Restoring John Cheere’s Shakespeare statue

Stratford’s Town Hall August 2021

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


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

The statue of Shakespeare donated by David Garrick

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

The statue of Shakespeare in Poets’ Corner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Farewell to Jim Morris

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

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

Staging the caskets: The Merchant of Venice

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

Shakespeare memories from the Bush

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

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All the Sonnets of Shakespeare

All the Sonnets of Shakespeare

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

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

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

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

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

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

Several others echo his early poem Venus and Adonis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Happy Birthday William Shakespeare 23 April 2021

Flowers for Shakespeare’s Birthday at Holy Trinity Church 2021

“I would I had some flowers of the spring”

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

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

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

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

The Churchyard at Holy Trinity Church 23/4/2021

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

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

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

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

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Remembering the Duke of Edinburgh in Stratford-upon-Avon

Prince Philip leaving Shakespeare’s Birthplace 23 April 1964

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

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

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


He brought his characteristic energy to the rather breathless

Prince Philip being presented with Shakespeare Medals by Sir Fordham Flower

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

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

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

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

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

A swan on the Avon by Shakespeare’s church

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

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

Willows by the Avon

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

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

The Other Place February 2021

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

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

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Stratford in 2020, and welcome to 2021

James Butler’s statue of Shakespeare, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Butler’s statue of Shakespeare, 2020

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

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


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The Shakespeare Club’s latest President: Sir Stanley Wells

Sir Stanley Wells, current President of Stratford-upon-Avon’s Shakespeare Club

2020 has been remarkable for many reasons. Here in Stratford-upon-Avon the effects of the Covid 19 pandemic has meant that most of the town’s Shakespearian activities have been limited, often to just online events. The Shakespeare Club is one of the town’s least-known institutions, but it is the oldest, and its committee have been making efforts to keep its monthly meetings going.

Back in October I wrote about the first of our virtual meetings, and we are about to launch the third. This meeting will be really special as it takes the form of a recording of a discussion between our current President, Sir Stanley Wells, and his friend and colleague Rev Dr Paul Edmondson, who  answer questions submitted in advance by our members. Inevitably, perhaps, given his long career, Sir Stanley has been the Shakespeare Club’s President before but he is the first to now hold the post three times. I’ve already heard the recording and found it a fascinating view of Shakespeare’s works by the person who, more than anyone alive today, has the deepest insights into them. Sir Stanley wears his immense knowledge lightly and the discussion is warm, approachable and on occasion amusing. I do hope people will take advantage of this opportunity to hear him speak in such a personal way.

While we all regret the temporary loss of the live event, delivering meetings virtually is proving to have some benefits. The Shakespeare Club’s normal meetings are only available to those able to get into Stratford on Tuesday evenings. Now people can listen at a time that suits them. While we would normally charge for our sessions, we are offering these first sessions to anyone who signs up to our free mailing list. Most interestingly, since October people from around the world have joined the list, and we are keen to encourage individuals and Shakespeare Clubs to join our free list. And this is extremely appropriate: in 1824 the Shakespeare Club was set up by locals, for locals, but over the two hundred years since it was formed, it has contributed significantly to the world-wide celebration of Shakespeare with Stratford-upon-Avon as the centre. If, of course, you would like to join the Club you will be more than welcome to do so and full information is on the website

To be put on the mailing list, email and on Tuesday 8 December we’ll send you an email containing the link you need to access the meeting. This will remain live for several days. We look forward to hearing from you and we hope you will enjoy the meeting.

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Stratford in November’s lockdown, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shakespeare and Black History Month 2020

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

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

David Olusoga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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