Thomas Platter’s visit to Shakespeare’s theatre

The reconstructed Shakespeare's Globe

The reconstructed Shakespeare’s Globe

On 21 September 1599 a Swiss tourist, Thomas Platter, visiting London, went to the newly-opened Globe Theatre to see a play. As it happened, he saw Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The occasion made quite an impression on him, so much so that he wrote a long description. This is a translation.
On September 21st after lunch, about two o’clock, I and my party crossed the water, and there in the house with the thatched roof witnessed an excellent performance of the tragedy of the first Emperor Julius Caesar, with a cast of some fifteen people; when the play was over they danced very marvellously and gracefully together as is their wont, two dressed as men and two as women…

Thus daily at two in the afternoon, London has sometimes three plays running in different places, competing with each other, and those which play best obtain most spectators.

The playhouses are so constructed that they play on a raised platform, so that everyone has a good view. There are different galleries and places, however, where the seating is better and more comfortable and therefore more expensive. For whoever cares to stand below only pays one English penny, but if he wishes to sit he enters by another door, and pays another penny, while if he desires to sit in the most comfortable seats which are cushioned, where he not only sees everything well, but can also be seen, then he pays yet another English penny at another door. And during the performance food and drink are carried round the audience, so that for what one cares to pay one may also have refreshment.

The actors are most expensively costumed for it is the English usage for eminent Lords or Knights at their decease to bequeath and leave almost the best of their clothes to their serving men, which it is unseemly for the latter to wear, so that they offer them for sale for a small sum of money to the actors.

This is one of only a handful of accounts of what it was like to attend the theatre. From it theatre historians have drawn many conclusions about playhouses in Elizabethan England, and about the experience of the audience. It’s something of a miracle that this information has survived, but it began with Thomas Platter taking the trouble to write down his memories of the experience.

I’m interested in recording members of the audience to build up an archive about the modern experience of seeing Shakespeare in the theatre. You can find more information on the Listening to the Audience page.

This post was originally published in September 2012

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Shakespeare and Education

Shakespeare at Play app

Shakespeare at Play app

Recently the Huffington Post published an article written by a teenager about how Shakespeare should be taught, specifically to ten-year olds. She remembered her own experience “when I moved up to secondary school I was thrown into the deep end; baffled with sentences that didn’t make sense, characters who moaned endlessly at an empty, starless nights, and story lines that concluded with every character dying at the end.” At fourteen “the way I was introduced to Shakespeare was not dry, boring or strenuous; I was helped along the way using a variety of methods: from hands-on active engagement, to learning monologues off by heart.”

Alix Long, the author of the piece, goes on: “Maybe it is not the actual language in Shakespeare’s plays that makes it hard for children to be interested in the story. Perhaps it is the way that we teach Shakespeare that causes the confusion, the difficulty, the anxiety”.

She examines several approaches that can be seen to work. Brendan Kelso’s books Playing With Plays “aim to amuse, inspire and actively engage children and adults alike”, using humour, energetic language and some of Shakespeare’s original words.  Ian Campbell, working at the Shakespeare by the Sea Festival in Canada put on a Shakespeare production specially for kids, for free, getting a terrific response from the children. And Debra Williamson takes Shakespeare back into the classroom, using resources that help introduce young children to Shakespeare. “I think your question to me really is the answer….you have to know your students, and within that group, find material that interests and engages them. My students loved choosing their own plays, creating their costumes, and feeling free…to showcase their … newfound love of Shakespeare.”

An Elizabethan hornbook, an early teaching aid

An Elizabethan hornbook, an early teaching aid

Enjoyment plus learning is always a successful combination. As Tranio suggests to his master in The Taming of the Shrew “No profit grows where is no pleasure ta’en:/ In brief, sir, study what you most affect”.

Alix Long concludes: “I think those words can speak for themselves. If only we can eradicate the idioms ‘hard’, ‘confusing’ and ‘difficult’ from the language of students studying Shakespeare, then we can really start to change the way Shakespeare is taught, appreciated and understood by children, teenagers and adults in schools and wider society.”

Now she’s not saying anything particularly new, but it’s interesting that a teenager is already concerned enough to try to find an answer to the issue of why Shakespeare, which seems to be appreciated so readily by children, is still so badly taught.

Even though she has probably been exposed to digital media from an early age, she does not consider any method of engaging with Shakespeare that uses computers, smartphones, digital cameras or tablets. I’ve just been sent details of an app, Shakespeare at Play, that aims to bring people Shakespeare’s plays as they are meant to be experienced. Through the app the user watches a video of every scene, staged simply, simultaneously reading the text. It’s a simple idea using technology to help those who struggle with the words alone, and there are sample on the website.

shakespeare and the digital worldThe newly published book Shakespeare and the Digital World is much concerned with education, whether it’s teachers and students, publication or theatre companies trying to engage with audiences. The section of the book looking specifically at education examines work being carried out at undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

Sheila Cavanagh and Kevin Quarmby have undertaken a transatlantic experiment. “Captivated by the idea of offering students in…class the opportunity to offer practitioner-based text and theatre exercises through videoconferencing, these instructors set up jointly-led classroom sessions, with Quarmby interacting with Cavanagh’s…undergraduates from his office in London.” Students entered into a kind of rehearsal situation in which they work through a scene with Quarmby via Skype, with sometimes unexpected results.

Erin Sullivan writes about the attempts that have been made at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford to “align” online teaching for distance learners with that for those actually there. “Some of the best things about our community are decidedly analogue – impromptu research conversations in the garden, weekly play-readings of lesser-known Renaissance plays and seminars on Shakespeare’s life and works”. Reading and lectures are easily adapted, but seminars are difficult to replicate. Written conversations have been tried, but without the unselfconscious spontaneity of a group discussion “there is more premeditation, planning and single-mindedness in their answers”.

This is no bad thing in itself: in his essay Pete Kirwan considers the value of blogging  “as a means of enabling self-reflection, critical awareness and intellectual independence among students”. The solitary activity of blogging, then, has its place, but is only one element of the educational experience.

Shakespeare and the Digital World doesn’t set out to solve the problem of introducing Shakespeare to ten-year olds, but the analytical thinking, asking as Erin Sullivan does questions about the kinds of knowledge they want to help students acquire, how to develop this knowledge, and how to show it has been done, can be applied at any level.

Shakespeare and his World MOOC

Shakespeare and his World MOOC

Finally on the subject of education, the University of Warwick’s Massive Open Online Course Shakespeare and his World is to be re-run from 29 September 2014. I took it first time round and found it enjoyable, engaging and informative and I’d recommend it for any life-long learners wanting a different approach to the subject.

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Robert Bell Wheler, “the historian of Stratford”

Wheler's 1814 Guide to Stratford

Wheler’s 1814 Guide to Stratford

2014 is being celebrated as the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, but in Stratford there is also another significant anniversary this year. It is just 200 years since Robert Bell Wheler published his Guide to Stratford-upon-Avon. Aged 21, Wheler had already, in 1806, written another book on the town, his History and Antiquities of Stratford-upon-Avon, comprising a Description of the Collegiate Church, the Life of Shakespeare, and Copies of several documents relating to him and his Family, never before printed. The guide was abridged from the earlier book with the addition of extra material and both were printed locally, by J Ward. They are both important as they contain, as the title page of the History suggests, transcripts of documents not at the time generally known, Wheler and fellow-antiquarian Captain James Saunders having been allowed access to the records of the town.

The map of Stratford from Wheler's 1814 Guide

The map of Stratford from Wheler’s 1814 Guide

The History also contains eight engravings of views of the town, biographical sketches of other “eminent characters”, and an account of the Garrick Jubilee from 1769. The Guide contains a map of the town, though one had been published several decades earlier, and enhanced biographical material as well as an additional chapter on “Shakespeare’s Ring”, which had been found near the church in 1810 and had been immediately acquired by Wheler “I purchased it upon the same day for thirty-six shillings, (the current value of the gold)”.

His chapters cover most of the sights included in modern guide books: a historical account of the town, the Birthplace, New Place, the Guild Chapel, the Church. Some buildings are known by a different name now (Shakespeare’s Hall is the Town Hall), and some, like the College, have been pulled down, their existence now only remembered in street names (College Street and College Lane are both near the Church and the College itself was situated very roughly where the Parish Hall is today). There is, quite rightly, a section on the Great Stone Bridge (Clopton Bridge), though I doubt if anybody would give two pages to the footbridge now known as Lucy’s Mill Bridge, which he calls simply Mill Bridge.

Here is Wheler’s account of the geographical location of the town:
Stratford is pleasantly situated upon the south-west border of the county of Warwick, on a gentle ascent from the banks of the Avon; which derives its source from a spring called Avon Well, in the village of Naseby, in Northamptonshire; and continuing its meandering course in a South-west direction approaches Stratford in a broad and proudly swelling stream, unequaled in any other part of this beautiful river. The name of Stratford is undoubtedly derived from its situation on the Great North road leading from London to Birmingham, Shrewsbury, and Holyhead; straete or stret, signifying in the Saxon language a street or highway; and the word ford, alluding to the passage through the Avon parallel with the great bridge.

Robert Bell Wheler was born and lived all his at the home of his father, Robert Wheler who died in 1819. With him lived his sisters Anne and Elizabeth, none of whom married. He went to the local grammar school and was articled to his father, a solicitor. Becoming a solicitor himself gave him the knowledge to examine and understand the documents relating to the history of the town. He seems hardly ever to have left Stratford except in 1812 when he was obliged to spend a month in London for his formal admission as a solicitor.

Shakespearean research, though, was Wheler’s passion. His Guide to Stratford contained, as well as information about places, biographies of both Shakespeare and his illustrious son-in-law, Doctor John Hall. He contributed articles on Shakespearian subjects to the Gentleman’s Magazine, and corresponded frequently with the influential London antiquary John Britton. Much of his correspondence, as well as other manuscript material still exists at the Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive where they are a major source of information about the history of the town. He was secretary to the committee organising the 1816 celebrations marking the bicentenary of Shakespeare’s death, and was involved in the drive from 1820-23 to raise money for a mausoleum to be erected to the memory of Shakespeare, which eventually came to nothing.

The Wheler family grave

The Wheler family grave

After Wheler’s death on 15 July 1857 he was buried beside his father in the Churchyard of Holy Trinity. Buried in the same double grave are his two sisters, Elizabeth who died in 1852 and Anne who died in 1870. This grave is prominently positioned just to the left as you enter the graveyard: from the gravestones the house in which they all lived in Old Town can  be seen. As historians and solicitors father and son must have given much thought to their own ends.

When I was researching the American windows in Holy Trinity Church I was surprised to find that there is a window dedicated to Wheler which is positioned, appropriately, almost opposite the monument to Shakespeare.

The window in Holy Trinity Church dedicated to Robert Bell Wheler

The window in Holy Trinity Church dedicated to Robert Bell Wheler

They are the four upper lights in the second window from the east end, and they depict the raising of Jairus’s daughter. The brass plaque below the window reads: “The above four compartments of this window were enriched by stained glass in memory of Robert Bell Wheler the historian of Stratford who deceased 1857 aged 72 years”.


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Simon Forman, Shakespeare and the stage

12 September is the anniversary of the death of the colourful astrologer-cum-physician Simon Forman – or perhaps it was 11 September, or even 5 September, accounts vary.  Whichever is correct, Forman was a well-known, even notorious figure in Shakespeare’s London, said to be the inspiration for Ben Jonson’s play The Alchemist, and a great example of the vibrancy of English life.

Simon Forman was born in 1552 in a hamlet outside Salisbury. Following a grammar school education he attempted to study at Oxford but was forced to cut short his formal education due to lack of money. He did most of his studying while working as a teacher. He was found with magical books and imprisoned, but despite his lack of training in 1592 he still managed to set himself up as an astrologer and physician in London. His casebooks, now at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, give details of 10,000 consultations. They show that he dealt with a wide range of matters, and began each consultation with an astrological reading. One common question was whether a man or his wife would die first. There’s a transcript of Forman’s formula for working this out here

Here’s an example using a fictional couple:

Mary & Jhone being man & wife which shall die first. Mary the number of her letters are 4 & the number of the letters of Jhone are 5 & Jhone is the elder & she was a mayd & he a bacheler & neyther of them was contracted to any other before, & the number of boath of the names being added togeather make 9 then because Jhone is the elder I begin with Jhone & say Jhone mary Jhone mary 9 times & the number doth end on Jhone. Therfore dico quod Jhoanna prius morietur.

The Casebook Project is currently under way to digitise and transcribe Forman’s casebooks as well as those of his follower Richard Napier, aiming to  make available a huge amount of information about the preoccupations and beliefs of the people who consulted these men. Here’s a link to an article by expert Lauren Kassell about Forman and the project.

The Royal College of Physicians fined Forman for practising medicine without a licence, and in 1601 they complained that he was the worst of the “unlearned and unlawful practitioners, lurking in many corners of the City”. We’d find the methods of most of the scientists of this period hard to take seriously today. Queen Elizabeth’s astrologer, John Dee, was a famous, learned and highly regarded mathematician, but was better known for practising alchemy and being associated with the occult. Even the highly-regarded physician John Hall, Shakespeare’s son in law, prescribed alarming-sounding remedies to his patients.


The unicorn from Topsell

It wasn’t just the workings of the human body that fascinated the Elizabethans and Jacobeans. They strove to document and explain the world around them, but were defeated by the complexity of the world that was opening up to them. Myth and fact sat side by side: Topsell’s 1607 History of Four-Footed Beasts contains information about domesticated animals like horses and goats as well as the mythical unicorn.

Forman was a compulsive record keeper, describing performances he attended at the theatre. He went to see Macbeth, and was impressed by the medical and magical elements of the play, especially the presence of a doctor making notes of Lady Macbeth’s words as she sleep-walked. You can find the full description here , but this is an extract:

 In Macbeth at the Globe, 1610, the 20 of April, Saturday, there was to be observed, first, how Macbeth and Banquo, two noble men of Scotland, riding through a wood, there stood before them three women fairies or nymphs, and saluted Macbeth, saying three times unto him, “Hail, Macbeth, King of Codon; for thou shall be a King, but shall beget no kings,” etc. Then said Banquo, “what all to Macbeth, and nothing to me?” “Yes”, said the nymphs, “hail to thee, Banquo, thou shall beget kings, yet be no king”; and so they departed …

And Macbeth…through the persuasion of his wife did that night murder the King in his own castle, being his guest; and there were many prodigies seen that night and the day before. …

Then was Macbeth crowned kings; and then he…contrived the death of Banquo…. The next night…the ghost of Banquo came and sat down in his chair behind him. And he…saw the ghost of Banquo, which fronted him so, that he fell into a great passion of fear and fury, uttering many words about his murder, by which, when they heard that Banquo was murdered, they suspected Macbeth. …

Observe also how Macbeth’s queen did rise in the night in her sleep, and walked and talked and confessed all, and the doctor noted her words.

Forman is supposed to have predicted the date of his own death, and it’s somehow appropriate that the exact date and circumstances aren’t clear. The Casebook Project should throw light on many areas of life in Shakespeare’s London.

This post was first published in September 2012

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David Garrick’s Jubilee

The story of Stratford’s rise from being a typical market town into an international tourist destination is often said to start in 1769 when the greatest actor of the day, David Garrick, put on a three-day celebration of Shakespeare. The fact that this happened in Stratford, not London, raised more than a few eyebrows. Garrick had originally been invited to dedicate a statue of Shakespeare for the niche on the new Town Hall. A true showman, he decided to use the opportunity to mount an entertainment on a grand scale in which he would take the starring role.

The new Town Hall was elegant, but not large enough for the kind of show Garrick had in mind. The temporary wooden amphitheatre that he built was designed to seat 1000 with a stage large enough for 100 performers. It was built, as you can see from the picture, near to the River Avon, much too near as it turned out.

Garrick’s Ode was the centrepiece of the whole festival, with musical accompaniment written by the composer Thomas Arne and performed by the entire orchestra and chorus from Drury Lane Theatre London. In Stratford it was received enthusiastically by an audience reported to be 2000 strong despite the torrential rain. The Jubilee itself was not the success Garrick had hoped for, but all was not lost because he took advantage of the interest it raised among the fashionable in London.

Detail of the engraving showing David Garrick speaking the Ode to Shakespeare

He wrote a play, The Jubilee, dramatising the events of the three days. He was able to include the procession of characters from Shakespeare’s plays which had been rained off in Stratford as well as the declaration of the Ode itself. According to Vanessa Cunningham’s book Shakespeare and Garrick the script indicates entrances for 320 individuals, three horses and one dog. This spectacular entertainment was performed 153 times between 1769 and 1776, a record for any London production.

It isn’t quite true that there was no tourist industry in Stratford before the Garrick Jubilee. There is evidence of people visiting places known to Shakespeare right back into the seventeenth century. The Jubilee strengthened the association of the town with Shakespeare and planted the seed of the idea of a prolonged festival in Stratford, eventually culminating in the building of a permanent theatre as a memorial to Shakespeare to which audiences would come from all round the world.

This post was first published in 2011

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Come, here is the map: Mercator at the British Library

The map of the British Isles from Mercator's Map of Europe

The map of the British Isles from Mercator’s Map of Europe

Now available on the British Library’s Online Gallery of Virtual Books is the Mercator Map of Europe. You might assume from the name that it’s an early printed atlas, but this book is far more interesting than that.

It was actually compiled by the great Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator in the 1570s for his patrons, whose son, the crown prince of Cleves, was planning the grand tour of Europe. And this book is a kind of scrapbook, put together with enormous care. Some of the maps are unique, and according to the BL, “the atlas is the most important surviving body of Mercator’s work in a single volume”. Here is a description from the BL’s introduction:
Mercator compiled several maps from copies of wall maps of the British Isles, Europe, and the world that he had available in his workshop. He carefully cut up and pasted parts together to fit the atlas format. He created aesthetically balanced regional maps, removing tables and illustrations that did not wholly fit on the page and making space for customised scale-bars for each of the “new” maps. The process gave him a chance to experiment with the creation of regional maps as a step towards his long-term ambition of producing an atlas. For the rest of the atlas he used hand-drawn maps by himself, an urban map of Ancona in Italy, and numerous maps from an atlas published in 1570 by his friend and rival Abraham Ortelius.

Some of those which he raided for the compilation included his 1569 world map, 1554 map of Europe, and Ortelius’s great Theatrum Orbis Terrarium, 1570. Every page of the book is now available, and online can be enlarged so the astonishing detail can be seen.

Maps feature quite often in Shakespeare’s plays, most crucially for the plot in King Lear where the dividing of the map also symbolises the disintegration of order. Maps are usually reassuringly factual, helping us to make sense of the world, so it’s particularly interesting to see this atlas in which maps are cut to pieces and stuck together. The maps of England are based on two copies of Mercator’s 1554 Europe map, fitted together. The commentary accompanying the English map suggests that although English and Scottish mapmakers were advanced in the sixteenth century, there were no printers to make their maps widely available, so manuscript maps were all that would have been available. In fact maps were guarded by the government, who recognised the dangerous potential of accurate maps to assist invaders.

It is suggested indeed that one of the original maps from 1564 may have been created by the Scottish Catholic Priest and map-maker John Elder, who had a subversive aim, hoping that his accurate maps might help France or Spain to invade England and overthrow the Protestant government. It’s rather reminiscent of the scene in Henry IV Part One where the conspirators, who plan to be joined by Scottish powers, consult a map to see how they might divide England once they have removed the King from the throne.

Map of Italy from Mercator's Map of Europe

Map of Italy from Mercator’s Map of Europe

Elsewhere in the Atlas are a number of maps of Italy, a reminder of its importance to Europe even though it was at the time made up of a number of individual states over which other European powers fought long-term wars. Shakespeare locates many of his stories of passionate love, hate, deception and violence in the Italian cities of Verona, Venice, Rome and Mantua among others.

Mercator’s great atlas is a fascinating object that repays close examination, and is accompanied by both written and audio commentary for each page of maps.

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Shakespeare’s mothers and sons

Hermione (Barbara Robertson) and Mamillius (Zach Gray), Photo by Michael Brosilow, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, 2003.

For Shakespeare’s towards the end of his life, early September must have been a sad time, not just because it signalled the end of summer. Both parents died at this time of year: his father was buried on 8 September 1601, and seven years later, on 9 September 1608, his mother Mary. We know little about Shakespeare’s parents. John came from the little village of Snitterfield where his father rented a farm owned by Mary’s father Robert. He was an ambitious young man, moving into Stratford-upon-Avon, learning to be a skilled glover, and getting himself onto the newly-established local  council. Mary’s family lived in the village of Wilmcote, part of the “ancient and worthy family”, the Ardens. Mary was the youngest of eight sisters, and must have been a capable young woman as she was named as one of the executors of her father’s will as well as being a major beneficiary. John was lucky to catch a woman with an inheritance. The date and place of their marriage is unknown but probably took place during 1557, the year following Mary’s father’s death. There’s no evidence that either was educated, but their country background doesn’t mean they were completely illiterate.

Scientific studies are now proving that the first few years of a child’s life are crucial to their development. In Shakespeare’s time women were responsible for the rearing of young children, and his mother’s influence would have been very important. As John and Mary’s first surviving child, following two sisters who died young, William must have been dearly cherished.

Shakespeare writes several scenes showing young boys and their mothers in a close and affectionate relationship.  In The Winter’s Tale Mamillius begins to tell his mother a story before the cosy scene is broken apart by Hermione’s arrest on suspicion of infidelity.

Hermione        Come sir, …; ‘pray you, sit by us,
                          And tell’s a tale.
Mamillius        Merry, or sad, shall’t be?
Hermione                                    As merry as you will.
Mamillius        A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one
                        Of sprites and goblins.
Hermione                                            Let’s have that, good sir.
                        Come on, sit down, come on, and do your best
                        To fright me with your sprites: you’re powerful at it.
Mamillius        There was a man –
Hermione                                            Nay, come sit down: then on.
Mamillius        Dwelt by a churchyard; I will tell it softly,
                        Yond crickets shall not hear it.
Hermione                                            Come on then,
                        And giv’t me in mine ear.


Engraving of Constance and Arthur in King John

Many of the children in Shakespeare’s plays are parted from their mothers by death or politics, the separation made more poignant by the distress of their mothers. In King John, Constance’s son Prince Arthur has been taken away from her:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child.
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then have I reason to be fond of grief? …
O Lord! My boy, my Arthur, my fair son!
My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!

Richard III’s greatest crime is the killing of the little princes in the Tower of London. This event is the catalyst that unites three women, not natural allies, in cursing the man responsible for many deaths. A series of ritual incantations express their rawness of emotion, and can be one of the most powerful moments in the play.

Shakespeare knew what it felt like to lose a child, both from observing his own mother when as a 15-year old boy his 7-year old sister Ann, died, and from his own experience of losing his son Hamnet in 1596, aged only 11.

This post was first published in September 2011

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The Two Gentlemen of Verona meet Shakespeare in Love

The RSC's 2014 production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona

The RSC’s 2014 production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona

On 3 September 2014 the RSC’s production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona is to be broadcast Live from Stratford-upon-Avon to cinemas. I’ve written before about the way this enables people who would never have the chance to see plays in a theatre to get something like the live experience. The Two Gents is a particularly good example, because it’s a play rarely performed on stage. There have been three RSC productions in the Swan Theatre, one of which, in 1991, was particularly successful, and a cut-down version was performed in the RST in 1981, but it was last given a full production on the main stage back in 1970. The current production has received terrific reviews, and greeted with enthusiasm by audiences. The stage version closes on 4 September: with a hit on its hands the RSC must have wondered if they should not have scheduled extra performances.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona is possibly Shakespeare’s first play, and I agree with Charles Spencer, writing in the Daily Telegraph, that part of its fascination is that ” it contains the seeds of so much that he wrote later.” “This is the first of his plays in which the heroine disguises herself as a boy to go in search of her beloved, the first in which the characters find themselves in all kinds of trouble in a wood, the first in which love and youth triumph over the opposition of hidebound and obstructive parents.”

In that sentence alone we’re reminded of Twelfth Night, As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet, as well as the much later play Cymbeline in which Shakespeare revisited some of the same ideas.

Silvia in the RSC's 2014 production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Silvia in the RSC’s 2014 production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Spencer also notes “It all works a treat in Simon Godwin’s production, niftily designed by Paul Wills and set in modern Italy, with a dolce vita buzz of scooters, nightclubs and open air cafés. ” Well yes it does, but I’m surprised that the reviewers seem happy to accept Godwin’s view of the play as a bit of a romp. I certainly missed the poignancy of Julia’s dilemma, forced to go between her own lover and the lady with whom he is now in love. I was pleased, though, when Silvia was released from her distractingly glamorous designer outfits to rail at Proteus in pyjamas and finally an outfit she might have gone running in. I thought I heard an echo of another early Shakespeare play, which I’ve never noticed before. In Richard III, Clarence dreams of being accused: “Clarence is come: false, fleeting, perjur’d Clarence,… Seize on him Furies! Take him unto torment”.

In Two Gents, Silvia addresses Proteus in an encounter that reminded me, though mildly, of the scene in which Richard III woos Lady Anne:
Thou subtle, perjured, false, disloyal man!
Think’st though I am so shallow, so conceitless,
To be seduced by thy flattery,
That hast deceived so many with thy vows?

A scene from Shakespeare in Love, 2014

A scene from Shakespeare in Love, 2014

Only a week or so before seeing the RSC’s Two Gents, I’d enjoyed the West End version of Shakespeare in Love. It is of course The Two Gentlemen of Verona that Viola has seen and so completely fallen for. It contains several passages about love, one of which is probably the first such declaration Shakespeare wrote. In the play, Viola has learned it, and performs it for the benefit of members of the household.

In Shakespeare’s play, Valentine, Silvia’s true lover, is banished from her:
What light is light, if Silvia be not seen?
What joy is joy, if Silvia be not by?
Unless it be to think that she is by
And feed upon the shadow of perfection.
Except I be by Silvia in the night,
There is no music in the nightingale;
Unless I look on Silvia in the day,
There is no day for me to look upon;
She is my essence, and I leave to be,
If I be not by her fair influence
Foster’d, illumined, cherish’d, kept alive.

I’m always surprised that this beautiful passage is so rarely quoted in anthologies or spoken in recitals. Perhaps for obvious reasons it’s one of my favourite Shakespeare speeches, while the well-known song “Who is Silvia”, dreamt up by her other suitors Proteus and Thurio, is nothing like so good.

To hear both, get down to your local cinema on the 3rd September. And to get you in the mood for the opening, buy an ice cream on the way in: only a lucky few in the theatre each night are offered a free sample of gelato.

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Mary Anderson, an American actress abroad

Mary Anderson as Rosalind

Mary Anderson as Rosalind

On the 29th August 1885 a special performance took place at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. The famous Mary Anderson and her Company staged As You Like It as a Benefit for the Shakespeare Memorial Fund.

Although her name is now almost forgotten, Mary Anderson was a young actress who had caused a sensation both in her native USA and in England, and demand for tickets was high. The benefit performance raised £100 that paid for two of the three terracotta panels representing Comedy, History and Tragedy facing the theatre from Chapel Lane. The new Library and Picture Gallery wing of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre was to be beautified with these panels.

The terracotta panel of Mary Anderson playing Rosalind

The terracotta panel of Mary Anderson playing Rosalind

The two she paid for showed, appropriately, Mary Anderson herself playing Rosalind, and the graveyard scene in Hamlet, while the History scene, from King John, was paid for by the architect of the building, W F Unsworth. All three panels were made by German sculptor Paul Kummer. They are beautifully detailed, much finer than those on the Old Bank, for instance, but currently covered in netting to prevent the attentions of pigeons, are difficult to see. On the As You Like It panel is shown the tree on which the love-lorn Orlando has been carving Rosalind’s name.

Mary Anderson as Juliet

Mary Anderson as Juliet

Mary Anderson was born in California in 1859 and took up a theatrical career at the tender age of 16 with a performance as Juliet in Louisville, Kentucky. In spite of having barely any training in acting she became an instant success, with a melodic voice and as the photographs show she was a great beauty. She went on tour in this role and in 1877 also took on Lady Macbeth.  Her success continued and she travelled to Europe in 1879, and again in 1883-5 when she undertook the role of Rosalind which she performed in Stratford-upon-Avon. Her Orlando was Johnston Forbes-Robertson, who was later, at London’s Lyceum Theatre, to become one of the finest of Hamlets, with a beautiful voice and exquisite elocution.

Mary Anderson as Hermione

Mary Anderson as Hermione

In 1887 she was back in the UK again, with The Winter’s Tale. In an innovation that has since been repeated a number of times she doubled the roles of Hermione and her lost daughter Perdita, while Forbes-Robertson played Leontes.  The production was successful artistically, but it was also seen as a vehicle for the celebrity actress. For their first performance, on April 23, Shakespeare’s Birthday, it was reported that “Three thousand persons…filled the Theatre Royal, Nottingham, from floor to ceiling”. The production had an amazing run of 164 performances, and was taken back to the USA. Here she took it on tour until in March 1889 she collapsed during a performance in Washington, DC suffering from nervous exhaustion.

After just fourteen glittering years, and at the age of 30, Mary Anderson announced her retirement from the stage.  The following year, 1890, she married Antonio Fernando de Navarro, an American sportsman, and they settled at Court Farm, in the beautiful Cotswold village of Broadway in Worcestershire, only a few miles from Stratford-upon-Avon. Although from then on she rarely appeared in public, she did take part in some special performances during World War 1. In Stratford she was persuaded to come out of retirement for two star-studded special performances on 5 and 6 May 1916 for the Tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death.

These special events were compilations of great scenes from Shakespeare’s plays, and Anderson played Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene. On 5 May, the first and grander of the two shows, the Doctor was played by Ben Greet, who had also brought his company to Stratford in the early years and was by 1916 the director of the Old Vic in London. After her retirement she published two volumes of autobiography, A Few Memories (1896) and A Few More Memories (1936). In 1940, aged 80, she died in Broadway, fifty years after she had given up the stage.

The terracotta panel, showing her, dressed as Ganymede in a forest scene in As You Like It, is a lovely, if much-overlooked reminder of Mary Anderson’s glittering career.

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Keeping Shakespeare’s spirit alive at New Place, his final home

Part of New Place Garden

Part of New Place Garden

In August 2014 a further consultation is taking place on the future of New Place, Shakespeare’s last home, the final public consultation day being 30 August. Since the first consultation last year, I’ve spent a lot of time reading about how we in Stratford have celebrated Shakespeare’s life and works.

New Place itself has an interesting history. The original house was built towards the end of the 1400s, being purchased by Shakespeare around a hundred years later in 1597, though it’s thought he moved into it much later, perhaps as late at 1610. It had been built by the Clopton family who acquired it again towards the end of the 1600s and rebuilt it around 1702. It was this second house that was demolished by Rev Gastrell in 1759. The only thing we know for sure about Shakespeare’s occupation of New Place is that he died there.

Reading up about the history of Shakespeare celebrations I found documents written in 1861 when the whole site was acquired by J O Halliwell, who saw it as his role to save it. He “made [it] over in trust to the Corporation of Stratford-on-Avon, on the condition that the Gardens of the great National Poet shall never be built upon, and that the public shall for ever have free access”. Another document repeats that it is “for the free use of the public for ever…and that no building should ever be erected on it”. Halliwell’s intention that the Corporation would take over the site stalled, but when in 1876 the property was formally made over to the Trustees of Shakespeare’s Birthplace his hopes must have been the same.

The foundations of New Place

The foundations of New Place

The next year the Trustees issued a series of regulations regarding admission to the house and gardens, allowing paying visitors to the house access to the gardens, with the public having free access to the gardens on Saturdays through the Chapel Lane gates. Householders could pay 5s (25p) a year, ten times the cost of a visitor’s ticket, for a key. This system must have been a nightmare to administer, but wasn’t uncommon for people to pay for access to gardens: 1n 1933, before  the Gower Memorial was moved  to its current public spot, people were charged a shilling (5p) to view it, a cause of local resentment.

The foundations of New Place and its gardens, especially including the Great Garden, have been seen for many years as the place in which the spirit of Shakespeare lives on. There is nothing to distract the visitor in the gardens, which are beautiful in an old-fashioned, relaxed English style, with clipped hedges, old trees, flower beds and the ornamental Knot Garden. Only the Knot Garden has a formal air, plants confined within their allotted spaces surrounded by low box hedging, full of colour in the summer.

The Knot garden, looking towards the Guild Chapel and Falcon Hotel

The Knot garden, looking towards the Guild Chapel and Falcon Hotel

In 1927 the young writer J B Priestley visited Stratford. Here is an extract from the essay, Seeing Stratford, which he wrote as a result.
And there was one moment, the other afternoon, when I really did feel I was treading upon his own ground. It was when we were in the gardens of New Place, very brave in the spring sunlight. You could have played the outdoor scene of Twelfth Night in them without disturbing a leaf… The little Knott Garden alone was worth the journey and nearer to Shakespeare than all the documents and chairs and monuments…I remember that when we left that garden to see the place where Shakespeare was buried, it didn’t seem to matter much. Why should it when we had just seen the place where he was still alive?

Having looked at the plans it seems to me that the best way of preserving Shakespeare’s spirit at New Place is to keep it natural, remembering that Shakespeare loved gardens, flowers and plants. After years of working in the noise of London he chose to come back to the small country town. Opening up the existing garden gates to allow free access to people during the property’s opening hours would be a great act of generosity for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust,  providing a haven of peace in what is itself nowadays a very busy town. For visitors from abroad, and even from our own cities, it’s the lawns, flower beds, trees and birdsong that are unusual, and the beautiful River Avon, better than any artificial water feature, is only yards away.

So I would say honour the intentions of J O Halliwell, to whom we owe the preservation of the site and give the Great Garden back to everybody. Vandalism has been said to be an issue, but could surely be solved by better supervision. Remember the words of  J B Priestley, and tread softly in this special place full of echoes of the past and overlooked by buildings imbued with centuries of history.

If you wish to take part in the consultation, go to Stratford’s ArtsHouse (Civic Hall) on Saturday 30 August from 11-2, or look at the website.

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