Posting Edwardian Stratford to the world: W W Quatremain

Anne Hathaway's Cottage garden

Anne Hathaway’s Cottage garden

In any collection of old postcards of Stratford you are likely to come across the work of the artist William Wells Quatremain (usually referred to as W W Quatremain). Although he was not the only artist painting scenes of the town in the early 1900s his became famous because he was employed by the postcard company Salmons to produce views of Warwickshire. His relationship with Salmons began in 1907 and lasted until his death in 1930 by which time countless thousands of his romantic pictures had sent a vision of the town to countries around the world. Many people must have got their first impression of what Stratford and its landmarks were like from his paintings.  

Ursula Bloom’s book Rosemary for Stratford-on-Avon is a portrait of the town between 1900 and 1910, published many years later in 1966. It’s an affectionate tribute to the “old-world small town, surrounded by green fields. A little town of little people” before commercial exploitation and population growth “wiped away the old-fashioned sweetness of memory”. She lived near the town as a child when her father was the parson of a nearby village. As Ursula Bloom did in words, W W Quatremain painted a sentimental picture of the town and its Shakespeare relics, and it’s not surprising that she opens her book with an atmospheric, fictional description of him getting ready to attend evensong on a Sunday evening in spring. 

The Guild Chapel

The Guild Chapel

The feet pattered past Mr Quatremain’s window which was at street level. Naturally everybody went to church; it was imperative, a duty none broke, and to keep away would have been frowned on…. He peered out of the parlour window. In the next room his water-colour landscapes were on show, for he painted charmingly….All along the street eyes were prying from behind madras muslin curtains, hoping to see, but not be seen….Mr Quatremain changed into his best jacket, the dark velvet one which was the symbol of his art. He stepped out into the street, instantly joining with others who were all bustling along towards the church. Hazy heliotrope smoke trailed deliciously around Elizabethan chimney pots, as it had done for generations.

Quatremain came to live in Stratford at the age of 10, his mother moving to the town to be closer to relatives after the death of William’s father. He came to love the town, never moving away, and painting its buildings many times. Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, with its thatched cottage, beautiful garden and romantic associations, was a particular favourite. Another regular subject was the even more picturesque nearby town of Warwick. Hundreds of his views were reproduced as postcards. At a time when more and more postcards were based on photographs it’s perhaps surprising that Quatremain’s beautiful but old-fashioned paintings retained their popularity, but even now the paintings and the cards are still collected. Many of the buildings and views he painted are little changed. This site includes images of many of them and some are available to purchase.

SMT quatremain

Shakespeare Memorial Theatre by the Avon

This site includes more details about Quatremain’s life, including the information that at one time he painted stage scenery for Frank Benson. At the same time as painting views for postcards, original paintings could be purchased in Stratford and he was very much the local artist. Locals commissioned him to produce work: I have a painting of the little house along the Warwick Road in which my grandmother was brought up, which he painted for her around the time of her marriage.

If in Stratford, and you would like to see some originals, the Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive now holds the cards collected by the late Trevor Cleaver, amounting to 430 different issues. And Patricia McFarland has published a small book on the subject, Mr Quatremain’s Stratford.  The following is a gallery of some of his postcards.



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Reading Shakespeare: new editions

bedford shakespeare

“Why another Shakespeare volume?” ask the editors of the recently-published Bedford Shakespeare, Russ McDonald and Lena Cowen Orlin. Their answer is that most editions don’t answer the requirements of current students, particularly in the USA. ” We asked hundreds of students and instructors what their biggest difficulties were in the Shakespeare course, and we designed The Bedford Shakespeare in response. Students have told us that they often find Shakespeare’s language challenging, that it can be difficult to imagine the action of a play on the stage, and that they wished they had a stronger grasp of early modern history. The Bedford Shakespeare invites readers to engage with Shakespeare’s words, to experience his dramatic vision, and to take pleasure in reading and seeing his plays”.

And the book is a pleasure to read, in spite of its almost 2000 pages weighing in at 2 kilos. The editors have thought hard about ways of keeping the attention of their readers, and engaging those studying Shakespeare.

Within the text, most double-page spreads contain at least one “Aside”, a box containing a combination of text, quotes or pictures that relate to the scene. Visually they act as relief, but also provide an opportunity for reflection, perhaps offering an unexpected image such as the photograph of Maori warriors performing Troilus and Cressida at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2012. An “Aside” towards the end of Henry IV part 2 points out how a quarto stage direction naming an actor rather than his role helps us understand how Shakespeare wrote for a known company of players.

I also like the Context essays sandwiched between the plays. There’s a nice sense of serendipity about these: “Players” aptly comes between Julius Caesar and Hamlet, but “Religion” is between Othello and Troilus and Cressida. I can see myself returning many times to these succinct, enjoyable essays written by the two eminent editors. In fact all the editorial material in the book is well-chosen and readable. I expected to recognise most of it, but the editors have found lots of unfamiliar quotations that will provide a source for classroom discussion or private deliberation.

Many of the examples are from around the world, appealing to international readers as well as reinforcing Shakespeare’s internationalism. I’m certainly going to be browsing through it regularly and I hope it will find an audience among Shakespeare fans as well as students.

The publication has its own dedicated website where linked images, audio and video clips can be found. I’d like to see more of these online resources and very much hope this side of the Bedford Shakespeare will grow in time.  This page contains a link to the Bedford Shakespeare companion site through the logo on the right hand side of the page.

Kenneth Muir's Arden 2 edition of Macbeth

Kenneth Muir’s Arden 2 edition of Macbeth

A few months ago it was announced that the General Editors of The Arden Shakespeare (fourth series) will be Peter Holland along with Zachary Lesser and Tiffany Stern. The first individual Arden volumes based on the Globe Shakespeare text were published in 1899 and quickly became the most authoritative of editions.  Arden 2 was published between 1946 and the 1980s, with newly-edited texts: several are still current. In the 1990s Arden 3 began to appear, including the non-canonical plays The Double Falsehood and Sir Thomas More and two different editions of Hamlet based on the different contemporary editions of the play. The series should be completed in 2016, giving a few years before Arden 4 begins to be published around 2020. The publishers, Bloomsbury, have now stated “The general editors’ first task over the months and years ahead will be to imagine what a Shakespeare edition for the twenty-first century will be like—not least in terms of its online version as well as print publication.”

Meanwhile the one-volume New Oxford Shakespeare is scheduled for publication in 2016 under the leadership of John Jowett. This post explains how the Shakespeare Institute, of which Jowett is Deputy Director, is creating a new resource from the carefully-researched footnotes and glosses which were intended to be part of the original 1986 edition of the Oxford Shakespeare. Space considerations meant they could not be included, and the index cards have now been typed up by Library Support Assistants. This will form a valuable in-depth online resource to accompany the new printed version.

The_Unkindest_Cut_largeSo many editions aimed at students, yet a recent article in the Telegraph has revealed that “only a small fraction of English literature students in America’s top colleges are required to specialise in the works of the bard”. A new report published by the lobbying group the American Council of Trustees and Alumni has found that only four of the country’s 52 highest-ranked academic institutions make a Shakespeare course compulsory, and that he is being marginalised as a result. The report, The Unkindest Cut: Shakespeare in Exile 2015 sadly notes “The Bard, who is the birthright of the English speaking world, has no seat of honour. A degree in English without serious study of Shakespeare is like a major in Greek literature without the serious study of Homer.”


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Music and musicians at the RSC

Musicians onstage for the RSC's 2012 Taming of the Shrew

Musicians onstage for the RSC’s 2012 Taming of the Shrew

According to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s website, Shakespeare made over 2,000 references to music, included over 400 separate musical terms, and wrote around 100 songs to be performed in his plays. Music has been an essential component of performances at the Stratford theatres for generations, with original music being written for the plays since at least the early years of the twentieth century. However during the early 1960s, music took an important part in helping the RSC to define the company’s identity.

At the end of April 2015 the RSC’s Michael Tubbs died after a short illness. You might never have heard of him, even if you’ve attended productions for years. But Michael, described as “A true RSC man” in his obituary in the Stratford Herald, was one of a kind.  He joined the RSC in 1967 as deputy music director and in time became Director of Music a role which he made his own in a forty-year career.

Michael Tubbs (on the right, with a beard). It shows a young Helen Mirren surrounded by RSC musicians and actor Geoffrey Hutchings in around 1970.

Michael Tubbs (on the right, with a beard). A young Helen Mirren with RSC musicians and actor Geoffrey Hutchings in the mid-1970s.

Maybe it was because the RSC’s musicians were for the most part completely hidden from view in their band box tucked away above and behind the RST stage, but opportunities for musicians to appear on stage were enthusiastically grasped, and Michael would be there. I particularly remember him appearing in the ill-fated 1984 production of The Merchant of Venice. Two massive pipe-organs were situated upstage at which two musicians in costume (Michael Tubbs and Roger Hellyer) sat and played. My memory might be playing me false, but I remember the organs moved downstage while being played, adding to the somewhat surreal nature of the production. In 1983 and 1985 the company put on The Dillen, in which the cast and audience left The Other Place to promenade around the streets and waste land nearby. The band, led by Michael Tubbs, I think banging a drum, headed this parade: when we all arrived at a makeshift outdoor stage on waste ground he conducted the actors and musicians in a spirited music-hall sequence. After the interval came scenes of World War One and the playing of Abide With Me as we solemnly processed back to the theatre. It was a great illustration of how music can set and change mood.

Michael’s enthusiasm for bringing music into the complete theatrical experience must have contributed greatly to the prominence of music in RSC productions. During shows he was a performer and conductor, but Greg Doran and Bruce O’Neil comment in their tribute to him that he “had an encyclopaedic practical knowledge of instruments and was capable of reheading a drum, programming synthesisers, tuning a harpsichord and cutting piano rolls by hand. If the instrument needed for a production did not exist, then he would make it himself”. Although no longer formally attached to the RSC, he remained in touch. Just a few days before his death, and in a wheelchair, he attended the concert of RSC music held at the RST on the Birthday weekend.

We in the RSC archives most often met Michael when he was organising concerts and evens. With his customary charm, Michael would appear, holding in his head a long list of exactly which pieces of music he wanted to borrow back. Quite some time later they would reappear out of the back of his car along with the next large batch of theatre scores and parts.

Guy Woolfenden

Guy Woolfenden

Many of those scores were written by composer Guy Woolfenden, Head of Music for the RSC from 1963 to 1998 and founder of Ariel Music. He wrote over 150 scores for the company, composing music for all of Shakespeare’s plays, several more than once. Some have been adapted for concert performance and some are well-known in their own right, for instance Songs of Ariel, written for The Tempest in 1978, sung and recorded by the unforgettable Ian Charleson. To celebrate Guy’s work, Birmingham Symphonic Winds are going to be performing 14 of his pieces for wind band at the Swan Theatre on Sunday 24 May. With Guy being diagnosed with dementia about a year ago the concert, which he will be attending, will be in aid of the Alzheimer’s Society. There’s more about the concert, including a list of pieces to be played, on this page.

It’s not going to be just a local celebration, as bands across the world have been invited to perform a work by Guy Woolfenden. Information about the project and a profile can be found on the World-Wide-Woolfenden website. It’ll be a fitting tribute to a man who wrote what Trevor Nunn, former artistic Director of the RSC has described as “wonderfully-original, galvanising and haunting melodies that audiences yearned to hear again”.

In recent years Music Operations Manager Richard Sandland has taken on the job of organising the RSC’s music. He has recently written about Guy Woolfenden in his excellent Musical Notes blog that explores the richness of the RSC’s music archives and the composers who have worked at the Stratford theatres. Guy Woolfenden and Michael Tubbs together defined the RSC’s music over many decades, and the concert on the 24th will be a fitting way of celebrating their achievement.

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Henry Wallis: a pre-Raphaelite’s views of Shakespeare’s Stratford


Henry Wallis isn’t one of the best-known of the Pre-Raphaelite painters, barely getting a mention in books about Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Millais, Holman Hunt et al, but one of his paintings is universally-known and classed as a masterpiece. The Death of Chatterton was painted in 1855-6 and represents the suicide by poisoning of the 17-year old promising poet in 1770. The painting is full of immaculately-painted detail of not just the man but the dingy room in which he is imagined to have died. Poets such as Shelley, Wordsworth and Coleridge helped to secure Chatterton’s reputation, and the poet George Meredith modelled for Wallis’s painting.

A Sculptor's Workshop, Stratford-upon-Avon by Henry Wallis

A Sculptor’s Workshop, Stratford-upon-Avon by Henry Wallis

Henry Wallis (1830-1916) was an elusive figure, but the BBC Your Paintings website brings together several of his paintings. I was already familiar with the one owned by the RSC: A Sculptor’s Workshop in Stratford-upon-Avon, 1617. It’s painted with the same attention to detail, but it’s an even more imaginative, fanciful composition. It was painted in 1857, and plays with the idea of the creation of Shakespeare’s memorial bust. The sculptor kneels in front of it while Ben Jonson holds the so-called Kesselstadt death mask which had been discovered in Mainz in 1849. Has the sculptor has got Shakespeare’s features wrong? Through the window of the workshop the River Avon and Holy Trinity Church are visible: the view can still to be seen from the Theatre Gardens today. I’ve always liked the way it asks a question about the authenticity of the many Shakespeare portraits and perhaps suggests that Shakespeare’s appearance isn’t really what matters.

The Room in which Shakespeare was Born, by Henry Wallis

The Room in which Shakespeare was Born, by Henry Wallis

This isn’t the only painting by Wallis with a Shakespeare theme. He obviously visited Stratford around 1853 when he had just completed his studies in Paris. Two more of the pictures he worked on in Stratford are on the BBC Your Paintings site. The Room in which Shakespeare was Born is astonishingly realistic, its details confirmed by other images that show some of the same furniture and the frilly pelmet over the window. This blog post, from Tate Britain where the painting is kept, comments that you can see every nail in the bare wooden floor. Like the painting of Chatterton, the room is lifeless and dingy, and on the same visit Wallis also painted The Font in which Shakespeare was Christened. Although I have not tracked this down, it seems that this too depicts a place empty of the genius which once inhabited it.

Shakespeare's House, Stratford-upon-Avon by Henry Wallis

Shakespeare’s House, Stratford-upon-Avon by Henry Wallis

Painted at around the same time is Shakespeare’s House, Stratford-upon-Avon. This is now at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and shows a corner of the house with a wooden staircase leading upstairs. Unlike the painting of the Birthroom, though, this one includes a number of symbolic objects: a skull and spade representing Hamlet, a book, a glove (a reminder of the profession of Shakespeare’s father), a shield and breastplate perhaps representing Macbeth. Most noticeable though is a dog, on the alert for his master approaching the other side of the door.

The painting is well-documented. It belonged to John Forster, chairman of the London committee of the Royal Shakespearian Club and friend of Charles Dickens. He helped to secure the Birthplace for the nation in 1847 and visited the house several times.  Correspondence reveals that the painting was changed by Sir Edwin Landseer. This is an extract of Forster’s letter to Landseer, reproduced when the painting was exhibited in 1867:
The picture in its first state – then an ancient stone staircase wonderfully painted by Mr H Wallis, the painter subsequently of the Death of Chatterton, – was purchased by me fourteen or fifteen years ago. You had often said, as you saw it in my dining-room, that you’d like some day to put something from your own hand into it; and last summer, generously indulging my earnest wish to possess some memorial of our thirty years of uninterrupted friendship, you desired me to send this particular picture to you. That the staircase as represented had been copied from Shakespeare’s House at Stratford-on-Avon, you did not then know, or had forgotten… Finding, when the picture reached you, whose house it was the staircase belonged to, it had been your fancy to bring about us memorials of the marvellous man himself, – his dog waiting for him at the door, as to imply his own immediate neighbourhood; and objects so connecting themselves with his pursuits, and even pointing at the origin of familiar lines and fancies, as almost to indicate and identify the Play with which his brain might have been busy at the time.”

Landseer’s additions apart, the painting is interesting as it shows a quiet corner of the building in the period between its purchase for the nation in 1847 and its restoration about 10 years later. The house had been neglected and the work, based on a careful survey in 1857, intended “to remove with a careful hand all those excrescences which are decidedly the result of modern innovation, to uphold with jealous care all that now exists of undoubted antiquity, not to destroy any portion about whose character the slightest doubt does now exist”. Landseer’s additions may not have contributed to the accuracy of the painting, but like Forster I agree that Landseer breathed spirited life into Wallis’s representation of this “cradle of genius”.

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Keeping up with Shakespeare events in London and Stratford

british academyIt’s the middle of May, and debates and discussions with Shakespeare-related themes are happening everywhere. I’ve only just realised that several of these are happening now, so if you want to catch up with ideas about Shakespeare’s relationship to cultural developments you might like to follow some of these up.

In the last few years there has been a revival of interest in folk and fairy tales, and this year the British Academy’s annual Literature Week, running from 11-17 May, is exploring the fantastical and magical.  These genres cross cultural boundaries, touching something very deep within all of us.  When the BA asked Londoners to write new fairy tales for modern London their response was overwhelming. The four winners are being published online this week, and here’s the website.

All week there are talks and discussions in collaboration with the British Library: sadly we’ve already missed The Golden Age of Retelling, in which the subject was “In a fast paced, digital world, why do these stories survive? Why do they appeal to us as children and why do they follow us to adulthood?” There are several sessions on tales from different parts of the world including African and Mexico, and on Saturday 16 May there will be a session on Shakespeare. Shakespeare Untold: The Convict’s Tale will be performed at 11 and 2 on Saturday at the British Academy, an exclusive performance of Globe Educations’s reworking of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for their Shakespeare Untold Stories. If you think you know your way around London you might be surprised by a walking tour at 2pm on Saturday that will reveal the secrets of London Bridge, the lost rivers of London and visit the ancient Temple of Mithras. An exhibition relating to illustrations of folk stories from around the world is on display at the British Academy.

Shakespeare used folk and fairy tales as sources for his plays, and this current Australian project aims to examine “the abundance of traditional oral stories in circulation during Shakespeare’s youth” and will propose that “Shakespeare not only drew on the narrative patterns and plots of folktales, but that he also utilised the powerful but latent emotional subtexts such tales encode.” The results should make fascinating reading.



Frozen, based on The Snow Queen, has become the most successful animated film of all time, and this article from the Guardian notes that the popularity of fairy tales may be related to the rise of the internet, where anyone can keep “the memory of the tribe” alive so easily. “Like a mother tongue, the stories are acquired early, to become part of our mental furniture”.

In Stratford the RSC is hosting a series of debates, the first of which will take place this Sunday, 17 May. The title is Are the arts still “male, pale and stale”? “As we open our new season of plays, programmed around the idea of the ‘outsider’, we discuss whether our society is accurately represented in our cultural scene. Are the arts in Britain questioning the status quo, and how?”

Debates_Events_243x317_2A varied panel including Artistic Director of Theatre Royal Stratford East Kerry Michael, spoken word artist and poet Amerah Saleh, Artistic Director of Graeae Theatre Company Jenny Sealey and current RSC Artist-in-Residence Susan Stockwell will be chaired by RSC Deputy Artistic Director Erica Whyman. During the summer there will be two further debates. Because the season focuses on the idea of the outsider they will be tackling head on questions about Shakespeare’s attitude to race and religion, and perhaps our own. On 9 August the subject will be “Is Othello a racist play?”, and on 30 August “Are The Merchant of Venice and The Jew of Malta anti-Semitic plays? These should get the sparks flying, even on a Sunday morning. All the debates take place from 11-12.30 and can be booked in advance.

Also coming up are the Institute of Historical Research seminars, taking place at Senate House, London. On 28 May Andy Kesson will be talking about Building the early Tudor Theatres, and on 25 June Martha Carlin gives a talk with the intriguing title Templar dungeons and Shakespeare’s graffiti: an antiquary’s notes on Hackney and Southwark, c. 1643. Meetings are at 5.15 pm and are free. You don’t even have to book in advance.

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Antony Sher playing Shakespeare’s fat knight

Antony Sher as Falstaff

Antony Sher as Falstaff

The Radio 4 Book of the Week beginning on 4 May 2015 was Antony Sher’s  Year of the Fat Knight: the Falstaff Diaries, his account of  the process of preparing for and performing Falstaff in Henry IV parts 1 and 2 for the RSC in 2014. Antony Sher is a remarkably creative and imaginative man: he draws and paints, often showing himself in many of his roles, he writes beautifully, both books about himself and novels, and is of course a charismatic performer on stage, TV and film. It’s something of a relief to read in Stanley Wells’ new book Great Shakespearean Actors that he does have a weakness: he is tone-deaf.

Wells’s book lists many of Sher’s most famous roles: Lear’s Fool, his first role with the RSC in 1982, almost stole the show from Michael Gambon. It was followed by the role with which he’s most closely associated, Richard III. Richard is showy and theatrical but doesn’t require psychological subtlety. I saw an early preview and was sitting towards he side, near the front of the stalls (in the days when these were relatively cheap). As he delivered his first speech I still remember the shock of him bringing his crutches forward from behind him and charging downstage, intimidating us at the same time as taking us uneasily into his confidence.

Year of the King

Year of the King

Following the success of this performance he published Year of the King, that explains in tremendous detail how he approaches a role, and included many of the sketches he did during rehearsal, self-portraits that show how the part developed in his mind. Later on his theatricality didn’t always work so well. In his essay about Sher, Wells provides an analogy with music:  “In acting, as in musical performance, virtuosity can be the enemy of spontaneity. The self-consciously studied nature of Sher’s art which reflects the acute intelligence and deep thoughtfulness with which he prepares his roles means that for some spectators the artifice of the playing can seem too close to the surface.” His collection of essays on his top forty actors is always perceptive, and the eleven-page introduction, worth reading in its own right, is available from the OUP site.

I loved the wild anarchy of his hilariously funny performance as Tartfuffe at the Pit in London, but my favourite among his Shakespeare roles was Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, in which I thought he did abandon the self-consciousness Wells mentions. Many reviewers agreed. John Peter described it as “one of Sher’s most intense, most fully achieved performances” and Michael Billington found “he is at his best when he surrenders to the emotion of the moment heartbreakingly so in the final act”.

Since then there have been other successes, notably an African Tempest in which he played Prospero, but we’re told in his new book that he had never contemplated playing Falstaff until he was suggested by fellow-actor Ian McKellen. As well as mapping the day by day process of approaching the role, Sher is remarkably frank about himself, talking openly about the time when he was addicted to cocaine (fortunately long past), and about his distress at Nelson Mandela’s death that occurred while he was preparing to play Falstaff.

Antony Sher's portrait of Orson Welles as Falstaff

Antony Sher’s portrait of Orson Welles as Falstaff

He admits to having had difficulty learning lines now he’s in his sixties, but writes eloquently about how for actors the words become physical:
To an actor, dialogue is like food. You hold it in your mouth, you taste it. If it’s good dialogue, the taste will be distinctive. If it’s Shakespeare, the taste will be Michelin-starred. Falstaff’s dialogue is immediately delicious. You’re munching on a very rich pudding indeed, probably not good for your health, but irresistible.

He’s well-educated and he’s a thief, a highwayman. A gentleman-rogue, then. That breed of privileged, public-school Englishman who can be both monstrous and charming, both powerful and self-destructive, the kind that believe the world belongs to them. They can break the law, it’s only a bit of fun. they can drink themselves senseless, it’s what chaps do. And they’d be totally at ease hanging out with the future king. “I’ll teach him a thing or two”. This country is full of people like that. Maybe that’s why Falstaff is so loved. He’s so familiar.  

This sounds as if Sher had little sympathy for Falstaff during rehearsals, but in performance he found the man’s humanity. The Evening Standard described him as “irrepressible … a lord of misrule who’s absurd, delightful and in the end deeply sad”.  The Guardian warned “just as you start to warm to this Falstaff, you are reminded of his rapacity”. Sher successfully conveyed his contradictions, winning the Critics Circle Award for Best Shakespearean Performance. Sher acknowledges that it is a great role: “Just like there are wonders of nature, there are wonders of art and the creation of Falstaff is one of them”.

The Year of the Fat Knight is illustrated with his own sketches and paintings, and the BBC includes a gallery of images to complement the readings.  Sher’s five recordings are available to listen to for the rest of May 2015 and if you’re not able to get these, the book is a very good read!

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Sir Walter Ralegh and the vagaries of politics

Sir Walter Ralegh

Sir Walter Ralegh

I’m writing this post on the day of the General Election, 7 May 2015, and by the time you read it most of the results will be in. All the indications are that there will be no clear winner, leading to another coalition government. It’s even possible that there won’t be a formal coalition so parties will have to tread carefully, negotiating on each vote.

It’s a far cry from Shakespeare’s day when only a small elite had any say over how the country was governed, the monarch holding ultimate power. In some respects, though, things were not so different. Anyone wanting to get into power had to tread carefully, as courtiers could find that a single mistake led to the destruction of their reputations or their royal favour.

Shakespeare often wrote about the fragility of power and reputation, and Sonnet 25 in particular focuses on it:
Let those who are in favour with their stars
Of public honour and proud titles boast,
Whilst I, whom fortune of such triumph bars
Unlook’d for joy in that I honour most.
Great princes’ favourites their fair leaves spread
But as the marigold at the sun’s eye,
And in themselves their pride lies buried,
For at a frown they in their glory die.
The painful warrior famoused for fight,
After a thousand victories once foiled,
Is from the book of honour razed quite,
And all the rest forgot for which he toiled:
   Then happy I, that love and am beloved,
  Where I may not remove nor be removed.
In his copy of the Sonnets my father noted that he had heard Ben Kingsley speak it in a radio programme. The note also includes the word “Ralegh” and a question mark. Presumably it was suggested that the “painful warrier” was Sir Walter Ralegh, a man who epitomised the fate of the courtier, his reputation ebbing and flowing during Elizabeth’s reign, then executed under James 1 after a long imprisonment.

The Favourite

The Favourite

I’ve recently been enjoying Mathew Lyons’ book The Favourite: Ralegh and his Queen. Queen Elizabeth’s long relationship with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester is well-documented, as is her shorter relationship with the Earl of Essex that ended with his execution. Matthew Lyons’ book spells out the way in which Elizabeth exerted control over many young men by favouring them, playing themselves off against each other. Even during the years when Dudley was dominant there were other favourites like Christopher Hatton, and Ralegh’s rise coincided with Dudley’s marriage that ended his closeness to the Queen.  Ralegh’s chance came in 1581 when he, no doubt to everyone’s surprise, enjoyed military success. Lyons comments “Not many English captains returned to court from Ireland with their reputation enhanced and the swagger of a clearly defined victory in their gait”.

Ralegh is one of those figures around whom legends gathered. He probably didn’t bring back tobacco and potatoes from the new world (probably untrue), but it’s possible that at this critical time, according to Fuller’s Worthies of England, he did lay his cloak beneath Elizabeth’s feet in a dashing gesture:
This captain Ralegh coming out of Ireland to the English court in good habit (his clothes being then a considerable part of his estate) found the queen walking, till, meeting with a plashy place, she seemed to scruple going thereon. Presently Ralegh cast and spread his new plush cloak on the ground; whereon the queen trod gently, rewarding him afterwards with many suits, for his so free and seasonable tender of so fair a foot cloth.

Ralegh had shown himself useful in Ireland, and some of his voyages of exploration resulted in riches going into the royal coffers. In 1587-8 he contributed greatly to the preparations for challenging the Spanish Armada. Personally Ralegh was not well-liked, but the plain speaking that made him unpopular with some was liked by the Queen. According to Lyons again, his “riveting matter-of-fact directness …contrasted violently with the deferential, self-defensive tone of much court discourse”. No politician then.

No wonder Sonnet 25 has been thought to refer to Ralegh, whose favoured status  and achievements in war and foreign policy could not protect him from the displeasure of the monarch.  He was, though, hardly alone, most of those who had been Elizabeth’s favourites falling out of favour. Leicester and Essex are just two of them: Francis Drake was also disgraced, and the Earl of Southampton was imprisoned in the Tower.  It seems more likely that Shakespeare was making a general comment about the dangers of being in the public eye, and examples could be found in the books he used as sources for his plays. The fate of “the painful warrior famoused for fight” who loses his reputation even “after a thousand victories” is reminiscent of what happens to the Roman warrior Coriolanus, a story Shakespeare found in Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans.

Many others lose their reputations, or even their heads: Cassio in Othello is disgraced by a drunken brawl, and many of the one-time followers of Richard III are executed during the play of the same name.

Just as in Shakespeare’s day, political careers may well be on the line today. The electorate may have spoken, but in the aftermath of the election Ralegh may well be proved right: “In all that ever I observed in the course of wordly things, I ever found that men’s fortunes are oftener made by their tongues than by their virtues”.

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Peter Brook at the V&A

Peter Brook

Peter Brook

On Saturday I was lucky to be able to attend a symposium at the Victoria and Albert Museum entitled Peter Brook: Place, Process, Performance, Politics. It was part of the Museum’s Performance Festival and this investigation of Brook’s impact on British and International culture, as well as his working practices, is related to the V&A’s acquisition of Brook’s personal archives which will become available at the end of 2015.

Now aged 90, Brook’s career in the professional theatre goes back almost 70 years, and I’ve previously written about his work.  His inspirational ideas were recognised early when, at 21, he was invited to Stratford by Barry Jackson. The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre was coming out of the war years with a desperate need to reinvent itself. In 1946 he had the advantage of being little-known, and was given an unfamiliar play, Love’s Labour’s Lost, to direct, the set and costumes inspired by the paintings of Watteau. In 1947 Brook took on the much-loved tragedy of Romeo and Juliet boldly stripping the play back to its essentials, playing it on a set minimal for its time. Audiences and critics were outraged the cutting of the final reconciliation of the warring families after Juliet’s death.

Back in the 1940s one newspaper described Brook as “a teddy-bear filled with dynamite”. In Sally Beauman’s book Royal Shakespeare Company, actor John Harrison recalled Brook was “somewhat dictatorial in his methods… He was very high handed with us all in the ball and fight scenes, masterminding us through a megaphone”.

These early productions came well over 20 years before the one by which he will always be known, the 1970 A Midsummer Night’s Dream. During the 1960s Brook developed his ideas and in 1968 published his book The Empty Space. It’s opening statement was  ‘I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.’

The Bouffes du Nord

The Bouffes du Nord

On Saturday the comment was made that Brook has spent the last forty years disproving his idea that theatre can take place anywhere. The day began with talks by architect Andrew Todd and designer Tom Piper. Todd specialises in performance space, and is based in Paris where Brook runs the Bouffes du Nord, a theatre that was in imminent danger of demolition when he took it over. Brook found that he needed “a shell around the empty space”, and this theatre offered “intimacy and concentration”. His work has also been performed in a variety of re-used spaces such as quarries, industrial buildings and even a tram depot in Frankfurt. Andrew Todd suggested that architects have to resist the temptation to tell the whole story: a theatre building has to be left incomplete.

Tom Piper worked at the Bouffes du Nord at the beginning of his career as a designer. He recalled how Sally Jacobs, who had designed Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, had explained how some of the actors had created their own props in rehearsal. Their improvisation was how Bottom’s ass’s head with its ping pong ball nose, and his hooves made of blocks of wood, were invented. The literalness of these props was appropriate since the mechanicals don’t trust imagination, wanting to bring real moonshine into the chamber. This production in particular could only work if the audience used its imagination. The key lines were these:
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination.

On 3 May The Reunion on Radio 4 featured Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It will be repeated on Friday 9 May and is also available to play again.

The tone of the afternoon, led by Kathryn Hunter who has worked many times with Brook, was more reverential. She recalled her feelings of doubt and fear when she joined the rest of the company at the Bouffes du Nord for her first rehearsal. Rehearsals always begin with “the circle, the stillness and the silence”: the work is always about connection, about being together, and “above all about joy”.

Brook himself spoke for twenty minutes, with a focus on how his theatre work relates to politics. In 1966 he directed Denis Cannan’s anti-Vietnam play US with the RSC at the Aldwych, and in 1968 came the film Tell Me Lies, based on the play with many of the same actors. Though of its time, the film’s subject of the West being involved in international conflict is also very topical, and during one of the televised debates in the 2015 election campaign party leaders were directly accused of lying. But the film’s title shares that ambiguity so noted by Brook: politicians have to be able to tell lies, but the title is also a plea to politicians: we need to be told convincing lies to cushion us from terrifying realities.  The day finished with a showing of the film which is also on YouTube. If you receive this post by email you will need to access the blog itself to get this link.

At sixteen, he told us, he had been attracted to the purity of Marxism, but was disillusioned when communist rulers succumbed to the same temptations as other politicians. He was attracted to theatre, in which one is always led to sympathise – to see a situation from one point of view and then another. Political theatre takes a situation and opens up its contradictions and ambiguities, putting the audience into an uncomfortable position, each person having to find their own attitude. With this definition, Shakespeare is most definitely a political writer: “Contradiction can make us blind or open our eyes”.


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Love, whose month is ever May

DSCN8692blossomMayday has long been celebrated as the real beginning of spring, marking the return of life after the cold and dark of winter. Nicholas Breton, writing in Fantasticks, describes the pleasures of the month:

It is now May, and the sweetness of the air refresheth every spirit: the sunny beams give forth fair blossoms, and the dripping clouds water Flora’s great garden: the male deer puts out the velvet head, and the pagged doe is near her fawning: the Spa-hawk now is drawn out of the mew, and the fowler makes ready his whittle for the quail: the Lark sets the morning watch and the evening, the nightingale: the Barges, like bowers, keep the streams of the sweet rivers, and the mackerel with the shad are taken prisoners with the sea: the tall young oak is cut down for the maypole: the scythe and the sickle are the movers furniture, and the fair weather makes the labourer merry:.. It is the month wherein Nature hath her fill of mirth, and the senses are filled with delights. I conclude, it is from the Heavens a grace, and to Earth a gladness.”

It might be expected that only those in the countryside would celebrate, but John Stow, writing in 1598, noted how citizens of London celebrated Mayday: “in the morning, every man, except impediment, would walk into the sweet meadows and green woods, there to rejoice their spirits with the beauty and savour of sweet flowers, and with the harmony of birds”. In years gone by he noted that parishes would join together to “have their several mayings, and did fetch in May-poles, with divers warlike shows, with good archers, morris dancers, and other devices, for pastime all the day long; and toward the evening they had stage plays, and bonfires in the streets“.

Both these writers approve of Mayday events, but in 1583 the puritan Phillip Stubbes wrote a stinging critique of the whole business in The Anatomy of Abuses:

The Padstow maypole

The Padstow maypole

Against May, Whitsunday, or other time, all the young men and maids, old men and wives, run gadding over night to the woods, groves, hills and mountains, where they spend all the night in pleasant pastimes; and in the morning they return, bringing with them birch and branches of trees, to deck their assemblies withal. And no marvel, for there is a great Lord present among them as superintendant over their pastimes and sports, namely Satan, prince of Hell. But the chiefest jewel they bring thence is their Maypole, which they bring home with great veneration as thus. They have twenty or forty yoke of oxen, every one having a sweet nosegay of flowers placed on the tip of his horns, and these oxen draw home this maypole (this stinking idol rather) which is covered all over with flowers and herbs, bound round about with strings from top to bottom and sometime painted with variable colours, with two or three hundred men, women and children following it with great devotion. And thus being reared up with handkerchiefs and flags hovering on the top, they strew the ground round about, bind green boughs about it, set up summer halls, bowers and arbours hard by it; And they fall to dance about it like as the heathen people did at the dedication of the idols whereof this is a perfect pattern, or rather the thing itself.

I have heard it credibly reported (and that viva voce) by men of great gravity and reputation, that of forty, three score or a hundred maids going to the wood over night, there have scarcely the third part of them returned home again undefiled. These be the fruits which these cursed pastimes bring forth.

I wonder how Shakespeare’s audiences for A Midsummer Night’s Dream reacted to Lysander’s suggestion to meet Hermia in the wood,
a league without the town,
Where I did meet thee once with Helena,
To do observance to a morn of May,
There will I stay for thee.

There is more about Mayday rituals in this blog, and here Karin Brown of the Shakespeare Institute Library writes in particular about the tradition of the hobby horse, mentioned by Shakespeare.

Padstow 'Obby 'Oss

Padstow ‘Obby ‘Oss

The hobby horse still features in morris dancing, where it sometimes captures young women under its skirt, but for a full-blooded celebration of Mayday you can’t beat the Cornish town of Padstow. Around 30,000 people now cram the narrow streets of the little town to watch not one, but two grotesque ‘Obby ‘Osses dance in a ceremony that lasts all day. It’s definitely related to morris dancing, but wilder and more unpredictable, and it does make you wonder if this is indeed a fertility ritual that goes back to pagan times. If Mayday was anything like this it would have been easy to see why Philip Stubbes believed it was presided over by Satan. This site includes lots of information, and the following video is a report by the Cornwall Channel of the 2013 celebrations. (Those receiving this by email need to go to the main Shakespeare blog website to watch it)



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New Shakespeare MOOC

courseraI’ve only recently heard about a new Shakespeare MOOC that has just started  so you still have time to sign up if you want to join in. As with all MOOCs the course is free. It’s called Shakespeare in Community, and is sponsored by the University of Wisconsin Madison. All the Shakespeare MOOCs I’ve done so far have been Futurelearn, a UK platform, and this one is the first I’ve encountered on the international Coursera platform. Four plays are being discussed over the four weeks of the course: Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing and The Tempest. It runs from 23 April to 22 May.

As well as helping participants to learn about the plays themselves, the course will look at the whole idea of Shakespeare in the digital age:

The goal of this Shakespeare in Community course, then, will be to discover Shakespeare while also considering together what it is for us to discover and un-cover Shakespeare in the digital age.

Ultimately, this course will be focused on building a global community around the study of Shakespeare. And so one of our central goals will be to use Shakespeare’s plays as an occasion for creating important conversations that bridge cultures, languages, and geographies. Students in the course will also increase their digital literacies, learning new tools for reading, writing, critical analysis, and collaboration. The course will be both about Shakespeare and also about the digital humanities, encouraging learners to think critically about how digital tools (including MOOCs) can be used to investigate literary texts.

Over 16,000 people are signed up world-wide and it sounds as if it will be a stimulating course. Here’s the link.

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