldn’t afford to pay for the enclosure, or that he couldn’t bear the thought (surely a more modern meaning). Did he use a lack of cash as an excuse not to carry out this dodgy proceeding? There is more information here.

We all hope that Shakespeare showed empathy for his fellow-humans in real life just as he did in his plays. As a child, his family faced poverty, but while he knew poverty was a bad thing, it doesn’t follow that he thought it was up to him to prevent it. This great speech in King Lear, about the homeless and destitute, perhaps suggest that relieving poverty is the responsibility of those in power, not individuals.

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.

It’s ironic that the building that now sits on the spot where the unscrupulous Mr Combe forced his impoverished tenants out of their homes is the grandest hotel in the area.

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Shakespeare’s Birthday in lockdown, 2020

King Edward VI School wreath, 2020

The nearest Saturday to Shakespeare’s Birthday has for several decades been the day on which the town of Stratford-upon-Avon holds its biggest celebrations of the year. Birthday Celebrations have been held in some for or another for around two hundred years. They’ve taken a lot of different forms over the years: marching bands, parades, banners, folk dancing, a posh dinner, speeches, flag-pulling, playing the National Anthem, dressing up in national costume or as Shakespeare’s characters and singing Happy Birthday. These and more have all been tried, as the organisers have attempted to find new ways of having a party in the streets, and people from all over the world attend. This year, 2020, the party planned for 25 April is cancelled.


Stratford Mayor Annie Justins leads the procession with Sir Frank Benson, 1930

The Celebrations can be traced back to the founding of the town’s Shakespeare Club in 1824: just three years later the first procession of people dressed as Shakespeare’s characters anywhere in the world formed the core of their big event. The procession took three hours to wend its way around the town and was watched by thousands of people. In the 1890s King Edward VI School initiated the tradition of carrying flowers down to the Church to be placed on the grave. It proved so successful that it has become an essential part of the day’s proceedings. Even in these difficult days a beautiful wreath has been laid outside the church near the wall where Shakespeare’s monument stands, placed there by the headmaster of KES. Several other floral tributes were left at the church on 23rd April, including mine, a little bunch of rosemary and garden flowers

Today I’m posting a selection of photographs of Birthday Celebrations from the past. The photos are from a variety of sources: my own collection, the archive of the Shakespeare Club, the collection of Nicholas Fogg, and the Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive. I hope they will be enjoyed by everyone who’s self-isolating, looking forward to better times.

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