Shakespeare and the White House

President Obama is about to hand over to the incoming President Trump, and in the last few days an interview with Obama about the books that are important to him has been published in the New York Times. One of the authors he mentions is of course Shakespeare. 

Shakespeare applied to our national bereavement, April 1865

President Obama has not made it a habit to quote from Shakespeare in his speeches, unlike his predecessor President Lincoln, who Obama has often mentioned as a source of inspiration. Lincoln was so closely associated with Shakespeare that after his death in April 1865 this document “Shakespeare applied to our national bereavement” was published quoting from Macbeth, in particular the murder of Duncan.

Many presidents have been influenced by Shakespeare and his interest in politics, as this essay that appears on the White House Historical Association’s site shows, and I have cited before this section from the Folger Shakespeare Library that includes a piece on how many US presidents owed ideas or quotations to Shakespeare.

My blog post on early American visitors to Stratford included the visit of two Presidents-to-be who came a pilgrimage to visit the Birthplace in the astonishingly early year of 1786. John Adams and  Thomas Jefferson were the men.

President Obama at Shakespeare’s Globe April 2016

President Obama may not have come to Stratford-upon-Avon, but during his visit to the UK in April of 2016 when the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death was being marked he visited Shakespeare’s Globe in London, where, among tight security,  they staged a medley of scenes from Hamlet specially for him.

It seems unlikely that the new occupant of the White House will be reading, or quoting, much Shakespeare over the next four years, but Shakespeare will still remain relevant. The Shakespeare play most appropriate for the political situation we find ourselves in at the start of 2017 seems to be Coriolanus, though the parallels are complex. Even written for a very different world, four hundred years ago, Shakespeare brings out those similarities, and a production of the play in New York just before the election in succeeded in reflecting the concerns of many in the USA. It isn’t just the interplay of Coriolanus, Aufidius, and those Roman tribunes, but Menenius’s speech about the belly’s place in the body as a metaphor for a political system, that strikes a chord.

There was a time when all the body’s members
Rebell’d against the belly, thus accused it:
That only like a gulf it did remain
I’ the midst o’ the body, idle and unactive,
Still cupboarding the viand, never bearing
Like labour with the rest, where the other instruments
Did see and hear, devise, instruct, walk, feel,
And, mutually participate, did minister
Unto the appetite and affection common
Of the whole body…
The belly responded:
‘True is it, my incorporate friends,’ quoth he,
‘That I receive the general food at first,
Which you do live upon; and fit it is,
Because I am the store-house and the shop
Of the whole body: but, if you do remember,
I send it through the rivers of your blood,
Even to the court, the heart, to the seat o’ the brain;
And, through the cranks and offices of man,
The strongest nerves and small inferior veins
From me receive that natural competency
Whereby they live:…
Though all at once cannot
See what I do deliver out to each,
Yet I can make my audit up, that all
From me do back receive the flour of all,
And leave me but the bran.’ …
The senators of Rome are this good belly,
And you the mutinous members; for examine
Their counsels and their cares, digest things rightly
Touching the weal o’ the common, you shall find
No public benefit which you receive
But it proceeds or comes from them to you
And no way from yourselves.
Whatever happens next, it seems certain that Shakespeare will already have written about it.

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Documenting the oldest Shakespeare organisation in the world

Club ribbon, 1830

Regular readers will be aware that The Story of Stratford-upon-Avon’s Shakespeare Club, 1824-2016: Long life to the Club call’d Shakspearean has recently been published, documenting the history of the oldest surviving Shakespeare organisation in the world. The Club began as a small group of local tradesmen wanting to promote their own businesses as well as celebrating the life and work of Stratford’s most famous son. Some records still exist dating back to the foundation of the club and its first activities in the 1820s, and for over 150 years the Club’s archives have been kept by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

At 3pm on Tuesday 24 January 2017 the authors, Susan Brock and Sylvia Morris, will be giving a talk and display of related material at the Shakespeare Centre in Stratford-upon-Avon. The Collections Department of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust will be bringing some of this historic material that we featured in the book out of its secure storage for the event. These will include the magnificent glass goblet given to the Club in 1830 to celebrate its outstanding success and a unique blue and white pottery tankard dating from the same period. Medals and ribbons created for members will also be on display, as will a range of images and newspaper cuttings of the Celebrations organised by the Club. Documents will include minute books, the handwritten list of the first committee, playbills, photographs and programmes for performances sponsored by the Club. All these reinforce the vital role taken by the Club in the development of the town as a centre for Shakespearean performance and celebration.

These items have never been displayed together to the public before, so this will be a rare opportunity to see them and to hear the authors talk about some of the mysteries they had to solve when researching this unexplored topic. The authors will also be bringing along their own personal items of historic Club memorabilia.

Friends of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust will be admitted free of charge, but a small number of places are still available to the general public for £5 paid on the door. Because there is a limit on numbers, if you want to come along please email stratfordshakespeareclub@gmail.com  in advance.

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The Tempest in production

A scene from the RSC's Tempest, Simon Russell Beale as Prospero

A scene from the RSC’s Tempest, Simon Russell Beale as Prospero

On Wednesday 11 January the Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Tempest is to be live streamed to cinemas around the UK. The play always brings with it a number of challenges, with its magical elements and the difficulty of putting a shipwreck on stage.

With its innovative use of technology it will be particularly interesting to see how it works on screen. The RSC’s collaboration with technology company Intel goes back at least two years. The inspiration was in fact the innovations of Shakespeare’s period:  Gregory Doran, who directs, says “Shakespeare includes a masque. They were then the multimedia events of their day, using innovative technology from the Continent to produce astonishing effects, with moving lights, and stage machinery that could make people fly, and descent from the clouds…So I wanted to see what would happen if the very latest technology could be applied to Shakespeare’s play today”.

However it isn’t the masque, or the opening storm scene, where the technology is most used, but in the character of Ariel. Using the expertise of The Imaginarium Studios they decided to think about Ariel as a digital character. Quoting from the programme, the Studios are “Pioneers in the art of  ‘performance capture’, (where an actor’s work is electronically tracked and translated into computer-generated imagery” and this is what has been done with the actor Mark Quartley. Sensors in his costume pick up his movements that are then rendered into the computer-generated character and projected live on stage. Somehow, we see both the real Ariel and one or more projected avatars on or above the stage. Combined with other projections and a magnificent set the result is a sumptuous theatrical experience.

The use of  special effects sometimes distances the actors from the audience, but this isn’t the case here. Mark Quartley copes well with being wired up for each performance, and Simon Russell Beale as Prospero is certainly not put off by the experience. He has said in the past that we should take liberties with Shakespeare in order to move with the times, and this production proves it can be done successfully.

Harriet Walter as Prospero

Harriet Walter as Prospero

Just before Christmas I was lucky enough to be able to see both the RSC’s The Tempest and that put on by the Donmar at King’s Cross, and what a contrast there was. The Donmar’s production was the final part of a trilogy that also included Julius Caesar and Henry IV Part 1. The audience was led into a starkly-lit four-sided auditorium to watch a production put on by the inmates of a women’s prison. No sign of special effects here. Before the action started Harriet Walter (Prospero) introduces herself as a woman who has been in prison for decades, with no prospect of release. The prison bars are real and immovable, the action of the play created by the imagination of the participants. Shakespeare’s play ends with Prospero leaving the island, returning to Milan, but in this production Walter’s situation is closer to that of Caliban. All the other inmates are shown one by one joyfully leaving the prison until she remains desolate and alone.

Time and again, in both productions we are drawn back to Prospero, at the centre of the play. With no real drama within the story (Prospero is after all in charge), the conflict has to be within his mind. Harriet Walter, literally imprisoned, is powerless and angry. Simon Russell Beale always finds the humanity in every role, and enables us to see Prospero’s conflicting feelings: vengeance versus mercy to those who have done him wrong, happiness for his daughter versus sadness at losing her, returning to Milan versus losing his magic. His anger seems mostly to be aimed at himself, unable to resolve these conflicts.

Watching these two productions made me think back to other interpretations of the role of Prospero, and I’ve dipped back into David Lindley’s book The Tempest in the Shakespeare at Stratford series, published in 2003, that covers the RSC’s productions of the play from 1945-2000. At the beginning of this period Prospero, the magician, was firmly in control, with Michael Redgrave in 1951 being the best example. In 1957 Peter Brook changed the way in which the role was played, with John Gielgud playing him. Gielgud dressed humbly, looked like a hermit, and most importantly, was angry. Lindley describes him as tormented and problematic, and the reviewer of the Times remarked: “We are almost invited to wonder if forgiveness will after all triumph over lower feelings. For through the performance the actor throws out a persistent suggestion that though Prospero intends of his own accord to surrender the omnipotence which he has only valued as the instrument of impersonal ends, he nevertheless has an inner battle of his own to fight”.

Gilz Terera as Ariel, Philip Voss as Prospero, RSC 2000-2001

Gilz Terera as Ariel, Philip Voss as Prospero, RSC 2000-2001

Anger and even vindictiveness came to be the norm for Prosperos in the 1970s and 1980s, so I remember Philip Voss’s performance at TOP and on tour in 2000-2001 coming as something of a relief. Voss played Prospero as a kindly figure and in spite of being modestly staged the production included a number of innovations such as projected images, a delightful masque, and gorgeous a cappella music composed by Orlando Gough. I still remember it being a magical production.

Gregory Doran describes the innovations of computer-generated effects as “storytelling for the 21st century, taking the audience’s imagination into new realms”. He may be right, but no amount of special effects are more important than the creative artists and performers who put them before us.

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New Year’s Honours for Shakespeare

Patricia Routledge

Patricia Routledge

At the beginning of 2017 the New Year’s Honours List was published in which the great and the good were recognised for their services. Following the successful 2016 Rio Olympics it was inevitable that many of those honoured would be sportspeople such as the runner Mo Farah, but theatre and drama, including Shakespeare, were not forgotten.

The recipients who got the most media attention were those best known to television audiences, Mark Rylance and Patricia Routledge, who receive a Knighthood and a Damehood respectively. Rylance’s work, particularly at Shakespeare’s Globe, is very well known. Patricia Routledge’s interview in which she stated how thrilled she was to be recognised for her stage, rather than her TV work, was broadcast repeatedly. Shakespeare fans may remember her as Queen Margaret in the 1984 production of Richard III for the Royal Shakespeare Company which starred Tony Sher. She has continued to act on stage even though now well into her 80s.

Other Shakespeare-related honours included an OBE for Helen McCrory who has played many Shakespeare roles on stage, and one for Tim Pigott-Smith who has worked with the RSC many times, and has the rare distinction for an actor of also having been educated at Shakespeare’s School. There was also a CBE for Rupert Goold, Artistic Director of the Almeida Theatre and an Associate Director of the RSC.

Richard Eyre

Richard Eyre

I’m saving, though, the best till last, and it’s an honour that I haven’t heard reported anywhere this week. Sir Richard Eyre has been made a Companion of Honour, granted as a reward for outstanding achievements and conferred to only a very limited number of people (only 65 at any one time). It’s a great recognition for a lifetime’s devotion to the performing arts including drama, opera, television and film work. Richard Eyre is best known for being Artistic Director of the National Theatre from 1987 to 1997. At the National Theatre he directed the famous production of Richard III starring Ian McKellen, set in 1930s Germany, and that of King Lear starring Ian Holm. Longer ago, he directed a well-known production of Hamlet at the Royal Court Theatre that starred Jonathan Pryce and another starring Ian Charleson. More recently, and on TV, he directed Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2 as part of The Hollow Crown series that was screened by the BBC in 2012.

Quite by chance, Sir Richard Eyre is the President of Stratford-upon-Avon’s Shakespeare Club for the 2016-2017 season and I’m delighted to be able to say that he is giving his presidential address on the subject of “Shakespeareana” to the Club on Tuesday 10 January 2017 at the Shakespeare Institute, at 7.45pm. Visitors are very welcome for £3, students will be admitted free, and after the meeting refreshments will be served. It promises to be a wonderful evening. More details at www.stratfordshakespeareclub.org

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Shakespeare at the close of 2016

One of the newly-discovered documents showing Shakespeare's Coat of Arms

One of the newly-discovered documents showing Shakespeare’s Coat of Arms

The year in which we marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death may be over, but there is still much to celebrate. The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, is a great source of information about Shakespeare, and I subscribe to their bi-weekly newsletter Shakespeare Plus.  The current edition in January 2017 is available here and you’ll see it contains a real mix of material as varied as a link to a podcast on the making of the First Folio, an article about Elizabethan Christmas, another on Shakespeare in Hollywood and even a seasonal recipe. In the section on the highlights of 2016 I noticed a subject relating to Shakespeare’s life that I’d missed. Here’s their description:

In June, The New York Times published important discoveries about Shakespeare’s coat of arms made by Heather Wolfe, Folger’s curator of manuscripts. These documents show Shakespeare’s intimate involvement in his family’s application for a coat of arms, reinforcing the evidence that Shakespeare the man from Stratford was also Shakespeare the London playwright.

You can see the documents on Shakespeare Documented, the largest and most authoritative collection of primary-source materials documenting the life of William Shakespeare, which the Folger launched this year in partnership with the Bodleian Libraries, British Library, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and The National Archives UK.

The New York Times piece explains that Heather Wolfe has discovered, among the archives at the College of Arms in London and other places, around a dozen manuscript versions of Shakespeare’s coat of arms, some of which are very early. One, complaining about Shakespeare’s right to a coat of arms, describing him as “Shakespeare, ye player”, can be reliably dated to around 1600 unlike the similar document held by the Folger which is thought to date from 1700. And most of them link the coat of arms to William rather than to his father John, officially named as the person responsible for seeking the arms, making it obvious that it was William who pushed the application through, doing a little social climbing. While the documents in themselves don’t provide any new information, Professor Alan Nelson finds it significant. It “helps to confirm everything we know about the arc of Shakespeare’s career and the way he understood himself in the context of his society,” he said.

If you’d like to get their regular updates, this is the address where you can give them your details.

Shakespeare Lives

Living Shakespeare

 

I’ve only just caught up with yet another of the BBC’s offerings for 2016, and it’s one that will remain available on the internet. It was entitled Living Shakespeare, and looked at Shakespeare’s impact across the globe. Filmed partly in Stratford-upon-Avon during the summer it takes five stories from China, South Africa, Lebanon, the UK and India and shows how Shakespeare is relevant to people’s lives. The programme begins with South Africa’s John Kani talking about playing Othello in apartheid Johannesburg in the 1980s, moves on to China where Shakespeare’s sonnets offered a voice to a gay woman when she felt herself to be an outcast in the 1980s. An Indian actress commented on how, in her country, “We are all modern Ophelias”, defined by the opinions of the men in their lives as either traditional and pure or independent and sultry. Profoundly deaf musician Evelyn Glennie finds that in The Tempest Shakespeare uses sound to colour his characters, with a vibrant use of noises and sounds. Finally a Lebanese choreographer noted that in her country “we really recognise his voice”, and created a dance version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream following the country’s civil war that heralded a time of peace. The conclusion, inevitably, is that all these people find that Shakespeare’s writing still speaks to people, particularly those who find themselves in opposition to the status quo in their own countries. We may all be quite relieved that 2016 is now over, but Shakespeare’s influence shows no sign of abating.

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Sir Arthur Hodgson, Shakespeare and Australia

Thaddeus, Henry Jones; Sir Arthur Hodgson, KCMG, DL, JP, Mayor (1883-1888), High Steward (1896-1902); Stratford-upon-Avon Town Hall; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/sir-arthur-hodgson-kcmg-dl-jp-mayor-18831888-high-steward-18961902-55784

Thaddeus, Henry Jones; Sir Arthur Hodgson, KCMG, DL, JP, Mayor (1883-1888), High Steward (1896-1902); Stratford-upon-Avon Town Hall; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/sir-arthur-hodgson-kcmg-dl-jp-mayor-18831888-high-steward-18961902-55784

Stratford has been lucky to have attracted a number of influential people who have contributed significantly to the town’s development as a vibrant cultural centre. One of these was Sir Arthur Hodgson, a wealthy businessman who retired to the town and devoted his last thirty years to it. His portrait, hanging in the town hall, oversees the business meetings of today’s Town Council.

Hodgson was born in Hertfordshire, the son of a vicar, in 1818, and educated at Eton and Cambridge. After three years in the Royal Navy he set off to Australia, arriving in Sydney at the age of 20 following a four and a half month sea voyage. He had met influential people on board and arrived with letters of introduction that ensured he was able to set up a sheep station, founding a settlement, Eton Vale, in 1840.  He also became a politician, rising to Colonial Secretary for Queensland in 1869, before he left Australia to return to England in 1870, his fortune made. In 1873 he purchased the Clopton Estate near Stratford-upon-Avon and quickly settled into the community. This post-retirement career was impressive.  He was Mayor of Stratford a record five times 1883-88, High Steward of the borough in 1884-89, Deputy-lieutenant and High Sheriff of Warwickshire in 1881 and was also honorary colonel of the 2nd battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment.  He was appointed Companion of the Grand Cross  in 1878 and Knight Commander of the Grand Cross in 1886 for his services to Queensland.

He also involved himself in local charitable and sporting activities, including the Shakespeare Club, becoming a member in 1876. While Mayor he would have been the Club president ex officio, but he rarely attended meetings. The Club had reformed in 1874  but by the late 1880s it was lacking in energy, probably owing to the ongoing illness of its Vice-President Charles Flower. When Flower died in 1892 Hodgson stepped into the vacuum. Under his influence the next year the Club organised the most elaborate Birthday Celebrations for years. It was, fortuitously, Easter Sunday, and the town was decorated with flags, streamers and laurel festoons and, led by the town band, the Mayor and Corporation, the Trustees of Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Shakespeare Club members and the Governors of the Memorial Theatre walked in procession to the church for a special service in honour of the poet’s birthday.

This revival may also have encouraged another of the town’s Shakespeare traditions, as it was also in 1893 that King Edward VI School began its involvement in the Birthday Celebrations with its first presentation of a floral wreath.

Hodgson was responsible for improving the quality of Club meetings, giving his own paper on Shakespeare and Italy in which he referred to his correspondence with well-known scholar Mary Cowden Clark. He encouraged women into the Club, first welcoming them to meetings as visitors, then introducing membership for them (his wife and daughters were some of the first members). He improved the quality of the speeches at the birthday by including a talk by the eminent physician Sir Benjamin Ward, on Shakespeare’s Psychological Point of View and introduced outside speakers to the monthly meetings of the Club, one of the first being the American poet and author William Winter. At this time too the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald began printing full reports of the Club’s meetings.

His enthusiasm for Shakespeare was genuine. He was a member of the Memorial Theatre’s Board of Governors when it opened in 1879 and a Life Trustee of Shakespeare’s Birthplace.  In 1902, the year of his death, he published for private circulation Shakespearean Jottings,  a lecture given in the Stoneleigh Institute, Warwickshire. In it he aimed “to give inadequate expression to my love and reverence for the master-mind of all literature and the interpreter of all future ages of human nature”. Reading it recently I found the man’s forthright character comes through, though he seems to have had a rather careless concern for facts. He writes with absolute certainty that at 11 Shakespeare saw the celebrations at Kenilworth Castle, and was “a good husband and a kind father”, though he acknowledges no diary or correspondence survives.

Described in the Australian Dictionary of Biography  as ‘upright and inflexible’, the Town Hall portrait of him shows a man proud of his achievements, but also, his head turned and slightly bowed, a man who listened, perhaps something he learned from the works of Shakespeare. At his death in 1902 Hodgson had been involved in the town for thirty years, an extraordinary record of service to his adopted home.

The State Library of New South Wales, Sydney

The State Library of New South Wales, Sydney

The other reason I have been reading up about Hodgson is that link with Australia, which I visited earlier in 2016. While in Sydney I went along to the State Library for New South Wales (the oldest Library in Australia), which has a Shakespeare Room, and have since been in correspondence with their Curator Sarah Morley who tells me they hold manuscript material and photographs relating to Arthur Hodgson. As there is this connection, a copy of our book The Story of the Shakespeare Club of Sratford-upon-Avon 1824-2016: Long life to the Club call’d Shakspearean has been presented to the Library. More information on Sir Arthur Hodgson and the history of the Club can be found in the book.

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“The point envenom’d too” onstage fighting or the real thing?

A Victorian staging of the Battle of Bosworth from Richard III

A Victorian staging of the Battle of Bosworth from Richard III

On 13 December 2016, the members of Stratford-upon-Avon’s Shakespeare Club will be able to get an inside view on the subject of staging battles and fights in productions of Shakespeare’s plays, from a man who really knows his subject. Alan Smith is the Head of the RSC’s Armoury and his position is unique, since no other UK theatre company has its own Armoury department. Then as now, battle scenes are popular and Shakespeare wrote many into his plays. The scenes are often crucial to the play, and when staged the details have to be are right.

There are the really important historic battles like Agincourt in Henry V and Bosworth in Richard III, but there are fights in many plays like Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Coriolanus, Macbeth and even the comic fight in Twelfth Night between the two reluctant participants Andrew Aguecheek and Viola.

An image showing the making of a sword, from The Wallace Collection

An image showing the making of a sword, from The Wallace Collection

A wide range of weaponry is required to cover all these styles from different eras and places, and it will be interesting to hear how Alan and his team approach this challenge. Shakespeare knew a fair bit about swordplay, and this post, written by Peter Tonkin, explains how during Shakespeare’s lifetime the new fashion for the rapier took over. While older swords had been short and broad, inflicting the sort of head and body wounds we now know killed Richard III (courtesy of the excavation at Leicester), the new fashion was for the narrow rapier with its pointed end that inflicted a completely different sort of wound as well as requiring totally different technique, that of fencing.

This page from the Wallace Collection in London, where they hold a magnificent collection of arms, explains a bit more about the weapons used at Agincourt,  and this is a more extensive explanation of the subject as it developed based on their 2012 exhibition The Noble Art of the Sword: Fashion and Fencing in Renaissance Europe.  The Wallace Collection currently has another exhibition on relating to arms, but looking in more detail about how some of the historic swords in their collection were made. It’s on until 26 March 2017.

fencing

Back to Shakespeare and his knowledge of swordplay: this post looks at Shakespeare’s references to rapier fencing in great detail.  Shakespeare’s fights are rarely simply displays of skill, though these were popular in the early modern theatre. In Hamlet, the climax of the play comes with what could have been a formal display of fencing technique. Instead we have the added exciting twists of the plot by which Laertes poisons his foil and stabs Hamlet between bouts before, also using the foil, Hamlet finally revenges his father’s death. Just recently a number of posts of the SHAKSPER discussion forum have touched on the subject of how Shakespeare uses fights and the terminology of them to complement our understanding of the characters involved. It’s easy to subscribe to SHAKSPER in order to receive its regular postings.

This one, under the heading of Romeo and Juliet: Two Questions, has been looking at Shakespeare’s very subtle references to books or the phrase “by the book” in the play, but also examines the different styles of swordplay mentioned and how they are related to various characters – a distinction most of us miss since rapiers, swords and daggers are no longer the subject of everyday debate.

To hear Alan Smith talking about how the RSC tackles the issue of staging fights and battles, come along to the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon at 7.45 pm on Tuesday 13 December. All are welcome.

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1000 Londoners and Shakespeare

1000-londonersI’m grateful to Jill Little for letting me know about a fascinating ongoing project which, at the end of this important year, is highlighting Shakespeare’s connections with London.

The digital project is 1000 Londoners, in which every week a profile of a Londoner is posted on the home page. This profile includes a three-minute film about the person, including their views of life in London. A quick bit of arithmetic indicates that it could take nearly twenty years for the project to be completed, during which the capital will certainly have changed enormously. This is also the amount of time that it’s thought Shakespeare lived and worked in London from roughly 1590-1610. This period included the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign and with it the Tudor dynasty and the start of the Stuart dynasty beginning with the Scottish King James 1. During this time the artistic life of London, most notably marked by the flowering of the popular theatre, also developed out of all recognition. 

Over the period it runs, 1000 Londoners is sure to reflect changes in the city, taking in all ages, religions, race, interests and opinions, and will provide a unique digital portrait of the city and the nation for examination by students in the future. The project involves a wide range of partners and supporters including City Bridge Trust, the Newcomen Collett Foundation,  the London Transport Museum, the London Boroughs of Southwark and Wandsworth, and the British Library. The project is managed by South London based film production company Chocolate Films that both produce the films and provide opportunities to young people and community groups to make their own short documentaries. The project is also supported by Film Hub London and the British Film Institute. 

In the next few weeks five Londoners who have been directly inspired by Shakespeare in their lives and work are being profiled. The first is already there,  #181 being Wills who is a production designer at Shakespeare’s Globe. He will be followed by theatre critic Mark, and Dennis who teaches Shakespeare to young people in his community to reduce gun violence, Benjamin, a drag king who performs at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, and Gordon McMullan the founder of the Shakespeare 400 programme, from the London Shakespeare Centre at King’s College London.  They are certainly diverse, though it’s a pity none of them are women. Each one will feature on the home page for a week, and all the profiles are searchable. They are also posted on YouTube. If you want to catch all of them as they are posted you can sign up to receive them regularly. 

2016 has been a momentous year for many reasons and this website is a fitting celebration of the vitality and diversity of our capital city, in which Shakespeare found fame and without which he might never have become Great Britain’s most enduring cultural hero.

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Finding a place for Philip Larkin in Poet’s Corner

Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin

On Friday 2 December a ledger stone bearing the name of Philip Larkin will be placed in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey, alongside writers such as Thomas Hardy, Edmund Spenser and of course William Shakespeare. There has been quite a lot of discussion about his being “welcomed into the bosom of Britain’s cultural establishment”. Some of his beliefs (and some of his poetry) were controversial,  but in one poll he was voted the most popular poet of the last 50 years, and a spokesman for Westminster Abbey has said “The Dean feels now is the right time to memorialise Larkin. Whatever rows have taken place about his view the bigger picture is his poetry and what shines through is that he’s one of our greatest poets and should be recognised as such.”

It will be exactly 31 years since Larkin died, but it’s not unusual for it to take a long time. Poet’s Corner was established in 1556 when Geoffrey Chaucer’s remains were interred there, over 100 years after he died. It was this that created a fashion for other writers to be buried there, including Spenser, Francis Beaumont and Ben Jonson, but many others are remembered with some kind of memorial. With the walls full of statues and plaques, nowadays a simple stone is laid in the floor.

Ledger stones set into the floor of Poet's Corner

Ledger stones set into the floor of Poet’s Corner

Shakespeare’s memorial was placed there in 1740, and is one of the most instantly-recognizable images of the man, endlessly copied. The statue on Stratford’s Town Hall, placed there in 1769, is based on it. It was designed by William Kent and executed by Peter Scheemakers. The Latin inscription above the head of the statue, in gold on a panel of dark marble, can be translated : “William Shakespeare [erected] 124 years after [his] death by public esteem”. A group of ladies, admirers of Shakespeare, put pressure on for there to be a memorial to Shakespeare in London and the cause was taken up by others including Alexander Pope. Money was raised by a benefit organised by Charles Fleetwood of the Drury Lane Theatre and John Rich of Covent Garden Theatre. The monument was indeed put there by public esteem as the public contributed towards the cost, and no fee was charged by the Dean and Chapter for erecting it.

Shakespeare had died and was buried in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon in April 1616. Some time after this date, William Basse wrote a poem suggesting that Shakespeare’s remains should be reinterred in the Abbey:

The Shakespeare monument in Poet's Corner

The Shakespeare monument in Poet’s Corner

Renowned Spenser, lie a thought more nigh
To learned Chaucer, and rare Beaumond lie
A little nearer Spenser, to make room
For Shakespeare in your threefold, fourfold Tomb.
To lodge all four in one bed make a shift
Until Doomsday, for hardly will a fifth
Betwixt this day and that by Fate be slain,
For whom your Curtains may be drawn again.
If your precedency in death doth bar
A fourth place in your sacred sepulchre,
Under this carved marble of thine own,
Sleep, rare Tragedian, Shakespeare sleep alone;
Thy unmolested peace, unshared Cave,
Possess as Lord, not Tenant, of the Grave,
That unto us and others it may be
Honour hereafter to be laid by thee.

But by the time of the publication of the First Folio in 1623 the monument to Shakespeare had been put up in Stratford’s church, and Ben Jonson, writing his dedication to Shakespeare in that book, dismissed the idea with some direct references to Basse’s poem.
My Shakespeare, rise; I will not lodge thee by
Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lye
A little further, to make thee a roome :
Thou art a Moniment, without a tombe,
And art alive still, while thy Booke doth live,
And we have wits to read, and praise to give.

Shakespeare’s family were keen to make sure that Shakespeare’s connection with Stratford was maintained by putting up a bust in his memory inside the church in which he had been baptised and worshipped. As Jonson noted, and as has been said endlessly since, it is his writings that are Shakespeare’s real monument. It’s a sentiment echoed again in that quotation about Larkin that “the bigger picture is his poetry”. It’s to be hoped that the monuments in Poet’s Corner are not simply admired for themselves, but encourage people to read what the writers commemorated there  wrote.

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The Story of the Shakespeare Club is launched

Stratford-upon-Avon Mayor Juliet Short

Stratford-upon-Avon Mayor Juliet Short

On Monday 28 November 2016 we held the official launch of the book The Story of the Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon 1824-2016: Long life to the Club call’d “Shakspearean”, written by Susan Brock and Sylvia Morris.

It was an opportunity to celebrate the way the Club’s story is entwined with the history of the whole town and of some of its most important organisations. Several of them, including King Edward VI School, the Shakespeare Institute, and even the Swan of Avon Masonic Lodge were represented. The launch itself was held in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s bookshop, where the book is now on sale. The Club’s closest link historically is with the SBT, as it first suggested the Birthplace should be protected by being taken out of private hands, then helped to fundraise for its purchase, and took responsibility for the building for nearly twenty years.

Our most honoured guest was Juliet Short, the current Mayor of Stratford-upon-Avon. It’s appropriate that she should have been there: she follows in the footsteps of Annie Justins, Stratford’s first woman mayor and ex officio president of the Shakespeare Club, shown on the cover of the book carrying the Club’s wreath in 1930.

From the earliest years of the Club, a number of members had also been on the Council, and it became the norm that the Mayor of the town should also be the President of the Club, this tradition only being abandoned in 1941 when it was decided that Presidents should be elected who were distinguished in the field of drama or literature.

dscn3403town-hall-reducedClub was also associated with the Council through the use of the Town Hall. Just two years after its foundation at the Falcon Inn, in 1826, the Club first held its grand dinner to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday in the Town Hall, the main room of which was known as Shakespeare’s Hall. The Hall continued to be used for this purpose until well into the twentieth century, and monthly meetings were also held there from 1845 until 1874.

Being situated centrally in the town centre, the Town Hall was always highly visible during the Birthday Celebrations organised by the Club. During the early years of the twentieth century elaborate street decorations were put up in the main thoroughfares, the Town Hall being decorated with cartoons of the Seven Ages of Man in black and gold frames. These were painted by the young Bruce Bairnsfather who went on to be a hugely successful artist during World War 1.

In 1908 it was reported that “The chief incident of the day was, of course, the floral procession, …headed by the Grammar School boys, the Mayor of Stratford,…the members of the Shakespeare Club, and the visitors… in the afternoon the members of the Shakespeare Club held a reception in the Town Hall to which the visitors were welcomed by the Mayor”.

So the book may help to reconnect the Club with the other venerable organisations in Stratford-upon-Avon that together made the town the centre of the worldwide celebration of Shakespeare’s life and works. To find out more, go to the Club’s website  . Copies are available via the SBT bookshop or may be purchased directly from the Club.

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