Reinterpreting Shakespeare – again

Macbeth RSC Antony Sher Harriet Walter

Macbeth RSC
Antony Sher Harriet Walter

In 2013 Downton Abbey author Julian Fellowes was hauled over the coals for his film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, in which he rewrote large chunks of Shakespeare’s famous and much-loved play. His explanation just got him into more trouble: “When people say we should have filmed the original, I don’t attack them for that point of view, but to see the original in its absolutely unchanged form, you require a kind of Shakespearean scholarship, and you need to understand the language and analyse it and so on. I can do that because I had a very expensive education; I went to Cambridge. Not everyone did that, and there are plenty of perfectly intelligent people out there who have not been trained in Shakespeare’s language choices.”

This comment has been given more publicity again recently, and was challenged as “nonsense” by Antony Sher in his recent BBC4 interview with Gregory Doran by Sue MacGregor.

‘I never went to university but my job as a Shakespeare actor – and I have done a lot of them now – is to work hard on conveying the meaning…It’s not a university degree you need, it’s the craft of speaking Shakespeare, which we at the RSC work very hard at.’

The interview includes clips of Sher performing several Shakespeare roles including Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, Macbeth, Falstaff and Titus Andronicus, and is available on the BBC Iplayer until 6 December.

Julian Fellowes has recently retracted his ill-judged, and probably off-the-cuff comments. But the issue of how to introduce young people to Shakespeare continues. The Mail on Sunday repeats comments made by Ian McKellen at the time of the screening of The Dresser: “I don’t think people should bother to read Shakespeare. They should see him in the theatre.” Anthony Hopkins, who also starred in The Dresser, disagreed:  “Read Shakespeare. It’s about getting a knowledge of civilisation, a knowledge of how humans think.”

Last year Helen Mirren suggested “I absolutely believe that children’s first experience of Shakespeare should always be in the theatre with a performance…To see great imaginative acting and direction, costumes and lights … I do believe children should not be allowed to read Shakespeare until they are 15 years old.”

Intermission Youth Theatre

Intermission Youth Theatre

For several years now the RSC have been working on their Stand Up For Shakespeare campaign which aims to get more children involved with Shakespeare for themselves, at a younger age. This campaign tries to address the issue in a structured way, offering teachers training in active approaches to Shakespeare and “for students, the programme involves dynamic ways to learn about Shakespeare in the classroom, artist-led projects and performance opportunities.” It operates with the University of Warwick and includes a Young People’s Shakespeare production, an edited version of one of the plays performed by professional actors that gives students and their families the chance of experiencing Shakespeare live.

Mark Rylance is the latest to have weighed into this disagreement, suggesting that university could be the “worst place” to study the plays, leading to an “intellectual understanding which will dominate, if you’re not careful, the emotional and sensual understanding”. Rylance is now patron of Intermission Youth Theatre which blends Shakespeare’s plays with street slang. He argues that there should be less reverence and more speed, and “the instinctive rhythm of young people brought up surrounded by rap music are much closer to Shakespeare’s original intentions than even the finest actors of recent decades.”

Intermission Youth Theatre are also partnering with the RSC’s Learning Performance Network project, as the London base for their work with schools, communities and theatres across England.

What everyone has in common is the desire to ensure that future generations will value Shakespeare as much as their predecessors have. Shakespeare is robust enough to withstand any number of new interpretations. Shakespeare has after all been a source of other people’s creativity since only a few years after he died. Intermission Youth Theatre will appeal to some young people, and is a worthy experiment, but Rylance gives the impression that taking care of the words, the craft of speaking Shakespeare, is getting in the way of appreciating the plays.

Anna Maxwell Martin and John Heffernan in rehearsal for the Young Vic Macbeth

Anna Maxwell Martin and John Heffernan in rehearsal for the Young Vic Macbeth

At the Young Vic a different sort of theatrical experiment is about to take to the stage: a new production of Macbeth, reimagined by director/choreographer duo Carrie Cracknell and Lucy Guerin. “Dance will weave through the tale of murder and megalomania”, and “Beginning with Shakespeare’s text, the powerful and unsettling choreography weaves its way throughout the story, culminating in an unforgettable final act where words falter and finally give way.”

Leading the cast is John Heffernan, Oppenheimer for the RSC at the Swan earlier in 2015, and an accomplished speaker of Shakespeare’s verse, and Anna Maxwell Martin who played Regan in the National Theatre’s most recent King Lear.

The blending of words and movement should be really effective in Macbeth. The production opens on 26 November and runs until 23 January 2016. It will play at Birmingham Rep from 26-30 January then at HOME, Manchester from 2-6 February.

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Shakespeare and the London critics

Stained glass window of Johnson, at his house in London

Stained glass window of Johnson, at his house in London

There is still time to visit the exhibition at Dr Johnson’s house in London on Shakespeare in the 18th Century before it closes on 28 November. Although it’s primarily about Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare’s works, I was particularly interested in the section on Johnson’s encouragement of women writers.   In 2008 the National Portrait Gallery put on an exhibition on the Bluestocking Circle and their page on the different women who led this movement is still available on their website.

Foremost among these women was Elizabeth Montagu, nicknamed by Johnson the “Queen of the Blues”. Although an intellectual, Montagu managed to remain fashionable and was described by Hester Thrale as “Brilliant in diamonds, solid in judgement, critical in talk”. Her elegant portrait was painted by Joshua Reynolds but has since been lost: mezzotints give a flavour of what it was like.

by and published by John Raphael Smith, after Sir Joshua Reynolds, mezzotint, published 10 April 1776 (1775)

by and published by John Raphael Smith, after Sir Joshua Reynolds, mezzotint, published 10 April 1776 (1775)

Montagu was a great admirer of Shakespeare, and in 1769 (the year of David Garrick’s Jubilee when Shakespeare-worship hit a high) she published her book An Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare compared with the Greek and French Dramatic Poets, with some Remarks upon the Misrepresentations of Mons. de Voltaire. Voltaire was critical of Shakespeare, in particular picking on his for disregarding the classical unities of time place and action as set out by Aristotle and as practiced in contemporary French drama by Racine and Corneille. She rebutted these criticisms, claiming that Shakespeare was the greatest of poets, inherently English, and a champion of English virtues.

Disagreeing with the French has long been an English pastime, and not surprisingly her stout defence was popular. She launched quite an attack on Voltaire, pointing out that in his translation of Julius Caesar into French he had made a number of “miserable mistakes, accusing Voltaire of “attempting to hurt works of genius by the masked battery of an unfair translation”.  More surprising within a few years her book had been translated into French and Montagu found herself in great demand at the Parisian salons when she visited France in 1776.

Montagu was one of the first to write critically about Shakespeare, though her main conclusion, that “Nature and sentiment will pronounce our Shakespear a mighty genius; judgment and taste will confess that, as a writer, he is far from faultless” was not particularly profound.  However it was very early for anyone to write critically about Shakespeare’s plays and all the more remarkable for a woman to do so.

The plays she studied in depth are also probably not those that women might have expected to be interested in: Henry IV, Macbeth, and Julius Caesar. In her judgement, Shakespeare was an original writer who combined comedy and tragedy in a new way. She suggested it was wrong to judge this innovative form of drama by the standards of the past.. She admired Shakespeare’s use of the supernatural and his insights into character, in particular Macbeth who shows “the pangs of fear separate from the fear of punishment”.

When her book was first published the name of the author was not included, but Elizabeth Montagu was a wealthy, well-connected woman and by 1777 she was able to include her name on the title page. By then, sadly, she had fallen out with Samuel Johnson after she had accused him of not praising Shakespeare enough in his 1765 edition. The full text of her book can be read here.

Also mentioned in the exhibition is the writer Charlotte Lennox who in 1753 wrote Shakespeare Illustrated, which, twelve years before Johnson’s edition  traced the origins of the plots of Shakespeare’s plays, and accused Shakespeare of being unoriginal.  Another woman who received the encouragement of Johnson was Elizabeth Carter, much admired by him for her knowledge of the classics and her talent as a translator. Although they didn’t always agree with him, these women all received encouragement from Johnson that helped them make their mark.

Samuel Pepys

Samuel Pepys

As the Johnson exhibition is closing, an exhibition on another great Londoner from the preceding century, Samuel Pepys, opens at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich on 20 November, running until 28 March 2016. Entitled Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution the exhibition will encourage you to “immerse yourself in one of the most vibrant and chaotic periods of our history, witnessed and brilliantly brought to life in the candid, witty and irreverent diary of London’s own Samuel Pepys.”

Pepys had a serious job at the Navy Board, but his diary also records the minutiae of everyday life from 1660-1669: he was a notorious gossip and womanizer. He loved the theatre, where professional actresses appeared on the stage for the first time. Shakespeare-lovers will have read some of the judgements he made on what he saw in the playhouses. Pepys was refreshingly frank, and often didn’t care for Shakespeare’s plays. He thought A Midsummer Night’s Dream “the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life”, Twelfth Night “one of the weakest plays that ever I saw”, and Romeo and Juliet “a play of itself the worst that ever I heard in my life”. In such turbulent times no wonder Pepys thought of the theatre as primarily just entertainment, but he also appreciated the serious side of Shakespeare’s plays: his favourites were Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and The Tempest, each of which he saw several times.

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Shakespeare and the Pre-Raphaelites

Hughes painting Midsummer Eve

Hughes painting Midsummer Eve

In the mid nineteenth-century a group of young artists joined together with the aim of challenging the practices of the Royal Academy, wishing to paint serious subjects using the art of the middle ages and great works of literature as inspiration. Their intention was to be faithful to nature and to paint outdoors. They called themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and Shakespeare’s plays offered ideal subject matter. Not only does Shakespeare describe beautiful natural scenes, but he writes scenes which of emotional and moral complexity. The initial group included names that became famous: John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt. Just a few years after the group founded in 1848 it began to evolve, with some members finding new directions to go in while younger artists such as Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris joined.

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery has a brilliant collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, and has recently opened an exhibition entitled Enchanted Dreams, focusing on the work of another late arrival, Edward Robert Hughes. From 1888 Hughes was William Holman Hunt’s studio assistant as well as being an artist in his own right and in this exhibition the Gallery celebrates Hughes’ achievement in the context of the whole Pre-Raphaelite movement. It runs until 21 February 2016.

As well as mounting this exhibition to bring attention to its Pre-Raphaelite holdings, BMAG maintains a number of online resources including a podcast series and an online image database that gives access to many of the sketches and preliminary works which they are not able to display.

The most famous of all paintings of a Shakespearian subject is Millais’ glorious  Ophelia, at the Tate Gallery. With its serious subject it’s perhaps an unlikely favourite, but Millais’s sumptuous treatment of the plants on the river bank, painted in beautiful jewel-like colours is at least partly responsible for its popularity, along with the portrait of a beautiful young woman. The story of how the model, Lizzie Siddal, nearly died while the painting was being created, has also contributed to this painting’s reputation.

Millais' painting Ferdinand lured by Ariel

Millais’ painting Ferdinand lured by Ariel

Millais also devoted a huge amount of time to painting Ferdinand lured by Ariel, from The Tempest. Now in a collection in Washington DC the painting is a strange composition with the figure of Ferdinand listening with great concentration to Ariel, described by a critic as “a hideous green gnome”, with his attendant fairies, who are singing “Full Fathom Five”, a song about the drowning of his father. Millais painted it in the summer of 1849 while staying near Oxford. He wrote to Holman Hunt that it was “ridiculously elaborate. I think you will find it very minute, yet not near enough so for nature. To paint it as it ought to be would take me a month a weed – as it is, I have done every blade of grass and leaf distinct”.

Both of these paintings by Millais conjure up a mood and a place rather than illustrating a particularly dramatic moments from Shakespeare’s plays. One of the greatest of Shakespeare paintings that does just that hangs at BMAG where it can be freely seen. It’s William Holman Hunt’s painting of the final scene of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Valentine rescuing Silvia from Proteus. This too is gorgeously painted in richly glowing autumn colours. To paint the woodland background he spent several weeks at Knole in Kent before beginning on the figures.

Holman Hunt's painting of Valentine Rescuing Silvia from Proteus

Holman Hunt’s painting of Valentine Rescuing Silvia from Proteus

Hunt chose to illustrate the highly-charged moment at which the complex plot reaches its climax. In the book Shakespeare in Art, John Christian describes it: “Valentine, banished from Milan for paying court to the duke’s daughter, Silvia, has just saved his lover from being raped by his false friend Proteus, whose machinations have already led to Valentine’s banishment. Proteus, his treachery revealed, is overcome by guilt and remorse, while on the left his first love, Julia, who has followed him to Milan from Verona disguised as a page, looks on with dismay as Valentine not only assures him of his continued friendship but offers to resign Silvia to him as well”.

He continues: “lust, betrayal, shame, generosity, innocence, unrequited love and sexual jealousy all play a part”. I’m not sure that all that would be conveyed to anyone coming to the painting without knowing the story, but Hunt certainly conveys the emotion of the moment, each of the four responding quite separately to what is happening. It is a glorious piece of work: Ford Madox Brown described it as “without fault and beautiful to its minutest detail”.

Hughes' painting The Shrew

Hughes’ painting The Shrew

So what about Edward Robert Hughes and Shakespeare? Well his painting Midsummer Eve certainly owes something to Shakespeare’s depiction of Titania and her fairies, and there is a dream-like, imaginative quality to much of his work such as Night with her Train of Stars that is reminiscent of the magical world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. More prosaically, Wikipedia includes a painting of his showing Katherina from The Taming of the Shrew in pensive mood after she has been left with no food by Petruchio. The painter leaves us asking: how she will react to this dilemma?

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The men who gave us Shakespeare

The monument to Heminges and Condell

The monument to Heminges and Condell

While visiting London recently we went in search of a relatively little-known Shakespeare monument. It’s the memorial to John Heminges and Henry Condell just around the back of the Guild Hall. It stands in what used to be the churchyard of St Mary Aldermanbury, overlooking Love Lane, and it’s a poignant spot.

The quaint-sounding location is nowadays overshadowed by huge office blocks, a reminder of how much the City of London has changed. The Church of St Mary Aldermanbury was burnt down in the Great Fire of London in 1666, rebuilt by Wren, then destroyed in the Blitz of 1940. The monument, and the little oasis of green that surrounds it, is lucky to have survived.

The monument, topped with a bust of Shakespeare, is well cared-for but few people probably visit it to pay homage to Heminges and Condell. This is a pity because all those of us who care about Shakespeare owe them a tremendous debt. Both were members of the same acting companies as Shakespeare, were shareholders of the Globe, but also were friends of Shakespeare for over two decades. Both were left money by Shakespeare in his will to buy mourning rings. And, vitally, they ensured that years after he had died an “official version” of his plays was published. This website contains many photographs of the monument.

Quite a lot is known about John Heminges. He was born in 1566, just two years after Shakespeare, in Droitwich, a town only a few miles from Stratford. He became a member of the Grocers’ Company in the City and continued to be involved in the Company: this must have given him considerable respectability. A coat of arms was granted to him in 1629. He handled much of the business of the acting companies but little is known about his acting skills, though in a ballad written after the burning down of the Globe he was described as “old stuttering Heminges”. He lived in the parish for over four decades and was buried there in 1630.

Less is known about Condell, and I’m relying on Wikipedia for the information that he came from East Anglia and eventually bought an estate at Brockhampton, Snowshill, in Gloucestershire, again not many miles from Stratford. Condell lived in the Parish of St Mary Aldermanbury for several decades before buying a country home in Fulham, and died in 1627.

Both men were churchwardens in the parish and baptised their children there, and both left shares in the Globe and Blackfriars Theatres as well as substantial property. Both men are named, as is Shakespeare, in the cast lists of some of Jonson’s plays. In many ways their lives seem to have mirrored each other, and were closely bound up with Shakespeare. In 1982 Charles Connell wrote a book about the pair, They Gave Us Shakespeare.

Details of the First Folio on the Heminges and Condell memorial

Details of the First Folio on the Heminges and Condell memorial

The memorial was put up in 1895-6 to pay respect to these men who lived and worshipped locally as well as playing a vital role in the cultural history of our country. It was designed by Charles Clement Walker who included a number of inscriptions explaining its significance. One of these is a volume containing words from the 1623 First Folio, including a quotation from their preface “To the Great Variety of Readers”. You will find a huge amount of information on this post by Adam Hooks.

This preface is one of the great components of the book. It tells us that Shakespeare’s plays were already renowned: “these Playes have had their triall alreadie, and stood out all Appeals”. Then it goes on to give us a really personal insight into the author from people who really knew him:
It had bene a thing, we confesse, worthie to haue bene wished, that the Author himselfe had liu’d to haue set forth, and ouerseen his owne writings; But since it hath bin ordain’d otherwise, and he by death departed from that right, we pray you do not envie his Friends, the office of their care, and paine, to haue collected &publish’d them; and so to haue publish’d them, as where (before) you were abus’d with diuerse stolne, and surreptitious copies, maimed, and deformed by the frauds and stealthes of iniurious imposters, that expos’d them: euen those, are now offer’d to your view cur’d, and perfect of their limbes; and all the rest, absolute in their numbers, as he conceiued them. Who, as he was a happie imitator of Nature, was a most gentle expresser of it. His mind and hand went together: and what he thought, he vttered with that easinesse, that wee haue scarse receiued from him a blot in his papers. But it is not our prouince, who onely gather his works, and giue them you, to praise him. It is yours that reade him.

The list of actors in the First Folio including Shakespeare, Heminges and Condell

The list of actors in the First Folio including Shakespeare, Heminges and Condell

The astonishing thing about the First Folio is that without it we would have only around half of Shakespeare’s plays. We would not have Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, The Tempest or Antony and Cleopatra, among many others. The British Library’s website has a good page on the Folio.

Sarah Werner at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC has written a blog about digitised versions of the book.  This link leads directly to her list of the thirteen copies of the First Folio that are available to consult online, a great resource for anyone interested in early printed books in general and Shakespeare in particular. And a great place to get a sense of the achievement of John Heminges and Henry Condell.

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The tale of “Shakespeare’s skull”

william-shakespeare-portrait[1]In writing posts for this blog I’ve looked at lots of the myths surrounding Shakespeare’s life. They cover almost every aspect of his life: who he married, and where, what he looked like, whether he was gay or straight, whether he took drugs.

In the last couple of weeks one of the most obscure of these legends has hit the headlines. It’s suggested that Shakespeare’s skull was stolen from Holy Trinity Church as a bet, and has been discovered in a church in Beoley near Redditch. Over the centuries the rhyme on Shakespeare’s tomb cursing anyone who moves his bones has given many people the idea of doing just that, and the gravediggers’ scene in Hamlet has also inspired people to think about unearthing the dead.

For clarification about the story I went back to a favourite book, Samuel Schoenbaum’s Shakespeare’s Lives. This is his account: “After Garrick’s Jubilee, it was reported, Horace Walpole had promised George Selwyn three hundred pounds for Shakespeare’s skull, if he could come by it. Years later, in 1794, a young doctor named Frank Chambers took up this sporting offer; breaking into Stratford church by night, he procured the skull with the aid of local ruffians. But the master of Strawberry Hill declined to buy, and the memento mori found its way to the family burial vaults of the Sheldons, presumably hard by to the Beoley parish church in Worcestershire, where so many Sheldons were interred. So the story goes, but it was first published  (in part) almost a century later, in the Argosy for October 1879, and five years later extended into a pamphlet, How Shakespeare’s skull was stolen and found, by “A Warwickshire Man”. The author, C L Langstone, happened to be the incumbent of Beoley Vicarage. His narrative reads like what it must surely be a lurid fiction”.

Shakespeare's gravestone

Shakespeare’s gravestone

I took a look at the 1884 pamphlet. Here is the description of how Chambers and his companions broke into the church:
“I thought we never should get inside that church. The windows were far above our heads, and well protected by stout stanchions. Dyer, who had served in a smithy, worked with a will at the lock of the chancel door, using the tools I had brought; but then these confounded old locks have a way of keeping close, and it would not yield”….”I crept round towards the porch, and, resting on a mound, I plainly heard footsteps on the broad flags in the avenue. I crept nearer. The overhanging boughs, with remnants of leaves, made it too dark to distinguish any form. I doubt if I could have seen a ghost; but I was within a few feet of the heavy tread of a man… At length (it seemed an hour) he moved rapidly away; and having reassured my companions, we returned to the charge. The door was soon opened, and, tinder-box in hand, we groped our way to the great chancel, and with considerable difficulty, for the letters were much worn, I singled out the slab, then about three feet by seven feet, which covers the remains of Shakespeare. ”

Langston took care to get local details right, but to give him his due, I doubt if he expected the story to be seen as more than fiction. The story was published nearly a hundred years after the events are supposed to have taken place. The anonymous writer states that his main source of information is another anonymous man, Mr M, now conveniently dead. Mr M got the story from his uncle, who claimed he had opened the grave decades earlier. Not even the challenge said to have been made by Horace Walpole is documented.

Horace Walpole, looking rather like Shakespeare in a portrait by Eccardt

Horace Walpole, looking rather like Shakespeare in a portrait by Eccardt

Mr Langston in fact took a leaf in fact out of Horace Walpole’s own book The Castle of Otranto, published in 1764 and known as the first gothic novel. It was a hoax. Walpole published it anonymously, passing it off as a translation of a manuscript rediscovered in the library of “an ancient Catholic family in the north of England” and the story was supposed to date back to the middle ages. He invented the manuscript and its alleged author “Onophurio Muralto”, and took “William Marshal” as his pseudonym. Walpole was a Shakespeare fan and the story owes quite a lot to Hamlet, with its theme of incest, hauntings, mistaken identities and unhappy marriage. It was only with the second edition that Walpole owned up.

Langston’s first venture was published in 1879, by which time there were plenty of other similar novels. Take for instance Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, first published in 1868. This book begins with a prologue about the mysterious moonstone “extracted from a family paper” from 1799. The first part of the book is entitled The Loss of the diamond, the conclusion The Finding of the diamond”. The whole story is told as a series of witness statements in a legal case and is widely known as the first detective novel. Langston’s story is also based on statements by a number of different voices, and is divided into How Shakespeare’s skull was stolen and How Shakespeare’s skull was found.

No wonder barrister Charles Mynors, Chancellor of the Diocese of Worcester, has ruled that there is nothing to link the unidentified Beoley skull to Shakespeare, and has thrown out the application for DNA testing. As a barrister he must have heard many an unlikely tale spun, though few can have been as odd as this one. Here is the link to Emily Gosden’s uncritical report from the Daily Telegraph.

It’s a great story, well-told by Langston, but I’m afraid it’s Much Ado About Nothing.

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Pericles onstage

x as Pericles, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Wayne T Carr as Pericles, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

On 13 November 2015, for the first time since its opening in 1992, Pericles is to be staged at the Folger Theatre in Washington, DC. The production premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in February 2015 and after its season in Washington it will transfer to the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. It is directed by Joseph Haj and features Washington, DC local man Wayne T Carr in the title role.

The play was an immediate hit on its opening in Oregon, reviewers surprised to find this little-known play so entertaining. It’s one of those plays that almost always works on stage, combining spectacular scenes of shipwreck and pageantry, exotic locations, romantic love, loss and rebirth.

The play’s stage history is a bit thin until recent decades, though it was popular when first staged, with six quarto editions published between 1609 and 1635. Pericles was one of Thomas Betterton’s favourite parts in the late seventeenth century, and in the nineteenth century Samuel Phelps, a leading actor-managers, revived it successfully. Until recently, though, those approaching the play must always have felt, like Bottom on reading Pyramus and Thisbe, that “there are things in this comedy…that will never please”. Shakespeare’s play includes incest, prostitution, attempted murder, corruption and deceit.

Title page of 1609 Pericles Quarto

Title page of 1609 Pericles Quarto

Pericles received its first performance in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1900 when Mr John Coleman, an elderly tragedian aged 72 performed his own adaptation. The play had been suggested some months before, but Sarah Flower, wife of the theatre’s owner, had objected to the bawdiness. “Pericles will never do to act here”, she wrote, but busy with an extended London season, Benson took up the offer from Coleman regardless. Writing to reassure her, Benson said “there is nothing objectionable in Coleman’s version. I should not mind my little girl of 10 coming to see it”.

By the time Coleman had excised everything in the play that audiences might find offensive there was little of the original left. He hoped he had “succeeded in retaining the vivid dramatic interest which, in the earlier days of the play, secured for it so great and abiding a popularity”. Sally Beauman, in her book The Royal Shakespeare Company: A History of Ten Decades, describes how “He removed the first act; cut most of the second; cut Gower completely, and eliminated all sexual explicitness, including most of the fourth act.

In his foreword, Coleman justified his changes: Shakespeare wrote “all the inspired passages of the play, while the irrelevant, inept and revolting lubricity of the first and second acts, the loathsome brothel scene, Act IV and the inept Gower recitals may, with some show of probability, be accredited to his alleged colleagues, Williams and Rowley”. There were so many omissions that Coleman had to add a lot of his own material, though in omitting so much of the story, what was left was “almost totally incomprehensible”.

The play was performed on 24 April as the Birthday Play, when the theatre was packed from floor to ceiling by the great and good of the area. Local reviewers were inclined to be kind, admiring the beauty of the sets and the costumes. The Leamington Spa Courier described it as a “splendid tribute to the genius of [Stratford’s] great son, featuring spectacular effects and archaeological accuracy and delightful incidental music. Coleman himself played Pericles: the great romantic novelist Marie Corelli admired Coleman, considering that “his manner, his elocution, his art of gesture must all be a revelation to Stratford”. The company included regular Stratford favourites Oscar Asche as Cleon, Lily Brayton as Thaisa and Matheson Lang as Cerimon.

The reception was not all favourable. The Courier again, commenting on the way entire scenes had disappeared and new ones introduced: “It will not be surprising if Mr Coleman is taken severely to task for his free editing and bold interpolations”. He was indeed, particularly by the national critics. Literature described it as a “tragic bungling” and according to Sally Beauman again, it has gone down as “the worst travesty of a Shakespeare play ever to be presented [in Stratford]”.

Even so, it must be assumed that among the “inspired passages” Coleman left intact was the scene in which the young Marina is reunited with her father Pericles. It’s one of Shakespeare’s finest, and it’s all about the power of words. When Pericles sees Marina she reminds him of his lost wife and their child:

Marina and Pericles in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production

Marina and Pericles in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production

My dearest wife was like this maid, and such a one
My daughter might have been: my queen’s square brows;
Her stature to an inch; as wand-like straight;
As silver-voiced; her eyes as jewel-like
And cased as richly; in pace another Juno;
Who starves the ears she feeds, and makes them hungry,
The more she gives them speech.

In telling him the story of her own life, she gives him his life back:
Give me a gash, put me to present pain;
Lest this great sea of joys rushing upon me
O’erbear the shores of my mortality,
And drown me with their sweetness. O, come hither,
Thou that beget’st him that did thee beget;
Thou that wast born at sea, buried at Tarsus,
And found at sea again!

And with a word Marina finds her own lost father:
Is it no more to be your daughter than
To say my mother’s name was Thaisa?
Here’s wishing the production in Washington success after their long wait for this magical play.


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Pumpkins and cabbages: vegetables in Shakespeare’s Windsor

shakespearean botanicalAt the end of the growing season the shops are full of produce, with onions, pumpkins and other vegetables in store for the winter. As the harvest hymn has it, “all is safely gathered in /ere the winter storms begin”.

In a lovely little book celebrating the Bodleian Library’s own sumptuous copy of John Gerard’s 1597 Herball, Margaret Willes links some of the plants he describes to Shakespeare’s own mentions. Many are to The Merry Wives of Windsor, where vegetable references are in great abundance. In fact in another book Rebecca Laroche’s essay: “Cabbage and roots” and the difference of Merry Wives” forms a whole chapter in  The Merry Wives of Windsor: New Critical essays edited by Evelyn Gajowski and Phyllis Rackin.

These references fit perfectly into the play’s middle-class domestic setting, full of the minutiae of everyday life including doing the washing and gossiping about the latest romances. Margaret Willes picks many of them up: Falstaff’s “Good worts? Good cabbage!” arises because of a misunderstanding caused by Sir Hugh Evans’s Welsh accent. The wives decide to get their own back on Falstaff who they describe as an “unwholesome humidity, this gross watery pumpkin”. Looking forward to a romantic assignation Falstaff exclaims “Let the sky rain potatoes, let it thunder to the tune of Greensleeves, hail kissing-comfits, and snow eringoes”. And faced with the prospect of marrying Doctor Caius, Anne Page would “rather be set quick in the earth/ And bowled to death with turnips”.

Rebecca Laroche, again, notes that “The vegetables of Merry Wives are scattered throughout the play…They are invoked as puns and metaphors, but never directly as food being eaten”. Everyday vegetables are named alongside more exotic recent imports: “The commonness of cabbage and roots contributed to an intimate way of knowing, which is then juxtaposed to and foiled against the otherworldly and new worldly potatoes and pumpkins.”

John Gerard

John Gerard

Willes’s book is illustrated with the coloured illustrations from the Bodleian’s copy, including the delightful image of Gerard himself holding the plant with which he was most closely associated, a potato plant from Virginia. Falstaff’s excitement over the plant is because this exotic and rare import was thought to be an aphrodisiac.

Other plants like cabbages were more ordinary, but Gerard included the illustration and description anyway. His Garden Colewoort is more like what we would call spring cabbage, all leaf and no heart, but Gerard includes several different types as well as the Cauliflower. Culpepper, in his Complete Herbal, can barely be bothered  to describe cabbages and coleworts ,”they being generally so well known that descriptions are altogether needless.”. He went to town though on the effects of eating them: “boiled gently in broth”: being taken with honey, it recovereth hoarseness or loss of the voice: the often eating of them, well boiled, helpeth those that are entering into a consumption: the pulp of the middle ribs of colewort, boiled in almond milk, and made up into an electuary with honey, being taken often, is very profitable for those that are pursy or short-winded; being boiled twice and an old cock boiled in the broth, and drunk, helpeth the pains and the obstructions of the liver and spleen, and the stone in the kidneys; the juice boiled with honey, and dropped into the corner of the eyes, cleareth the sight, by consuming any film or cloud beginning to dim it”. He carries on in this vein for quite some time.

The garden cole woort from Gerard's Herbal

The garden cole woort from Gerard’s Herbal

Cabbages, or cole worts, were a staple of the cottager’s diet, being cooked up to form pottage. Perhaps Culpeper was trying to persuade the well-off that this humble food was a valuable addition to a rich diet: one of its benefits was that it helped to treat gout. Willes quotes another genteel writer, Elinor Fettiplace, who reminded her readers of the importance of thinking ahead to next season by sowing cabbages even at this darkening time of year.
Sow red Cabage seed after Allhallowentide [1 November], twoe dayes after the moone is at the full, & in March tiake up the plants & set from fowre foot each from other, you shall have faire Cabages for the Sumer; then sow some Cabage seeds a day after the full moone in Marche, then remove your plants about Midsomer, & they wilbee good for winter“.

The poet Michael Drayton remembered that everything has its season and its place. His great poem describing Britain, Poly-Olbion, also describes the humble veg grown here:
The Cole-wort, Cauliflower, and Cabbage, in their season,
The Rouncefall, great beans, and early ripening peason:
The Onion, Scallion, Leek, which housewives highly rate;
Their kinsmen Garlic then, the poor man’s Mithridate;
The savoury Parsnip next, and Carrot pleasing food;
The Skirret (which some way) in sallats stirs the blood;
The Turnip, tasting well to clowns in winter weather.
Thus in our verse we pott, roots, herbs, and fruits together.
The great moist Pumpkin (pumpion) then that on the ground doth lie,
A purer of his kind, the sweet Muskmullion by;
Which dainty palates now, because they would not want,
Have kindly learned to set, as yearly to transplant.

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BBC Theatre Month now on

Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins in The Dresser

Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins in The Dresser

On Saturday 31 October 2015  the BBC screened a new adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s play The Dresser, famously made into a film. It tells the story of one fateful night in a provincial repertory theatre during World War 2, and was inspired by Harwood’s experience working with Sir Donald Wolfit. In the play “Sir” is performing King Lear, and the play explores many parallels between real life and Shakespeare’s play, in particular the relationship between the two men where the dresser of the title, Norman, supports but also criticises his employer as the Fool does for Lear.  The new TV version stars two of our great actors, Anthony Hopkins as “Sir” and Ian McKellen as Norman, with a distinguished supporting cast that includes another senior stage actor, Edward Fox playing Thornton (the Fool).

What goes on onstage in The Dresser is much less interesting than the backstage drama, and this great play about the theatre kicks off a celebration of Britain’s “incredible theatre talent” that will take place across the BBC during the month of November. The programmes are already in full swing.

On Sunday evening 2 November BBC 4 hosts an evening of theatre, with first of all Derek Jacobi’s documentary about the eighteenth-century actor and writer David Garrick who “reinvented acting for the modern era and fashioned the cult of celebrity as we know it today”, followed by Ronald Harwood in conversation with Richard Eyre who directed The Dresser, and an hour-long programme (the first of 2) entitled Knights of Classic Drama at the BBC, a montage of archive footage of some of Britain’s most acclaimed actors including many who have distinguished themselves by acting in Shakespeare on stage such as Ben Kingsley, Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi and Ian McKellen.

During the month there is far more being broadcast than I can explore in this blog, so do take a look at the BBC website that contains masses of information about programmes that cover a really wide range of theatre-related material. Some of these haven’t got timings attached to them yet , but here are some of the programmes with potential Shakespeare links,

Lenny Henry

Lenny Henry

Lenny Henry is presenting a 10-part Radio 4 documentary series on the history of black British theatre and screen. Raising the Bar: 100 Years of Black British Theatre and Screen, Lenny Henry says: “I wanted to make a series which tells the history and struggle of black British creativity, which looks at the diaspora contribution to the UK’s cultural scene, predating the arrival of the Windrush generation, and which elicits passion, excitement and perhaps even anger amongst listeners due to some of our heroes remaining unsung. It will include material on the nineteenth-century black Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge who famously played Othello and Aaron in Titus Andronicus as well as roles such as King Lear for which he had to “white up”.

BBC One will be screening eleven documentaries looking at the challenges facing regional theatres. . These will include actors Sheila Hancock, Sir Antony Sher and Alison Steadman, while narrators of the programmes include Richard Wilson, Maureen Lipman, Sir Derek Jacobi and Miriam Margolyes. The theatres featured are Theatre by the Lake Keswick, Everyman Theatre Liverpool, The Curve Leicester, T.i.E Coventry, Frinton Summer Theatre, York Theatre Royal, Bristol Old Vic , theatres in Soho London, Exeter Northcott, New Theatre and The Kings Portsmouth, Theatre Royal Margate.

On 20 November on BBC 2 there will be an Artsnight special in which Josie Rourke, Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse, will ask Does Art Mirror Life? This will also examine the issue of colour-blind casting.

On BBC4, on a date yet to be announced, Sue MacGregor talks to RSC artistic director Greg Doran and award-winning actor Sir Antony Sher about their shared passion for Shakespeare, as well as their unique professional and personal partnership.

Harriet Walter

Harriet Walter

Radio 3 will be looking at Asian Theatre in Britain on 22 November, and will be hosting a Drama Season curated by Dame Harriet Walter. Three new productions will be broadcast: Pinter’s Ashes To Ashes/A Kind of Alaska, Dinner by Moira Buffini and A Human Being Died That Night by Nicholas Wright. Walter herself stars in the first two of these.

There are also opportunities to join in: on 21 November the public will be invited behind the scenes of theatres around the country to experience the magic of the stage, Details will be on the BBC’s Get Creative website. BBC iWonder will be publishing two online guides celebrating British actors onstage, and there’s a tantalising note that BBC Arts Online will “capture Trevor Nunn’s brilliant adaptation of Ben Jonson’s Volpone from Stratford as co-commissioned by The Space. I don’t know quite what this means but I was told that the production had been filmed while in Stratford, but not for cinema screening, so hopefully this means this tremendously enjoyable show is to be available for viewing online. Keep watching the BBC website for further details.

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In the City of London

Sharon Little, Freeman of the City of London, with her certificate and officials

Sharon Little, Freeman of the City of London, with her certificate and officials

This week I visited London’s Guildhall where my niece was granted the Freedom of the City of London. I hadn’t realised that about 1800 Freemen are admitted each year by the Clerk to the Chamberlain of the City of London, and “whilst the Honorary Freedom is indeed a recognition of lifetime achievement or high international standing, the Freedom of the City of London is open to a much wider section of society, and include many who have achieved success, recognition or celebrity in their chosen field….gained through membership of a livery company or by direct application suitably supported by a suitably qualified proposer and seconder.”

It was very special to attend this historic ceremony at which those receiving the Freedom read the oath and sign the register before being given their certificate. This ritual dates back to 1237, and nowadays it takes place in a room containing amazing memorabilia including Horatio Nelson’s glorious Freedom and the box that contained Florence Nightingale’s certificate.

DSCN9650guildhall londonThe Guildhall was built between 1411 and 1440 during the reign of Henry IV, and although now dwarfed by skyscrapers the Great Hall is still a magnificent building where events of national significance are held. The roof of the building has been rebuilt at least twice, after the Great Fire of 1666 and again after the Blitz. It’s the only non-ecclesiastical stone building to have survived, and below ground the medieval crypt still exists.

The medieval trade guilds wielded great economic and social power and their members took the most important positions in the community: the burghers, aldermen and the Lord Mayor came from their ranks. The guilds became official Livery Companies, named after the uniforms they wore for ceremonies. The arms of the twelve great Livery Companies of the City of London: the Mercers, Drapers, Fishmongers, Goldsmiths, Skinners, Merchant Tailors, Haberdashers, Salters, Ironmongers, Vintners and Clothworkers, are still represented in the Great Hall today and there are now over 100 Livery Companies.

Many historic trials have taken place in the Great Hall, including that of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in 1553, of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, a friend of the poet Thomas Wyatt in 1547, and of Henry Garnet, implicated in the Gunpowder Plot in 1606. Garnet was waiting at Coughton Court, just a few miles from Stratford-upon-Avon, when the news of the plot’s failure was brought from London.

DSCN9607shakespeare guildhallThere are of course Shakespearean associations. A bust of Shakespeare stand outside the Guildhall Art Gallery, honouring his achievement (though the City frowned on the public theatres where Shakespeare made his name). In the plays themselves there are a number of references: during the Cade rebellion of Henry VI Part 2 Cade declared himself Lord Mayor of London and held a sham trial at the Guildhall at which The Lord High Treasurer was condemned and later executed.  In Henry VIII, the Lord Mayor of London attends the coronation of Anne Boleyn. After Henry V’s successful battles in France, the Chorus tells us
How London doth pour out her citizens.
The Mayor and all his brethren in best sort,
Like to the senators of th’antique Rome
With the plebeians swarming at their heels,
Go forth and fetch their conquering Caesar in.

Probably the most memorable mention of the Lord Mayor of London is in Richard III, where Richard tries to get the City’s support for his claim to the throne. Richard tells Buckingham to meet the Mayor and citizens at the Guildhall. Buckingham reports back: instead of cheering in favour of Richard the citizens remained silent. The Mayor then spoke, and “when he had done, some followers of mine own/ At lower end of the hall, hurl’d up their caps”. The Mayor, a rather ineffectual figure, is eventually persuaded to endorse Richard’s claim.

A detail of the current Lord Mayor's coach

A detail of the current Lord Mayor’s coach

In the medieval period the Lord Mayor of London rivalled the power of the King, and it was important that each new Mayor swore allegiance to the crown. The Lord Mayor’s Show, a procession from the City to Westminster and back has its origins in this ceremony.  Shakespeare must have seen this grand piece of pageantry: William Smith, a haberdasher, described the procession in 1575:

The day of St Simon and St Jude the Mayor enters into his state and office. The next day he goes by water to Westminster in most triumphant-like manner. Next before him goeth the barge of the livery of his own company, decked with their proper arms; and then the Bachelors’ barge and so all the companies in order every one having their own proper barge with the arms of their company. And so passing along the Thames he landeth at Westminster, where he taketh his oath in the Exchequer before the judge there: which done he returneth by water as aforesaid and landeth at St Paul’s Wharf where he and the rest of the Aldermen take their horses and in great pomp pass through Cheapside.

This year, 2015, is the 800th procession taking place on 14 November. It will be a magnificent piece of pageantry, the three-mile procession taking an hour to pass, and the river Thames still playing its part: at 9am the Lord Mayor will arrive in the city in the Queen’s state barge.

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Anthony Burgess’s Shakespeare

Anthony Burgess's Shakespeare, published by the Folio Society

Anthony Burgess’s Shakespeare, published by the Folio Society

It’s been a good many years since I looked at Anthony Burgess’s 1970 biography Shakespeare. While working in the library at the Shakespeare Centre I always favoured Samuel Schoenbaum’s Documentary Life, so safely based on verifiable facts. Burgess was a great writer, but like Shakespeare he sometimes wasn’t very respectful of his sources when they got in the way of a good story. Nowadays it’s much easier to lay your hands on those documents (virtually or in print), so it’s exactly the right moment for the Folio Society to bring out a new edition of Burgess’s “speculative biography“.

Unlike the more scholarly biographies, Burgess’s book is highly personal, and eloquently written. He claims “the right of every Shakespeare lover who has ever lived to paint his own portrait of the man”. Although based on the facts where they exist, Burgess also uses his own inventive imagination to fill in the gaps, charmingly disarming potential criticism with his honesty. “The reader will recognise the fiction writer at work and, I hope, will make due allowance”.

In his chapter on Marriage he comments on the lack of evidence before writing “I propose to indulge myself in an onomastic fancy that the hard-headed reader is welcome to ignore”. After a digression on the subject of the names of Shakespeare’s children he writes “The whole of this paragraph is very unsound”.

Frustrated by the lack of descriptions of Shakespeare on stage, Burgess writes his own. Chapter 15 imagines the first performance of Hamlet, with Shakespeare, naturally, appearing as the Ghost. As you would expect from Burgess, it’s masterfully-written. He sets the scene: “It is broad daylight and the autumn sun is warm, but words quickly paint the time of night and the intense northern cold…Then the ghost appears, Will Shakespeare, the creator of all these words but himself, as yet, speaking no words”. The chapter on Drama eloquently digresses into a consideration of the history of theatre and plays from the Greek and Roman period onwards.

Since at least the early 1970s Burgess has been best known as the author of the disturbingly violent novel A Clockwork Orange, published in 1962 and turned into a cult movie by Stanley Kubrick in 1971. Sandwiched between these two events Burgess spent much of his time thinking and writing about Shakespeare. He first wrote a novel, Nothing Like The Sun: A Story of Shakespeare’s Love Life, published on 23 April 1964, bang on the quatercentenary. As a result he was commissioned to write a musical on the same subject, intended to become a Hollywood film. When the idea was dropped Burgess instead recycled the music into a ballet suite, Mr WS, that was broadcast on BBC Radio. Then he wrote his biography Shakespeare.

Anthony Burgess in 1989

Anthony Burgess in 1989

Later on he continued to write about him. Shakespeare appeared as a character in two short stories and in A Dead Man in Deptford, a novel about Christopher Marlowe, published in 1993, the year Burgess died of lung cancer.

There is much information about Burgess’s prolific career on the International Anthony Burgess Foundation site.   This page includes a link to an early recording of Burgess talking about Shakespeare.

He identified himself with Shakespeare. In an essay on the IABF website Victoria Brazier notes that “where many writers would seek inspiration for their work from Shakespeare’s plays, Burgess rather makes assumptions about Shakespeare’s life by examining his own”. She also notes that Burgess, whose real name was John Burgess Wilson, harboured a hope that he was related to an actor in Shakespeare’s company. “Jack Wilson was one of the company of players to which Shakespeare belonged, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. (Jack being what Oscar Wilde’s Gwendolen would call dismissively ‘a notorious domesticity for John’.) Through some mistake of printing or transcription, Jack Wilson’s real name is inserted into the First Folio’s version of Much Ado About Nothing rather than that of his character, Balthazar. A stage direction in the second act reads, ‘Enter Prince, Leonato and Jacke Wilson’.

The final words of the book illustrate how for Burgess, Shakespeare was everywhere: “We need not repine at the lack of a satisfactory Shakespeare portrait. To see his face we need only look in the mirror. He is ourselves, ordinary suffering humanity, fired by moderate ambitions, concerned with money, the victim of desire, all too mortal. To his back, like a hump, was strapped a miraculous but somehow irrelevant talent. It is a talent which, more than any other that the world has seen, reconciles us to being human beings, unsatisfactory hybrids, not good enough for gods and not good enough for animals. We are all Will.”

Like all books published by the Folio Society, the book is a pleasure to hold, and handsomely produced. It also features a new introduction by Professor Stanley Wells who notes that the book has stood the test of time and will continue to do so “because of its interaction between the imagination of a major novelist and the life and work of the greatest of poetic dramatists”. The book may not be a sober assessment of all the facts about Shakespeare’s life, but it’ll tell you more than most biographies about Shakespeare the human being.

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