Shakespeare memories from the Bush

Jim Morris with his scrapbook

Jim Morris with his scrapbook

A couple of weeks ago I visited my brother-in-law James (Jim) Morris, who has lived on a beautiful plot of forest in New South Wales, Australia, near the small town Eden, for over thirty years. He left Stratford-upon-Avon, where he had been born and brought up, at the age of 19 in 1959.

I knew he had appeared on the stage of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre as a child actor aged 13, chosen largely because of his beautiful singing voice, and he’d sent me before some photographs of the souvenirs that he still has relating to what was, not surprisingly, an important time of his life. It was great to talk to him about his memories of the 1953 season when he appeared in both The Merchant of Venice and Richard III. It was a star-studded season, with Peggy Ashcroft and Michael Redgrave in The Merchant of Venice, and Marius Goring, Basil Hoskins and Rachel Kempson in Richard III.

Two of the boys in Fiesta costume

Two of the boys in Fiesta costume

In The Merchant of Venice he was one of the three casket-bearers, three boys who held the gold, silver and leaden caskets, who sang, and also contributed to the play in other ways, not always planned. Jim remembered how one of the boys got the giggles one night, and how another time the lighting was mis-timed, leaving the boys struggling to find their way off the moving stage during blackout.  The perils of live performance…

Jim has lovely photos showing the boys in the costumes having fun, with their chaperone Mrs Tuke in attendance, as well as actors like Robert Shaw at a cricket match held in Tiddington.


Jim in Richard III

Jim in Richard III

Things were probably more serious in Richard III, when Jim appeared as Edward, Earl of Warwick, the son of Clarence. Jim’s scrapbook includes a page of photographs of himself in costume, including a close-up. While most of the photos look like snaps, and indeed many were taken by Jim himself with his newly-acquired camera, this one looks more professional. Tucked into the scrapbook he unfolded for me a sketch, on a flimsy piece of paper, that had been made to show what his hair was to look like. I’ve seen lots of examples of costume designs for Memorial Theatre/RSC productions, but never one of these. As he pointed out, there can’t be many of them left. How extraordinary to find such a vulnerable piece of evidence for a production of Shakespeare in Stratford in such a far-distant place.

Jim's wig design sketch for Richard III

Jim’s wig design sketch for Richard III

But then, Jim has a fund of fantastic memories of his early life, and quite a collection of memorabilia. I loved his diary covering 1959, the year when he left England for Australia, having seen several of the shows at the Memorial Theatre before setting off, and documenting the first few weeks after his arrival. In his scrapbook he still has the invitation, sent out by Peggy Ashcroft, Michael Redgrave, and Mr and Mrs Glen Byam Shaw, to the end of season party on 25 October 1953. What a party that must have been, and what an experience for a thirteen-year old.


The pig given to Jim by Peggy Ashcroft

The pig given to Jim by Peggy Ashcroft

I was delighted to be shown one of his most treasured possessions, the little pottery pig which Peggy Ashcroft (his Portia) gave him, in perfect condition. Apparently there were three of them, each a different size, one for each of the casket boys. I wonder if either of the other two are still recognised and valued, and if so, in which of the “three corners of the world” they are to be found.


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Shakespeare in Miniature

The Poet of them All

The Poet of them All

They say all the best things come in small packages, and it’s certainly true that we all find small things, that seem to defy the normal, fascinating. It’s easy to see why some things, like miniature paintings, came to exist: these jewel-like objects could be worn, creating a very personal connection between the wearer and the subject.

So why are miniature books so popular? A quick search on Google will turn up all kinds of results, but nobody buys a miniature book, surely, to read it? I’ve seen and examined several different miniature editions of Shakespeare’s plays, with and without little stands to arrange them on, and have always found them charming if not very practical.

I was intrigued to be sent a copy of The Poet of Them All: William Shakespeare and Miniature Designer Bindings from the Collection of Neale and Margaret Albert, and although I was sceptical at first I quickly became enchanted by these lovely little objects.

The Taming of the Shrew

The Taming of the Shrew

The private collection is soon to be acquired by the Yale Center for British Art. Each of the books is less than three inches in height, intricately decorated and designed with both creativity and skill. Bookbinding is a very practical craft, and one of the fascinating elements of the book is that the expertise of the bookbinder is shown off in descriptions and photographs showing the books being created. Each binder explains the idea behind their work. These tiny objects are like little jewels.

Derek Hood's Brush Up Your Shakespeare

Derek Hood’s Brush Up Your Shakespeare

The story of the different books is interesting in its own right. Neale Albert, who knows he is addicted, took sets of miniature Shakespeare editions and asked binders to rebind them, without any constraints other than asking them to do their best work. One edition was Knickerbocker’s Shakespeare, an American edition from 1910, another was published in London in 1825. Neale also gave bookbinders copies of a miniature illustrated book published in 2009, containing the music and lyrics to Brush Up Your Shakespeare, the famous song from the Cole Porter musical Kiss Me, Kate. What’s fascinating about these is to see how different are the thirty-nine imaginative responses he has got to the same book. Some have rearranged the pages concertina-style, some have cut-outs, and fold-outs, and many have responded to the music or the comedy of the song itself.

Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar

Derek Hood’s version of Brush Up Your Shakespeare includes references to “the staccato dots of the spat shoes and the angular zoot suits worn by the gangsters”, while Robert Wu’s, used for the book jacket, plays with the musical and text elements. Jenni Grey’s The Taming of the Shrew is bound in lilac, a colour chosen to reflect the feisty attitude of the play’s heroine, while the twisted wire refers to the constraints that try to suppress her personality. The little green Julius Casear text, by Santiago Brugalla, is tooled in a much more traditional style with a portrait of Shakespeare in the centre.

The exhibition of these gorgeous miniature books is open until 21 August 2016 at the Yale Center for British Art, 1080 Chapel St.,New Haven, Connecticut, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, and noon-5 p.m. Sunday.

The 1904 Merchant of Venice

The 1904 Merchant of Venice

As it happens, one of the venues receiving a copy of the First Folio on loan, as part of The Folger Shakespeare Library’s celebrations for 2016, is also including an exhibition of miniature texts.  The Albert & Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia is making its own unique contribution to the festivities with the exhibition, Shakespeare by the Book: Four Centuries of Printing, Editing, and Publishing.

The exhibition is in three sections, one of which includes a large number of miniature editions. The Illustration shows their copy of The Merchant of Venice from the 1904 Ellen Terry edition. At the other end of the scale the exhibition also includes examples of the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery prints, images large enough to hang on a wall.

It will run until December 31st 2016, with the Folger Shakespeare’s Library’s First Folio making its appearance for the month of October.


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Shakespeare in Sydney 2

The State Library of New South Wales

The State Library of New South Wales

On Tuesday we visited what is called on the website, “one of the most unusual places in Australia”, the Shakespeare Room at the State Library of New South Wales, that stands just across the road from the Shakespeare monument I wrote about last time. The Shakespeare Room was originally intended to celebrate the Tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death in 1916, but was only actually opened in 1942. It was designed to house the collection of David Scott Mitchell, after whom the whole Mitchell Wing of the Library is named. He collected books over a number of years in the early years of the twentieth century, with a number of people working to help him track down the volumes he wanted to acquire. Among these items was a complete set of all the Shakespeare Folios, the four collected editions published before 1700.

The box that carried the First Folio

The box that carried the First Folio

The Library still holds these, among the most treasured items in their collections. On permanent display in the room is a facsimile of the First Folio, and the original magnificently-carved wooden box which was created in order to ship the original volume to Australia, a wonderful reminder of how much Mitchell valued the book.

The Facsimile is left open at the speech from As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage”, because also in the room is a set of stained glass windows depicting the seven ages.
Stained glass windows

Stained glass windows

The copy of Roubiliac's bust

The copy of Roubiliac’s bust

The image shows the central panel including the lover, the soldier and the Justice. This speech is one of the most popular subjects for stained glass: in Stratford-upon-Avon there is another example on the staircase up to what used to be the 1879 theatre.

As well as the monument standing just outside the building, there is also a bust of Shakespeare inside the room. It’s a fine replica of the bust made in the first half of the eighteenth century by French sculptor Louis Francois Roubiliac, that depicts a refined gentleman in the same tradition as the Westminster Abbey statue. The bust was originally donated to the Library by Sir Richard Owen in 1857, and was actually put in position in 1955.
Another great feature of the room is the little wooden chair that sits unassumingly in the corner. Visitors are asked not to sit on it, and no wonder. Set into the back of the chair is a sliver of  “Shakspeare’s Wood”, said to be a bit of the mulberry tree from Shakespeare’s garden at New Place. It was lovely to find a little bit of Stratford-upon-Avon over here in Sydney, though whether it is original or not is very much in doubt as so many wooden souvenirs were said to have been created from one tree that it has often been said there must have been a forest of them. It’s fitting, though, that this possible link with Shakespeare’s home is to be found here.
The chair including Shakespeare's wood

The chair including Shakespeare’s wood

The sliver of Shakspeare's Wood

The sliver of Shakspeare’s Wood








The whole room is very reminiscent of the Shakespeare Room, newly rebuilt, that sits atop the Library of Birmingham. Both have elaborately-carved bookshelves, created to hold precious volumes of Shakespeare plays and books about him. We were told that the wood used is Tasmanian Blackwood, dyed in order to have the appearance of English Oak. Like the Birmingham Library, the actual volumes are nowadays safely stored in secure and air-conditioned stacks where they can only be consulted with special permission. The books in the room are all modern duplicates from the collections. For many years after it was created the Sydney room was used as a scholarly space for the study of special materials, but now it is open for visitors to see one day a week, and is also used for special events, again like the room in Birmingham.

Me with our guide Thomas and another visitor

Me with our guide Thomas and another visitor

We greatly enjoyed our visit to the Library including the Shakespeare Room and would like to thank our guide Thomas for telling us its story. It was heartening to see so much interest in this room from the many visitors who passed through while we were there, a tribute to the collecting passion of David Scott Mitchell who wanted to ensure there was a place for Shakespeare in Australia.

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Shakespeare in Sydney 1

The Sydney Shakespeare Monument

The Sydney Shakespeare Monument

And now, as they say, for something completely different. I’m at present holidaying on the other side of the world in Australia and I’m currently in Sydney. Inevitably there has had to be a search for Shakespeare.

The main Shakespeare memorial is a sculpture of the man with five of his most famous characters clustered around him: Falstaff, Portia, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet. The setting is reminiscent of the Gower memorial in Stratford-upon-Avon, where an elevated figure of Shakespeare, quill in hand, is surrounded by the characters. There Falstaff and Hamlet are seen along with Lady Macbeth and Prince Hal. Originally the statues in Stratford were closely clustered around the main figure, as the ones in Sydney are, only being moved further away around 1932 when the whole monument was moved away from the theatre following the fire and rebuilding that turned the focus of the theatre towards the canal basin as it remains today. The statues in Stratford were also at one time fenced off so that people couldn’t get close to them, and this is also, thought not intentionally, the case with the Sydney memorial which is now isolated in the middle of a busy road, where it was relocated in 1959 in order to allow the building of the expressway.
The area is now called Shakespeare Place, and is sited between the Royal Botanic Gardens and the State Library of New South Wales. The following details are adapted from a the City Arts Sydney website that contains lots of interesting information about the many monuments in the city. The Shakespeare Memorial was commissioned by Henry Gullett, a former president of the Shakespeare Society of New South Wales. He held the view ‘that statue was the finest memorial that any generation of men could raise to one of their own race who had greatly deserved of them’. He was integral in beginning negotiations with Sir Bertram MacKennal for the casting of a replica in bronze, of a Shakespeare memorial statue that he had made for India.
The whole of the Sydney Shakespeare Monument

The whole of the Sydney Shakespeare Monument

Sculptor Sir Edgar Bertram MacKennal (1863-1931) was the most successful Australian artist of his time, and is still arguably the best known of Australia’s sculptors. Born in Melbourne, he studied at the National Gallery School and Victorian Academy, and in 1883 at the Royal Academy and British Museum in London.
Working mostly in Europe from 1882 Mackennal executed many private works and public monuments, and with the patronage of King George V became a leading civic sculptor in Britain. He was the first Australian to be elected an associate of the British Royal Academy, the only Australian to be elected to full Royal Academy membership, and the first to be knighted.
The project was halted abruptly when Gullett died of heart failure in August 1914. Endeavouring to realise their father’s objective, the women of Gullett family maintained contact with MacKennal, who continued to work on the statue despite the War and numerous other commissions.
The marble pediment, after being cut and polished in Italy, was shipped to Sydney c.1924 and was placed in storage. The five bronze figures, which were cast in England, arrived soon after.
It’s great to find Shakespeare here, though it’s a pity he is probably only glimpsed fleetingly by the thousands of people who pass him ontheir daily drive to work. I found more Shakespeare nearby, and I’ll be reporting on that Shakespeare connections in my next post.

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Francis Raymond: Stratford-upon-Avon’s forgotten theatre manager

The 1827 theatre in Chapel Lane, around 1860

The 1827 theatre in Chapel Lane, around 1860

Stratford-upon-Avon’s early theatrical history is a subject that is often overlooked, dominated as it now is by the Royal Shakespeare Company. In fact the town’s first proper theatre opened in 1827 and was managed by a man whose name is never mentioned, Francis Raymond.

He had visited the town some years before, but he brought his Company to the fit-up theatre (a converted barn) in Windsor Street, Stratford in 1826, joining the Shakespeare Club and donating towards the 1827 Celebrations. When a permanent theatre building was proposed he bought two shares at a cost of £66 and was made its first manager. His wife also acted in the company. Stratford became part of his provincial circuit that included Northampton and Leicester. He was an energetic man: on 5 December 1827, he performed the leading role of Rover in Wild Oats in Leicester. Exactly a week later, on 12 December, he was to open the new Shakespearean Theatre in Stratford with a production of As You Like It. His roles included vigorous young men such as Gratiano in The Taming of the Shrew, Laertes in Hamlet and Cassio in Othello, which he played opposite William Macready on his visit to the town in 1829.

Stratford formed just part of a circuit of Midland theatres, including Leicester and Northampton, run by Raymond. Each of them would host performances for only a few weeks at a time: he occupied the Stratford theatre for no more than three months a year. He also appeared elsewhere: in January 1829 he appeared as the Duke of Aumerle in the great Edmund Kean’s production of Richard II at London’s Covent Garden.

By 1829 Raymond was having financial difficulties but in 1830 he was partly responsible for the success of the Celebrations in Stratford, his company of professional actors appearing as Shakespearean characters in the procession, as well as taking part in entertainments in the town. If this was a gamble, it failed to pay off as Raymond left the town shortly afterwards. This witty speech, made at the Shakespeare Club’s dinner was in a way his swan song.

“Mr Mayor and Gentlemen – “The Tempest” of approbation which has followed the announcement of a name so unworthy as my own, has left me “a bankrupt in thanks” like the Merchant of Venice. You cannot expect me to philosophize like Hamlet, or meditate like Macbeth; yet I am as grateful as Pericles; but were I to talk myself black in the face like Othello, my efforts to express my gratitude as I could wish would only prove Love’s Labour’s Lost. Our worthy President and his able supporter, like The Two Gentlemen of Verona, have vied with each other to make the evening pass exactly As You Like It. The Chronicles of England, from Lear and Cymbeline, up to King John, and through the Henries and Richards, to the reign of Henry the Eighth, were but a Comedy of Errors; until illustrated by William Shakespeare; yet the events of this day will serve to enliven many a Winter’s Tale, when life has passed away from us like a Midsummer Night’s Dream. Were I Romeo, and Juliet was to elope with Titus Andronicus, – or Troilus, and Cressida was to go off with Timon of Athens, – I would not trouble myself about the taming of a Shrew; but in the enjoyment of this moment leave to amuse themselves like The Merry wives of Windsor, and support the misfortune with the pride of a Coriolanus. Nay, were I a Julius Caesar, I would not exchange the honour you have just conferred upon me to pass my Twelfth Night with Antony and Cleopatra!

I fear I have unwarrantably intruded on your patience, but as I had no other claim to your notice, I borrow a few Titles to your kind attention. I would fain have given you Measure for Measure, but as All’s Well that Ends Well, I shall conclude by offering you my heartfelt thanks, or you may accuse me of making Much Ado About Nothing.

Edmund Kean as Richard II. Francis Raymond played Aumerle. Image from Folger Shakespeare Library

Edmund Kean as Richard II. Francis Raymond played Aumerle. Image from Folger Shakespeare Library

By September 1830 he had left the town, and during 1831 he was employed by Madame Vestris, with whom he had worked before, in The Royal Olympic Theatre, London.

In 1832 he became involved in petitioning Parliament with a view to loosening the rules by which the Patent Theatres of Covent Garden and Drury Lane were allowed to perform a wide range of plays while the “Minor Theatres” in London, were severely restricted, affecting their ability to work. A Parliamentary committee was set up to look into the issue but it was another decade before change occurred.

Later in 1832 Raymond was declared insolvent. He carried on acting, records showing him spending much time on tour, especially in Scotland and Ireland. The theatre brought great rewards to the few, but many like Francis Raymond experienced uncertainty and the indignity of being declared bankrupt, while at the same time bringing up a family.

Mr Raymond’s story will form part of “Long life to the club call’d  Shakspearean”: the story of the Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon, by Susan Brock and Sylvia Morris, to be published in autumn 2016. Details will be found in due course on the Club’s website.

I’m indebted to Viv Lake, a descendant of Francis Raymond, for providing me with a mass of information about his life outside Stratford.

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The Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon: family connections

The 1907 procession showing, on the cottages, some of the decorative shields

The 1907 procession showing, on the cottages, some of the decorative shields

Posts on this blog have been few and far between in the last couple of months, because, with my friend and ex-colleague Susan Brock, I have been writing the history of Stratford’s Shakespeare Club. We have unearthed a lot of information that hasn’t been seen before, reinterpreting documents and correcting assumptions.

Quite by chance, I’ve also found that some of my relatives had connections with the Club. I knew I had family who were interested in Shakespeare: my grandfather Frederick William Tompkins was sub-sacristan at Holy Trinity Church where among his other duties he showed visitors the tomb. Some of the famous people he met included Sarah Bernhardt and Ellen Terry. In the 1920s he became the Guide at the Birthplace, staying there until after the war when he retired aged about 70.

I knew he was artistic: I have a little painting he did of the view of the Falcon and Guild Chapel from the bottom of Scholars’ Lane where he lived for several years, and he did metal engraving, probably as a sideline: he engraved my initials on my christening mug and napkin ring. However during our researches I found several extra things out about him and another member of my family.

He was a member of the Shakespeare Club for several years from 1901-1905 when he was struck off for non-payment of subscriptions. His name is the very last in those recorded in the Club’s membership register for the period. This would have been not long after he got his job at the church, and during this period my father was born. I had always assumed that at this date the Club consisted of people who were more affluent than my family were, but perhaps he expected to increase his knowledge of Shakespeare. He didn’t leave the Club because it was a drain on his time, because his enthusiasm for Shakespeare was soon put to the test.

During the first few years of the twentieth century there was a big revival of interest in celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday, led by the Shakespeare Club. Elaborate decorations were produced and volunteers worked to make them the biggest and best they could. In 1907 he made and painted all the heraldic shields that were displayed in the town. The decorations were so lavish that the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald published a special supplement which describes them: “the painted shields both in this and the remaining part of the route were undertaken solely by Mr Tompkins, of Chapel-street, an indefatigable and skilful worker”. He decorated shields that were on display from the Guild Chapel down towards Old Town. “The house of Doctor Hewer can boast a shield of Elizabeth and another of James 1. A large and striking shield displaying the Brewers Arms…and the adjacent little cottages, among which is the Windmill Inn, are the proud bearers of six interesting and historically curious shields bearing a close connection with the Shakespeare family: Arden of Wilmcote, Shakespeare imp. Arden, Hall imp. Shakespeare,  Thomas Nash, Thomas Quiney, and Sir John Barnard. In the centre…are emblazoned the arms of the mighty dramatist himself. It may be observed that the hatchment mounting of these shields greatly adds to their effect. Then the arms of John and Robert de Stratford, and Ralph de Stratford, and on the High School a fine mounted shield displays the arms of Stratford on Avon.” A photograph shows some of these shields, rather distantly.

He also contributed in 1908, though his contribution is not specifically described. Among the other artists was the young Bruce Bairnsfather, the First World War cartoonist who created the character of Old Bill and the well-known line ‘Well, if you knows of a better ‘ole, go to it’.

The cast for Pan's Anniversary, in front of the Memorial Theatre. The maypole dancing girls, in white, are seated.

The cast for Pan’s Anniversary, in front of the Memorial Theatre. The maypole dancing girls, in white, are seated.

I discovered another charming connection. In 1905 the Shakespeare Club sponsored and staged a masque by Ben Jonson, Pan’s Anniversary, that took place on the Bancroft Gardens. This was an important event in the Club’s history showing a willingness to join in with the fashion for pageantry and folk festivals that was just beginning. The few photos that survive show the main participants, and the Maypole dancing that accompanied it, when local schoolgirls, dressed in white, performed on the wooden stage. They are all named in the programme, and I was surprised to see one of them was Isabel Tompkins. A bit of checking of the family tree showed that she was my great aunt, aged 13 at the time and living with her parents Alfred and Ada in West Street. Her father was an engineer working on the railway: many of the little terraced houses in that area, now very fashionable, were built for workers on the railways.

Researching the history of the Shakespeare Club I have been surprised over and over again by how much the Shakespeare “industry” in the town owes to ordinary people, from those who founded the club in 1824 to those who have given unselfishly of their time behind the scenes, a tradition that persists today.

If you would like to read the whole story, the book, entitled “Long life to the Club call’d Shakspearean”: the story of the Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon”,  will be published in autumn 2016 and full details will in due course appear on the Club’s website.

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Shakespeare, theatre, and the Great War

9781137401991[1]Over the past few weeks we have been remembering the battle of the Somme that began on 1 July 1916 and continued for five long and bloody months. On the first day alone 19,240 men lost their lives. Even before the start of this battle, the country, that had been at war with Germany for nearly two years must have found it difficult to celebrate anything, though in his recent essay on “Art and English Commemorations of Shakespeare”, * Alan Young notes that “Shakespeare was seen to represent the crowning glory of English culture currently under attack” He goes on to note the irony that in Germany, which Shakespeare had long been feted, there were also plans for elaborate celebrations including theatre performances.

In England the main event was a celebratory theatre performance, a tribute to Shakespeare “humbly offered by the players, and their fellow-workers in the kindred arts of music and painting”. This was held on 2 May at Drury Lane Theatre, consisting of Julius Caesar, along with a theatrical pageant. The programme reproduced dozens of works of art “clearly designed as a celebration of British culture at its best”. It was entirely appropriate that during this event the veteran Shakespeare actor-manager Frank Benson, playing Caesar, should be knighted by the King in the Royal Box. It was arranged at the last minute: they borrowed a sword (importantly a real one, not a theatrical prop). In Benson and the Bensonians, J C Trewin described the scene: “There he knelt before the King, still with the bloodstained robes, the painted white face, the sunken eyes, the blue lips and lines of pain, and the half-bald wig of the dead Caesar. That day, lacking enough grease-paint, he had smeared the hollows of his face with dust and dirt”. The news was met, both at Drury Lane and, later in Stratford where Benson’s Company were performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with huge acclamation. It was an acknowledgement that theatre, even during wartime, was of significant value.

frank benson henry vAndrew Maunder’s new book British Theatre and the Great War, published by Palgrave Macmillan, examines the role of theatre during this conflict. In his introduction he quotes the King, who praised “the handsome way in which a popular entertainment industry has helped the war with great sums of money, untiring service, and many sad sacrifices”. Events like the Tercentenary performance reinforced a sense of patriotism, but plays were also used as ways of recruiting soldiers. Henry V is always a popular play in times of war and it’s easy to see why: Henry is reassured by his advisers that war is justified, rallies his troops, and wins the day. In recent years, particularly post-Iraq, the play has been given an anti-war slant, but it would be hard not to be stirred by Henry’s speeches before and during battles. Not long after the declaration of war Benson had performed as Henry V at the Shaftesbury Theatre, and afterwards come out in front of the curtain in costume to dedicate his performance to soldiers, who he said would respond to their country’s call to arms “writing a new and magnificent history in their life’s blood”.

After the war, theatre was accused of being out of touch and trivial, its role in the war disregarded. Light entertainment, rather than serious stuff like Shakespeare, was all that people had wanted to see. Maunder’s book suggests that it was much more complicated than this: during World War 1 theatre was “cheerleader, propagandist and profiteer” all at the same time. In his essay in the book, Reclaiming Shakespeare 1914-1918, Anself Heinrich also begs to differ. He recalls how Benson’s performances as Henry V were used in order to recruit troops. On one occasion his performance “made so deep an impression on the audience, that some three hundred…had given their names for enlistment”. In spite of being heavily associated with the Stratford Festivals, Benson and his company spent most of their year on tour. One piece that was performed all over the country was a series of short pieces called Shakespeare’s War Cry, specially written “to stir up patriotic sentiment and reinforce his nationalist credentials”. Heinrich catalogues a whole series of places that staged Shakespeare for themselves: Edinburgh, Birmingham, Manchester, and, in Worcester an extravaganza entitled Shakespeare for Merrie England.

Actors also did their bit for the war in more practical ways. Frank Benson drove ambulances while his wife ran canteens, both in France. And companies provided entertainment to troops abroad that was far from mindless. Lena Ashwell presented Shakespeare to soldiers in Rouen, including Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing and The Taming of the Shrew, and commented that it was “always the deeper…dramas [that drew] the largest and most appreciative audiences”.

Back in London Lilian Baylis began her focus on Shakespeare at the Old Vic in London in 1914, producing twenty-five different Shakespeare plays before the end of the war in 1918. It was said that she had taken on “the task of looking after Shakespeare”. The wartime productions of Shakespeare helped to fix the status of the Old Vic as a serious theatre with educational and patriotic aims, that ultimately led, albeit in a very roundabout way, to the foundation of the National Theatre.

Maunder’s book contains a number of terrific chapters that, as the title promises, bring new perspectives on theatre a hundred years ago.

*(In Christa Jansohn, Dieter Mehl (Eds.): Shakespeare Jubilees: 1769-2014 (Studien zur englischen Literatur, 27). Münster: LIT, 2015.

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The Welsh band of brothers: Euro 2016

The Welsh football team celebrating

The Welsh football team celebrating

In my last post, I noted lots of Shakespeare references relating to the fallout from the Referendum, but this hasn’t been the only current event to provoke a Shakespeare quote.

The Referendum quotes have all been about treachery, division and political upheaval, so it has been refreshing to hear the Wales football team described as a “band of brothers”. Like Iceland, the Welsh team have shown how it should be done, playing as a team, showing commitment to each other both on and off the field. It’s made them both popular and successful in spite of being tiny nations. Gareth Bale, the undisputed star of the Welsh side, has been self-deprecating in interviews, always talking about how they enjoy living and working as a team.

Henry V understood that being a great leader means involving all your troops, and also had Welsh ancestry, making the quotation doubly appropriate. Shakespeare gives the Welsh Captain Fluellen some lovely moments to talk about being Welsh, and not just the jokes about eating leeks.

The Crispin Day speech, delivered before the battle of Agincourt, contains some of the most stirring lines Shakespeare ever wrote:
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.

“Band of Brothers” is a phrase that’s been quoted in many contexts, including being the name of a war mini-series made by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks in 2001, based in World War II. The series closely identified not just with the sentiment, but with the speech itself, one character delivering the speech in the last episode.

With the contest for a new leader of the Conservative party now in full swing, people are looking, above all, for the candidate who will unite the party. Quite a task. Some of those still in the race fall far short of inspiring loyalty in the way Shakespeare’s Henry V does.

The semi-final between Wales and Portugal kicks off at 8pm on Wednesday, and the team and their supporters are hoping their spirit will see them through to the final. I’m no football supporter, but I’m going to have my fingers crossed for them.

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Shakespeare and the referendum

The knives have certainly been out since the Referendum vote on 23 June, and in the last week the Shakespearean references have been flying thick and fast, though the whole concept of a referendum would have been completely alien to Shakespeare. He did, though, always have something to say about power struggles, and by Sunday morning there had been so many that on Radio 4’sreferendum Broadcasting House they presented a sound collage of quotes from recent events interspersed with lines from Shakespeare. As Paddy O’Connell suggested, “Let’s get the Shakespearean overtones out of our system”. It featured quotes from a variety of plays: Richard II’s “Let’s talk of graves, of worms, of epitaphs”, Richard III ‘s ambition, finding parallels in many of those seeking the Tory leadership:
Why, then, I do but dream on sovereignty;
Like one that stands upon a promontory,
And spies a far-off shore where he would tread,
Wishing his foot were equal with his eye,
And chides the sea that sunders him from thence,
Saying, he’ll lade it dry to have his way:
So do I wish the crown, being so far off;

Much later, before the battle of Bosworth when allies have deserted Richard III:
March on, join bravely, let us to’t pell-mell
If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell.

It ended with a quote from that most depressing of political plays, Troilus and Cressida. Ulysses’ great speech on degree is about respecting authority, knowing your place in a highly stratified society, but his comments on the results of political upheaval are strikingly relevant to today’s circumstances.

How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows!…
Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead:
Force should be right; or rather, right and wrong,
Between whose endless jar justice resides,
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.

The Shakespearean quote game began when, commenting on Michael Gove’s apparent betrayal of his son, Boris Johnson’s father quoted the dying words of Julius Caesar, stabbed in the back by his closest ally “Et tu, Brute”. Boris himself quoted a bit from Brutus’s speech about seizing opportunity:

Michael Gove and Boris Johnson on the campaign trail

Michael Gove and Boris Johnson on the campaign trail

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

Does Boris see himself as the great leader, Julius Caesar, or as the unlucky Brutus, who does the wrong thing for what he thinks is the right reason? Boris certainly knows his Shakespeare, and it was reported a year ago that he had been commissioned to write a biography of Shakespeare for 2016, for which he had been paid £500,000. He might have missed that deadline, but assuming he writes the book now he has a bit more time it is certain to be a best-seller. Biographies often reveal more as much about the author as the subject, and this might well be the case.

Boris knows the power of words, and how rhetoric can be used to create an argument to sway your listeners. More than Julius Caesar, or Brutus, he reminds me of Mark Antony, charismatic, but not particularly strong on detail. Shakespeare gives him some of his most persuasive speeches in the scene in the Capitol, that begins “Friends, Romans, Countrymen”:
I come not, friends, to steal away your hearts:
I am no orator, as Brutus is;
But, as you know me all, a plain blunt man,
That love my friend; and that they know full well
That gave me public leave to speak of him:
For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth,
Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech,
To stir men’s blood: I only speak right on;
I tell you that which you yourselves do know;

Antony remains a dominant figure to the end of Julius Caesar, the young Octavius Caesar seeming to respect his experience. Once we move into Antony and Cleopatra, though, the relationship between Antony the great persuader and Octavius the real politician, disintegrates. Octavius accuses Antony of character flaws that prevent him being a serious politician, just as Michael Gove did to Boris Johnson:
to confound such time,
That drums him from his sport…, – ‘tis to be chid:
As we rate boys, who being mature in knowledge,
Pawn their experience to their present pleasure,
And so rebel to judgement”.

The coming weeks and months are likely to provide many more examples of Shakespeare’s relevance to our political upheavals. Where will it all end? Shakespeare’s plotters generally get their come-uppance, but not before much blood has been shed.

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Russ McDonald

mcdonald-100On Friday 1 July the Shakespeare academic Professor Russ McDonald died after suffering a major stroke on 29 June, his birthday. Although I didn’t know him at all well, I liked him very much, and he was very dear to some of my friends. I knew him through my work at the Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive, which he had used many times over the years. He was outgoing, courteous and friendly, a witty speaker, devoted to teaching Shakespeare to students, as well as being a top-class academic.

Russ was Professor of English Literature at Goldsmiths College, University of London, having previously held posts at several American universities, and helping to direct the NEH-sponsored Teaching Shakespeare Institute for secondary teachers at the Folger Library in Washington, D.C. Making Shakespeare approachable for students was one of his passions, and as a Librarian I would often point students in need of a reliable accessible guide to the background to the plays to his Bedford Companion to Shakespeare. In 2014-5 the Bedford Shakespeare, an edition of 25 of Shakespeare’s plays, was published, a joint publication by Russ and Lena Orlin aimed specifically at students. I was sent a review copy and was impressed with the edition, which had obviously been deeply thought-about. I wrote about it in 2015. Since then I have consulted it many times, and each time I look at it I wish it had been available to me when an undergraduate: students find not just the text and notes explaining key points, but “asides” (text boxes drawing attention to issues, particularly relating to cruxes in performance), photographs and short essays that contribute hugely to the book. It’s enjoyable and informative for people at any stage of their Shakespeare journey.

This webinar on Teaching Shakespeare’s Language is  a typical example of how he tried to help students engage with and enjoy Shakespeare.

As well as being an expert in the teaching of Shakespeare to students, Russ was also an authority in Shakespeare’s language, his scholarly books on the subject including Shakespeare’s Late Style and Shakespeare and the Arts of Language. This link is to a piece he wrote earlier this year for Shakespeare’s Globe, on Shakespeare’s Late Plays. The 600 or so Shakespeareans meeting at the World Shakespeare Congress in Stratford and London in a few weeks will undoubtedly mourn the passing of one of their most distinguished colleagues.

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