Shakespeare annotated: John Milton’s First Folio

(c) Christ’s College, University of Cambridge; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Over the last few weeks the hottest story in Shakespeare studies has been the identification of a First Folio in the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Rare Book Department as John Milton’s own copy, annotated in his own hand. The book had been in the Library for over 70 years, and Library staff had often put on display this volume with its interesting additions. It had been studied in depth by Professor Claire Bourne from Pennsylvania State University’s English Department who had narrowed the annotations down to the middle of the seventeenth century, and her article was read by Jason Scott-Warren from the University of Cambridge’s English Faculty. Bourne noted that the reader who had made the annotations made interesting comments, and the handwriting reminded Warren strongly of the poet John Milton. There is a detailed discussion of the palaeography here, and Jason Scott-Warren spoke to the BBC’s Front Row on 17 September 2019.

Milton was known to be an admirer of Shakespeare. He was born in London in 1608 where his father was a scrivener and composer living close to the Mermaid Tavern which was frequented by theatre people. Their lives overlap by just a few years so I suppose it’s just about possible that Milton might have met Shakespeare The first poem Milton wrote that appeared in print was “On Shakespeare”, included without attribution in Shakespeare’s Second Folio in 1632.  It would be many years before Paradise Lost but Milton was already writing about Shakespeare’s influence.

What needs my Shakespeare for his honoured bones,
The labor of an age in pilèd stones,
Or that his hallowed relics should be hid
Under a star-ypointing pyramid?
Dear son of Memory, great heir of fame,
What need’st thou such weak witness of thy name?
Thou in our wonder and astonishment
Hast built thyself a live-long monument.
For whilst to th’ shame of slow-endeavouring art,
Thy easy numbers flow, and that each heart
Hath from the leaves of thy unvalued book
Those Delphic lines with deep impression took,
Then thou, our fancy of itself bereaving,
Dost make us marble with too much conceiving;
And so sepúlchred in such pomp dost lie,
That kings for such a tomb would wish to die.

An addition in Milton’s hand: the prologue to Romeo and Juliet

Looking at the annotations Warren was able to see how Milton was reading Shakespeare as a writer. He suggested changes to the metre of a line, referenced sources, and examined how some of Shakespeare’s best speeches worked. It’s one of the most exciting literary discoveries in recent years, based on the work of two academics working thousands of miles apart, but able to share the images by the wonder of digitisation.

Many congratulations to both researchers who have made this great discovery. But, especially as it’s Libraries Week, let’s also take our hats off to the Librarians in Special Collections who make these rare items available to the public.

Caitlin Morgan, curator of the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Rare Book department, has written a lively post about the role of the Library, refuting the usual image of libraries as dusty places where fascinating items get hidden. In fact libraries are now places where information can be spread more speedily and effectively than ever through digitisation, cataloguing and the writing of blogs. This year Libraries Week is celebrating libraries in a digital world, and this is certainly appropriate for this story.

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David Garrick’s Apotheosis today

George Carter’s Apotheosis of Garrick

The 250th anniversary of the Garrick Jubilee has been celebrated in a number of ways in Stratford-upon-Avon during September 2019. Church bells have been rung, Morris dancers have performed, talks and exhibitions have been put on. There’s also a more lasting legacy. The Royal Shakespeare Company owns an extraordinary collection of Shakespeare-related paintings and for the anniversary they have restored the quirkiest of them, The Apotheosis of Garrick by artist George Carter, painted in 1782, and displayed it in the circle bar of the RST, at least for a while.

It’s a painting that needs an explanation. When it was painted after David Garrick’s death his face was universally known, both through his stage performances and the many paintings of him. But who are all the other people, and what’s going on? The RSC have placed some excellent information panels beneath it, and the following has been adapted from them.

Shakespeare and the muses of comedy and tragedy, in The Apotheosis of Garrick

The setting is classical: Garrick is lifted to Mount Parnassus by angels where Shakespeare waits to greet him flanked by the muses of Comedy and Tragedy, all bearing laurel garlands. In the foreground his Drury Lane Company dressed as their favourite Shakespearean characters gather to bid him farewell.

From left to right, they are as follows. Kneeling at the front dressed in pink is Elizabeth Pope as Cordelia from King Lear. Next to her is Mary Anne Yates, leading tragedienne, as Isabella in Measure for Measure, arm outstretched.

Some of the actors in The Apotheosis of Garrick

Fanny Abington is in silvery white as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. Famous for her sense of fashion, she was painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Kneeling next to her is Elizabeth Hartley as Desdemona from Othello, whose beauty prompted a brawl in Vauxhall Gardens. Behind them, in the hat, is Jane Pope as Mistress Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Robert Bensley or Roaring Bob is Prospero in The Tempest. William “Gentleman” Smith is Hamlet. He was educated at Eton and Cambridge and eloped with Elizabeth Hartley. John Hayman Packer often played old men and here he is Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet.

Richard Yates, hand on chest, is Malvolio from Twelfth Night. As a theatre manager he set up the New Theatre in Birmingham in 1773. John Palmer or Plausible Jack kneels with his sword and shield as Iachimo in Cymbeline. He was a theatre doorkeeper before becoming an actor. Behind him is another actor in Cymbeline, Thomas Hall, feather in cap, as Pisanio.

Actors in The Apotheosis of Garrick

The most obvious is Thomas King, in motley as Touchstone in As You Like It. A Drury Lane favourite, he performed over 100 roles during a long career. Next are Joseph Vernon as Thurio in The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Robert Baddeley as Dr Caius in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

The last little group are John Moody as Old Adam in As You Like It, then William Parsons leaning on his spade as the Gravedigger in Hamlet. Finally William Brereton is Orlando in As You Like It.

Though the painting doesn’t have a direct link to the Jubilee, there are connections.

Of these seventeen actors, more than half are recorded to have been either at the Stratford Jubilee or in its London staging. In Stratford, Thomas King took part in a staged interruption to Garrick’s address after the Ode on the second day, Mr and Mrs Yates attended the grand Masquerade, and William Smith was scheduled to walk in the procession.

Continuation of the Procession of Shakespear’s Characters [London, 1769]. From the collections of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

As Garrick had arranged that his own company would process through the streets we can assume some of the others were there too, though as the procession had to be abandoned there are no written reports. The engravings of the procession (at least one prepared in advance) don’t give a good impression of how it would have been.

When the Jubilee was staged in London, Garrick again called on his leading actors. Several are named in reports including Mr Vernon, Mr King (as Touchstone), Mr Moody, Miss Pope, Mrs Abington and Mr Brereton.

Apollo and the Muses from The Apotheosis of Garrick

Now restored and hung in a brightly-lit room the quality of the painting and its details can be seen. The classical references are much more obvious. At the top of Mount Parnassus, the home of poetry, music and learning, is Apollo, the sun god and the remaining seven muses, in the rosy glow of dawn. In the world of the painting, Shakespeare comes down the mountain with Thalia the muse of Comedy and Melpomene the muse of Tragedy to welcome David Garrick to take his rightful place. Apollo holds his lyre and several of the muses are with their identifying emblems. On the left Euterpe, muse of Music holds her flute, and Clio, muse of History, holds a large open book. On the right Urania, muse of Astronomy sits with her globe and compass.

There’s something rather wonderful about the fact that this eccentric, wacky painting is on display just yards away from the spot where David Garrick delivered his Jubilee Ode and in so doing laid the foundations for all the Shakespeare-worship that has taken place in Stratford-upon-Avon in the last 250 years.

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Garrick’s Jubilee in London

A fanciful engraving of Garrick performing his Ode

By the end of September 1769 Stratford-upon-Avon must have been returning to humdrum normality after the excitement of David Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee that had taken over the town earlier in the month.

The phenomenon of the Jubilee, however, was far from over. In London, newspapers were full of articles and letters about the events, and critics wrote reviews of the Ode which Garrick had performed so brilliantly.

Garrick had probably always intended to perform the Ode as an afterpiece at his London theatre. Responding to the Stratford performance, song-writer Charles Dibdin wrote “If Garrick felt all this ecstasy and imparted it to his auditors…it was called forth by a contemplation of the prodigious remuneration that would result… While he was infusing into the very souls of his hearers the merits of the incomparable Shakespeare… his soul was fixed upon the Drury Lane treasury”. On his return to London he put the plan into action. The first performance was on 30th September, and he repeated it seven times within the next few months, once before the King and Queen. Garrick reproduced as closely as he could the set-up in the Rotunda in Stratford, right down to a set in the shape of a circular building, fifty musicians and his own statue of Shakespeare.

The performance of the Ode at Drury Lane Theatre

Although there had been some criticism of the Ode as a piece of work, there was never anything but praise for Garrick’s delivery of it, or that of the musicians and singers. Even for such a skilled actor as Garrick it was a huge strain. Though it was usual to stage several pieces on the same evening, he never attempted to perform another role on the evenings when delivered the Ode.

Others quickly exploited the interest in the Jubilee. George Saville Carey wrote Shakespeare’s Jubilee, a Masque. It includes fanciful scenes such as Oberon and the fairies from A Midsummer Night’s Dream encountering a drunken Falstaff, forced onto a broomstick by the witches from Macbeth who fly off with him to Stratford. Later the mood becomes sombre as figures from classical mythology, led by the sun-god Apollo and the nine muses, reveal a statue of Shakespeare. Perhaps not surprisingly given the complicated staging, there’s no record of it ever being performed.

Captain Edward Thompson’s long poem Trinculo’s Trip to the Jubilee was published in November 1769. Thompson had attended the Jubilee and although it’s not great poetry, it does give a flavour of the merriment of the occasion. Published during September was the anonymous Garrick’s Vagary: or England run Mad; with Particulars of the Stratford Jubilee. It takes the form of a series of dialogues set before, during and after the Jubilee itself and closes with a song celebrating it:

Let critics dissent, or let them agree,
We’ll sing, and dance round the Mulberry-tree.

The two-act play The Stratford Jubilee, with a prologue Scrub’s Trip to the Jubilee, was written by Francis Gentleman at the same time. He hoped it would be staged at the Haymarket Theatre but this was not to be.

As well as staging the Ode, Garrick was undertaking a much larger Jubilee-related piece that would require all the resources of Drury Lane Theatre and its performers. This was no surprise to anyone in London: the St James Chronicle said  ”it was natural to expect, that the Exhibition upon the Banks of the Avon, would prove a Kind of Rehearsal of a spectacle to be represented during the Winter at Drury-Lane Theatre”. Garrick’s play, The Jubilee, was announced on 14 October, and was a triumph. It began with domestic scenes in a Stratford home, followed by ballads and scenes of preparation for the Pageant, and the Pageant itself.  This was carefully staged with groups from about nineteen of Shakespeare’s plays, each preceded by a banner, the actors carrying appropriate properties such as Shylock with a knife and scales. Drury Lane’s leading actors appeared in their favourite roles, Garrick himself as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. It featured the entrance of 320 actors, each group acting out a little scene from their play. Also in the procession was the figure of Apollo with his lyre, and the muses with their trophies. It was universally admired: “the most magnificent spectacle that ever was exhibited on any theatre”, and “there never was an entertainment produced that gave so much pleasure to all Degrees, Boxes, Pit and Gallery”. In its first year alone it was performed more than ninety times to packed houses.

It’s surprising that this crowdpleasing spectacle has been so completely forgotten, so I’m delighted to hear from David Chandler about the project he is leading with Retrospect Opera. They have made and released a professional recording of The Jubilee. It contains the songs and some of the dialogue of Garrick’s dramatic piece. Information about the recording can be found here.

Garrick hadn’t had it all his own way though. While his own play was in preparation, George Colman created a three-act comedy Man and Wife; the Stratford Jubilee, at the rival theatre, Covent Garden, from 9th October. Like Gentleman’s it’s a domestic comedy, mostly set in an inn during the Jubilee. It showed signs of being put together in a hurry: the staging of the pageant of Shakespearean characters was said to be in need of improvement. Such was the enthusiasm for the Jubilee, though, that it enjoyed considerable success until Garrick’s own version was announced on 14 October.

The Jubilee was not forgotten, at least in Stratford. A playbill still exists for a performance in one of Stratford’s converted barns in 1822 of “an interlude taken from the celebrated entertainment of THE JUBILEE, which was founded on the Great Pageant, formerly exhibited at Stratford-upon-Avon, under the direction of David Garrick, Esq, in honour of the Immortal Shakespeare”.

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Remembering Garrick’s Jubilee in Stratford-upon-Avon

The statue of Shakespeare donated by David Garrick

Imagine the scene in Stratford-upon-Avon on Saturday 9 September 1769, the morning after the night before, indeed after the three days of David Garrick’s Jubilee. There was an undignified rush to leave the town, but there weren’t enough carriages. A writer for the St James’s Chronicle wrote “Every body wanted to quit Stratford, but few, unless those who were down with their own Carriages, could attempt it: Five Guineas… nay Fifty Guineas were unable to attain it.” The landlord of the White Lion Inn thought it might take three weeks for everybody to get away. He wasn’t complaining.

But what, after all the Jubilee-goers had managed to leave, when the town had dried out, and after the riverside amphitheatre had been taken down, was left to show it had all happened?  Shakespeare knew how easily any live event vanishes when it is over:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.

There was always going to be a sort of legacy. The Jubilee had only taken place at all because of the dedication of the new Town Hall, and Garrick’s statue of Shakespeare now stood in the niche near the entrance where it is to this day. It’s modest, but important. There were other legacies too, high quality works of art that were intended to hang forever inside the Town Hall.

David Garrick, a copy of Gainsborough’s portrait

As well as the statue, Garrick gave a portrait of Shakespeare by Benjamin Wilson. Robert Bell Wheler described it in his History and Antiquities of Stratford-upon-Avon. “Our inimitable poet is represented in the attitude of inspiration, and sitting in an antique chair; upon the ground lie several books… by some of the authors which Shakspeare consulted; and in the window are the armorial bearings of his family”. The other, bought by the Stratford Corporation to mark the Jubilee was a portrait of Garrick with Shakespeare by the great painter Thomas Gainsborough. This shows Garrick, in an outdoor parkland setting, leaning against a pedestal on which stands a bust of Shakespeare. Garrick’s arm embraces the bust. It’s an image that places Garrick and Shakespeare on a par, both men at home in the natural world. This image was so successful that it was reproduced as an engraving and widely copied. One copy is at Charlecote Park just a few miles from Stratford, while the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust owns one by Robert Edge Pine.

For nearly two centuries these two paintings hung facing each other in the ballroom, but both were lost in a fire at the Town Hall in 1946. While the Gainsborough is a famous image, Alan Young* notes that there is virtually no record of the Wilson portrait, not even a photograph, surprising given its prominent position. After the ballroom was rebuilt a painting of David Garrick in the role of Richard III, by Nathaniel Dance-Holland, was acquired by the Corporation and this contemporary picture of Garrick is still on display, even if it links him with his stage career rather than the Shakespeare-worship of the Jubilee.

There were other attempts to remember the Jubilee. The Greyhound Inn just opposite the Town Hall was renamed the Garrick Inn. Locals must have bought their own souvenirs like medals and ribbons, bringing them out on special occasions. Although some Stratfordians had been wary to begin with, when the Jubilee happened they embraced it.  Some made money letting out spare rooms, or by selling food and drink. But householders decorated their homes by placing candles or lamps in their windows every evening. They enjoyed the fireworks on the first and third evenings, and would have been impressed by the spectacle of the costumed procession had it not been rained off.

The site of the Amphitheatre shown on the 1814 map of Stratford

For several years afterwards a modest procession was held on 6 September, and twenty-five years later in 1794 a bigger celebration was planned but eventually had to be abandoned. The Jubilee was a source of pride, and visitors asked to be shown where it had all taken place. In his 1814 Guide to Stratford Robert Bell Wheler includes a map of the town, and there, at number 11, on the Bancroft, is the Site of the Amphitheatre, roughly where the Royal Shakespeare Theatre is now.

* Art and English Commemorations of Shakespeare 1769-1964. In Christa Jansohn and Dieter Mehl’s book Shakespeare Jubilees: 1769-2014.

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David Garrick’s Jubilee Ode, 1769

Garrick’s Jubilee Amphitheatre, illustrated by Robert Bell Wheler in 1806

Today, 7 September 2019, is the 250th anniversary of the highlight of David Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee. In the specially-built amphitheatre Garrick delivered his Ode, a long piece of verse consisting of spoken sections interspersed with airs delivered by some of the finest singers of the day. Although the words have survived, much of the music has not, and in 2016 concerts were given in which the Ode was spoken by actor Samuel West and new music was composed by Sally Beamish.

The Ode, brilliantly delivered by Garrick, was the most successful part of the whole festival. Although the Jubilee is criticised for its lack of Shakespeare in performance, that was never the point of this festival. Garrick had spent his life performing Shakespeare: why come all the way to Stratford-upon-Avon just to perform the plays which the audience had already seen beautifully staged at Drury Lane? The temporary, wooden Amphitheatre couldn’t rival a proper theatre, and there was no suggestion that it should try. Nor did he want to simply perform some of his favourite speeches. What he did do was to establish Shakespeare in his own environment for the first time. So Shakespeare is “Nature’s Glory, Fancy’s Child”, and from the very beginning of the Ode,  

          Blest genius of the isle,
……that demi-god!
Who Avon’s flow’ry margin trod,
While sportive Fancy round him flew;
Where Nature led him by the hand,
Instructed him in all she knew,
And gave him absolute command!

The Ode, praising Shakespeare’s rustic roots and the inspiration they provided, gave Warwickshire, and England as a whole, a bigger claim to Shakespeare. He was a divinely inspired writer, not only a writer of plays for the London stage. Garrick praised the man, using phrases based on Shakespeare from plays including Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream as well as noting “We ne’er shall look upon his like again”, a near-quotation from Hamlet.

Wheler’s History and Antiquities of Stratford, 1806

The Jubilee became almost a legend, an event unlike any other. So important was it that local antiquary Robert Bell Wheler included the Jubilee in his 1806 book on the History and Antiquities of Stratford-upon-Avon. It seems incongruous now that as well as chapters on historic buildings like the Church is a whole section on an event that had taken place only 37 years before. He included a description, the full text of the Ode, the speech Garrick gave afterwards praising Shakespeare’s skill as a writer, and the words of the songs written for the Jubilee under the collective title Shakespeare’s Garland. Wheler was not even alive at the time but as a child would  have heard lots of stories about the Jubilee from locals including his own parents.

He wrote: “ The elegant Ode met with the most universal approbation and applause: the recitative parts were spoken by Mr Garrick who  perhaps, in all the characters in which he ever appeared, never exerted more powers, or with greater variety and judgement, or ever caused a greater emotion, or made a stronger impression on the breasts of his auditors; he launched, indeed, almost beyond himself! In fact, though the turbulent applause gave him frequent interruption, yet it was generally allowed, that the Ode, in point of poetical merit, no less than the speaker, as to his elocution and mode of delivery, was justly entitled to universal admiration…. In short, it was allowed by all who had the happiness to be present at the recital of this Ode, that there never was exhibited in England, a performance more pleasing, more grand, or more worthy the memory of Shakespeare; and in which the genius and talents of Garrick (by whose enchanting powers it was rendered superior to criticism), was so thoroughly admirable, and gave so perfect a satisfaction”.  

Garrick knew he had a winner with the Ode. It quickly appeared in print and as early as 30 September in Drury Lane he included the first performance of it “in the Manner it was performed in Stratford”. This proved so successful that the other serious London theatre, Covent Garden, put on its own version and Garrick quickly responded. He expanded the Ode into a two-act afterpiece called The Jubilee that included scenes with comic yokels, the Ode, and the spectacular procession which he had been forced to cancel in the streets of Stratford. It was performed a record 153 times, the longest run of any London production, and cemented Drury Lane’s place as the playhouse sacred to Shakespeare.  A great result for the Jubilee that many dismissed as a failure.

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“This is the day!” Garrick’s Jubilee at 250

David Garrick

250 years ago today, on Weds 6 September 1769, David Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee began in Stratford-upon-Avon, the first Festival celebrating Shakespeare in the world.

Even before it started there were many critics of the whole idea who were ready to jump on any failure immediately. The many accounts of the Jubilee written at the time mostly focussed on the disagreements, the inadequate planning, and the disastrous rain that prevented the most spectacular elements from taking place.

The successes, though, are rarely remembered. One element that has stayed important to local people is the song “Warwickshire Lad”, that was regularly sung at Shakespeare Festivals in Stratford and has been adopted as the Regimental March of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. The words are given here, and here is the tune played as a quick march.

Music was an essential feature of the Jubilee, its first major event being a performance of Dr Arne’s oratorio Judith, performed in Holy Trinity Church at 11 and  intended to give an air of seriousness to the Jubilee before the mood became celebratory. In readiness for the entertainment the town was full of musicians the evening before. One writer listed the names of well-known performers to be seen, noting that the town also contained “an incredible number of Flutes, Hautboys, Fiddlers, Guitars, Candle-Snuffers, Scene Shifters, and a numerous tribe of Attendance from both the Theatres”. The atmosphere in the town must have been like nothing that had ever been seen there before, with “every Inn, House and Hovel, now swarm[ing] with Company,… the Haylofts…being cleared for the Reception of Families of the first Credit… for want of better Accommodation”.

Much of the music composed for and played during the Jubilee was inspired by the revival of interest in early English songs, ballads and catches. Dr Arne was one of the most prominent composers to write these songs, and Garrick thought they would be appropriate for this event which was intended to appeal to a wide range of people. For the occasion, then, Garrick and several assistants wrote many songs, and he called on the composer Charles Dibdin to set them to music. Dibdin had already set A Warwickshire Lad and another song The Mulberry Tree, and became so exhausted by Garrick’s demands that he eventually decided not to go to Stratford at all. 

Shakespear’s Garland, the collection of songs set by Dibdin for the Jubilee.

This could have been one of those stories of things that went wrong at the Jubilee, but on this occasion there was a happy ending. Dibdin wrote in a letter that omitting part of his work “might not only do material injury to the scheme, but …might be so represented as to appear a meditated insult to the public”. So Dibdin arrived in Stratford on the evening before the Jubilee, setting the words for guitars and flutes. He then took some of those musicians aside, “made the musicians sit up all night, and as it was daylight, we sallied forth as a band of masqueraders, and to the astonishment of Garrick serenaded him with the very thing he had set his heart upon but which he had given up as lost”.

This musical beginning to his great Jubilee must have been a perfect start to the day. And it continued: Judith was beautifully performed, and at its end Garrick, carrying his mulberry wood wand and wearing his mulberry-wood medal, led the band in a triumphant procession to the Birthplace. As they went, the performers sang:

This is the day, a holiday! A holiday!
Drive spleen and rancour far away,
This is the day, a holiday! A holiday!
Drive care and sorrow far away.

That first day continued as successfully as it had begun, but the memory of it has been obliterated by what, sadly, was to follow.

  • I’m indebted for much of the information in this post to Johanne M Stochholm’s book Garrick’s Folly.
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Sir Simon Russell Beale

Simon Russell Beale

I was delighted to hear, a few weeks ago, that actor Simon Russell Beale has been awarded a knighthood. I’ve always enjoyed seeing him on stage and television, in particular watching him taking on many of Shakespeare’s most challenging roles.

He began his career with the RSC in 1986, the year in which the Swan Theatre opened. This venue turned out to be perfectly suited to his unshowy style of acting, its intimate size and thrust stage allowing more direct communication with the audience than the much larger RST. He was in two plays in that first season, Every Man in His Humour and The Fair Maid of the West. He also played the Young Shepherd in The Winter’s Tale in the RST, and the slimy Oliver in The Art of Success in The Other Place. It was a strange mix of comic roles, supporting roles, or one-dimensional villain.

The only time I’ve ever met him was before I’d seen him on stage: while rehearsing Every Man in His Humour the actors must have been given a bit of research to do, because he and another actor turned up at the Shakespeare Centre Library. Introducing himself, I remember Simon laughing as he explained, standing next to the extremely handsome Nathaniel Parker, that he was playing the romantic lead in the play.

It was as if the RSC hadn’t yet worked out what to do with this obviously talented actor: in his next season, 1988, he played a series of fops, outrageously camp rather than subtle. But then there came a number of terrific performances: Konstantin in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, Thersites in Troilus and Cressida, the King in Marlowe’s Edward II, Ariel in The Tempest, the title role in Richard III, Oswald in Ibsen’s Ghosts. He was the first winner of the Ian Charleson award in 1991 for four of these performances with the RSC.

Timon of Athens

Since 1994 he’s done most of his stage work in London, particularly at the National Theatre. I’ve been lucky enough to see quite a few of his roles, mostly Shakespeare. Hamlet, Timon of Athens, King Lear, Uncle Vanya, Malvolio, Cassius in Julius Caesar. A few years ago he returned to the RSC to play Prospero in The Tempest. He’s often been in productions, like Timon of Athens, that have taken liberties with Shakespeare’s text, and this one also introduced extravagant computer-generated visuals. He’s on record as saying that we shouldn’t be too reverential towards Shakespeare, as he’s quite robust enough to withstand whatever we do to him.

Simon Russell Beale as Prospero

Simon Russell Beale almost always has an introspective, vulnerable quality. All actors do more than speak the words, but he finds the humanity of the part and finds a way of conveying it without speaking. As I’ve already mentioned in a blogpost, in The Tempest he managed by a single action to show how much his Ariel had always resented Prospero for making a slave of him, his emotionless façade there to protect himself. Lear’s probably the most ambiguous of characters – a difficult man to like, but whose suffering and fall demand our sympathy (or should). He’s the only Konstantin I’ve ever seen who didn’t come across as just a spoiled brat. I’ve seen and heard lots of actors delivering the “What a piece of work is a man” speech in Hamlet, but when he delivered it, it felt to me like a cry from the heart.

I’m sorry to have missed most of his recent work onstage, but he’s been on TV presenting Sacred Music, a series about choral music (he was a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral).

Over the August Bank Holiday weekend in 2019 he could be heard in the reading of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, adapted by Timberlake Wertenbaker into ten hours of radio. Along with Simon Russell Beale they recruited an amazing cast including Derek Jacobi, Sylvestra le Touzel, Paterson Joseph and Frances Barber. It’s a book that is best known for being exceptionally long, and it’s certainly an achievement to get through the whole thing. I had to admit defeat when I tried reading the books several decades ago, so I hoped that listening would make up for it. But then the Bank Holiday weekend turned out to be gorgeously warm and sunny, so I, and I suspect many others, spent it outdoors. The good news is, though, that we can enjoy it as the evenings draw in.

Here are a couple of links, too, to him being interviewed by Melvyn Bragg about King Lear and him delivering a few short bits of Shakespeare to camera.

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Shakespeare and the moon

Astronaut on the moon, 1969

It’s fifty years since the first moon landing in July 1969, and most people who were alive at the time must have memories of it. My father woke me up to watch Neil Armstrong become the first human ever to tread on the surface of the moon, and I remember the capsule returning to earth. Later we went to London to see samples of moon-rock displayed in a glass case in a museum. It was hard to relate the dull fragments of rock to the glamorous Apollo missions and the beauty of the moon itself. My other strong memory though is of gazing at the moon while the astronauts were there. How would their expedition change how we felt about our moon?

The beautiful, mysterious moon has always fascinated us. Its link to the tides has been known for centuries, and the phases of the moon were thought to influence other aspects of life on earth such as the growth of plants. Some thought that weeds should be pulled up at the moon’s wane and apple trees pruned as it was waxing or increasing. Thomas Hill believed in gardening by the moon: in The Gardener’s Labyrinth(1652), he notes that herbs like rocket, parsley and oregano should be sown as the moon is increasing, and new strawberry plants should be set as it waned. It was supposed to influence the weather: Thomas Tusser in 1580 wrote a little rhyme about it:

Moon changed, keeps closet three days as a Queen,
Ere she in her prime will of any be seen:
If great she appeareth, it showereth out,
If small she appeareth, it signifieth drought.

Shakespeare, as a countryman, must have heard all these superstitions, but we can’t know if he believed any of them. In King Lear Edmund dismisses his father’s worries about the power of lunar eclipses to affect events on earth, but in Richard II the Welsh Captain believes what is prophesied by disturbances in the skies:

The bay-trees in our country are all withered,
And meteors fright the fixed stars of heaven,
The pale-faced moon looks bloody on the earth,
And lean-looked prophets whisper fearful change…
These signs forerun the death or fall of kings.

Drawn by Thomas Harriot in c1611, shows a map of the surface of the moon. Petworth Estate & Lord Egremont PHA HMC 241/9

I wonder how much Shakespeare actually knew about the moon. During his lifetime one of the many advances in science was the invention of the telescope in 1608 by German/Dutch Hans Lippershey. Galileo quickly adopted his ideas and improved them, building a telescope with which he could examine the moon and planets of the solar system. This knowledge quickly made its way to England: in 1611 Thomas Harriot drew this map of the moon’s surface, a document now in the Petworth Estate’s archives.

Shakespeare would surely have been interested to see this map, though his own references to the moon are for dramatic effect, particularly in the play most closely associated with the moon and its influence, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare seems to be determined to throw in as many references to the moon as he can and to remind us of our many, conflicting views of it. It’s a symbol of love, of madness, of chastity, to be feared or laughed at.

We’re told right at the start of the play that the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta is to take place on the day of the new moon, connecting the event with this serious ritual. And Theseus then speaks some of Shakespeare’s most romantic lines:

Starveling from the Austrian Burgtheater production in 2007

Four days will quickly steep themselves in night;
Four nights will quickly dream away the time:
And then the moon – like to a silver bow
New-bent in heaven – shall behold the night
Of our solemnities.

Hermia’s punishment for defying her father may be to face a life of chastity, “chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon”. The moon is also a source of comedy, appearing in human form in the play Pyramus and Thisbe. For the literal-minded mechanicals the fact that Pyramus and Thisbe met by moonlight demands it. “This lanthorn doth the horned moon present;/Myself the man i’th’moon do seem to be”.  Poor Starveling, as the moon, is a figure of fun to his audience who constantly interrupt him as he tries to get his lines out.

Then at the close of the play Puck, a figure derived from English folklore, reminds us that the moon could also be dangerous.

Now the hungry lion roars
And the wolf behowls the moon,
Whilst the heavy ploughman snores
All with weary task foredone.

Shakespeare understood the complexity of our relationship to our mysterious moon. It’s become no simpler since men have stood on its surface. We still stare and wonder at its beauty, just as people have done for millennia.


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Sam Wanamaker’s centenary

Sam Wanamaker

14 June 2019 is the centenary of the birth of an unlikely hero of the British theatre, Sam Wanamaker. Most closely associated with Shakespeare’s Globe, which was built largely because of the force of his personality, Wanamaker was also a well-known actor, in the UK performing Iago to the Othello of Paul Robeson in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1959. In his native USA he was also a political activist. It’s for his work at the Globe, though, that he is best remembered, and a few years ago the indoor theatre at the Globe was named after him. He died before his dream of reconstructing the Globe theatre became a reality but the building, and its enormous success, are down to his passion and commitment. 

I’ve written a couple of blog posts about the man which discuss his life and achievements. This one here about the building of the Sam Wanamaker theatre, and this one on his life as a whole. Shakespeare’s Globe, too, have been celebrating his achievements and have created this podcast in honour of the anniversary.

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The John Webster #websterthon


Title page of The Duchess of Malfi quarto

In June 2019 the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon, is celebrating another of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, John Webster, in the seventh of their marathon playreadings. Webster’s canon is too compact for the three weeks of the event, and this year they are including plays that are known to have influenced the playwright. In order to track these influences, they are reading them in reverse chronological order: with Webster’s words fresh in their minds they will pick up references from earlier works as they appear. Martin Wiggins, who masterminds these events, describes it as “the literary equivalent of searching for the source of the Nile by navigating upstream”. The readings begin on 10 June and full information, including a timetable, can be found here.

The findings of these readings will contribute to Dr Helen Moore’s work on a new biography of Webster. A brief biography is on the British Library’s website.

Webster’s best-known works are the two Jacobean tragedies The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi. Both are set in Italy, a den of corruption and deception. The Roman scenes, and the character of Iachimo in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, remind me of the settings and characters of Webster’s plays, but unlike Shakespeare, humour, even black humour, is hard to find in his plays.

T S Eliot remarked on Webster’s love of the gruesome in his poem Whispers of Immortality:

Webster was much possessed by death
And saw the skull beneath the skin;
And breastless creatures under ground
Leaned backward with a lipless grin.  

Daffodil bulbs instead of balls
Stared from the sockets of the eyes!
He knew that thought clings round dead limbs
Tightening its lusts and luxuries. 

Joan Iyiola as the Duchess in The Duchess of Malfi, RSC, Swan 2018

At the RSC’s recent production of The Duchess of Malfi I did what I have almost never done in my theatregoing life – I left at the interval. This was not a judgement on the production but I was overwhelmed by the sense of claustrophobia and impending violence that had been signalled from the very beginning of the play.  I walked out of what felt like a slaughterhouse into the open air of Shakespeare’s Stratford with a huge sense of relief.

Webster’s first great solo work was The White Devil. He had spent much of his literary life collaborating with other writers, and had struggled to complete it. It was not well received on its first staging but Webster was not prepared to give up on the play, getting it published so it could be read by educated people. He wrote a long and rather endearing explanation To The Reader, that tells us quite a lot about the theatrical world as well as Webster himself.

He excuses the play’s failure at the Red Bull Theatre, blaming the weather “it was acted in so dull a time of winter”, the theatre “ in so open and black a theatre”, and the audience “most of the people that come to that playhouse resemble …ignorant asses” and suggests that even if the audience included many informed people, “the breath that comes from the uncapable multitude is able to poison it”.

Having insulted most of the audience, Webster apologises for writing slowly “I do not write with a goose-quill winged with two feathers” and continues to insult faster writers by implying their work will “only be read for three days, whereas mine shall continue three ages”.

His warmest words are reserved for his fellow-writers, some of whom had been his collaborators: “the full and heightened style of Mr Chapman, the laboured and understanding works of Mr Jonson, the …worthily excellent Mr Beaumont and Mr Fletcher and…the right happy and copious industry of Mr Shakespeare, Mr Dekker and Mr Heywood”.

John Webster from the film Shakespeare in Love

Around 15 years younger than Shakespeare, Webster must have been familiar with Shakespeare’s plays, and the two men probably knew each other. Their meeting shown in the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love is pure fiction, but the image of the young Webster tormenting a mouse by dangling it in front of a cat is inspired. He tells Shakespeare “When I write plays they will be like Titus [Andronicus]…I liked it when they cut heads off….Plenty of blood. That’s the only writing”. Fortunately for all of us Shakespeare did not agree, but Webster shouldn’t be dismissed as being interested in only mindless violence.  He was a powerful writer of striking poetry and prose, a unique voice that reflected the turbulent times in which he lived.

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