“The sweet of the year”: spring in Shakespeare’s Stratford

DSCN8736tomb flowersShakespeare is famous for his knowledge of plants of all kinds, but especially flowers, and he particularly loved springtime. It’s one of the reasons why spring flowers are brought to lay on his grave in Holy Trinity Church on his birthday on 23rd April each year.

Several songs by Shakespeare celebrate the spring and its flowers. Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale sings:
When daffodils begin to peer,
With heigh! the doxy over the dale,
Why, then comes in the sweet o’ the year;
For the red blood reigns in the winter’s pale.

And in As You Like It:
It was a lover and his lass,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
That o’er the green corn-field did pass
In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding.
Sweet lovers love the spring.

Shakespeare Gardens, in which the plants mentioned by Shakespeare are grown, and quotes from the plays are usually displayed, are becoming increasingly popular. In Stratford-upon-Avon there are several Shakespeare gardens of different kinds: the Birthplace Garden has included plants mentioned by Shakespeare for many years, and the tree garden at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage contains many of the trees named by him. The knot garden at New Place isn’t planted with authentic flowers, but is in a traditional shape bordered with box hedges, and he surely would have enjoyed its beauty. The town has built up a reputation for its floral arrangements, having has a long and successful tradition of taking part in the national Britain in Bloom competition and its own Stratford in Bloom contest every summer since the 1970s.

The Shakespeare Garden, Golden Gate Park San Francisco

The Shakespeare Garden, Golden Gate Park San Francisco

In case you feel like having a go, here’s a guide to growing your own Shakespeare garden. This topic is so popular that it has its own section on Wikipedia complete with a list of Shakespeare gardens, mostly in North America. Many have been inspired by Ernest Law’s 1922 book Shakespeare’s Garden, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Historic gardens are also celebrated for the medicinal qualities of the plants grown in them. Here are links to the Chelsea Physic Garden, the Poison Garden at Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, the Garden Museum in London and the Apothecaries’ Hall. And while on the subject of London, the City of London Guide Lecturers take garden walks and visit the Barber Surgeons garden where a garden is laid out with medicinal plants. Nearby is the garden of St Mary Aldermanbury where there is a memorial to the editors of Shakespeare’s First Folio.

DSCN6439wisteriaThe Royal Horticultural Society is celebrating National Gardening Week 2014 in the run up to Easter, 14-20 April, and by great good luck the weather this week has been beautiful. Visitors to Stratford-upon-Avon this weekend will have a treat with the town and the surrounding areas a delight to walk around. I’ve been out taking photographs myself and some are displayed below supplemented by a few taken earlier (the daffodils and magnolia are both over for this year). Although so many of the plants we grow now would not have been known to Shakespeare, he would have loved the magnolia, wisteria and cherry blossoms of springtime as much as we do.  Enjoy your Easter weekend wherever you are, and make sure you spend some time in a garden!


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Shakespeare, medicine and science, 450 years on

513gBYlxW2LA new book is just about to be published linking Shakespeare and science, a pairing that still doesn’t happen very often in the study of Shakespeare.  This is at least partly because scientific methods based on experimentation and logical enquiry were still not the norm. Dan Falk’s book, The Science of Shakespeare, reminds me in its approach of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, explaining some of the trickiest ideas through the stories of the people who made the discoveries. Whereas Bryson took Einstein and Hubble, Falk looks at Thomas Digges and the wonderfully-named Tycho Brahe, both of whom were people who devoted themselves to astronomy and whose work, it seems, Shakespeare knew.

Like Bryson’s book, Falk’s is informative about the science as well as finding points of connection with Shakespeare’s work and life. In an article that appeared in the Daily Telegraph Falk explains:
Scholars are examining Shakespeare’s interest in the scientific discoveries of his time – what he knew, when he knew it, and how that knowledge might be reflected in his work.
Take astronomy. The plays are full of references to the Sun, Moon, stars, comets, eclipses and heavenly spheres – but these are usually dismissed as strictly old-school, reflecting the (largely incorrect) ideas of ancient Greek thinkers such as Aristotle and Ptolemy. Although Copernicus had lifted the Earth into the heavens with his revolutionary book in 1543 – 21 years before Shakespeare’s birth – it supposedly took decades for the new cosmology to reach England; and anyway, the idea of a sun-centred universe only became intellectually respectable with the news of Galileo’s telescopic discoveries in 1610. By then, Shakespeare was ready for retirement in Warwickshire.
But we shouldn’t be so hasty. The Copernican theory attracted early adherents in Britain, beginning with a favourable mention in Robert Recorde’s The Castle of Knowledge in 1556. The first detailed account of the theory by an Englishman came from Thomas Digges, whose book included a diagram of the solar system in which the stars extend outward without limit – a vision of a possibly infinite cosmos.
Shakespeare had multiple connections to the Digges family. For a time they lived a few hundred yards apart in London, and Digges’s son, Leonard, was a fan of the playwright and contributed an introductory verse to the First Folio.

Great Chain of Being (Utriusque Cosmi Majoris Scilicet et Minoris ... by Robert Fludd; Frankfurt, 1617).

Great Chain of Being (Utriusque Cosmi Majoris Scilicet et Minoris … by Robert Fludd; Frankfurt, 1617).

Meanwhile, at the British Library there is what sounds to be an intriguing exhibition entitled Beautiful Science. Here’s a link to the Guardian’s review. This exhibition looks at the aesthetics of scientific analysis, visualisations that are intended to explain statistical and scientific discoveries, beautiful in their own right. The earliest image in the exhibition, dating from 1617, is the “Great Chain of Being”, an image that illustrates the ancient Greek concept of classifying life on earth. To quote the website,
Beautiful Science explores how our understanding of ourselves and our planet has evolved alongside our ability to represent, graph and map the mass data of the time.
From John Snow’s plotting of the 1854 London cholera infections on a map to colourful depictions of the tree of life, discover how picturing scientific data provides new insight into our lives.
This free exhibition, bringing together science and the arts, continues until 26 May.

Coming up soon, to help celebrate the 450th anniversary of the birth of Shakespeare, is a new exhibition at the Library of the Royal Society of Medicine. Entitled Most Wholesome Physic: Medicine in the Age of Shakespeare, 1564-1616, this exhibition will run from 6 May to 26 July from Monday to Saturday. Admission is free. Full details are now on the RSM website, and here is their description of the forthcoming exhibition:
Almost all of the books on display were published in Shakespeare’s lifetime, and show many of the medical preoccupations of the age, liberally juxtaposed with quotations from the plays and poems. This was a great period for books published in the vernacular and therefore more accessible to a lay public, so much emphasis is given in this exhibition to works written in English, or translated into English.

9781472520401Last but by no means least, I’m delighted to report that Sujata Iyengar’s book Shakespeare’s Medical Language is now available in paperback. This book has solved many queries for me about Shakespeare’s medical references and helped me understand more about medical knowledge of the time while remaining readable, and I can really recommend it. Here’s a quote about the book:
Physicians, readers and scholars have long been fascinated by Shakespeare’s medical language and the presence of healers, wise women and surgeons in his work. This dictionary includes entries about ailments, medical concepts, cures and, taking into account recent critical work on the early modern body, bodily functions, parts, and pathologies in Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s Medical Language will provide a comprehensive guide for those needing to understand specific references in the plays, in particular, archaic diagnoses or therapies ‘choleric’, ‘tub-fast’ and words that have changed their meanings ‘phlegmatic’, ‘urinal’; those who want to learn more about early modern medical concepts ‘elements’, ‘humors’; and those who might have questions about the embodied experience of living in Shakespeare’s England. Entries reveal what terms and concepts might mean in the context of Shakespeare’s plays, and the significance that a particular disease, body part or function has in individual plays and the Shakespearean corpus at large.
You can buy the paperback here.


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Shakespeare and his world: MOOC in progress

Henry Irving as Shylock

Henry Irving as Shylock

I’m very much enjoying the Shakespeare and his World MOOC created by the University of Warwick in collaboration with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, devised and presented by Professor Jonathan Bate. Last week the play being examined was The Merchant of Venice, the theme money and usury. I particularly like the way Bate connects key themes of the play to facts of Shakespeare’s life and to objects from the Museums, Library and Archives collections held by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. He looked for instance at the Quiney letter, the only piece of correspondence still in existence addressed to Shakespeare. Why is this relevant to The Merchant of Venice? Well the letter asks for a sizeable loan, just as in order to give money to Bassanio, Antonio has to borrow from Shylock. Bate skilfully links Shakespeare’s life to the world of speculation and trade in which The Merchant of Venice is set. Shakespeare must have been known to be rich in order to be asked for this large amount but it seems that Shakespeare didn’t provide the money himself and maybe acted as a kind of go-between (avoiding the trouble that Antonio got himself into).

Antonio, Gratiano, Lorenzo and Bassanio in the 1993 RSC production of The Merchant of Venice

Antonio, Gratiano, Lorenzo and Bassanio in the 1993 RSC production of The Merchant of Venice

In what I found a particularly interesting bit of speculation, Bate suggests that if we are looking for a parallel for Shakespeare himself within the play, we might see him as one side of the melancholy merchant Antonio, or the go-getting chancer Bassanio, or the money-grabbing, ruthless Shylock, though none of these characters are as straightforward as that. Perhaps too, Shakespeare might have seen himself as an outsider, the man from the country, without a university degree, in the more cosmopolitan world of London, just as both Antonio and Shylock are both outsiders in Venice.

Bate also looked at the idea that the audience would have immediately made the connection between the Venice of the play’s title and the City of London. Both are built on water, with famous bridge crossings. Both are financial centres: in London Thomas Gresham’s Royal Exchange had opened in 1571 and the Rialto was the name of the whole financial district in Venice. In both places fortunes were made and lost on the ships trading around the world. Although Gresham’s Exchange was lost in the 1666 Great Fire of London Bate showed a plan of the rebuilt Exchange in which traders were around the sides of the hall while those managing the ships and their cargoes took the central area. And Shakespeare’s actors performed in more or less modern dress so the connection between the play and London life would have been very clear.

These connections continue to be made. London is still a huge financial centre. And although as readers we can make connections for ourselves, it’s in production that directors can really bring home those links between our own times and Shakespeare’s. Bate used a photograph of Henry Irving as Shylock to point out that it was not until the late nineteenth century that Shylock was interpreted on stage as a serious, even sympathetic character, a response perhaps to earlier views of evil Jews like Fagin in Dickens’ Oliver Twist.

Each week on the MOOC participants can vote for their favourite collections object. This production image was a popular choice of object, and I for one would love to see more. The Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive contains the whole of the RSC Archive, a treasure trove which illustrates how Shakespeare has been interpreted over the years through the artistic interpretations of directors, designers and actors, supported by historic material relating to productions from earlier centuries like the Irving picture. Different productions offer a whole range of views, for instance of the character of Shylock. Should he be seen as an outsider, or someone who has made every effort to integrate into Venetian society? Should he show off his wealth with fine clothes, or be seen to be miserly by dressing shabbily? Each production provides different ideas that can spark off a debate about the play itself.

The set for Venice in the RSC production of The Merchant of Venice, 1993

The set for Venice in the RSC production of The Merchant of Venice, 1993

The idea of connecting Shakespeare’s London with Venice was really brought to life in the production of the play staged by the RSC in 1993. Here Venice was indeed the City of London: the slick and shiny metal and glass set including ranks of computers dominated the stage, and Bassanio’s friends, dressed in suits, met up in a trendy wine bar. The audience understood immediately what kind of world the play was set in, and the theme of money, which Jonathan Bate has emphasised in the MOOC, was at the forefront. Shylock (David Calder) was almost completely integrated into the world of the Christian characters, wearing similar clothes but showed himself even more civilised by, when at home, relaxing in a comfy armchair while listening to classical music.

Antony Sher as Shylock, RSC 1987

Antony Sher as Shylock, RSC 1987

A few years before, the 1987 production had a different focus: set in the Venice of Shakespeare’s period, the foreignness of Shylock and Jessica was emphasised with both of them wearing exotic, colourful costumes. Antony Sher as Shylock even had a low couch on which he reclined, and he spoke with a strong accent. The set, including both a Christian Madonna and a daubed Jewish star, made it clear that this production was to be about religious conflict and Shylock’s isolation rather than the rights and wrongs of the financial system.

Evidence for these productions is to be found in the photographs, prompt books, reviews and videos of the performance archives. Comparing photographs of the sets, or of a few characters, or looking at the way in which the text has been cut in the prompt book, is a really stimulating way of thinking about the play through production choices.

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Stratford’s historic spine, Shakespeare forgery and April Fools


images_articles_Paul_and_Bob___Historic_Spine_282511485Away on holiday last week, but still in touch with email and twitter, I spotted lots of Shakespeare and Stratford-related stories in the press and online. My post on the Market House coincidentally went live on the same day that a new book was published on the whole of what’s called Stratford’s Historic Spine. The spine begins at the Bridge   Street end of High Street, as it happens at the Market House itself and continues along Chapel Street, Church Street and Old Town towards Holy Trinity Church. This is the route which is followed by many thousands of tourists, but in a piece for the Stratford Herald Robert Bearman suggests that the book  provides “the opportunity to bring home the fact that the true value of the spine lies not just in its well-known showpiece but in the many other attractive buildings which provide the links between them.”

The Stratford Society describes how ” two members of the Society, Paul Burley, retired architect and practising artist, and Bob Bearman, formerly Head of Archives at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, have spent the last three years working on a project to get the story of the Spine into book form. Paul has drawn every building along it in the form of eight continuous friezes and underneath each building Bob has provided notes of its historical and/or architectural interest.” The book is priced at £7 and can be obtained from the Society or local bookshops.

The schoolroom at KES

The schoolroom at KES

One of the most important clusters of buildings on the Historic Spine is the Guild Chapel/Guild Hall/King Edward VI School. On April 1 the school put out a lovely April Fools joke declaring that among a recently-discovered bundle of documents had been found some that mentioned Shakespeare, and indicated that he had not only been at the school (there are no records of the pupils from the time) but that he had been punished for bad behaviour several times while there.   Documents had indeed been found a few weeks before, but they were all of relatively recent date.  This time the aim of the good-natured jest was to draw attention to the school’s bid for funding to restore the schoolroom and Guild hall.

Forgery hasn’t always been so easy to uncover, or so well-intentioned. Back in the eighteenth century there were many people obsessed with trying to find out all they could about Shakespeare’s life. Samuel Ireland was one of these who collected all kinds of Shakespeariana, but it was his son, William Henry Ireland who in 1794 claimed to have found documents that related to Shakespeare. Former Head of Local Collections for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Mairi Macdonald, in a piece written for the Stratford Herald back in June 2009, described the documents that included ” a sequence of legal and personal documents from the same supposed source, designed to cast Shakespeare in the light of a punctual and efficient businessman and well-regarded man of the world: a letter to the earl of Southampton (with a reply), a confession of faith proving the bard to be a good protestant, theatrical contracts, a love letter and poem to ‘Anna Hatherrewaye’ with a lock of hair (proving the poet to be an affectionate husband), and a remarkably friendly letter from Queen Elizabeth. Shakespeare’s library, with marginalia, was discovered; an original manuscript of King Lear showed that all the bawdy talk had been interpolated by actors. ”

The playbill for the performance of Vortigern

The playbill for the performance of Vortigern

The item that provoked the most attention, though, was the manuscript of a play “Vortigern”.  Last week I found this site that includes a video telling the story of this notorious play which was given a single performance at Drury Lane Theatre in 1795.

It was after this that the story of the whole manuscript discovery began to unravel, led by historian Edmund Malone.  It’s easy now to scoff at the gullibility of, among others, James Boswell, but the success of many April Fools jokes reminds us that we’re easy to deceive. And how much we would all love to find a document that showed us more of Shakespeare’s life or a new play. The KES story, like that of the Charlecote poaching incident, suggest that Shakespeare was a boy of spirit, a bit like Prince Hal in the Henry IV plays, the bad boy who reformed.

William Henry Ireland's Confessions

William Henry Ireland’s Confessions

The story of William Henry Ireland is ultimately a bit sad: apparently he only began forging documents to impress his father, and after the truth came out he wrote The Confessions of William-Henry Ireland in which he explained how had created his forgeries. One method was to take an original document of the right period and write a Shakespeare signature into a gap. Ireland forgeries of this type have found their way into many major collections including that of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and an Ireland document is in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s current exhibition Shakespeare’s the thing.

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Staging the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet

John Stride and Judi Dench Old Vic 1960

John Stride and Judi Dench Old Vic 1960

In an earlier post on the subject of Juliet’s balcony, I talked about the original staging of this scene, and how the scene came to be known  as “the balcony scene” even though in Elizabethan England the word balcony was not used, let alone by Shakespeare.

It made me think about how many ways I’ve seen this scene staged, and how many pitfalls it can present. Some of these relate to the space in which the scene is staged: in Shakespeare’s theatres the option to use a balcony at the back of the stage could have made it difficult for those at the sides or high up in an upper gallery to see. In nineteenth century theatres built with a proscenium arch upper galleries tend to over-hang the stalls resulting in the effect which I remember well from the Aldwych Theatre where the view from the rear stalls was like looking through a letter box. Anything high up was invisible unless it was way upstage. This theatre took transfers from Stratford and sets designed for  the RST stage often had to be cut down to fit the smaller theatre with its difficult sightlines. Thrust stages or fan-shaped auditoria can have their own problems: the National Theatre’s Olivier stage offers unobstructed views from all over the house, but the audience can feel distant from the stage and being able to see from three sides makes designing a balcony tricky if it’s to be anywhere near the front of the stage.

Dorothy Tutin and Brian Murray, RST 1961

Dorothy Tutin and Brian Murray, RST 1961

Russell Jackson’s book Romeo and Juliet, in the Shakespeare at Stratford series published by the Arden Shakespeare, documents in detail performances of the play from 1947 to 2000. Fifteen productions and fifteen solutions to staging the balcony. He points out: “Despite the scene’s customary name – and a well-established theatrical and pictorial tradition – the lines nowhere refer to a “balcony”, and the action does not necessarily require one: but simply appearing at a window allows Juliet little scope for movement”.

Directors and designers have to ensure the lovers can be seen and heard, so there’s a tendency to bring them forward.  Every production finds its own solutions, but there are many questions: Where should the balcony be: in the centre or to one side where it’s easier to see both Romeo and Juliet? How high should it be? Should it be part of the permanent set, or a structure moved into position specially for the scene? Should Juliet be remote and unattainable, or is Romeo able to get to her on her balcony?  Jackson again:
“No stage direction, actual or implicit, required him to climb up to it, but, as we shall see, many productions have been unable to resist the temptation”.  Re-reading Russell Jackson’s authoriative book reminded me of some of the best and worst solutions I’ve seen, and I searched the internet for some visual examples.

I was delighted to find the whole scene from the RSC’s 2010 production at the Courtyard Theatre filmed. Sam Troughton and Mariah Gale are both excellent though filming from several angles makes it easy to forget it was a stage performance, and to me she looks awkward with nothing to lean on or stand behind. And why the intimidating metal railings when he is able to get round them? In his book Jackson asks “Should Romeo and Juliet touch hands at any point?” but this pair, in modern dress, do far more than just hold hands.

There is some great material on this production on BBC Shakespeare Unlocked


Laura Esposito and Sonny Valichti at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, NY 2012

Laura Esposito and Sonny Valichti at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, NY 2012

At least Troughton has to make an effort to reach Juliet: in the photograph here, Sonny Valichti could easily reach his Juliet if he used the stairs just to the right (one of the drawbacks of a permanent set is that the balcony serves other purposes and can usually be accessed by a staircase which kind of spoils the illusion).


In Terry Hands’ romantic Italianate production in 1989  Juliet was positioned on the top level of the Swan stage, much too far away for her Romeo, Mark Rylance, to reach her, so they really did have nothing but the words. The  scene, after all, is about promise, not fulfilment.



Rupert Evans as Romeo and Morven Christie as Juliet, RSC 2006

Rupert Evans as Romeo and Morven Christie as Juliet, RSC 2006

And I know the audience is expected to use its imagination but the bare metal ladder that came up through the stage floor in the 2006 RSC production really didn’t do it for me, with Juliet having to balance precariously on its rungs.




Judy Buxton and Anton Lesser, RST 1980

Judy Buxton and Anton Lesser, RST 1980

I thought the 1980 production at the RST got the balance about right. Judy Buxton appeared above a plain white wall that had swung downstage to bring her closer to the audience, enough to keep her separate from her Romeo but not so high that they couldn’t touch hands briefly.

Andy Butterfield and Julia Motyka  The Marin Shakespeare Company, California 2005

Andy Butterfield and Julia Motyka The Marin Shakespeare Company, California 2005

I also like the one from the Marin Shakespeare Company,  though seen just as a still photograph the drainpipe looks as if it could have comic potential.



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Stratford-upon-Avon’s Market House

The Market House today

The Market House today

In Stratford’s town centre, Barclays Bank overlooks Bridge Street and the traffic island at the junction of Henley Street, Wood Street and High Street. It’s one of the town’s most visible landmarks, and never more so than on Shakespeare’s Birthday, when Bridge Street is filled with flags, dignitaries and onlookers. Outside the bank the band plays the National Anthem before the flags are pulled and the procession begins. Royal accessions, coronations and weddings have been marked here, and troops rallied here before departing for the battlefields of WW1. Nowadays the Market House is often photographed by tourists whose guides stop there to point out the town’s places of interest.

You might think, then, that Barclays Bank, originally the Market House, has always been admired as a quietly dignified structure. But this is far from the case. The very first sentence of Dr Robert Bearman’s pamphlet* on the building in the Stratford-upon-Avon papers series is “There can be few buildings in Stratford-upon-Avon which have provoked such vociferous and persistent criticism as the town’s Market House”.

I’m indebted to this publication for many of the facts in this post. The history of the building, in a way, dates right back to the time in the 1190s when the streets were laid out in a grid pattern. Bridge Street already existed, but making it wide allowed for the weekly market to continue there and made it the centre of the town’s trading activities. At some point the High Cross was erected at its top. By the late 1400s a building must have stood there as we know a clock was hung on it. There’s no visual record of this building until around 1800 when, a few years before it was replaced, Captain James Saunders drew it. It had remained much the same for centuries, standing close to the corner where Wood Street joins High Street.

Like later market buildings in the town, it was open at ground level with an enclosed upper floor. The base of the old cross stood at its centre. In Shakespeare’s time it’s thought that this covered area was where the glovers, including Shakespeare’s father, sold their goods.

But by Shakespeare’s time Bridge Street’s spacious marketplace had been divided by Middle Row, a central row of small shops that must have made the area very congested. The old Market House was taken down in 1821 and the current building put up at the junction of Wood Street and Henley Street, but with the row in place it was not the focal point of the street for people approaching from Bridge Street. The old cross itself was taken down, and Saunders, again, salvaged the base. This relic of the spot where John Shakespeare sold his wares was for many years in the garden of Shakespeare’s Birthplace.

The Market House decked out for Shakespeare's Birthday Celebrations, around 1908

The Market House decked out for Shakespeare’s Birthday Celebrations, around 1908

The new building was opened in 1822. Three doors at ground level were entrances to the covered market, and stalls could also be erected round the outside of the building. The upper floor, meanwhile, was used as a meeting room. At about the same time an improvement scheme was devised which led to the gradual demolition of Middle Row, eventually completed in the 1850s, and the houses in Bridge Street received facelifts. Maybe with its surroundings becoming increasingly gentrified, the Market House began to look small and scruffy.

By the 1860s Stratford was definitely smartening itself up. It had a railway station and its own newspaper. Shakespeare’s Birthplace had been much improved, and in 1864 the Tercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth brought thousands of people to the town, including foreign visitors who were able to stay at smart hotels.

At the time of Garrick’s Jubilee in 1769 disparaging comments had been made about the state of Stratford’s streets, and these must have been remembered when it came to the Tercentenary. The Market House became the target for criticism, and in March 1864 the Corporation voted to erect a monument to Shakespeare where the Market House was. Fortunately for the Market House, although the celebrations successfully attracted crowds of visitors they lost money, so this idea was never pursued. It didn’t stop the criticism though: in 1869 the building  was called “ugly and inconvenient” , and in 1902 “ungainly, unattractive and … almost useless”.

Bridge Street crowded with people for the Birthday celebrations in 1912, taken from the Market House

Bridge Street crowded with people for the Birthday celebrations in 1912, taken from the Market House

Eventually the United Counties Bank took the lease on the building and renovated it, closing off the side doors, improving the windows and adding a decorative porch before moving in during 1908. It has had much the same appearance ever since, and looking at the building now it’s hard to see how it could ever have been so unpopular. But even as work went on Edward Fox, the printer, wrote to the newspaper regretting that “the finest and most prominent site in Stratford” was not to contain a memorial  “which would confer honour and distinction on Shakespeare’s town”. In fact this elegantly understated building has shown itself to be an ideal backdrop to the busy activities of the town which probably has enough memorials to its most famous son.

*Bearman, Robert. The Market House, Stratford-upon-Avon. Stratford-upon-Avon: Stratford-upon-Avon Society, 1990.

PS By happy coincidence a post on the base of the original market cross has just been published on the SBT’s Finding Shakespeare blog at http://findingshakespeare.co.uk/stratford-upon-avon-high-or-market-cross-base

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Safeguarding the “first rough draft of history”

"The first news boy"

“The first news boy”

Newspapers are a relatively new invention: no character in a Shakespeare play ever reads one, news being conveyed by messenger or letter. In The Merchant of Venice Tubal brings a personal account to Shylock of the misfortunes of Antonio’s ship “I spoke with some of the sailors that escaped the wrack”, and later a letter from Antonio to Bassanio brings the bad news. Bassanio quizzes the messenger for more information:
But is it true, Salerio?
Hath all his ventures failed? What, not one hit?
From Tripolis, from Mexico and England,
From Lisbon, Barbary and India,
And not one vessel scape the dreadful touch
Of merchant-marring rocks?

Elsewhere news is spread by rumour, brought to life “painted full of tongues” at the beginning of Henry IV Part 2.
Upon my tongues continual slanders ride,
The which in every language I pronounce,
Stuffing the ears of men with false reports.

The first news of the outcome of the Battle of Shrewsbury is brought to Northumberland, leading him to hope his son Hotspur has triumphed. These false hopes are quickly dashed by a second and third report, but it’s the eye-witness account that convinces: “These mine eyes saw him in bloody state”.

No wonder the relatives of passengers on the Malaysian Airlines plane that disappeared over the southern Indian Ocean are struggling to come to terms with their loss, without any evidence of the fate of the place let alone an eye-witness account.

We have become used to seeing visual evidence of catastrophic events, but the humble newspaper has been our method of getting news of events beyond our own experience for centuries. Before newspapers there were broadsheets, and the illustration above is from the Cambrai Chansonnier, a manuscript song-book created for a wealthy inhabitant of Bruges, dated 1542. The picture has informally been called “The first paper boy”.

In England it took a while for newspapers proper to emerge. The first London newspaper, the Corante, was published in 1621, but the first regular daily newspaper, the Daily Courant, dates from 1702.  If you’d like to follow it up there’s a history of papers here.

Governments attempted to prevent information being made widely available, putting a tax on newspapers in 1712. Inevitably people found ways of getting round it, by clubbing together, hiring a paper for an hour or visiting an alehouse which kept newspapers, even old ones. But the tax did restrict the number of newspapers published. This situation continued until 1855 when the law was changed to reduce this tax, and papers that cost 4d each became available for 1d. Newspapers were suddenly affordable and smaller places were able to print their own. Before 1860 Stratfordians had to rely on papers with a larger geographical coverage: between 1806 and 1860 The Warwickshire Advertiser was the nearest thing there was to a local newspaper. Then came the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald which is still published today and an enormously valuable resource for anyone studying the history of the town. Here’s an article on the subject.

Newspaper volumes at Colindale

Newspaper volumes at Colindale

For many years the Newspaper Library at Colindale, in London, was the place to go  for British Newspapers. But no more, as it closed in November 2103. Now the newspapers are being transferred to a new location:
The NSB, or Newspaper Storage Building, is the British Library’s new home for newspapers. Situated at our second site in Boston Spa, Yorkshire, it is not where users will be able to read our print newspapers – that will be in the Newsroom at St Pancras, when they become available once more in Autumn 2014 – but it is where they are starting to be stored, in optimum preservation conditions.

A condition report found that the newspapers are some of the most fragile and threatened items held by the British Library, and no wonder, since they have never been intended for long-term keeping, and their large size often makes them difficult to handle. There is another post here about how they are preserving the originals while making microfilm or digital copies available for use.

The new BL newspaper storage facility

The new BL newspaper storage facility

The new building, however, is almost scarily high-tech. The NSB is completely automated:
It is essential for the long-term preservation of the print newspapers that they be kept at optimum temperature and humidity-controlled conditions, and in the dark. Inside the NSB the temperature is being maintained at 14C,  with relative humidity at 55%, and the oxygen level 14-15%, eliminating any risk of fire. So it is great for newspapers, but not so great for humans. Instead the process of ingest, shelving and retrievable is all undertaken by fully-automated machinery – appropriately robotic for a spaceship. – See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/thenewsroom/2014/03/checking-out-the-nsb.html#sthash.cwaH1CJ1.dpuf 

It will still be possible to go an read the originals at the British Library itself, and there’s a guide here.

In addition there are ambitious plans to digitise the millions of pages of newsprint, making them available for all at the British Newspaper Archive site.

Access to the site has to be paid for, but for most the convenience of having the newspapers available on their desktops will be easily preferable to making a trip to the Library. And even more people will be able to explore what’s often been called “the first rough draft of history”.

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Thomas Wyatt, Hilary Mantel, and the art of poetry

Thomas Wyatt

Thomas Wyatt

Hilary Mantel’s novel Bring Up the Bodies documents the life of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister. History has judged Cromwell harshly for ruthlessly masterminding the downfall of Anne Boleyn, but without backing away from this, she makes him a sympathetic and even sensitive man. One of the ways she does this is through Thomas Wyatt, a diplomat and poet who had been associated with Anne Boleyn, but escaped execution largely because Cromwell liked and admired him.

On pages 412-414 of the book, Mantel writes persuasively about the connection between the skills of the politician, the diplomat and the poet. Cromwell is in conversation with Call-Me-Risley (Wriothesley) about Wyatt.
He leaves us all behind. He writes himself and then he disclaims himself. He jots a verse on some scrap of paper, and slips it to you, when you are at supper or praying in the chapel. Then she slides a paper to some other person, and it is the same verse, but a word is different. Then that person says to you, did you see what Wyatt wrote? You say yes, but you are talking of different things. Another time you trap him and say, Wyatt, did you really do what you describe in this verse? He smiles and tells you, it is the story of some imaginary gentleman, no one we know; or he will say, this is not my story I write, it is yours, though you do not know it. He will say, this woman I describe here, the brunette, she is really a woman with fair hair, in disguise. He will declare you must believe everything and nothing of what you read. You point to the page, you tax him: what about this line, is this true? He says, it is a poet’s truth. Besides, he claims, I am not free to write as I like. It is not the king, but metre that constrains me. And I would be plainer, he says, if I could: but I must keep to the rhyme”.
“Someone should take his verses to the printer”, Wriothesley says. “That would fix them”.
“He would not consent to that. They are private communications”.
“If I were Wyatt”, Call-Me says, “I would have made sure no one misconstrued me. I would have stayed away from Caesar’s wife”.
“That is the wise course”. He smiles. “But it is not for him. It is for people like you and me”.

bring up the bodiesMantel continues, describing the poet’s skill, and Cromwell’s dream-like memories:
When Wyatt writes, his lines fledge feathers, and unfolding this plumage they dive below their meaning and skim above it. They tell us that the rules of power and the rules of war are the same, the art is to deceive, and you will deceive, and be deceived in your turn, whether you are an ambassador or a suitor. Now, if a man’s subject is deception, you are deceived if you thing you grasp his meaning. You close your hand as it flies away. A statute is written to entrap meaning, a poem to escape it. A quill, sharpened, can stir and rustle like the pinions of angels. Angels are messengers. They are creatures with a mind and a will. We do not know for a fact that their plumage is like the plumage of falcons, crows, peacocks. They hardly visit men nowadays. Though in Rome he knew a man, a turn-spit in the papal kitchens, who had come face to face with an angel in a passage dripping with chill, in a sunken store room of the Vatican where cardinals never tread; and people bought him drinks to make him talk about it. He said the angel’s substance was heavy and smooth as marble, its expression distant and pitiless; its wings were carved from glass.

Reading this section before the RSC’s day-long event Cromwell’s Court, my husband pushed the novel over to me – do you think she’s writing about Shakespeare?  At the event Wyatt was much discussed, and the section is about him. But Mantel’s description of the creative process, of the need for the poet to conceal himself, surely relates to any writer (including herself). It certainly can be seen to relate to Shakespeare, the writer who more than any other, seems to disappear into his plays and poems.

Here is Wyatt’s subtly crafted poem that is often taken to refer to Anne Boleyn, and which Mantel references in that mention of Caesar’s wife. Here is an article about it from the Guardian. and here’s the poem itself:

Whoso list to hunt

Whoso list to hunt? I know where is an hind!
But as for me, alas! I may no more,
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore;
I am of them that furthest come behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer; but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow; I leave off therefore,
Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt
As well as I, may spend his time in vain!
And graven with diamonds in letters plain,
There is written her fair neck round about;
“Noli me tangere; for Caesar’s I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame”.

Wyatt’s considerable diplomatic skills meant he escaped execution though he spent time in the Tower of London twice. Most of his poems were on the subject of love, but only a few were published during his lifetime and it’s only in the last hundred years or so that he has been recognised as a major poet. He is often called, with Surrey, “the father of the English sonnet”. Shakespeare knew his sonnets: many of them were published in the 1557 collection Tottel’s Miscellany. He died in 1542 aged only 39. There is much information about him, including many of his poems, on the Luminarium site.

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Veteran Shakespeare actor, Jeffery Dench

jeffery denchI’ve just heard the sad news that veteran Royal Shakespeare Company actor Jeffery Dench has died. He will be remembered fondly, and greatly missed, by thousands who saw him play a mind-boggling range of roles on the RSC’s stages.

His career with the RSC began in the 1960s when he was in the company’s landmark Wars of the Roses, followed by the David Warner Hamlet. He quickly established himself in comedy roles such as Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night and Master Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

He had a particular talent for playing old men: one of the first things I saw him play was Adam in As You Like It in 1977/8, opening the play by getting in some wrestling practice with his Orlando (Peter McEnery/James Laurenson), despite his apparent age. Again in Merry Wives, he played Justice Shallow in both 1992 and, his last performance, in 2006. Both these have Shakespearean resonance: the faithful old servant Adam is supposed to have been a role written by Shakespeare for himself, and Shallow is involved in the discussions that might relate to the Lucy family of Charlecote. In one of the Histories, he also played a character called Thomas Lucy.

There was plenty of non-Shakespeare too: the Troll King to Derek Jacobi’s Peer Gynt in 1982, and the Water Rat in at least one of the revivals of Toad of Toad Hall.

One of the conspirators in the 1979 Julius Caesar

One of the conspirators in the 1979 Julius Caesar

It wasn’t all comedy: in 1974/5 he played Gloucester in Buzz Goodbody’s adaptation of King Lear, and as well as Pistol in Henry V he played a multitude of lords and soldiers in Terry Hands’ magnificent cycle of all three parts of Henry VI in 1977/8.

I came to live in Stratford in 1979 and saw all the plays repeatedly. He seemed to be in everything. As well as Brabantio in Othello and Cinna the conspirator in Julius Caesar he played Cymbeline in the play of the same name, his sister Judi playing his daughter Imogen. His most enjoyable performance of the year for me, though, was the doubling of Antiochus and the Pander in Pericles at The Other Place. In charge of the brothel where the innocent heroine Marina is held he was both frighteningly grotesque and blackly comic.

In the back row, as so often, Jeffery Dench as one of the company in Nicholas Nickleby

In the back row, as so often, Jeffery Dench as one of the company in Nicholas Nickleby

As part of the 1979 Stratford company he automatically became part of the company for what for me has been the RSC’s outstanding achievement, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, staged initially at the Aldwych in 1980-81, subsequently in New York, and filmed for Channel 4. Like almost everyone in the case he played many characters, though again most memorably the repellent old suitor Arthur Gride.

When not playing grotesque old men, he brought humour, warmth and integrity to  his parts. As a member of the audience, seeing Jeffery Dench’s name on the cast list was a guarantee of quality. Shakespeare did write brilliant leading roles for Burbage and others, but he also wrote for a known company of talented professionals. The RSC has been fortunate to have among its regulars a number of high-quality actors, safe hands that could carry the plays along with distinction. Jeffery Dench was one of those, and if there were to be a late twentieth-century version of the page in the First Folio “The Names of the Principal Actors in all These Plays”, his name would be on the list.

Full details of his RSC career can be found by searching by name on the RSC Performance Database

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Celebrating Shakespeare at 450 – updated

shakespeare birthday celebsWith less than a month to go, celebrations for the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth are getting into gear, and will continue right into the summer. A special website pulls together all the activities going on in Stratford over the weekend of 26/27 April, the nearest weekend to the actual day, 23 April. After a slightly low-key couple of years, several of the traditional elements are re-appearing including the use of New Place Garden for the procession to assemble and the return of the great marquee for the luncheon which will feature speeches from, among others, novelist Hilary Mantel and the retiring head of the National Theatre, Sir Nicholas Hytner. Quoting from the site,
Crowds will be lining the streets of this Elizabethan market town to see actors, foreign diplomats and civic dignitaries lead the 1,000-strong grand Birthday Procession from 10:30am on Saturday 26 April. They will be followed by a lively community pageant, street entertainers and the Stratford Morris Men.  Local people and visitors can join in too and walk with the pageant through the town to lay flowers on Shakespeare’s grave in the Holy Trinity Church.

But even before the birthday several big academic events are taking place. After several days celebrating Othello, on 10 April the British Institute of Florence is organising the 6th edition of the Shakespeare Graduate Conference on the theme  Forms of Nationhood, in collaboration with the Italian Association of Shakespeare and Early Modern Studies and the University of Florence

At the same time, from 10-12 April the annual meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America, a great gathering of Shakespearians not just from North America, takes place in St Louis. Here’s the program.

logo_Shake-450_teteseuleThe big event taking place in Europe to celebrate the 450th anniversary will be the Shakespeare 450 conference in Paris from 21-27 April, organised by the Societe Francaise Shakespeare. Not just European in scope there are sessions on Asian Shakespeare, Global Shakespeare, and Shakespeare in Brazilian Popular Culture as well as Shakespeare and Voltaire, Shakespeare in the Great War, Shakespeare in Cold War Europe, and the opening session entitled Pourquoi Shakespeare?

Not an academic conference, but for light relief you might like to read about another event, or even to enter it. The St Paul Pioneer Press is holding a contest to celebrate Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. This will take place in April and it’s the 45-second Shakespeare Film Festival Contest. There’s a video here to explain   and here is the website where you can enter and watch the videos.

After the birthday itself, conferences continue. Not actually Shakespeare-focused, the Malone Society conference is sure to attract Shakespeare scholars. It will take place on 17 May at Oxford University. The Society was established in 1906 for the  unfashionable purpose of producing accurate copies of the best editions of early plays. It’s rather wonderful that the Society is now finding that having spent years publishing and discussing the most obscure of texts its work is becoming mainstream as collaboration becomes more and more popular as a topic. This year they’re going to be looking at the anonymous play The Fair Maid of the Exchange.

On 3 June there will be a one-day symposium at De Montfort University, in Leicester, entitled Reforming Shakespeare: 1593 and After. This will look at “the kinds of alteration that have occurred  to Shakespeare’s writing as it has made its journey from author to readers and playgoers. ‘Reforming’ may take the sense of being given new shape as authorial or non-authorial adaptation, rewriting, borrowing or allusion and arguments about any of these processes… ‘Reforming’ can also suggest correction and improvement, including censorship, editing, and tidying up of text to make it conform to new conditions of reception.” There’s more on the flyer.

From 5-7 June attention shifts back to Stratford-upon-Avon for the Annual BritGrad conference taking place at the Shakespeare Institute. This covers many areas of Shakespeare and Renaissance studies. There’s lots more information here.

Then the British Shakespeare Association Conference will be taking place at the University of Stirling from 3-6 July 2014. Full details haven’t been released yet, but the conference will centre on questions of authority in Shakespeare. Here’s the website.

Since I first sent out this post I’ve been contacted by the Victoria and Albert Museum to remind me of their very extensive 450 celebrations. The information that follows gives details, and some links. Do enjoy these great events!

Our festivities will run throughout April – May, with special emphasis on the Festival Fortnight, 21 April – 4 May. The programme will include a huge range of talks, performances, screenings, tours, workshops, special activities and themed events for all ages. Most activities are free of charge.

A full programme can be found here:  some highlights include:

Conducting Shakespeare
Scenes from Shakespeare, with a twist. The programme will be ‘conducted’ in direct response to the emotional responses of volunteers from the audience (detected by a series of bio-sensors monitoring brainwaves, heart-rate, perspiration and muscle tension).

Propeller Professional Development Workshops
Set design, 3 May Sound, 28 AprilPerformance, 28 April:

The Bookshop Band
2 May, 19.30 and 20.45
Folk trio perform new songs inspired by the Bard
In addition, the V&A has produced a special Shakespeare Trail map, showing a journey through the Museum, visiting a range of objects related to Shakespeare.

The exhibition Shakespeare: Greatest Living Playwright is also on display in the Theatre and Performance galleries until 28 September 2014.

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