Shakespeare and the moon

Astronaut on the moon, 1969

It’s fifty years since the first moon landing in July 1969, and most people who were alive at the time must have memories of it. My father woke me up to watch Neil Armstrong become the first human ever to tread on the surface of the moon, and I remember the capsule returning to earth. Later we went to London to see samples of moon-rock displayed in a glass case in a museum. It was hard to relate the dull fragments of rock to the glamorous Apollo missions and the beauty of the moon itself. My other strong memory though is of gazing at the moon while the astronauts were there. How would their expedition change how we felt about our moon?

The beautiful, mysterious moon has always fascinated us. Its link to the tides has been known for centuries, and the phases of the moon were thought to influence other aspects of life on earth such as the growth of plants. Some thought that weeds should be pulled up at the moon’s wane and apple trees pruned as it was waxing or increasing. Thomas Hill believed in gardening by the moon: in The Gardener’s Labyrinth(1652), he notes that herbs like rocket, parsley and oregano should be sown as the moon is increasing, and new strawberry plants should be set as it waned. It was supposed to influence the weather: Thomas Tusser in 1580 wrote a little rhyme about it:

Moon changed, keeps closet three days as a Queen,
Ere she in her prime will of any be seen:
If great she appeareth, it showereth out,
If small she appeareth, it signifieth drought.

Shakespeare, as a countryman, must have heard all these superstitions, but we can’t know if he believed any of them. In King Lear Edmund dismisses his father’s worries about the power of lunar eclipses to affect events on earth, but in Richard II the Welsh Captain believes what is prophesied by disturbances in the skies:

The bay-trees in our country are all withered,
And meteors fright the fixed stars of heaven,
The pale-faced moon looks bloody on the earth,
And lean-looked prophets whisper fearful change…
These signs forerun the death or fall of kings.

Drawn by Thomas Harriot in c1611, shows a map of the surface of the moon. Petworth Estate & Lord Egremont PHA HMC 241/9

I wonder how much Shakespeare actually knew about the moon. During his lifetime one of the many advances in science was the invention of the telescope in 1608 by German/Dutch Hans Lippershey. Galileo quickly adopted his ideas and improved them, building a telescope with which he could examine the moon and planets of the solar system. This knowledge quickly made its way to England: in 1611 Thomas Harriot drew this map of the moon’s surface, a document now in the Petworth Estate’s archives.

Shakespeare would surely have been interested to see this map, though his own references to the moon are for dramatic effect, particularly in the play most closely associated with the moon and its influence, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare seems to be determined to throw in as many references to the moon as he can and to remind us of our many, conflicting views of it. It’s a symbol of love, of madness, of chastity, to be feared or laughed at.

We’re told right at the start of the play that the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta is to take place on the day of the new moon, connecting the event with this serious ritual. And Theseus then speaks some of Shakespeare’s most romantic lines:

Starveling from the Austrian Burgtheater production in 2007

Four days will quickly steep themselves in night;
Four nights will quickly dream away the time:
And then the moon – like to a silver bow
New-bent in heaven – shall behold the night
Of our solemnities.

Hermia’s punishment for defying her father may be to face a life of chastity, “chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon”. The moon is also a source of comedy, appearing in human form in the play Pyramus and Thisbe. For the literal-minded mechanicals the fact that Pyramus and Thisbe met by moonlight demands it. “This lanthorn doth the horned moon present;/Myself the man i’th’moon do seem to be”.  Poor Starveling, as the moon, is a figure of fun to his audience who constantly interrupt him as he tries to get his lines out.

Then at the close of the play Puck, a figure derived from English folklore, reminds us that the moon could also be dangerous.

Now the hungry lion roars
And the wolf behowls the moon,
Whilst the heavy ploughman snores
All with weary task foredone.

Shakespeare understood the complexity of our relationship to our mysterious moon. It’s become no simpler since men have stood on its surface. We still stare and wonder at its beauty, just as people have done for millennia.


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Sam Wanamaker’s centenary

Sam Wanamaker

14 June 2019 is the centenary of the birth of an unlikely hero of the British theatre, Sam Wanamaker. Most closely associated with Shakespeare’s Globe, which was built largely because of the force of his personality, Wanamaker was also a well-known actor, in the UK performing Iago to the Othello of Paul Robeson in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1959. In his native USA he was also a political activist. It’s for his work at the Globe, though, that he is best remembered, and a few years ago the indoor theatre at the Globe was named after him. He died before his dream of reconstructing the Globe theatre became a reality but the building, and its enormous success, are down to his passion and commitment. 

I’ve written a couple of blog posts about the man which discuss his life and achievements. This one here about the building of the Sam Wanamaker theatre, and this one on his life as a whole. Shakespeare’s Globe, too, have been celebrating his achievements and have created this podcast in honour of the anniversary.

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The John Webster #websterthon


Title page of The Duchess of Malfi quarto

In June 2019 the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon, is celebrating another of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, John Webster, in the seventh of their marathon playreadings. Webster’s canon is too compact for the three weeks of the event, and this year they are including plays that are known to have influenced the playwright. In order to track these influences, they are reading them in reverse chronological order: with Webster’s words fresh in their minds they will pick up references from earlier works as they appear. Martin Wiggins, who masterminds these events, describes it as “the literary equivalent of searching for the source of the Nile by navigating upstream”. The readings begin on 10 June and full information, including a timetable, can be found here.

The findings of these readings will contribute to Dr Helen Moore’s work on a new biography of Webster. A brief biography is on the British Library’s website.

Webster’s best-known works are the two Jacobean tragedies The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi. Both are set in Italy, a den of corruption and deception. The Roman scenes, and the character of Iachimo in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, remind me of the settings and characters of Webster’s plays, but unlike Shakespeare, humour, even black humour, is hard to find in his plays.

T S Eliot remarked on Webster’s love of the gruesome in his poem Whispers of Immortality:

Webster was much possessed by death
And saw the skull beneath the skin;
And breastless creatures under ground
Leaned backward with a lipless grin.  

Daffodil bulbs instead of balls
Stared from the sockets of the eyes!
He knew that thought clings round dead limbs
Tightening its lusts and luxuries. 

Joan Iyiola as the Duchess in The Duchess of Malfi, RSC, Swan 2018

At the RSC’s recent production of The Duchess of Malfi I did what I have almost never done in my theatregoing life – I left at the interval. This was not a judgement on the production but I was overwhelmed by the sense of claustrophobia and impending violence that had been signalled from the very beginning of the play.  I walked out of what felt like a slaughterhouse into the open air of Shakespeare’s Stratford with a huge sense of relief.

Webster’s first great solo work was The White Devil. He had spent much of his literary life collaborating with other writers, and had struggled to complete it. It was not well received on its first staging but Webster was not prepared to give up on the play, getting it published so it could be read by educated people. He wrote a long and rather endearing explanation To The Reader, that tells us quite a lot about the theatrical world as well as Webster himself.

He excuses the play’s failure at the Red Bull Theatre, blaming the weather “it was acted in so dull a time of winter”, the theatre “ in so open and black a theatre”, and the audience “most of the people that come to that playhouse resemble …ignorant asses” and suggests that even if the audience included many informed people, “the breath that comes from the uncapable multitude is able to poison it”.

Having insulted most of the audience, Webster apologises for writing slowly “I do not write with a goose-quill winged with two feathers” and continues to insult faster writers by implying their work will “only be read for three days, whereas mine shall continue three ages”.

His warmest words are reserved for his fellow-writers, some of whom had been his collaborators: “the full and heightened style of Mr Chapman, the laboured and understanding works of Mr Jonson, the …worthily excellent Mr Beaumont and Mr Fletcher and…the right happy and copious industry of Mr Shakespeare, Mr Dekker and Mr Heywood”.

John Webster from the film Shakespeare in Love

Around 15 years younger than Shakespeare, Webster must have been familiar with Shakespeare’s plays, and the two men probably knew each other. Their meeting shown in the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love is pure fiction, but the image of the young Webster tormenting a mouse by dangling it in front of a cat is inspired. He tells Shakespeare “When I write plays they will be like Titus [Andronicus]…I liked it when they cut heads off….Plenty of blood. That’s the only writing”. Fortunately for all of us Shakespeare did not agree, but Webster shouldn’t be dismissed as being interested in only mindless violence.  He was a powerful writer of striking poetry and prose, a unique voice that reflected the turbulent times in which he lived.

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Taking Shakespeare to the great outdoors, 2019


The stage for Shakespeare in Yosemite

Around the UK optimistic announcements are being made for a season of outdoor Shakespeare. Typically, the weather forecast for the beginning of June indicates some unsettled conditions, but fingers crossed for  another fine summer.  The Dell, the RSC’s garden space in Stratford-upon-Avon, hosts its first Shakespeare production on Saturday 1 June with a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and continue each weekend until 1 September.

Over the last few decades outdoor theatre has increased in popularity and the What’s on Stage site now lists a wide range of open air plays including the place where I saw my first outdoor production, Regent’s Park in London and what must be the most spectacular UK venue, the Minack Theatre in Cornwall, perched high on cliffs overlooking the sea. The most ambitious production on offer sounds to be a street theatre adaptation of Melville’s epic whaling novel, Moby Dick to be staged in London.

Back to Shakespeare, a quick internet search reveals productions all round the country. Both Cambridge and Oxford hold their own Shakespeare Festivals, and pop-up Shakespearean theatres will also be seen this summer at York and Blenheim.  While there will be some Shakespeare at the Edinburgh Festival, Glasgow is not to be outdone with stagings at the City’s Botanical Gardens in the City. Now in its 18th year, this is Scotland’s only annual outdoor Shakespeare Festival. Let’s hope for all their sakes that the summer turns out to be dry.

The USA, with more reliable weather, has developed a huge number of outdoor Shakespeare Festivals. Speaking recently to the Shakespeare Club in Stratford Dr Paul Prescott revealed that there are no fewer than 308 of them in North America. In 2014 he was part of the team who toured 14 of these for the Shakespeare on the Road project. The project sought answers to a number of questions such as why we feel the need to fill beautiful empty spaces with Shakespeare, and why, in North America, Shakespeare is so often produced in preference to playwrights like Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams.

As You Like It, Shakespeare in Yosemite 2019

Since then Dr Prescott has been directly involved in the development of a new Shakespeare festival,  Shakespeare in Yosemite, in which for just a few days a single Shakespeare play is performed in the magnificent surroundings of the Yosemite valley in California.  It’s a project in which concern for the environment comes first – the balance of nature is constantly threatened by the presence of visitors – but they have come up with a number of principles designed to draw attention to the valley’s delicate state while also keeping damage to a minimum. So costumes are, as far as possible, recycled or recyclable, performers come from a wide range of backgrounds including Park staff, and there are only a few performances. 2019 is their third year. They began with an hour-long programme that related the park’s first champion, John Muir, to Shakespeare, and followed with A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It.  Rather than trying to transport a bit of Olde England to this spot the productions relocate to Yosemite itself, replacing English placenames with local ones and giving the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream the names of local flowers instead of Shakespeare’s Peaseblossom and Mustardseed. Unlike most outdoor Shakespeare, too, the productions are staged in April taking advantage of a number of special anniversaries: Shakespeare’s birthday, John Muir’s birthday, Earth Day and Arbor Day. The 2020 production will be Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Created as it has been by academics this unique project could feel serious, even worthy, but it’s obvious from the clips on the website that the productions are designed to be above all celebratory, enriching the experience of visiting this beautiful place which Shakespeare would certainly have treasured.

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Happy 80th birthday, Sir Ian McKellen!

25 May 2019, the 80th birthday of Ian McKellen! I was recently lucky enough to catch his one-man show Ian McKellen on Stage at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry. He’s performing this show up and down the country for most of the year, a feat that would exhaust a much younger person. In Coventry he had originally expected to perform twice, on the evenings of Friday and Saturday, but decided to fit in a matinee on the Saturday as well. That was the performance I attended, and he appeared to be thoroughly enjoying the experience. At the end of each performance he asks the audience to donate to a local charity as they leave, and grabs a bucket himself. As we left he was surrounded by a crowd of audience members who, as well as putting money in the bucket, were queueing up for selfies or autographs. I couldn’t help thinking that with just a couple of hours before he had to start again most people, let alone 79-year-olds, would be glad of a nice rest.

That’s never been his way though. He’s always been a hard worker. As well as acting on stage, film and TV, for many years he had another one man show, Acting Shakespeare, which he performed on and off from 1977 to 1990. I saw this one too, in London in 1987. Like the current show, he asked for a bit of audience participation, throwing out the names of Shakespeare adaptations and asking us which Shakespeare play they were derived from. Everybody knew West Side Story, but The Boys from Syracuse was a bit trickier. The main part of the performance, though, were the scenes from Shakespeare. Not just the big monlogues, he also included the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet (rather unconvincing as Juliet I thought) and one of the scenes between Hal and Falstaff in Henry IV part one, which was mesmerising.

Now he has a much wider audience, who know him from a whole series of TV and film roles of which Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings is the best known, and lengthily acknowledged at the start of the show. So completely does he hold the audience in his hands that he’s able to close the first half with The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo by the great but hardly mainstream Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Willard White as Othello, Ian McKellen as Iago, RSC 1989

After the interval, it’s Shakespeare all the way. I’ve seen him perform quite a few Shakespeare roles on stage: Romeo, Macbeth, Coriolanus, King Lear, and Richard III on film, but the very best, for me, was his Iago at the old tin hut The Other Place, in 1989, with Willard White as Othello. The audience were so close in that space that they could see everything, and McKellen gave an astonishingly controlled performance, every flick of the eyes intended to be seen and interpreted by those watching.

Ian McKellen has long been known for campaigning, and during the show he mentions his work as a gay rights activist. He finishes this show with a different kind of political statement, the speech from Sir Thomas More which Shakespeare wrote and which exists, probably in Shakespeare’s own hand, in the British Library. It’s a plea for humanity when dealing with refugees. It’s a speech he’s become associated with: here’s a clip from a performance a few years ago.

For me, Ian McKellen was a magician long before he became Gandalf, and I would love to see this show again. The tour goes on until September and although most performances are sold out there’s always a chance. If you already have tickets, you’re in for a treat. If you haven’t, it’ll be worth the effort to get some. Here is Michael Billington’s review, and this article includes interviews with some of the actors he’s worked with. This current tour certainly doesn’t have the feel of a farewell, and I’m sure we’ll be hearing more from the great Ian McKellen in years to come. He’s performing on his birthday in Bolton, Lancashire, where his obsession with theatre began. It’s sure to be a special evening, so happy 80th birthday, Sir Ian!

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Shakespeare and National Walking Month

It’s still National Walking Month, when everyone is encouraged to get out and increase the amount of walking they do. We don’t all have lovely countryside to walk around so inevitably some of our walks are a bit mundane. Over the last few months I’ve been working with an organisation called World Walking that encourages people, especially in groups, to make their regular walks more interesting by giving them challenges. It’s organised by Duncan Galbraith. The World Walking website includes a collection of virtual walks to and around a variety of locations, some fairly ordinary, some very exotic. Individuals and groups feed in the amount of walking they’ve done and they can see how far they have gone on their virtual walk, passing points of interest on the way. In fact I’m told that Duncan’s local walking group, the Inverclyde Globetrotters have, just this week, completed a virtual walk to the moon!

Duncan contacted me last year and asked me if I’d like to create a Shakespeare walk for the site, and it went live earlier this year. It’s one of the shortest as it begins from Mary Arden’s Farm in Wilmcote, passes Anne Hathaway’s Cottage and then walks around Stratford-upon-Avon visiting places Shakespeare would have known.

Shakespeare’s characters often wish they were somewhere else and try to think themselves there. Left in Egypt, Cleopatra wonders where Antony is and what he’s doing, and Richard II tries to think himself out of prison.

Shakespeare also mentions the idea of taking journeys in your mind. In sonnet 27 he talks about how, even after a tiring journey, the mind keeps on working on its own:

Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head,
To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired:
For then my thoughts, from far where I abide,
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,
Looking on darkness which the blind do see
Save that my soul’s imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night,
Makes black night beauteous and her old face new.
Lo! thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind,
For thee and for myself no quiet find.

Imagination is powerful, but it can’t really substitute for experience. Also in Richard II, Bolingbroke, facing banishment, recognises that the imagination can’t prevent us from being where we are.

O, who can hold a fire in his hand
By thinking on the frosty Caucasus?
Or cloy the hungry edge of appetite
By bare imagination of a feast?
Or wallow naked in December snow
By thinking on fantastic summer’s heat?

And in As You Like It Orlando voices his frustration after thinking he hs been wooing a boy instead of his love Rosalind, “I can live no longer by thinking”.

Of course, most of the walks on the site, unlike the walk to the moon, could actually be done as walks and this is certainly the case with my Shakespeare walk. In fact it’s short enough to do in a day, either virtually by walking round your own local park, or in reality. I hope that for National Walking Month you’ll have a go.

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Walking with Simon Armitage and Shakespeare

Simon Armitage

Congratulations to Simon Armitage, who was appointed Poet Laureate on 11 May 2019. It’s a strange job, nominally the official court poet, though these days it isn’t important to write new poems for royal occasions. It’s definitely an honour to be appointed though, and Armitage will find himself in demand to give his opinion on a range of issues even if he doesn’t have to do it in verse.

The history of the UK’s Poet Laureate is rather uncertain, some claiming that early poets including Geoffrey Chaucer were Poets Laureate. Shakespeare’s contemporary Ben Jonson  was granted a pension by James 1 in 1616/17 and followed after the restoration of the monarchy by William Davenant . In 1668 the royal office of Poet Laureate was officially created and conferred on John Dryden by Charles II.   Many of the earliest Poets Laureate were people who had connections with the stage, often adapting Shakespeare’s works in order to fit with the fashions of the time. These include Dryden, Davenant, Thomas Shadwell, Nahum Tate, Nicholas Rowe and Colley Cibber. Only later was it granted to people who were simply poets. From Shadwell onwards it became an appointment for life until Andrew Motion who took the post for 10 years from 1999-2009 and this has now become the norm. Producing poems for special occasions has been optional for a long time.  William Wordsworth is said to have only accepted the post on condition that he did not have to write any.

The new announcement comes during May, National Walking Month, which is appropriate for Simon Armitage since he has gained quite a reputation as a walking poet, or troubadour. Twice he has set off on long distance walks, living off the land and giving poetry readings as he went. He has written books about both walks: Walking Home (2012) about walking the Pennine Way, and Walking Away (2015) about walking the first part of the South West Coastal Path from Minehead to Land’s End.

Walking has long been associated with poetry, the Lake Poets often composing as they went on their perambulations. William Wordsworth’s Daffodils, one of the most famous poems in English, was written as the result of a walk that he took with his sister Dorothy.  This site lists some of the best poems about walking, and this site lists walks that inspired some of our best poets including Keats, Gerard Manley Hopkins, D H Lawrence and John Clare, as well as the Shakespeare Way that goes from Stratford to London.

For Shakespeare, walking to get from A to B seems to have been a necessity to be borne rather than enjoyed, with runaways like Imogen in Cymbeline and Rosalind, Celia and Touchstone in As You Like It finding their journeys on foot tiresome. “’Ods pittikins! can it be six mile yet? “ says Imogen, while Touchstone, through gritted teeth, declares “Travellers must be content”. Shakespeare almost certainly made the journey from Stratford to London on foot, at least as a young man, and must have known how miserable it could be.

His most cheerful walker is Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale, who looks out for gullible people to rob on the way. He sings as he walks:

Jog on, jog on, the foot-path way,
And merrily hent the stile-a:
A merry heart goes all the day,
Your sad tires in a mile-a.

Shakespeare also recognised that walking can be good for mental health, with Prospero walking “to still [his] beating mind”, and in Romeo and Juliet Benvolio finding that “a troubled mind drove me to walk abroad”.

Walking Home, by Simon Armitage

Being out of doors helps Simon Armitage to think clearly too. Here are a few lines from his poem In Praise of Air:

Among the jumbled bric-a-brac I keep a padlocked treasure-chest of empty space, on days when thoughts are fuddled with smog or civilization crosses the street

with a white handkerchief over its mouth and cars blow kisses to our lips from theirs I turn the key, throw back the lid, breathe deep. My first word, everyone’s first word, was air.

So good luck to Simon Armitage and I’m hoping he’ll find time to walk and breathe deep over the next few years.

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Shakespeare and National Gardening Week

The first of May seems to have been one of Shakespeare’s favourite days. In Much Ado About Nothing Beatrice is compared with her cousin Hero : she “exceeds her as much in beauty as the first of May doth the last of December”.  We can see what he meant: flowers are beginning to bloom, the weather is getting warm, grass is growing, trees are coming into leaf and seedlings are coming through. Summer is properly on its way.

For the same reason, 29 April to 5 May 2019 is National Gardening Week. This annual festival celebrates all aspects of gardening and this year its theme is Edible Britain. Plants grown for food are rarely as beautiful as the flowers, and with vegetables and fruit available in supermarkets all year round, many gardeners no longer grow their own. But as we become more aware of the importance of sourcing our own food locally, interest in planting food crops has been growing. There’s also a growing awareness that gardening is good for our physical and mental health.

Apple blossom

Shakespeare’s interest is well documented. He mentions plants and flowers in many of his plays from Ophelia’s list of herbs in Hamlet to Perdita’s flowers in The Winter’s Tale. But we can tell that Shakespeare was also interested in the act of gardening itself. Hamlet talks about an “unweeded garden that grows to seed”, in Richard II the gardeners train the growing branches of the “dangling apricocks”, and in Henry VI part 2 the Earl of Suffolk displays a knowledge of apple grafting, when  “noble stock/Was graft with crab-tree slip”. These gardening techniques are all used as metaphors, but there’s a bit of a threat in Richard III’s call for strawberries from the Bishop of Ely’s garden. The humblest of vegetables also get mentioned. The “rude mechanicals” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are, not surprisingly, banned from eating smelly onions and garlic before their appearance at court, but Shakespeare refers to the same plants at the emotional climax of All’s Well That Ends Well. As the impossible happens when a pregnant Helena appears before her husband, Lafeu,speaks for all of us when he says “Mine eyes smell onions; I shall weep anon”.

Shakespeare didn’t think there was anything odd about mentioning these very ordinary plants and how to grow them, but Shakespeare gardens around the world have traditionally concentrated on ornamental varieties.  This article from Vogue includes quotations from Jennifer Williams, who cares for a Shakespeare Garden at Brooklyn Botanic Garden. “What surprises visitors…is that the Englishman mentioned vegetables and herbs, and that there are so many plants that are now considered roadside weeds”.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s gardens in the Stratford-upon-Avon area, by contrast, include vegetable plots and herb gardens as well as plants grown for their beauty. At Mary Arden’s Farm in Wilmcote vegetables are grown, harvested and cooked as they would have been in Shakespeare’s time. I recently found a short video posted on Twitter to coincide with National Gardening Week that points out that foraging for herbs and wild flowers was also important as these plants supplemented the diet in springtime. Summer may be on its way, but the abundance of the harvest is still several months distant. At this time of year plants like turnips and apples, that had been in store during the winter, and leeks that were still in the ground, were all valuable.

The title page of Poly-Olbion

One of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Michael Drayton, wrote an extraordinary account of Britain, entitled Poly-Olbion, which he published in 1612. In its 15000 verse lines it catalogues the humble vegetables that were grown here in Shakespeare’s lifetime. Some now have different names, and some have dropped out of favour, but many are still grown in British gardens:

The Cole-wort, Cauliflower, and Cabbage, in their season,
The Rouncefall, great beans, and early ripening peason:
The Onion, Scallion, Leek, which housewives highly rate;
Their kinsmen Garlic then, the poor man’s Mithridate;
The savoury Parsnip next, and Carrot pleasing food;
The Skirret (which some way) in sallats stirs the blood;
The Turnip, tasting well to clowns in winter weather.
Thus in our verse we pott, roots, herbs, and fruits together.
The great moist Pumpkin (pumpion) then that on the ground doth lie,
A purer of his kind, the sweet Muskmullion by;
Which dainty palates now, because they would not want,
Have kindly learned to set, as yearly to transplant. The Radish somewhat hot, yet urine doth provoke; The Cucumber as cold, the heating Artichoke; The Citrons, which our soil not easly doth afford; The Rampion rare as that, the hardly gotten Gourd.

So as we grow some new edible plants in honour of National Gardening Week let’s remember that cultivating them could bring us closer to Shakespeare and his work.

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Births, baptisms and burials

An Elizabethan baptism

I wrote in 2014 about the documentary records of Shakespeare’s baptism at Holy Trinity Church on 26 April 1564. There’s a lot of confusion about the actual date of Shakespeare’s birth, but at the time it was the date of baptism and burial that were recorded. Births, marriages and deaths only began to be officially recorded in England in 1837. We know the date of Shakespeare’s death, 23rd April, because it is mentioned on his tomb, whereas the parish record gives the date of his burial as 25 April.

So although we can’t know exactly when Shakespeare drew his first breath, we do know that Shakespeare’s parents, godparents and other members of the family made their way down to the church from the Birthplace with the baby on 26 April. Tourists today still follow the route that they would have walked, now known as the “cradle to grave” route, ending up at the font which can still be seen in the church. Here little William, perhaps “mewling and puking”, was given his Christian name and welcomed into the church.

Holy Trinity Church

 It was normal for babies to be christened within a few days of birth so the 23rd April would be perfectly possible. As Samuel Schoenbaum remarks in his Documentary Life, “that date is irresistibly attractive, coinciding as it does with the feast of St George” whose day had been celebrated in England for centuries before Shakespeare’s birth. It’s an auspicious day but again Schoenbaum reminds us that “the wish is father of many a tradition”. It goes back a long way, with antiquarian William Oldys and Stratford curate Joseph Greene independently writing down the date during the early eighteenth century, but it seems that the first printed reference to the 23rd April came in 1773. Shakespeare’s status as National Hero had already been established well before this date: the Westminster Abbey monument of Shakespeare was erected in 1741.

The reason for christening the very young was the importance laid on ensuring that the baby had entered the Christian family. Infant mortality was high and by 1564 his parents had already lost their first two children. The bare records show that Joan had been born in 1558, and Margaret in 1562. Joan does not have a separate burial record, perhaps implying she died shortly after birth, but Margaret lived for about five months, her burial occurring in the spring of 1563. The records are the only evidence we have: we can only speculate about how and why they died, and how their parents might have felt. The memory of Margaret’s burial just a year before must have made William a particularly cherished child.

The earliest image of Shakespeare’s Birthplace

It’s recorded in the parish register that plague began in Stratford on 11 July 1564 and biographers have suggested that as a result the three-month old William might have been taken to stay in the village of Wilmcote with his mother’s relatives, where he would be safe. Nearly all the deaths recorded in the register are from families within the town. The danger was real:  Roger Green, who also lived in Henley Street, lost four children that summer. The town council, including John Shakespeare, met out of doors in August, rather than inside the Guild Hall,  to discuss how to help relieve those families affected by the plague.

Behind the facts written down in the parish records lie the human stories of people’s lives. On 26 April we are able to mark one of the few firm dates in Shakespeare’s early life. We don’t know how the family celebrated after the christening but it must have been a joyful day for the Shakespeare family who could never have guessed that centuries later, we would still be honouring their baby’s life and achievements.

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Stratford-upon-Avon’s first Black Othellos

Paul Robeson as Othello, SMT 1959

It’s 60 years ago, in April 1959, that one of the most important events in the history of the theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon took place. Paul Robeson, the great American singer and actor, became the first black Othello in Shakespeare’s town in the twentieth century.

Recently Professor Tony Howard spoke about Robeson’s Othellos to the Shakespeare Club in Stratford-upon-Avon. During his talk he revealed how this event almost didn’t happen at all because Robeson had been taken ill while he was in Moscow. The theatre’s management were standing by to announce another black actor, William Marshall, in the role, but the anticipation was so intense that desperate efforts were made to allow him time to recover. The rehearsals began without him, with understudy Julian Glover taking his place for the first two weeks.  A weakened, aging Robeson arrived to begin a month’s rehearsals on 12 March. If his illness affected his performance it didn’t matter. Robeson was a myth, a hero, and at the end of the first performance the audience would not stop cheering.

It’s rare for an actor to get several bites at any Shakespearean cherry, but Robeson was extraordinary. No actor has been associated so profoundly with any Shakespearean part as he was with Othello. There were three productions, over 29 years: at the Savoy Theatre in 1930, on Broadway and on US tour in 1943-45, and in 1959 at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford. Robeson’s portrayals, and the productions themselves, charted twentieth century developments in race relations on both sides of the Atlantic.

Peggy Ashcroft as Desdemona, Paul Robeson as Othello

When he came to England in 1930 he was already a star, both as an actor and a singer. He continued to sing “Ol’ Man River” from Showboat, easily his most famous song, throughout his career, altering the words to fit the event and the political mood. Robeson wanted this production to make a political statement.  Both he and his Othello were insecure outsiders in an unfamiliar world.  He doted on and was enraptured by his Desdemona, Peggy Ashcroft, both on and off the stage.  We  know it was controversial to see a black man embrace a white woman in public at the time, but Professor Howard revealed, more shockingly, that some people walked out because Indians and Africans were in the audience.  

Even though the production was successful Robeson felt he needed more experience to perform in Shakespeare. A revival was planned but in the event it took until 1943, during World War 2. In this production Robeson and Othello dominated the stage. The world was changing and Iago was visibly fascist and racist. It had a record-breaking run and was declared a “national victory for progress”.

Paul Robeson as Othello, Sam Wanamaker as Iago, Othello, SMT 1959

By 1959 the world had changed again. Robeson had survived the McCarthy era despite being a political activist, but his international stardom did not give him the right to travel. His passport had been restored to him only in 1958.  He had not even been allowed to go to Canada, several times performing on the border while Canadians listened from the other side. Now in his sixties Robeson performed Othello as an older man, weakening, surrounded by youth, but still with mythical status. Another American, Sam Wanamaker, was cast as Iago, a method actor from a different generation. To his great credit Robeson and he held improvisation sessions together. At last, too, Robeson found in Tony Robertson a director who helped him to understand the words, not just make them sound beautiful. Robeson’s performance might not have been perfect but it was totally committed and he saw it as the climax of his career.

The Aldridge plaque in Coventry.

In my first paragraph I noted that Robeson was the first black Othello in Stratford in the twentieth century, not ever. In 1851 another black American, Ira Aldridge, played the part in the theatre that then stood in Chapel Lane. Paul Robeson had been aware of Aldridge for years before he came to Stratford. In 1930 Robeson arranged for a material about Aldridge, including playbills, to be displayed at the Savoy Theatre. He actively pursued connections with Aldridge, rehearsing with is surviving daughter. An almost-forgotten man for many years, Aldridge is now being recognised. On a recent visit to Coventry I saw the 2017 blue plaque dedicated to him, the first black man to manage a theatre in England, which he did in 1828. It’s unlikely that Paul Robeson knew about this as the information has only recently been uncovered by Tony Howard himself but he would have approved. Robeson’s acknowledgement of his predecessor was a typically modest gesture in a career that was about celebrating black history as much as his own achievement.

If you’d like to hear Robeson’s glorious voice here’s a link to a clip of him reciting “It is the cause”.

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