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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John Hutton’s Shakespeare characters in glass


John Hutton’s Hamlet mirror on the Antiques Roadshow

One of the first objects on the Antiques Roadshow on Sunday 17 March was a Shakespeare item that I found very familiar, a framed and mirrored glass panel by the artist John Hutton featuring the character of Hamlet. Hutton’s work is instantly recognizable in style, but this particular panel was even more unmistakeable because the final version of this piece decorates the front hall of the Shakespeare Centre in Stratford-upon-Avon that was the entrance to the Library where I worked for over 25 years.

The Shakespeare Centre was intended to celebrate Shakespeare’s 400th birthday not by attempting to recreate anything “olde worlde” but by featuring work inspired by Shakespeare by outstanding contemporary artists. It was a bold decision and very much of its time. John Hutton’s glass panels were some of the most admired features, each one showing a character or characters from the plays rather than portraits of any particular person. In this light it was interesting that the lady who owned the mirrored panel said that her husband had been the model for Hamlet.

John Hutton’s Hamlet panel at the Shakespeare Centre in Stratford-upon-Avon

Hutton was chosen because he had just created the glorious glass west wall of Coventry Cathedral, completing this in 1962 immediately before this new commission. Hutton was a New Zealand-born artist who had lived in England since 1935. Dissatisfaction with existing techniques led him to experiment with new engraving methods which he used at Coventry and perfected at the Shakespeare Centre.

The Cathedral is also completely modern in character and execution, replacing the medieval building that had been bombed during World War 2. The Coventry Cathedral panels showed prophets, saints and angels, well above head height. One of the great attractions, and challenges, of the commission for Stratford was  that the panels would be seen close-up and, until they had to be protected by shatterproof panels, could even be touched.

It was important that non-specialists would be able to identify the characters and the list was as follows: Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Hamlet and Ophelia, King Lear and Cordelia, Romeo and Juliet, Othello and Desdemona, Antony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, King Richard III, Falstaff, Titania and Bottom, Portia and Shylock.

The John Hutton panels showing Titania, Bottom and Falstaff

I’ve always particularly liked the A Midsummer Night’s Dream panels, representing Bottom with his ass’s head and Titania. Hutton described how when there were two figures he had “chosen those which are strongly related by emotional tension…In portraying Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, I have shown the hallucinations that their imaginations conjured up – in Macbeth’s case the dagger, and in Lady Macbeth’s the blood on her hands”. One of his most successful panels was also one of the most elusive: he beautifully captures the despair of Ophelia as she “hovers on the edge of sanity falling into madness”.

For him these were not abstract, but figures with “humanity and passion”. His aim was to “try and pay tribute to the extraordinary variety of interpretation offered by Shakespeare’s characters”.

The late Marian Pringle made a study of many of the works of art in the building. She describes how the artist worked:

“Each design demanded different techniques that Hutton developed as he worked. He used a modified dentist’s drill with a small grinding wheel and a series of larger stones. Dust was controlled by a small damp sponge resting lightly on the glass, with a vacuum cleaner nozzle alongside. First drawings were created by chalk on black paper, and on the glass Hutton sought to retain the effect of chalk, with a variation of depth to the engraving. In this way Caesar’ s face was chiselled out of the glass, Falstaff’s fleshy folds were achieved by vigorous polishing with emery papers, and a coarse grinding wheel deeply modelled and created the rough textures for Richard III. The artist was always intrigued by the way light worked on glass, and how the changing background as the viewer moved would alter the impression of the character. Occasionally he needed to adjust details to be sure that, for instance, a smile did not become a smirk when seen from a different angle.”

John Hutton’s Ophelia panel

It was a difficult technique. Rubbing out was not possible, though some panels were revised as work progressed. But his preparation was thorough, involving an outline sketch, a finished drawing, and a life-sized drawing in chalk that was the blueprint for the actual engraving. In the case of the Hamlet panel it seems that a small version of the final glass image was also created. The panels were created in the artist’s studio in Maida Vale and installed at the centre just weeks before the building was opened in April 1964. They remain some of the most attractive features of the Henley Street building and although they are no longer easy to view several of them can be seen from outside. As you will be able to see, they are very difficult to photograph!

Note: The late Dr Levi Fox, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s Director, commissioned John Hutton’s work. Hutton’s quotations are taken from correspondence between the two men and appear in Fox’s 1997 book The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust:  A Personal Memoir.  The episode of the Antiques Roadshow is available on BBC IPlayer until the middle of April 2019, the section on the glass just 4.5 minutes from the start.

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Shakespeare and the Europeans in Italy

Shakespeare and Italy Summer School

With the equinox now passed and spring firmly under way here in the UK it’s time to look forward to the warmth of the summer. How better than to celebrate it with the charity Shakespeare in Italy’s wonderful annual Summer School?

This is the fifth year that these summer schools have been organised by British actors Julian Curry and Mary Chater. In 2019 the venue will be the British Institute in the beautiful and historic city of Florence, from 6-19 July, and they have as usual secured a wonderful line-up of actors and directors to tutor the participants. This year they will be joined by RSC and Shakespeare’s Globe directors Lucy Bailey and Chris Luscombe, on Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet respectively, and actor/director Philip Franks on The Two Gentlemen of Verona.


There’s general information on the Shakespeare in Italy website, and specific information about the Summer School in the Education section. There’s also a very active Facebook page if you want really current information. Attending the summer school is a really effective way of immersing yourself in Shakespeare and in the culture of this country with which he seems to have been obsessed. And even if you can’t make it yourself their website is worth taking a look at as they run many other events during the year.

For centuries people have speculated that Shakespeare might have visited Italy but there’s no evidence that he did. He was not alone in setting his plays in Italy, and many of his contemporaries wrote about or illustrated this fascinating country, not only those from Britain but from elsewhere in Europe.

I’ve recently been taking a look at the British Library’s website and have been intrigued to find not just books on Italian subjects like John Florio’s language manual but a couple of Friendship Albums or Album Amicora which were created by the German Moyses Walens from Cologne and Austrian student Gervasius Fabricius from Salzburg. Both date from the early 1600s. They feature on informative pages by Andrew Dickson on Shakespeare’s Italian Jouneys and John Mullan on Shakespeare and Italy. Glorious colour images are reproduced from these books, and include Italian scenes such as a gondola cruising past St Mark’s Square in Venice as well as many others with mythological, biblical and social subjects. One shows a performance taking place in a wealthy house by a small troupe of actors, the sort of scene that Shakespeare probably took part in himself, and that he wrote about in Hamlet and The Taming of the Shrew.

These books remind us how broad a range of sources were shared by people all over Renaissance Europe, and how relatively easy it would have been for Shakespeare to access information about Italy even from these distant shores.  

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Giving Emilia Lanier her own voice

In 1973, historian A L Rowse declared in Shakespeare the Man that he had solved the greatest mystery in Shakespeare’s life, the identity of the Dark Lady of the Sonnets. She was, he said, Emilia Lanier (Aemilia Lanyer). Rowse’s starting point had been the references to her in the diaries of the physician Simon Forman, and other facts about her such as her Italian parentage, court connections, musical background and poetic writings all clinched it for him. While Rowse’s claims ensured publicity for her, it wasn’t all positive.  Rowse was dogmatic and eccentric, and could be rude towards his fellow academics ensuring there was little love lost between them. He was also rather cavalier with the facts, and it’s obvious that when Professor Stanley Wells found some basic errors in Rowse’s argument he took some pleasure in correcting him.  So although Rowse can be credited with shining a spotlight on Emilia Lanier, it was also quite easy to dismiss her.

The search for the Dark Lady had been a long one, beginning in 1797, when George Chalmers suggested the sonnets were addressed to Queen Elizabeth, and since then there have been many candidates including one of Queen Elizabeth’s maids of honour and the Abbess of Clerkenwell. Away from London, Jane Davenant, the wife of Oxford Vintner John Davenant, was another candidate. When their son William became a playwright gossipy John Aubrey noted that he “seemed contented enough to be thought [Shakespeare’s] son”.

This heated chase has taken up a huge amount of energy over the years, so it’s worth remembering that not only is there no evidence that any of these women actually knew Shakespeare, there is no evidence that there ever was a Dark Lady: her existence is pure supposition based on an autobiographical reading of the sonnets. The search however has shown how many interesting women did live in and around the royal court during Shakespeare’s lifetime.

This is particularly true of Emilia Lanier. We know that she was a talented writer because some of her poetry was published, she was a musician, and we know she had a complicated personal life. The dedications of her poems to several noble ladies show she had ambition and self-confidence. She lived through the turbulent years of 1569 right up to 1645, outliving all the men in her life. As she’s emerging out of the Dark Lady claims it’s becoming much easier to assess her in her own right.

Michelle Terry, now Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe, has long been fascinated by Lanier and one of her first acts was to commission a play about her. Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s play Emilia reached the Globe in the summer of 2018, performed by an all-female cast with three actors playing Emilia at different times of her life. Shakespeare does make an appearance but is a minor figure in what is very much her story.

Now the play is being given a significant run from March to June 2019 at the Vaudeville Theatre in  London.  There are reviews here and here of the original Globe performances. On 4 March the Radio 4 Today programme interviewed Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and the Globe’s Will Tosh here (2hrs 54 mins from the start of the programme).

Lanier’s book of poetry, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, was published in 1611 and several copies still exist. Here are links to it and to an article about her poetry from the British Library.

This assessment of her importance is from the Poetry Foundation:

Aemilia Lanyer was the first woman writing in English to produce a substantial volume of poetry designed to be printed and to attract patronage. The volume comprises a series of poems to individual patrons, two short prose dedications, the title poem on Christ’s Passion (viewed entirely from a female perspective), and the first country-house poem printed in English, “The Description of Cooke-ham,” which precedes the publication of Ben Johnson’s “To Penshurst” by five years. Lanyer’s poetry shows evidence of a practiced skill. The volume is also arguably the first genuinely feminist publication in England: all of its dedicatees are women, the poem on the Passion specifically argues the virtues of women as opposed to the vices of men, and Lanyer’s own authorial voice is assured and unapologetic.

The Description of Cooke-ham is a less serious work than the rest of the volume, but these lines, celebrating the beauty of springtime, are appropriate for this time of year:

The little Birds in chirping notes did sing,
To entertaine both You and that sweet Spring.
And Philomela with her sundry layes,
Both You and that delightfull Place did praise.
Oh how me thought each plant, each floure, each tree
Set forth their beauties then to welcome thee!
The very Hills right humbly did descend,
When you to tread vpon them did intend,
And as you set your feete, they still did rise,
Glad that they could receiue so rich a prise.

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Ben Elton’s Shakespeares

Ben Elton

Shakespeare seems to have haunted writer Ben Elton. He was always hovering in the background during Blackadder 2, the superb Elizabethan TV series. His current sitcom Upstart Crow, based around Shakespeare’s plays and life,  has had three series and he’s now written a feature film, All is True, that examines Shakespeare’s retirement to Stratford. This interview with him was broadcast in December 2018 on Radio 4’s Front Row. 

In it Elton explains that it was seeing one of Branagh’s films that really sparked his fascination with Shakespeare, and it was after Branagh had appeared in the Christmas Special of Upstart Crow that Elton was asked to write the script for All is True. It’s easy to see why: Elton’s love of wordplay and the exuberance with which he invents words and phrases is terribly rare, and reminiscent of Shakespeare’s own writing. A book containing some of the scripts is available  and you can still catch episodes of Upstart Crow on BBC Iplayer.  

Judi Dench and Kenneth Branagh in All is True

I went to see All is True a few days ago and while I felt puzzled by it at first I’ve found myself thinking about it many times since. The mood is sombre, the pace slow. Everything about the film is thoughtful, deliberate, planned. It feels a world away from the charming nuttiness of Upstart Crow in which Shakespeare regularly rants about the inefficiency of the transport system.

Some have called the film Branagh’s vanity project, directing himself as Shakespeare after playing so many of his most compelling characters. But the Shakespeare Branagh plays is not the great creative writer, or the performer revelling in his fame, rather the man who goes home to face the reality of what really matters, his home and family.

It feels like a farewell, but with Branagh still in his 50s there is plenty for him still to do. His co-stars Ian McKellen and Judi Dench, as the Earl of Southampton and Anne Hathaway, also show no sign of stopping. McKellen this year is celebrating his 80th birthday with a year of touring to theatres up and down the country. 

The film encourages us to think about the gap between life and art. The aging aristocrat the Earl of Southampton comments on the little life that Shakespeare has actually lived while writing his extraordinary poems and plays, and Shakespeare acknowledges that he has lived through his imagination sometimes at the expense of real life.

Without giving anything away about the plot, it’s the death of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet that dominates Shakespeare’s final years. While his wife and daughters had to cope with his loss Shakespeare carried on, Anne noting that he went straight off to write The Merry Wives of Windsor. In Upstart Crow Shakespeare’s rustic family, especially his father, can be a bit of an embarrassment to a man trying to prove himself. In All is True it’s Shakespeare himself who has to acknowledge he’s failed the people closest to him.

There are many issues unresolved in this dysfunctional family: Anne still resents her husband writing love poems to another woman, Susannah lives in a loveless marriage, and Judith has never got over being the less valued twin. Shakespeare’s way of resolving the loss of his son is to create a garden – another way of avoiding the conflicts within doors. We’re reminded that in the plays gardens are orderly, and outdoor scenes tend to be open and optimistic, while indoors can be claustrophobic and full of conflict.

Not everybody will enjoy this film, but I thought there was much to admire in it. The trailer is here, and an interview with Kenneth Branagh here

David Mitchell as Shakespeare with Hamnet in Upstart Crow

It’s a very different style for Ben Elton, but he’s always been able to blend comedy with serious stuff. The final scene of Blackadder with soldiers going over the top in World War 1 is probably his most famous. In the last episode of Series 3 of Upstart Crow, Elton also tackled the death of Hamnet and here too he moved from the comic into the tragic in just a few lines. Watching All is True, I wondered why we didn’t hear the lines from King John in which a parent mourns her child, but of course he’d already used it. There it is, the final moment of Upstart Crow, as William and Anne settle down by the fire together, the speech in which he did recognise the loss of his own precious child.

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?

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