Sir Antony Sher:”thou’lt come no more”

Antony Sher as Macbeth, RSC

This morning, 10 December 2021 was bright and sunny in Stratford-upon-Avon. We headed for the river for a walk while the sunshine was strong at this, the darkest time of year. Approaching Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare is buried, we heard the slow toll of a single bell. A funeral. As we neared the west entrance to the churchyard we could see people, including actors and people from the theatre, striding along the path to the church. Tony Sher.

It became a pensive walk. Passing the Royal Shakespeare Company’s theatres we remembered some of those roles we’ve seen Tony Sher perform over a period of well over thirty years. His Shakespeare career at the RSC began with the Fool in King Lear in 1982, memorably wearing a red nose, and ending with King Lear himself. In between, so many extraordinary performances: Richard III of course, Shylock, Malvolio, Vendice in The Revenger’s Tragedy, Tamburlaine, Macbeth, Leontes, Prospero, Falstaff. More recently, in modern plays: Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Kunene and the King. I particularly remember his outrageously funny Tartuffe, performed at the RSC’s intimate theatre the Pit at the Barbican. I’ve heard several accounts over the past week of how much painstaking preparation he put into creating performances that sometimes felt on the verge of being out of control.

You will have your own memories, and since the RSC’s announcement of Tony’s death on 3 December there have been many tributes including this one. You don’t need me to tell you what a powerful presence he bought to everything he did. Hearing Judi Dench trying to define his quality, and clips of his King Lear have  reminded me how ephemeral and elusive theatre performance is.

Gregory Doran and Antony Sher

This afternoon, back from another walk before the light faded, I received a message from a friend that the BBC’s Last Word, coming on in minutes, was to include a tribute to Tony Sher from his husband, the RSC’s Artistic Director Gregory Doran. They have formed an extraordinarily powerful partnership in the world of theatre, and not just in the UK.

Hearing Gregory Doran speak about their life together was very touching, and the best tribute Tony Sher could have wished for. “He was my all the world, and I’ll miss him very, very much”.

Here is the link to the programme: It’s the first item, just twelve minutes. It ends with a wonderful bit of Tony performing “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” from one of his most powerful performances, Macbeth.

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Shakespeare, bonfires and climate change

Guy Fawkes procession

Guy Fawkes Night, or Bonfire Night, celebrated in the UK on 5 November, marks the anniversary of an attempt to blow up Parliament in 1605 while Shakespeare was living and working in London. Macbeth was his strongest response to the shocking events, but the plot must have had a subconscious impact into the lives of Londoners in the years that followed, colouring political and social life. The Thanksgiving Act, passed by Parliament at the end of 1605, made sure it was not forgotten, with annual church services to commemorate the failure of the plot being held for the next 200 years. I wrote about some of the long-term impact of the Plot back in 2014

Even now the events of Guy Fawkes Night, or our way of celebrating them, are related to current events.  Checking back over my posts, I found that for instance in 2011 Guy Fawkes masks were worn by protestors trying to “Occupy Wall Street”, and a few years ago Donald Trump’s effigy was burned in London.

Gunpowder, treason and plot: Guy Fawkes and the Shakespeare connection

In the last couple of years global attention has shifted to the impact of COVID 19 and climate change.

Fireworks display at Alexandra Palace

Last year this article noted the spike in airborne pollution caused by fireworks. Most organised displays were cancelled in 2020 to avoid crowds gathering during the COVID 19 outbreak, but this may have resulted in more fireworks being let off in back gardens across the country.

This year, 2021, Bonfire Night coincides with the COP 26 conference in Glasgow. The pollution caused by fireworks is probably small compared with other sources but this article from 2018 notes that it’s often the most polluted night of the year, and in 2010 “estimated emissions from bonfires lit for Guy Fawkes celebrations were greater than those created by municipal waste incineration over the entire year”. It is suggested that the effects were not just short term, the extra pollutants in the atmosphere contributing to “the detrimental impact to the health of the planet”.

We might think this is a modern problem, but this post by Sarah Hovde from the Folger Shakespeare Library notes that even in Roman times there were concerns about the effects of fires on air quality, and that in 1661, just a few decades after Shakespeare’s time, John Evelyn wrote a treatise against air pollution called Fumifugium, and proposals to reduce pollution were discussed by Parliament. Shakespeare might not have recognised our twenty-first century problems associated with global warming, but he knew that “rheumy and unpurged air” was bad for our health, just as fresh air and the natural world was good for it.

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Judi Dench’s Shakespeare connection: Who Do You Think You Are?

Dame Judi Dench

For years now Who Do You Think You Are has been great TV, but the episode featuring Dame Judi Dench on 19 October 2021 was outstanding. The programme uncovers aspects of the family history of celebrities and has covered everything from destitution to connections with royalty. This one, though, revealed that one of Judi Dench’s ancestors probably saw a performance by Will Kemp at Elsinore, the castle setting for Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

It was a complicated story, starting with Dame Judi’s already-known Irish heritage. One of her distant ancestors married and went to Copenhagen in Denmark and through this ancestor she is related to the great astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601). In an age before modern scientific method, Brahe’s great contribution was to make accurate astronomical observations that could then be used by other scientists. One of these was Johannes Kepler, most famous for defining the laws of planetary motion,  who worked as Brahe’s assistant. This link alone would have made an interesting programme, but there was a lot more.

Astronomer Tycho Brahe, 1586

Brahe came from a prominent Danish family, ensuring that he received an excellent education and giving him enough influence with King Frederick II to be granted funds for an observatory where he could collect data. This was set up in the mid 1570s and attracted visitors from around Europe. But the reason why Brahe was part of Judi Dench’s story was really to do with two of his relatives, who feature on this engraving of Brahe published in 1586 showing him surrounded by the names and heraldic shields of his noble relations.

Among them are two families, Guldesteren and Rosenkrans, names familiar to anyone who knows Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. In the many sources for the play, the two devious courtiers who attempt to betray the protagonist are not named, and when Shakespeare came to give them names in his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are the only characters with genuinely Danish names.

Does the picture itself help to solve the question of how Shakespeare arrived at these names? Did he know the picture? If so, how? The image has been known for many years. Harold Jenkins in his 1982 Arden edition of Hamlet refuses to get over-excited at the possibilities. He thinks it isn’t necessary for Shakespeare to have known about Brahe and his work, and it’s unlikely that Shakespeare saw the engraving in the house of English astronomer Thomas Digges as some have suggested. He notes that both were common names: several members of both families attended the court of Frederick II, and one in ten of the noblemen who attended the coronation of his successor Christian IV bore one of the names.

The programme then put forward another way in which Shakespeare might have heard the names Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

During the 1580s English performers went on tour to the Continent and the Earl of Leicester’s Men, including William Kemp, accompanied Leicester on his diplomatic mission to the Low Countries and Denmark in 1585-6. The document noting Kemp’s appearance before King Frederick II at court still exists and indicates that the King paid the players himself. This is not a new discovery but it is still thrilling to see the handwritten entry.

William Kemp

A few years later Kemp was employed as the Clown in Shakespeare’s company, and Shakespeare wrote the part of Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing and possibly the part of Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream for him. Kemp might have told stories of his foreign adventures in 1585 including the names of courtiers, and Shakespeare remembered them when he started to work on his own Hamlet story. By the late 1590s though there was a falling out and Kemp left the company. Perhaps Shakespeare no longer wanted to write plays in which Kemp would be the star of the show. It’s referred to in Hamlet itself in the Prince’s advice to the players.

And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them; for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too. (3.2.40-5)

Finally it was suggested that as Judi Dench’s ancestor was a lady in waiting at the court of King Frederick at Elsinore she almost certainly attended one of Kemp’s performances.

It’s quite a story. I read one comment complaining that the programme misrepresents historical research by making it look easy, and while this is undoubtedly true, it does a fantastic job of exploring the less obvious treasures held by our Library and Archive Collections. I’d like to congratulate too the archivists who explain the significance of documents and images for the lay person, whose pleasure in sharing the stories is always delightful. And I’m in awe of the amazing researchers who chase up obscure links and the writers who pull all the elements together to make a compelling piece of TV, in this case covering over 400 years.

If you have a British TV licence the whole thing is available on IPlayer here:

But if not, Who Do You Think You Are’s YouTube channel has clips from past episodes. The following four clips are all there:

The Irish connection

From the Danish National Archives

Elsinore and the Danish Royal family

William Kemp and Shakespeare

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Restoring John Cheere’s Shakespeare statue

Stratford’s Town Hall August 2021

Stratford-upon-Avon’s  Town Hall is one of the most important of the town’s buildings, associated with Shakespeare through its dedication at the time of the Garrick Jubilee in 1769. This summer its familiar stone frontages have been covered in scaffolding as it has a facelift. Without any fanfare, on Friday 20 August 2021 its most historic feature, the lead statue of Shakespeare, was removed from its niche and sent away for restoration.

 

I’ve written before about the Town Hall itself and its history.

The statue of Shakespeare donated by David Garrick

Since it was dedicated the building has undergone many changes: the open lower floor was only enclosed in the 1860s, and the building suffered a fire in 1946 in which the famous painting of David Garrick by Gainsborough was destroyed. The statue has survived it all, including pollution and two hundred and fifty years of British weather. High up, and obscured by pigeon-deterring wire though, this culturally-important object is often overlooked. Let’s look closer.

The statue of Shakespeare in Poets’ Corner

The  statue is a copy, in reverse, of the marble statue of Shakespeare that stands in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey, designed by William Kent and executed by Flemish sculptor Peter Scheemakers (1691-1781). It dates from 1740. There is a full description on Westminster Abbey’s website.

The two men had already been involved in the creation of the Temple of British Worthies at Stowe in Buckinghamshire. Kent, again, had designed the monument in which a series of niches are filled by stone busts. Shakespeare was one of the worthies: his bust created by Michael Rysbrack, but many of them were by Scheemakers, completed 1734-5.

The Westminster Abbey statue proved to be extremely popular, inspiring many copies in the form of pictures, statuettes and stained glass.  It’s hardly surprising then that the statue commissioned to decorate Stratford’s Town Hall was a copy of this statue. John Cheere (1709-1787) was a follower of Scheemakers, and although he worked in a variety of media he was particularly well-known for his lead statues which were commissioned for garden settings. Many examples that stand in National Trust properties are illustrated of this page of the National Trust’s website.

Shakespeare statue by John Cheere at Drury Lane Theatre. Photo by David Bridgwater

There’s one other statue, though, that has a particularly strong link to Stratford’s. A lead statue of Shakespeare now stands in the foyer of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, thought to be a later cast of the one on the Town Hall.

It appears that the statue was presented to the Theatre by brewer Samuel Whitbread Jr in 1809. He inherited his father’s estate Southill Park in Bedfordshire in 1796 and around that time he purchased a collection of Cheere’s statues that were being sold off, presumably with the aim of displaying them in the grounds. He and his brother shared the running of the hugely profitable Whitbread brewery, though worries over his financial involvement in Drury Lane Theatre may have contributed to his suicide in 1815.

Shakespeare’s statue from the Town Hall. Photo by Pat Bojczuk

It’s identical: not only is it a mirror image of the statue in Westminster Abbey, looking at the Stratford statue once it was off its plinth the details are revealed.  The pattern on the stockings, the folds of the clothes, and the lacy collar, all the same. It’s also clear how much damage has been caused by being outside for so long. Apart from a spell on top of the portico, the Drury Lane statue has spent most of its life indoors.

Shakespeare statue on Town Hall, detail. Photo by Pat Bojczuk

I’m very much indebted for information about the Drury Lane statue to the Bath, Art and Architecture blog written by historian David Bridgwater who has a particular interest in John Cheere. His post contains many photos of the statue and a huge amount of information. The photos of the Stratford statue were taken by Pat Bojczuk.

But why did John Cheere chose to make his sculpture a mirror image of the Westminster Abbey one? Apart from these two statues, every version shows the stand to the left as you look at it. Shakespeare leans his right elbow on a pile of books, pointing with his left hand at an unfurled scroll.

David Garrick reciting the Ode at the Jubilee at Stratford,1769.

Even the engraving showing Garrick delivering his Ode at the 1769 Jubilee shows the statue that way round, presumably done by an artist more familiar with the Scheemakers original. Perhaps Cheere just wanted to make his own mark on this famous subject.

I’ve been really excited to see David Bridgwater’s photos that show how beautiful the Stratford statue was originally, but they also demonstrate how much the restorers have to do. Let’s hope the Stratford statue can be brought back to something like its original condition, and when it returns in spring 2022 that it will be given a big welcome back.

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Farewell to Jim Morris

Jim Morris with his scrapbookThis morning, 21 August 2021, my brother-in-law, James (Jim) Morris died in hospital in Australia, where he had lived for over sixty years. Although he had left Stratford as a teenager and his subsequent life was full of adventure he never forgot Stratford-upon-Avon. Sometimes local people seem to want to ignore the town’s Shakespearean heritage, but Jim always remembered that it is this that makes the town special and was proud of the contribution he had made towards it.

Over the past few years I’ve written a couple of blog posts about Jim, and in his memory I’m including links to them for anyone who is interested in this local boy’s experiences. The first was about the staging of the casket scene in The Merchant of Venice, including his recollection of how it was done in 1953 when he was one of three local boys chosen to be casket bearers. He was at the time head choirboy at Holy Trinity Church and as well as having a beautiful voice he was used to performing in public. He retained a great love of music throughout his life.

Staging the caskets: The Merchant of Venice

The second was written after I had visited Jim at home in New South Wales, where he showed me the memorabilia he had kept and carried with him after he emigrated. These included a photograph album containing a signed photo from Peggy Ashcroft (Portia), informal photos of the boys having fun, and a design sketch showing how his wig for Richard III was to look. Somehow the little pottery pig that Peggy Ashcroft had given him on the press night of The Merchant of Venice had also survived. I was amazed how much he had kept, but even after an incident-filled life and many moves Jim still treasured these items. Handling them brought back recollections which he was delighted to share. His pride in his contribution to the Theatre’s work, too, was clear.

Shakespeare memories from the Bush

Jim was blessed with an extraordinary memory, and those of us who knew him will remember him telling stories of the Stratford of his youth. We will all miss him, but how lucky he was to be involved in the work of the town’s Shakespeare organisations, giving him opportunities to remember so vividly even from the other side of the world, and many years later.

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All the Sonnets of Shakespeare

All the Sonnets of Shakespeare

It’s taken a while for me to get round to reading Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells’ book All the Sonnets of Shakespeare, published in September 2020 by Cambridge University Press. They are both some of the most familiar and some of the most puzzling of Shakespeare’s works. Many questions relate to their publication in 1609. Did Shakespeare object to the “sugared sonnets among his private friends” being made public? Who was the “onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets, Mr W. H.”? And then there are issues about the poems themselves. Why were they written and when? Do they tell a story or stories about Shakespeare’s life, or might we see them as intellectual exercises?

Being distracted by these issues can prevent us from looking at the sonnets as poems, and particularly, linking them with the rest of Shakespeare’s output. It is perfectly respectable to attempt to fix the order and date of composition of the plays, seeing how Shakespeare developed, how the plays reflect each other in style and subject. How strange it would be to think of the plays in the order in which they appear in the First Folio.

So why is it so rare to attempt the same thing for the sonnets? Edmondson and Wells have spent more time working on the Sonnets than probably anyone else, so if anybody is going to have a stab, it’s quite right that it should be these two.

It’s fascinating what difference it makes just putting them into chronological order. Of course the first group of sonnets, encouraging a young man to have children, were not the first he wrote. He would hardly have been commissioned to write these poems unless he was already known to write in the form. They may not be his most sophisticated, but neither are they apprentice pieces. So what is usually the first sonnet, “From fairest creatures we desire increase” comes in over half way through, dated 1595-7.

The earliest sonnets are actually the ones that usually appear towards the end, a rather miscellaneous collection: the editors suggest a couple may have been written while Shakespeare was still at school, another while wooing Anne Hathaway because of the pun on her name.

I hate, from hate away she threw,
And sav’d my life saying not you.

Several others echo his early poem Venus and Adonis.

As well as re-ordering the sonnets, Edmondson and Wells have boldly included sonnets or speeches more or less in sonnet form, from the plays. Some, like the sonnets in Romeo and Juliet, are well-known, but others are easily missed: I have never noticed that two of Helena’s speeches in All’s Well That Ends Well, are sonnets. The authors have also taken speeches from plays until recently not thought to be by Shakespeare. I particularly like the section of Edward III, now accepted as being by Shakespeare, in which the secretary is instructed in the art of sonnet-writing:

And let me have her likened to the sun –
Say she hath thrice more splendour than the sun.
That her perfections emulates the sun.

A few pages later, there is one of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets, satirising this very convention:

Title page of Shakespeare’s Sonnets 1609. From the British Library’s Collection

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grown on her head.

Placing a poem almost next to a theatrical text to which it seems to relate encourages thinking about how and why some of these poems might have been written. If he put sonnets into the mouths of his fictional characters in plays, might he not have dreamt up a scenario and written a poem or a series of poems exploring the emotions raised by it?

Shakespeare’s sonnets are some of the best-loved poems in English, and this book provides a fresh way of looking at them. After a long winter of separation from people, places and experiences, moving towards (we hope) a happier spring, this one seems appropriate.

From you I have been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in everything,
That heavy Saturn laughed and leaped with him.
Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odour and in hue,
Could make me any summer’s story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew:
Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight
Drawn after you, – you pattern of all those.
Yet seemed it winter still, and, you away,
As with your shadow I with these did play.

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Happy Birthday William Shakespeare 23 April 2021

Flowers for Shakespeare’s Birthday at Holy Trinity Church 2021

“I would I had some flowers of the spring”

Today, 23 April, is William Shakespeare’s Birthday. I’ve already been down to Holy Trinity Church where he was baptised and buried to leave a little posy of spring flowers from my garden.

In line with health restrictions there is to be no celebration in 2021 but that doesn’t mean there is nothing to join in with.  The Official Celebrations are in the form of a video featuring in which the main organisations, and include Mr Shakespeare at the Birthplace and the laying of wreaths at Holy Trinity Church. Wreaths from this recording are still to be seen on the grass near to Shakespeare’s monument. The video can be watched from 11 am.

Later on today, the Shakespeare Birthday Lecture, organised by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, is being delivered online by Professor Lena Orlin. The subject is “Shakespeare’s Life Portrait in Holy Trinity Church” so could hardly be more appropriate. This will be live at 4pm UK time, and tickets are £5. The Shakespeare Birthday Lecture Tickets, Fri 23 Apr 2021 at 16:00 | Eventbrite

For its April meeting, the Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon asked its members to share their memories of the Birthday. This was made available online and now is attached to the news page of the Club’s website. Shakespeare Club of Stratford (stratfordshakespeareclub.org)

The Churchyard at Holy Trinity Church 23/4/2021

For me, as you’ll find if you watch the Club’s video, the taking of flowers to the church has always been the most meaningful part of the Celebrations and I’m delighted to have been able to carry out this simple act today. Most people are not so lucky but one advantage of being locked down is that so many more people can watch the Celebrations. We’re all hoping that the traditional Birthday Celebrations will be back next year.

The RSC’s production of The Winter’s Tale, originally scheduled for 2020, is being shown at 7pm on BBC4 on Sunday, 25 April. While it’s not the same as live performance, there is a bonus in that a much larger audience can access it this play. Good is to be found even in hard times, as Shakespeare indicates in this speech by the banished Duke in As You Like It.

Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Here feel we not the penalty of Adam,
The seasons’ difference; as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind,
Which when it bites and blows upon my body,
Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say
‘This is no flattery; these are counsellors
That feelingly persuade me what I am.’
Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.

Have a happy day, and from the comfort of your own safe space raise a glass for William Shakespeare’s birthday.

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Remembering the Duke of Edinburgh in Stratford-upon-Avon

Prince Philip leaving Shakespeare’s Birthplace 23 April 1964

Today, 9 April 2021 we’ve all heard the sad news that Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh has died aged 99. He’s been one of the most recognizable figures in public life for as long as any of us can remember.

Much has been made already about his role as the longest-serving royal consort in British history, describing how he was always a step or two behind the Queen, only rarely carrying out public engagements on his own.

But one of those solo visits was made to Stratford-upon-Avon for the biggest celebration of Shakespeare’s life in history, the Quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth on 23 April 1964. People in Stratford may well have memories of this day. The Queen was unable to attend, having given birth to Prince Edward only a few weeks before.

 

He brought his characteristic energy to the rather breathless

Prince Philip being presented with Shakespeare Medals by Sir Fordham Flower

schedule. Having landed by helicopter, he took part in most of the festivities as well as carrying out some important official functions. He spent the day visiting the newly-opened Shakespeare Centre and the Birthplace in Henley Street, being the chief guest at the official luncheon, opening the Shakespeare exhibition on Waterside, meeting Peter Hall and Governors of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and attending a matinee of Henry IV Part 1. Not known as a theatre fan, but well known for his sense of humour, this play that includes Falstaff’s most exuberant comedy was wisely chosen for him.

This was not his first visit, however. He had accompanied the Queen on their first Royal Visit in 1957, and his most recent visit, with the Queen, was for the official reopening of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre after its reconstruction, in March 2011.

He will be greatly missed. “Out, out, brief candle”.

Prince Philip arriving at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, March 2011.

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The end of “churlish winter’s tyranny”: February in Shakespeare’s Stratford

A swan on the Avon by Shakespeare’s church

Not many people are sorry to see the end of February, and with it the end of meteorological winter. If we’re lucky it’s also the end of what Shakespeare called “churlish winter’s tyranny”. In Much Ado About Nothing, Benedick is accused of having “a February face, So full of frost, of storm and cloudiness”. While most of the month may have been like that, the last few days have been bright, warm and sunny.

I actually love this time of year. Those first flowers, after weeks of barren ground, are so much more appreciated than summer flowers. Here in Stratford we have snowdrops, daffodils and crocuses in full bloom. Birds are singing, and on the river, swans are beginning their mating rituals, the males aggressively chasing away their rivals.

Willows by the Avon

It’s the sense of anticipation I really enjoy: buds swelling and beginning to burst, early blossom on bare-twigged bushes, and, down by the Avon, the haze of gold as the willow trees come into leaf. It’s like hearing the orchestra tuning up before a concert, or the hum of conversation subsiding as the lights go down in a theatre before the performance begins. It’s also the uncertainty, as so frequently commented on by Shakespeare. Buds, symbols of purity and hope, are often blighted by canker or cold. So in Henry IV Part 2,

In an early spring
We see th’appearing buds; which to prove fruit
Hope gives not so much warrant, as despair
That frosts will bite them.

The Other Place February 2021

There’s also sadness. During the winter, we can see the intricate shapes of the trees, their bare branches and bark. It’s the only time we’re really aware of the complexity of their structure. Just now, they’re enjoying a rare bit of sunshine that casts shadows showing off the beauty soon to be concealed by leaves.

I’m lucky to be able to enjoy Stratford-upon-Avon all year round, even during lockdown. Most people are not so fortunate, and I know many are missing visiting the town so I’m posting a few photographs taken within the last week. These include a reminder that, with all the theatres and Shakespeare properties closed, the only people accessing The Other Place are those going for a Covid test.  But hopefully not for too much longer.

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Stratford in 2020, and welcome to 2021

James Butler’s statue of Shakespeare, 2020

Few of us will be sorry to leave 2020 behind and to welcome 2021.

Even for those unaffected by the virus, it’s been a dreary year with few opportunities to enjoy the things we’d say make us human: music, dance, drama, and interacting with our friends and family. Shakespeare’s plays are full of love and loss, often ending with reconciliation and meetings of families long parted, from the early Comedy of Errors, through Twelfth Night to the magical rebirths of The Winter’s Tale and Pericles. I’m hoping that when we are able to meet again we experience an explosion of creativity, and never take for granted the arts and those who bring them to us. They have suffered great hardship in the last few months.

Stratford-upon-Avon itself has had a tough time during the pandemic: not so much in terms of the illness itself as our levels of infection have been low, but the economic effects have been severe. Theatres are closed, all the Shakespeare properties have been closed except, for a few months in the summer, the Birthplace, Holy Trinity Church, the Guild Chapel and Shakespeare’s Schoolroom all shut their doors. The town’s many hotels, restaurants, cafes and shops that rely on visitors have been forced to close or reduce their offerings. And allowing pedestrians more space led to some streets being closed to traffic.

But amongst all this, there has been one new Shakespeare attraction in town – and it’s proved perfect for this year, and sited in Henley Street, usually busy with tourists visiting the Birthplace. With the Birthplace closed, it has been great to have something for the tourists who come here, in the shape of a new Shakespeare statue by artist James Butler.

It’s been controversial for several years: it was originally intended to stand at the top of Bridge Street. But siting it at such a busy traffic intersection would have reduced the numbers looking at it. Other suggestions included the rather small patch of ground near the Town Hall, already overlooked by two images of Shakespeare. I wasn’t keen on this statue when it was first proposed,  but within days of it being unveiled, every time I passed people were taking photos of their families standing around the base of the statue with Shakespeare’s Birthplace in the back ground, and I’m happy to admit I was wrong.

The new statue offers a kind of easy familiarity that isn’t possible with most images of Shakespeare to be found in the town. The church bust high on the wall inside the church, the Garrick statue high on the Town Hall wall, the Gower Memorial in which Shakespeare is isolated, high above his characters. At the time when this was unveiled it was surrounded by a fence, and an admission charge was levied for people to get into the gardens where it stood. Times have changed: now we expect our heroes to be accessible.

James Butler’s statue of Shakespeare, 2020

I took these photos of the new statue in early November, before our second period of lockdown began, and when we experienced some beautiful golden autumnal days. We’re now entering Tier 4, with many restrictions in place to help reduce infection levels. We’re all hoping that Stratford’s unwelcoming face is only temporary and by springtime, when many of us will have received our vaccines and travel restrictions are removed, we will be able to welcome visitors back to enjoy its unique atmosphere and attractions.

So here’s to a happier 2021, one in which we hope there will be a lot more Shakespeare, more theatre,  and more opportunities for “merry meetings”.

 

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