Remembering the Battle of Agincourt

The Battle of Agincourt

The Battle of Agincourt

The 600th anniversary of one of the most famous British military victories is being celebrated this month. The actual date is the 25th October 1415, the event the Battle of Agincourt when Henry V, with an outnumbered and outclassed army, defeated the mighty French troops with astonishingly small loss of British lives. The battle became legendary, chroniclers writing down and embroidering the facts and Henry V becoming renowned as the greatest and most heroic of monarchs.

Shakespeare’s play has ensured that the circumstances surrounding the battle are well-known, though still controversial. The anniversary of Agincourt is being marked all round the country, the Agincourt 600 website coordinating events that are happening over a period of several weeks. I’m writing this two weeks before the day itself because so much will be happening in advance.

Here are a few of the astonishing array of things being lined up all over the country (for more information see the Agincourt 600 website): Starting in Wales, there will be an exhibition relating to the Welsh input to the battle at Brecon Castle, and on the day itself a talk by Juliet Barker at Monmouth Museum, while at Caldicot Castle in Monmouthshire there is to be an Agincourt Banquet and a weekend of re-enactments including archery displays, knights in full armour, music and dancing.

In London there will be a lecture at the Society of Antiquaries on 27 October and an exhibition at the Royal Armouries. This is the blog post from the Royal Armouries on Shakespeare’s interpretation of the history.  The Wallace Collection is putting on a display entitled The Sinews of War: Arms and Armour from the Age of Agincourt, featuring weapons and armour from the early 15th century, as well as rare books that explore the way the battle has been remembered over the centuries.

Further north, there is to be an all-female production of the play in York.

Laurence Olivier as Henry V

Laurence Olivier as Henry V

In Stratford-upon-Avon the RSC’s current production of the play will be broadcast live to cinemas on 21 October.  Also in Stratford, the Orchestra of the Swan are giving a concert on 20 October featuring William Walton’s music for Laurence Olivier’s 1943 film. In Bidford-on-Avon, just a few miles from Stratford, they are making a weekend of it with a lecture on Friday 23rd by Professor John Buckley on the Agincourt campaign followed on the 25th itself by a concert by English Serenata, with the English Serenata singers and RSC actor Sam Alexander. This too will feature Walton’s music and readings from Henry V as well as extracts from Richard III and As You Like It.

Moving back south again, on 19 October Curator Roy Porter will lead a tour of Porchester Castle where Henry V prepared for the campaign in France, under the title Agincourt and the Southampton Plot. There will also be a talk at Canterbury Cathedral, an Agincourt evening at Highclere village hall and a gala ball at Titchfield.

The site of the battle of Agincourt today

The site of the battle of Agincourt today

It’s great to see so much activity from organisations of all sizes. Many of the events highlight the gap between the facts and the reality, and if you want to find out more sign up for FutureLearn’s two-week free Massive Open Online Course Agincourt-Myth and Reality, coming from the University of Southampton and beginning on 19 October.

Among so much celebrating it’s easy to forget that Shakespeare’s play is not simply a bit of gung-ho. Modern productions of the play have often stressed the barbarism of battle, and even come over as anti-war. Shakespeare wrote for Henry some of his most brilliant speeches. Here is part of the most famous one, where he addresses his troops before they go into the battle they were expected to lose:

First quarto of Henry V, 1600

First quarto of Henry V, 1600

This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

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Retelling the stories of the world’s favourite playwright: the Hogarth Shakespeare

gap of timeShakespeare’s plays have been adapted, rewritten, altered, reimagined for centuries, beginning just forty years or so after he died. These revisions keep Shakespeare fresh, giving the stories a modern flavour. Shakespeare himself borrowed stories from many other sources. As time has passed the plays have been turned into whatever kind of output was fashionable at the time: musicals, paintings, ballets, operas, movies and novels.

Now the Hogarth Press, the publishing company founded by Virginia and Leonard Woolf in 1917, is launching a series of Shakespeare-inspired novels. These are to be written by bestselling and acclaimed authors, beginning with Jeanette Winterson whose take on The Winter’s Tale under the title The Gap of Time has just been published in over twenty countries.

It’s an ambitious publishing project. The press release from the Hogarth Shakespeare explains: “The time is ripe for a dedicated series of stand-alone retellings that will form a covetable library as well as a celebration of Shakespeare for years to come. The Hogarth Shakespeare will be a unique series to delight existing Shakespeare lovers and bring the world’s favourite writer to a new readership, young and old….The novels will be published simultaneously across the English-speaking world in print, digital and audio formats.”

The website gives further details of what’s coming up: “A further three novels will be published in the series …in 2016: Howard Jacobson’s The Merchant of Venice in February, Anne Tyler’s The Taming of the Shrew in June and Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest in October. The first four in the series will be joined by Tracy Chevalier’s Othello, Gillian Flynn’s Hamlet, Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth and Edward St Aubyn’s King Lear.”

The Cheltenham Literary Festival features a couple of events relating to the series. Jeanette Winterson’s has already gone, but on Sunday 11 October 2015 at 10.30, in Reimagining Shakespeare, writers will discuss the creative processes behind retelling Shakespeare. Along with Tracy Chevalier, who is working on Othello for the project, there will be Iqbal Khan who has directed Othello for the RSC this year and Jane Smiley, Pulitzer Prize winner whose books include A Thousand Acres, based on King Lear.

This video has several of the authors talking about the project and why they selected their particular plays.

And this sound recording features Howard Jacobson and Jeanette Winterson discussing the project.


Turning to Jeanette Winterson’s book specifically, the award-winning author of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit describes The Winter’s Tale as a “talismanic text” for her. The jacket description links the story to the mystical elements of the play:
‘I saw the strangest sight tonight.’
New Bohemia. America. A storm. A black man finds a white baby abandoned in the night. He gathers her up – light as a star – and decides to take her home.
London. England. After the financial crash. Leo Kaiser knows how to make money but he doesn’t know how to manage the jealousy he feels towards his best friend and his wife. Is his newborn baby even his?
New Bohemia. Seventeen years later. A boy and a girl are falling in love but there’s a lot they don’t know about who they are and where they come from”.
The Gap of Time vibrates with echoes of the original play but tells a contemporary story of betrayal, paranoia, redemption and hope…however far we have been separated, whatever is lost shall be found.

Here, too is a sound recording of an extract from the book:

Winterson weaves skilfully between the universal timelessness of Shakespeare’s play and the modern story, setting dreamy, poetic descriptions within it. Here’s a short piece about the abandoned baby, Perdita:
“That night, storm and rain and the moon like a mandala when the clouds parted, it was the moon that made him know. The baby had lain like the visible corner of a folded map. Traced inside her, faded now, were parents she would never know and a life that had vanished. Alternative routes she wouldn’t take. People she would never meet. The would-be-that-wouldn’t-be.
Because her mother or her father, or both, had left the map of her folded on the table and left the room.
It was a map of discovery. There were no more North Poles or Atlantic Oceans or Americas. The moon had been visited. And the bottom of the sea”.

Shakespeare’s play is never far away: one section is called “The spider in the cup”, and the man who adopts Perdita uses the money he finds with her to buy a bar called The Fleece. And at the end of the book Winterson moves seamlessly from the story into a few pages about her own feelings about Shakespeare’s play. “I wrote this cover version because the play has been a private text for me for more than thirty years. By that I mean part of the written wor(l)d I can’t live without; without, not in the sense of lack, but in the old sense of living outside of something.

It’s a play about a foundling. And I am. It’s a play about forgiveness and a world of possible futures – and how forgiveness and the future are tied together in both directions. Time is reversible”.
It’s a terrific start to a series that celebrates Shakespeare’s continuing influence and should introduce his plays to a new generation of readers across the world.

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Shakespeare and Black History Month 2015

John Blanke among Henry VIII's trumpeters

John Blanke among Henry VIII’s trumpeters

With October comes Black History Month, and as ever a number of Shakespeare-related events are taking place. While it was once thought that Shakespeare might have seen Africans only very occasionally, in recent years close study of documentary evidence has revealed that this was not the case. Miranda Kaufmann is giving a series of lectures on the history of Africans in Early Modern Britain: on 14 October she’s speaking at Eastbury Manor House in Barking, and will explore the lives of some of them including John Blanke, Henry VIII’s black trumpeter and Mary Phyllis the Moroccan basket-weaver’s daughter.  There is a link here to the story about John Blanke on the National Archives website.

On 21 October Dr Kaufmann will be talking part in a discussion at Manchester Metropolitan University with Professor Alan Rice and Marcia X on Black History Month. She’ll be offering a historical perspective to the issue of Africans in Tudor and Stuart Britain. Outside of the month itself she’ll be taking part in the Len Garrison Memorial Lecture at the Institute of Historical Research in London on 12 November. She will be helping to fill the gaps in Black British History with David Olusoga, producer and presenter of the BBC series Forgotten Slave Owners and historian and writer Marika Sherwood.

In this article from Tudor Society’s website, Conor Byrne notes that the study of black people in Tudor Britain has become a popular subject in its own right. “The Tudor period was significant for black settlement in England. Katherine of Aragon arrived at Plymouth in October 1501 with a multinational entourage that included Moors, Muslims and Jews. The Iberian Moor Catalina de Cardones was one member of Katherine’s entourage, and served her for twenty-six years as Lady of the Bedchamber. She eventually married ‘Hace Ballestas’, a crossbowman who was also of Moorish origin”.

One of the comments to his article suggests that “the prevalence of people of color in Western Europe was far greater than most people, including historians, are aware of.”. Historian Catherine Fletcher notes that in Italy, “we think Alessandro’s (de’ Medici) mother – a servant in the Medici household – was mixed-race, of African descent. People often assume early modern Europe was all-white but that’s a long way from the truth.”

Call Mr Robeson

Call Mr Robeson

As well as lectures, there are also a few performances to enjoy: Tayo Aluko’s play Call Mr Robeson continues to win over enthusiastic audiences. The play gives an account of Paul Robeson’s remarkable life as an actor, singer and political activist. Robeson performed as Othello as a young man to Peggy Ashcroft’s Desdemona and then, in 1959, in Stratford-upon-Avon. Performed by Nigerian-born Aluko with piano accompaniment by Phil Blandford, it features famous songs including Ol’ Man River. It’s been staged at New York’s Carnegie Hall, in the West End and was recently performed in seventeen venues in Australia and New Zealand. It’s currently on a UK tour before revisiting North America. You can catch it during October in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Leeds, Hounslow, Swindon, Bristol, Barnard Castle and London.

Another great black actor who played many of Shakespeare’s roles including King Lear as well as the more obvious Othello and Aaron was Ira Aldridge, and there is a full profile of him on the Black History Month site.

Aleksandrs Antonenko as Otello in Verdi's opera

Aleksandrs Antonenko as Otello in Verdi’s opera

A few weeks ago an intriguing, and rather surprising news story broke about the debate about whether or not opera singers should black-up in order to perform the role of Otello in Verdi’s opera. For the first time the singer will not black up for the production at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. This article quotes Naomi Andre, co-editor of the book Blackness in Opera. “I do not know of a black singer singing Verdi’s Otello in a major opera house ever.” She suggests that the music is “wickedly difficult” so the role is tricky to cast. By tradition the role has been played by a white singer (in this case Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko) who has used black make-up. But director Bartlett Sher said: “Our cultural history in America is profoundly marked by our struggles with race and the questions of race…And it seems to me, as an artist growing up in America, that there’d be no way on Earth I could possibly figure out how to do it with that kind of makeup and that it just seemed like an obvious choice.” So no black make-up on stage, then, but Antonenko did have his skin darkened for the publicity shots. The production, incidentally, is receiving an Encore screening at Warwick Arts Centre on 21 October.

Metropolitan Opera Manager Peter Gelb comments that the Met has a colourblind casting policy, but black women have had an easier time landing top opera roles than have black men. Naomi Andre suggests that even now “Seeing a black male singer onstage with a white female heroine — there would be anxiety a lot of people could feel in the days of segregation, even in post-segregation times but where racial tensions are still very much around.” It’s a story that highlights the continuing contradictions and social unease surrounding colour in the USA and Europe, even in the civilised setting of the opera house where music is an international language.

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National Poetry Day 2015

03_DREAM_posterThursday 8 October is 2015’s National Poetry Day, “the annual mass celebration of poetry and all things poetical”. This year is extra special because this is its 21st anniversary. You’ve still got a few days to write a poem or decide which of the many events you’re going to attend.

The day is coordinated by the Forward Arts Foundation, an organisation that celebrates and promotes poetry for everyone. We’re so driven by what they’re calling the “tyranny of prose” that they want to encourage people to think and express themselves more imaginatively. This year’s theme is light, and people around the country are being inventive. In Bristol Liz Brownlee is getting the city’s light workers – including an astronomer, a firefighter, a cosmologist, a fire-eater, to read poems about light that will be displayed on a screen in the city.

There will be read-a-thons and impromptu readings in many locations including schools, libraries and offices, as well as more obvious places. In London the Poetry Society and Southbank Centre will be running a day of illuminated poetry readings managed by Young Producers aged between 18 and 25 while there will be an afternoon of free readings at the Royal Festival Hall.

My_Shadow[1]_0The Scottish Poetry Library is planning lots of events and has created a series of light-themed poetry cards like the one illustrated, of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem My Shadow.

Everybody is being invited to “Make Like a Poet” by creating their own response to the day in words or images, or both. The best responses will be blazed across Blackpool’s famous lights on the day.

The Poetry Society is inviting people to write a poem for 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, a response to any of Shakespeare’s sonnets. This will form part of the Society’s celebrations next year, but the closing date for the poems is 23 October 2015.

BBC radio is going all-out to mark the day this year, with programmes relating to it on four national radio stations. The Radio Times says “while the airwaves will be full of poets and performers, proprietors of power stations and lighthouses, opticians, photographers and firework-makers will also be making contributions”.

Radio 2 features several poetry-themed programmes, including, at 5pm, Simon Mayo talking to Erik Didriksen who has written a book in which he reinvents pop songs in the style of Shakespearean sonnets. At 1pm on BBC 6 Music Mark Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie interview poets John Cooper Clarke and Jo Bell, and on Radio 3 the poetry begins as early as 6.30 am. After spending most of the day playing music there’s what should be a fascinating discussion by Matthew Sweet and guests of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass at 10pm.

As you might imagine, though, the prize goes to BBC Radio 4 which begins a series of no fewer than nine programmes under the title We British: An Epic in Poetry. Hosted by Andrew Marr the programmes will tell the story of Britain through its poetry. Beginning at 9am the series will end at 10pm, and by switching radio channels during the day you could actually catch most of the programmes, if you were really keen. The Shakespeare bit on Radio 4 will occupy the spots of 11.30 to 12 and 2.15 to 3, allowing plenty of time for a civilized lunch.

That’s most of my day taken care of then, and I can justify spending the time wallowing in verse because, as it happens, it’s also my birthday. Here’s one of my favourite passages on the subject of light from Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona where Valentine despairs at being banished from Verona, and his love:

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

If that’s all a bit sugary for you, here’s a very modern take on Shakespeare by rap artist Kate Tempest.

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Mapping Shakespeare’s world

The Sheldon tapestry map of Worcestershire

The Sheldon tapestry map of Worcestershire

Maps come in many shapes and sizes. It’s still a miracle to me that my smartphone can show me exactly where I am, but maps have always done more than just give us an image of the world around us.

This website gives examples of a whole range of maps that show how the English language has evolved and moved around the globe. The first one shows how languages relate to each other using the image of a branching tree. The UK’s long history of being conquered and colonised by Romans as well as Northern Europeans has had a huge influence on words and place names, shown in map 3, and map 5 illustrates how the Norman conquest still affects our vocabulary. The version of French that evolved became the language of the ruling classes, many of the 10,000 words added still being in use, often as military or legal terms. Norman words were often longer, and posher, than the Anglo-Saxon words used by the English: “perspire” rather than “sweat”, for instance.

English was undergoing massive change during Shakespeare’s time, one of the reasons why his language is so dynamic. He used words from a whole variety of sources, nuances such as those relating to class often passing us by. Learners of English must always wonder why so many syllables that look the same are pronounced differently, explained in Map 6 by “The great vowel shift” that took place during Shakespeare’s lifetime. And if you’re interested in the size of Shakespeare’s vocabulary, there’s a map of that too, in which Shakespeare’s vocabulary is shown to be smaller than that of some modern rappers.

Part of the Sheldon map of Worcestershire, showing a corner of Oxfordshire

Part of the Sheldon map of Worcestershire, showing a corner of Oxfordshire

The site is good fun and a reminder that maps can convey all sorts of information. They can also be created from all kinds of material. With the revamping of Oxford’s Bodleian Library they are now able to display one of their great treasures, a Sheldon tapestry map. Ralph Sheldon lived near Long Compton, and during the 1590s commissioned four great maps depicting counties in the Midlands. The one on display is of Worcestershire, a county close to Warwickshire, showing places that Shakespeare had certainly heard of and probably visited such as Tewkesbury where the Avon joins the River Severn.

For us the map is a thing of great beauty and antiquarian interest, but the Guardian article comments that “it was made when few people had ever seen even a paper map- …Sheldon would certainly have had to explain to most visitors what a map was and how to read it…Towns and villages, rivers and streams, beacons and windmills, stone and timber bridges, spires and square stone towers, forests and orchards, castles and cathedrals”. Text is also embroidered onto the map. Worcestershire is still a county famed for its fruit orchards, and one section reads ““hear goodly orchards planted are in fruite which doo abounde. Thine eye wolde make thin hart rejoyce to see so pleasant grounde.”

The map also records a mysterious event, when a piece of land “was dryven downe by the removyng of the ground”. It was a mystery to the staff at the Bodleian until a resident of Ross-on-Wye responded to the Guardian’s article. Over three days in February 1575 “approximately 60,000 cubic metres of land moved downhill, carrying full-grown trees to an adjoining property.” This event, probably caused by an earthquake, was famous, and startling enough for it to be recorded on the tapestry map made a few years later. According to the letter, the site is still recorded on Ordnance Survey maps. This website too records that the Kynaston yew tree, moved sixty feet during the landslip, is still alive.

It reminds me of that scene in Henry IV Part 1 where Owen Glendower tries to impress Hotspur with his influence over the natural world: “At my birth/ The frame and huge foundation of the earth/ Shaked like a coward….I say the earth did shake when I was born…The heavens were all on fire, the earth did tremble”.

Abraham Ortelius, by Peter Paul Rubens

Abraham Ortelius, by Peter Paul Rubens

The Sheldon maps combine the skills of the map-maker with those of the embroiderer. This website, The Renaissance Mathematics, contains lots of great information about the famous cartographers of the sixteenth century, Abraham Ortelius and Gerard Mercator. Ortelius was born in Antwerp in 1527 and became great friends with Mercator, accompanying the older man on some of his trips. Instead of issuing single maps, Ortelius came up with the idea of printing a whole series of maps in a single volume, using the work of a number of different cartographers. His Theatrum orbis terrum was first published in 1570 and went through forty editions in the next 55 years. It opened people’s eyes to parts of the world far from their homes. Mercator’s superior work, entitled an Atlas, was published in 1595, after Ortelius’s work had become an established best-seller. There’s much more on the site including many illustrations. Shakespeare was very much aware of maps, using them as props in several plays, notably the scene quoted above when Glendower and the other plotters argue about how to divide the Kingdom once they have deposed the king, and in King Lear where the legitimate monarch tries to do the same thing for his daughters. In Shakespeare’s plays, maps seem to appear before disaster strikes. Fortunately for us, we can just admire their beauty and the insight they give us into another world.

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James Shapiro on Shakespeare in 1606

James Shapiro

James Shapiro

Back in 2005 James Shapiro published his book 1599, about a single year in Shakespeare’s life. According to Jonathan Bate, who reviewed it for the Telegraph, It was “one of the few genuinely original biographies of Shakespeare”, the year an “inspired choice”.”It was a year when Shakespeare’s equal gifts for history, tragedy and comedy were on display: the year of Henry V, Julius Caesar and As You Like It. They were acted against a backdrop of high political drama: a severe mess in Ireland, rumours of another Spanish Armada, a Bishops’ ban on subversive satirical poetry.”

Shapiro examined contemporary books and documents to try to work out more about the world in which Shakespeare lived. He read extensively: everything published in that year, letters and other documents. No wonder it took him 15 years to write. He asked all kinds of questions. Knowing that Shakespeare’s company played at court over the Christmas holidays, he found out what visitors might have seen when they arrived at Whitehall Palace. Bate paraphrases: “a needlework map of Britain, a portrait that was ugly or beautiful according to the perspective from which you looked at it, a wind-up clock in the shape of an Ethiop riding upon a rhinoceros, and an array of other curiosities.”

1599 was a very well-documented year in Shakespeare’s life, but the same is not true for his earlier years. In this article Shapiro explains that Edmond Malone, a serious scholar frustrated by a lack of documentary evidence about Shakespeare’s life, “began sifting the plays for allusions to contemporary events and court intrigue,” which encouraged other interpreters to scour the plays in search of clues hidden there by their author. Shapiro writes, “Malone helped institutionalize a methodology that would prove crucial to those who would subsequently deny Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays (after all, the argument runs, how would anybody but a court insider know enough to encode all this?).” “You shouldn’t”, he says, “really read his life out of the works”, but it was a method used for centuries.

Faber1599-330If you’ve read 1599, you won’t have forgotten that the book opens with one of the most dramatic episodes in Shakespeare’s theatrical life. The demolition of the Theatre north of the river after their lease had run out, the moving of its timbers over the Thames, and the building of the Globe on Bankside. In most biographies, this is dealt with in a couple of paragraphs, but Shapiro has the luxury of being able to speculate on exactly what this might have been like.

“As darkness fell on 28 December, the old frame of the Theatre, loaded onto wagons, with horses slipping and straining from the burden of hauling the long half-ton, foot-square oak posts, began to make its way south through streets carpeted with snow”.

Shapiro’s method of writing, inevitably, means that he has to imagine events in Shakespeare’s life. But by putting just a single year under the microscope, and using known, verifiable facts as background, he is able to put Shakespeare into the context of his times effectively. It won him several awards, and encouraged him to move onto his next big project, 1606. This has taken him only ten years, with a break to write Contested Will about the authorship debate.

1606jacket1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear is just out, and would appear from its title to follow the same award-winning formula, this time covering an early year from the reign of James 1. While the conflict in Ireland seemed to dominate 1599, 1606 is presumably overshadowed by the Gunpowder Plot of November 1605. Shakespeare tackled not just King Lear but also Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra, plays with a very different feel from those in 1599, reflecting changes in Shakespeare’s own life as well as that of the country. Shapiro is currently promoting his new book with a series of talks and book-signings. On Saturday 3 October he will be at the Shakespeare Centre in Stratford-upon-Avon talking about the process of researching and writing about Shakespeare with a man who knows more about it than almost anyone else, Stanley Wells, and on October 7 he will be at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC. This link goes to a podcast of Shapiro in discussion about the book.

For those of you unable to get to either of these, here is a link to James Shapiro’s website that contains lots of information about his work, and here is a clip of Shapiro himself talking about the new book. Those of you receiving this by email may need to click on the link to the full blog in order to get the video.

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Reporting War

Derbhle Crotty as Hecuba, Ray Fearon as Agamemnon, RSC 2015

Derbhle Crotty as Hecuba, Ray Fearon as Agamemnon, RSC 2015

On Saturday October 3rd the RSC is holding the latest in its series of debates on subjects raised by plays in its repertoire, Reporting War: Whose Truth is Told?

The debate specifically accompanies the RSC’s new production of Hecuba, Marina Carr’s version of Euripides’ Greek tragedy, which follows the trials of Queen Hecuba, but it’s equally appropriate for Shakespeare’s Henry V, currently in the RSC repertoire. Shakespeare relied heavily on accounts of British history, written by the victors. Shakespeare’s often criticised for the way he characterises historical figures, especially Richard III, but almost all the views he expresses are the official versions promoted by the Tudors and Stuarts.

The debate at the Swan will discuss how elusive the truth can become in times of conflict. Carr’s play follows the story of Hecuba, the widowed Queen of Troy whose children are also targeted in the upheavals that followed the Trojan War. It’s a story as relevant now as it was when the ancient Greeks saw it.

Those on the panel will include the author Marina Carr, its director Erica Whyman, BBC Security Correspondent Frank Gardner and Dr Fiona Macintosh, Director of the Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama at the University of Oxford.

King Henry V

King Henry V

Carr’s play contains the line “They will lie about what happened this day….’ and although Shakespeare was not attempting a faithful telling of the facts, always being more interested in making a successful play, he is certainly interested in how the story is transmitted. In his magnificent speech before the battle of Agincourt Henry V reminds his troops that they are making history:
This story shall the good man teach his son,
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by
From this day to the ending of the world
But we in it shall be remembered.

This was particularly brought home in Matthew Warchus’s production of the play in 1994 with Iain Glen playing the king. In the previews, during the battle scenes scribes, perched high up on tennis-umpire-style ladders, could be seen busily writing: history being recorded as it happened. Sadly this detail was dropped from the production, I imagine because the ladders proved a hazard to actors on the stage as well as the people sitting on them. There were other features in the production that made the same point: in his Sunday Times review, John Peter noted that from the very beginning, “the play speaks with two voices. It speaks of the past, and to the present. Tony Britton is the Chorus, taking the stage with massive confidence: a rock-like, dignified presence in a modern military overcoat with a poppy in his buttonhole. Behind him, a medieval royal robe is displayed, surrounded by poppies on high stalks. You are, simultaneously, in the past and the present.

There are moments when Shakespeare does lift details from his sources almost as written. Hearing that his old friend Bardolph is condemned to die for stealing from a church, Shakespeare’s Henry does not soften: “We would have all such offenders so cut off; and we give express charge that in our marches through the country there be nothing compelled from the villages, nothing taken but paid for, none of the French upbraided or abused”.

Raphael Holinshed

Raphael Holinshed

Holinshed’s version: “He caused proclamation to be made, that no person should be so hardy on pain of death, either to take any thing out of any church that belonged to the same, or to hurt or do any violence either to priests, women, or any such”.

Holinshed’s Chronicles, published in 1577 and enlarged in 1587 (the edition Shakespeare used), was only one of the histories of pre-Tudor England, but none of them was written at the time the events took place. Under Henry VII the wonderfully-named Polydore Vergil, an Italian, was asked to write a history of England, a task that took him several decades. According to E M W Tillyard, who gives an account of these history-writers in his book Shakespeare’s History Plays, Polydore portrayed a rather stiff Henry: “recognising that a king should be such in spirit wisdom seriousness vigilance and good faith, that he should look on his kingdom as a burden rather than as an honour”. His Henry’s declares he has a divine right to the French throne, and “it is Polydore who first made Henry oratorical before Agincourt, and it is interesting that his Henry says much the same as Shakespeare’s”. Elsewhere coolly analytical, Polydore acquiesced “in what had become a national myth”.

Edward Hall’s The Union of the two noble and illustre Families of Lancaster and York, published in 1548, expands on Polydore, adding the debate between Henry’s counsellors about war, and the Archbishop’s speech on the Salic Law. These eloquent, dramatic speeches, written by Hall, were partially assimilated into Holinshed’s version. Tillyard is scathing about his adaptation “borrowed by Holinshed but only parrotwise and with little understanding”, but Holinshed had to compress his version of events.

So many different versions of the same story: it’s not just whose truth is told, but who is doing the telling, and why. The same is surely just as true of those who are reporting war today. The debate at the Swan Theatre on Saturday 3 October will run from 10.15 to 11.30, and more details can be found here.

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Shakespeare’s (un)happy families

shakespeares guide to parentingShakespeare rarely describes a really happy family: in The Taming of the Shrew and King Lear the sisters compete vigorously, their fathers failing to understand their daughters, in Henry IV the king misjudges his young son Hal, Juliet’s parents both disown her when she shows signs of independence, and so on, and so on. There are few mothers in Shakespeare’s plays, Volumnia in Coriolanus being the most ferociously ambitious. The most-loved parents are often the ones who aren’t there, like Hamlet’s father, Viola’s in Twelfth Night, or Helena’s in All’s Well That Ends Well. All too often Shakespeare’s characters seem to be adrift. Even when they have close family ties the children are let down by their parents. The Comedy of Errors is unusual in that at the end, by a series of comic coincidences, a whole family is reunited. It’s rather odd that Shakespeare used this device at the very beginning of his career, then came back to it at the very end in The Winter’s Tale after putting his characters through sixteen years of loss and heartache. It’s still a sober ending, remembering the death of Mamillius.

Shakespeare looks at family life from the points of view of both parents and children. Parents are often exasperated by the obstinacy of their offspring, and as a parent himself it’s easy to imagine that Shakespeare sometimes found it difficult to be a father.

Shakespeare's Guide to Parenting

Shakespeare’s Guide to Parenting

I’ve just been sent a new book that’s made me laugh out loud more than once as I’ve browsed through its pages. James Andrew’s Shakespeare’s Guide to Parenting takes Shakespeare quotations and pairs them with cartoons of situations in modern family life. It’s very much on the parents’ side, and grouped by the sort of situations they will almost certainly find themselves in. Quoting the book’s publicity, it’s “a humorous compilation of parenting wisdom from the Bard, cunningly extracted from his best-loved plays… Forget Super Nanny and the naughty step – this handy pocket-sized book will help long-suffering mums and dads know exactly what to do, and say, in every parenting eventuality”. It also casts quite a new light on some familiar and not so familiar quotations from Shakespeare. If you’re looking for a gift for a new parent, take a look at this delightful little book.

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The Battle of Waterloo: a Shakespeare connection

William Sadler's painting of the Battle of Waterloo

William Sadler’s painting of the Battle of Waterloo

2015 is a good year for centenaries. 800 years on, Magna Carta is probably the most important of these, and towards the end of October we’ll be celebrating 600 years since the great victory of Agincourt. Both of these have Shakespearean resonance, but the third important centenary this year, the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, had no obvious link with Shakespeare.

Then, over Heritage Open Weekend I went to the Shakespeare Centre for their archives exhibition, and spotted an item that I’d only read about before. It was a small book, published in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1819, written by Mary Hornby. It was a play, entitled The Battle of Waterloo: A Tragedy.

Mary Hornby was for a number of years in charge of Shakespeare’s Birthplace. She was distantly related to Shakespeare’s being a cousin of the Harts who descended from his sister Joan. During her period of care, the number of Shakespearian relics multiplied and she was eventually forced to leave the Birthplace, setting up shop, with the relics, across the road.

Robert Bell Wheler's illustration of the Birthplace

Robert Bell Wheler’s illustration of the Birthplace

Few seem to have had a good word for Mary Hornby. In his Guide to the town published in 1814 Robert Bell Wheler very nearly omits to mention the Birthplace at all, while waxing lyrical about other buildings. The most famous account of Mary Hornby comes from the polite but humorous American writer Washington Irving, who visited in 1815.

The house is shown by a garrulous old lady, in a frosty red face, lighted up by a cold blue anxious eye, and garnished with artificial locks of flaxen hair, curling from under an exceedingly dirty cap. She was peculiarly assiduous in exhibiting the relics with which this, like all other celebrated shrines, abounds…

I am always of easy faith in such matters, and am ever willing to be deceived, where the deceit is pleasant and costs nothing… and on this occasion I went even so far as willingly to believe the claims of mine hostess to a lineal descent from the poet, when, luckily, for my faith, she put into my hands a play of her own composition, which set all belief in her consanguinity at defiance.

A few writers were kinder. W T Moncrieff’s 1824 Excursion to Stratford upon Avon included the recently-published account of a Miss Hawkins rather than that by Irving. Her description of the Birthplace is familiar: “the walls, ceilings, and every part, covered with signatures of visitors; various articles of Shakspeare’s property: – his chair in the chimney corner, – the matchlock with which he shot the deer”. Mrs Hornby “appears very singular in mind. She writes and prints plays and verses of her own composition. From the newspapers she has made a Tragedy of the Battle of Waterloo, the queerest thing imaginable…But her innocent conceit is the most curious circumstance of her character. She talks of her performances with wondrous approbation; she says she composes whenever she cannot sleep…She writes a fair hand, and in her style of speaking there is no predominant vulgarity… I bought her play…She said she had never been in London. She spoke with pleasure of seeing Shakspeare’s plays, but with no discrimination”.

In her preface, Mary Hornby writes: “The following pages were originally written in detached parts, in the same room which gave birth to my great Predecessor, the immortal Shakspeare”… I now send this little work forth, with “all its imperfections on its head”, – humbly imploring, from an indulgent Public, that kindness which an unprotected Female never asked in vain.”

The Duke of Wellington

The Duke of Wellington

Mary was clearly familiar with Shakespeare’s plays, particularly Henry V. Her account of the battle is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s scenes at Agincourt. In particular, the Duke of Wellington’s speech to his troops before the battle in Act 5 has a distinctly Shakespearean ring:
My valiant soldiers, there is not one of us, who, pending the issue of the great emprise, may find a grave of glory on the eventful day, of whom the world (save the bold enemy) wou’d not be proud to say, the greatest heroes were the heroes slain. I see your noble valour, darting, like lightning, from the indignant eye! As the girth’d courser when the trumpet sounds, now summon quick your wonted courage up, and shew to all th’admiring nations round, that you are men of the true English blood, deserving well the lofty name you bear – surpassing even your brave ancestors, in deeds of bravery!”.

It’s easy to criticise Mary Hornby’s unsophisticated work, and she herself was an easy target for Irving’s skilful pen. Perhaps his description is a little unfair, given Miss Hawkins’ more charitable account of the poor widow, writing “a fair hand” and with “no predominant vulgarity”. She may have been eccentric, but was far from illiterate, having read and appreciated Shakespeare’s plays. She took newspaper accounts of the battle and the events leading up to it and shaped them into a play, clumsy though it is. It was also rare for any woman to write or publish anything in the early nineteenth century.

Wellington’s victory against Napoleon’s forces on 18 June 1815 was close, but decisive. Within days of the battle Napoleon abdicated, and soon surrendered. It was the end of more than twenty years of conflict with the French, and a source of national rejoicing. Hornby’s play closes with the Duke of Wellington mourning those who died in battle, and it was indeed one of the bloodiest in military history. 15,000 British soldiers died, and 8,000 Prussians, while Napoleon’s army lost 25-26,000, a total of nearly 50,000 dead and thousands more injured.

Mary Hornby’s “little work” then honours the memory of the Battle of Waterloo and links it with the history of Shakespeare-worship in Stratford-upon-Avon.











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Arms and armour on the stage

Alex Hassell as Prince Hal in Heny IV, photo by Kwame Lestrade

Alex Hassell as Prince Hal in Heny IV, photo by Kwame Lestrade

It’s rare for those who work behind the scenes in any entertainment industry to receive any attention from the media, so it was a great pleasure to hear Kirsty Lang’s feature on Alan Smith, the RSC’s Head of Armoury, on Friday 18 September 2015’s Front Row for BBC Radio 4. The RSC is the only theatre with an in-house armoury where armour is specially made and fitted, as well as large costume department which, according to Alistair McArthur who heads the Costume Department, “make all its costumes, hats, masks, jewellery and even underwear in-house”. It’s great to see the work of these immensely skilled people acknowledged in this way.

The reason for the interview is that the RSC’s latest production of Shakespeare’s Henry V is just opening, with Alex Hassell playing the title role. Listeners will probably not be surprised to hear how much putting on the “super-hero kit”, including the complicated and bulky armour, gives Hassell extra confidence when getting into character.

Alan Smith clearly knows his heraldry and the history of weapons, but listeners might be surprised to hear him talking about how stage armour is made, not always of metal, but mostly of plastic or leather. You might also like to see a short video of Smith from the RSC website, demonstrating some of the skills needed to create armour.

After he’s made the armour, it gets sprayed with mud in the “mud and blood room”. Just as costumes often have to be broken down to look worn, armour has to look as if it’s been through a battle. I’ve not been able to find the source of the story, but I remember reading that a new employee during the Benson era, finding Benson’s Henry V armour looking dull, polished it up. When Benson walked onstage the armour not only looked brand new, it was so bright under the theatre lights that it dazzled the audience. When making costumes for the theatre there are many things to take into account, not least that they look different under the artificial stage lights. In his book Benson and the Bensonians, J C Trewin quotes a review by C E Montague of an outdoor performance regretting how some elements of theatrical illusion, including the “tinny stage armour”, fail to convince when out in the open air.

1590 Suit of armour made in Greenwich. Royal Armouries

1590 Suit of armour made in Greenwich. Royal Armouries

Frank Benson’s armour was made of metal, even if rather thin. Just as today, stage armour had to be both relatively cheap and light. Henry V was one of Benson’s favourite roles that he continued to play for around thirty years. As well as being heroic and inspirational, his Henry was athletic. Again in Benson and the Bensonians, actor Darby Foster is quoted recalling how Benson “would use a vaulting pole after the Harfleur speech, and leap in full armour from the stage to the French ramparts, a distance of nine or ten feet”.

Modern armourers are mostly employed to create armour and weapons that look like the real thing, but are to be used in films, for TV, theatre and re-enactments. A quick search of the internet will show, however, that interest in medieval weaponry is high. The Royal Armouries have bases at the Tower of London, Leeds and Portsmouth. The exhibition at the Tower of London includes the Line of Kings, a spectacular display where suits of Royal armour are on display, seated astride wooden carved horses. One of the exhibits is the 1590 suit of armour pictured, made in Greenwich near London.

Italian armour from 1400. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Italian armour from 1400. Metropolitan Museum of Art

In New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art contains a fine collection of armour, including this set of Italian armour dating from 1400, almost exactly the same time as the historic Battle of Agincourt.

Suits of armour can be beautiful objects: many of those created during the Elizabethan period were more for show than for use. The weapons created at the time, though, are a reminder of the horrific reality of medieval and early modern warfare, with swords, axes and maces designed to inflict terrible wounds in hand to hand fighting. I remember a few years ago seeing a collection of weapons at Arundel Castle in Sussex: halberds, spears and pikes, vicious objects with long handles to allow them to be used at a distance.

If you want to find out more, they’re holding an event focusing on armour and weapons at Arundel Castle on 28 and 29 October, entitled Normans and Crusaders in the Keep.

It’s all a long way from the work of the stage armourer, where the priority is to make sure nobody gets hurt: the armour is easy to wear, the swords blunted. It is only theatre, but it’s still important to be convincing, to remind the audience of the human price of war even as they are being safely entertained.

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