Hugh Quarshie: Othello at last

Hugh Quarshie

Hugh Quarshie

In 2015 Hugh Quarshie will at last be taking on the role of Othello. It’s been a long wait: having played a whole series of Shakespeare’s characters in the 1980s and 1990s, from the predictable Aaron in Titus Andronicus, through Hotspur, Tybalt, Banquo and Mark Antony, it looked as if Othello would inevitably be next.

But then, around 1998, Quarshie very publicly seemed to put himself out of the running. First given as a lecture, he published Second Thoughts about Othello. This included the often-quoted lines:” I am left with a nagging doubt: if a black actor plays Othello does he not risk making racial stereotypes seem legitimate and even true. When a black actor plays a role written for a white actor in black make-up and for a predominantly white audience, does he not encourage the white way, or rather the wrong way, of looking at black men, namely that black men, or “Moors”, are over-emotional, excitable and unstable… Of all the parts in the canon, perhaps Othello is the one which should most definitely not be played by a black actor”.

So has he, fifteen years and many episodes of hospital drama Holby City later,  had a change of heart?

Reading Quarshie’s lecture recently, it’s clear that these quotations have been taken out of context. While he raises the question about black men playing Othello, he certainly doesn’t dismiss the idea. His argument is in three parts: firstly that Shakespeare adapted his source for the play, a story by Cinthio, in order to make it more racist, secondly that interpretations of the play in performance have reinforced racist views; and, “thirdly, that, while it may never be possible to avoid the conclusion that Othello behaves as he does because he is black, a non-racist interpretation may nevertheless be possible, but only with careful editing of text and a radical re-reading of key passages”.

He considers a number of possibilities: “Perhaps black actors could simply decline to play the role on the grounds that it should only be played by a white actor… This would of course have the merit of allowing black actors to play Iago.”

But he continues “My feeling is that black actors should continue to play the role; the racist conventions have persisted for so long precisely because not enough of us have played the role and challenged the conventions. And I believe that a non-racist interpretation may be possible”. He was involved in a production at Greenwich Theatre with a light-skinned black Iago and black American Othello. This lessened the idea that Othello behaves as he does because he’s black. “My interest in that production was in Iago as…a man… not regulated by moral codes, cultural tradition or racial solidarity, but impelled by his imagination and intellectual curiosity. Another time perhaps”.

His ideal is to “produce a version of the play which shifts the focus away from race and onto character”. Othello should be driven by “compelling psychological, social and political reasons:… he behaves as he does because he is a black man responding to racism, not giving a pretext for it”. The production would need to avoid being a domestic tragedy and stress the political context. “The focus of this production would be the manner and the extent of Othello’s reaction to betrayal”.

Other black writers and actors have been excited about presenting a different kind of Othello. In 2004 playwright Kwame Kwei Armah wanted to see “a version of Othello in which the character is not inextricably linked to the notion of a unacceptably weak and intellectually vulnerable black male. I would like to see a production in which, for instance, Cassio is a black man of “high complexion”…. Not only would we see a light-skinned black male being promoted over Iago, but Othello’s insecurity would be based on a perception that Desdemona may really have an appetite only for black men. …This might…make the story, like Lear, about a frightened insecure man. Not a weak black man.”

Lucian Msamati

Lucian Msamati

Othello would no longer be the sole example of black behaviour. As Quarshie suggested, the RSC’s production will for the first time include a black Iago, Lucian Msamati. After holding a workshop to try out the idea of additional black actors, the company’s artistic director, Gregory Doran found ” with Lucian, every line became freshly minted and it challenged the whole play in a way I found completely revelatory. It may be a completely crazy idea but I think it’s worth pursuing because in the end…you just watch two really, really good actors doing it”.

In his essay The Sun God, published in the 2014 book Shakespeare and Me, eminent American actor James Earl Jones refers to Quarshie’s lecture: “what I would suggest, rather cheekily, is that the best thing he can do, after he has scared away all the other black actors who are crazy enough to listen to his theories about race in Shakespeare, is to pull up his socks and take on Othello himself”. Some decades ago James Earl Jones played Othello with great distinction, and here he is doing Othello’s first great speech at the White House in 2009.

We’ll have to wait until next June to see Quarshie and the team decide to play it, but here is part of the description of the play in the new RSC schedule leaflet. “He [Othello] is … an outsider whose victories have created enemies of his own, men driven by prejudice and jealousy to destroy him. As they plot in the shadows, Othello realises too late that the greatest danger lies not in the hatred of others, but his own fragile and destructive pride”.

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Shakespeare, politics and the history of Stratford-upon-Avon

Queen Elizabeth 1, circa 1588

Queen Elizabeth 1, circa 1588

The Shakespeare Club’s October meeting consisted of a lecture by historian Nicholas Fogg on  Shakespeare and politics. It was perhaps no surprise that he had decided to look at the subject through a historical perspective, suggesting that to understand Shakespeare’s views of politics as shown in the plays, we need to drop some of our modern baggage as well as to take some on.

The world of politics has changed immeasurably since Shakespeare’s day. Politics was, for instance intimately bound up with religion, demonstrated by Measure for Measure which examines the responsibilities of the ruler in a setting where the main female character is about to become a nun, some of the scenes are set in a convent, and the ruler takes on the disguise of a holy friar.

He looked briefly at small-town politics, but suggested that although details of Stratford’s government surface in the character of the constable Dogberry, the town watch, and the beadle mentioned in King Lear, the Council on which Shakespeare’s own father sat contributed little to the characters and events of the plays.

Although local government may not have inspired Shakespeare, Nicholas Fogg examined the way in which local issues affecting ordinary people interested him. The poor are often seen as victims of the decisions made by those higher up the social scale. Though not mentioned by Shakespeare the dissolution of the monasteries a generation earlier had a knock-on effect as these sources of charity and protection for the unfortunate were not replaced, causing considerable hardship.

Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays show a fascination with the closely-knit web of nobles linked by blood who governed the country. Dynasties were created which fought it out amongst themselves, always trying to gain the favour of the monarch or, to replace him with their own leader .

Francois Gravelot's engraving showing the father who has killed his son and the son who has killed his father

Francois Gravelot’s engraving showing the father who has killed his son and the son who has killed his father

As the nobles argued, changed sides and betrayed each other civil war resulted. In the plays, it’s the common people who suffer: in Henry VI part 3 fathers and sons are shown in deadly conflict in one particularly poignant scene at the Battle of Towton. In all the History plays from Richard II onwards Shakespeare somewhere includes a speech about the history of the conflict being dramatised. It can feel like “the story so far”, but these speeches also serve the purpose of reminding audiences that the sins of the fathers are visited on their sons.

This blending of different social levels occurs again in Henry VI where the shepherd is the exemplar of order. The civil war Shakespeare writes about was only 67 years before his birth and there were a number of uprisings during his lifetime that could have resulted in a return to war. No wonder Shakespeare included this image, where the king, standing in for Christ, talks about being the shepherd to his flock, and, sitting on a molehill, he speaks about the sweetness of the life of the humble shepherd while battle rages around him.

The conflict between the king and his subjects reaches its height in Henry V where on the night before the battle of Agincourt the king, in disguise, has to defend the actions of the monarch against the ordinary soldier Michael Williams. Henry puts forward the doctrine of personal responsibility, and Nicholas Fogg brought us back to the present day with the thought that the same policy is still adopted by politicians today.

Although dismissive of the impact made by Stratford’s local politics on Shakespeare’s plays, Nicholas Fogg has returned in his latest book to the history of Stratford. It’s a subject he knows well.  In 1986 his book Stratford-upon-Avon: the Portrait of a Town was published. It was very different in tone from earlier history’s such as Levi Fox’s The Borough Town of Stratford-upon-Avon. Fogg concentrated on the very human story of the town and its inhabitants, not just its government, its architecture, or the history of the Shakespeare industry, although all were included. It did, however, end at the start of World War 1, a century ago.

Stratford-upon-Avon: the Biography

Stratford-upon-Avon: the Biography

He has now filled this gap with a new book, Stratford-upon-Avon: the Biography, published by Amberley Press. Although the book owes a great deal to the earlier one, there is a great deal of reworking in the early chapters, and several chapters have been added at the end to bring the story up to date. The two world wars feature heavily and recent events of interest to Shakespearians are included such as the revamping of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the changes to the Shakespeare Birthday Celebrations. The book makes splendid use of past issues of the local newspaper, the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald. With his dedication to the recently-retired editor of the paper, Chris Towner, the author acknowledges the debt he owes to its weekly reporting of local scandals, crimes, celebrations and events from jumble sales upwards. The book also contains many stories from private individuals, testament to the author’s wide network of friends in the town and a reminder of how important enthusiasm and commitment is for the life of a small town, even one as famous as Stratford-upon-Avon.

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So how should Shakespeare really sound?

David and Ben Crystal at Shakespeare's Globe

David and Ben Crystal at Shakespeare’s Globe

The biggest perceived challenge to anyone getting to grips with Shakespeare for the first time is probably making sense of the language. All the old-fashioned words, the use of “thee” and “thou”, the poetic constructions, the grammar itself. Yet reading a modern English version of the plays is a poor substitute for the real thing.

One of the experiments encouraged by the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe has been into Original Pronunciation (OP). This matches the attempts to reconstruct the physical playing space, the use of music played on authentic instruments, costumes in authentic fabrics, made by hand, and the use of men to play women’s parts. A recent online article from the Telegraph includes some examples of how it’s thought Shakespeare might have originally sounded.

The Globe’s first OP production was Romeo and Juliet in 2004, followed in 2005 by Troilus and Cressida. David and his actor son Ben Crystal have been the driving force behind them and the recordings. Here is their 10-minute introduction to the subject, filmed at Shakespeare’s Globe.  Their Original Pronunciation website contains much information, and the British Library have also published a CD of extracts from Shakespeare in OP.

It might be thought that reverting to original pronunciation would add yet another layer of difficulty for those already struggling. But the strong interest in OP is at least partly owing to the fact that the accent is more approachable for people intimidated by the language and the expectation that it requires a posh English accent. It’s a subject that those dealing with speaking Shakespeare have been concerned about for years. Cicely Berry, for many years the RSC’s Head of Voice, fought against the perceptions that “there is some sort of mystique” about poetry. “You are either over-reverent about it, and the ‘poetry voice’ happens, or rebelling against the ‘poetry voice’ you ignore the form and go only for the logical sense, and the poetry then sounds like prose”.

The pronunciations suggested by the Crystals sound less formal than Received Pronunciation (RP), and may be easier to adopt. I’m happy to admit I don’t know a lot about this subject, and I know that the recordings are the result of years of research. But I still feel a little unsure about taking them too literally. OP has been described as a mixture of West Country, North Country, Irish and American. But even today there are huge differences between, for instance, the North Country accents of Liverpool and Newcastle. Surely regional accents were at least as varied in Early Modern England as they are now, so there would not have been a single OP accent. It has been suggested (though not in the recordings) that Shakespeare himself would have spoken with a regional accent of some kind (a precursor of Brummie perhaps).

The Crystals make much of spelling, which tended to be more phonetic than it is now, and of the use of rhyme. The couplet at the end of a sonnet usually rhymes, and if it doesn’t appear to, they suggest that the pronunciation must have changed. So “love” and “prove” as in Sonnets 116 and 117, must have been pronounced the same. Caution is needed here, though. The same logic would mean that “where” and “near” (Sonnet 61) would be pronounced the same, as would “gone” and “alone” (Sonnet 66), “wrong” and “young” (Sonnet 19) and “noon” and “son” (Sonnet 7). Isn’t it possible that something else is going on here, a deliberate “jolt”, to use John Barton’s word describing the effect of changing the stresses within a line in one of the same sonnets.

I’ve recently noticed the videos featuring John Barton, the RSC’s great director and speaking Shakespeare expert, on YouTube. First he appeared with RSC Artistic Directors Trevor Nunn and Terry Hands in a 1979 two-part South Bank Show Special called Word of Mouth. It’s now available in full.


In this shorter extract Barton talks about Original Pronunciation and gives a demonstration of it.


He later fronted a 9-part series, Playing Shakespeare, also available in full on YouTube. In the first of the series, Sheila Hancock suggests that when looking at how to speak Shakespeare’s language “it makes sense to start with our own tradition, because that’s what’s inside us and it’s what we know best”.

For me what makes a performance compelling isn’t the accent in which it’s spoken but the quality of the acting and speaking. If you’ve never watched any of this I implore you to do so, ignoring the fact that actors like Ian McKellen, Sheila Hancock and Ben Kingsley look so very young. Look for instance at programme 9 in which there’s a recording of Peggy Ashcroft playing Viola from the 1940s, still sounding fresh, and if you never heard Donald Sinden being serious, listen to his speech from Othello in programme 5. It’s still an astonishing series, over thirty years on.

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British Black and Asian Shakespeare

Ira Aldridge as Othello, 1830

Ira Aldridge as Othello, 1830

We’re in the middle of Black History Month 2014, and it’s a good moment to draw attention to a major project on the history of non-white performers of Shakespeare. British Black and Asian Shakespeare is run by Professor Tony Howard of the University of Warwick with funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Professor Howard has tracked the development of British Black and Asian actors on the Shakespearean stage from the 1930s to the present day and a database is being constructed that will document this work in full. There’s an 8-minute introduction to the project and its subject here.

The story begins back in the nineteenth century with the great black American actor Ira Aldridge who gained fame for his acting, in particular in Shakespearean roles. Aldridge came to Europe in 1824 and by the end of the 1820s had established himself as one of the most exciting of contemporary performers. As I’ve been researching the early celebrations of Shakespeare’s birthday in Stratford-upon-Avon I have wondered if it was Aldridge’s success that inspired the organisers of the 1830 celebrations to include, among the locals dressed up as Shakespeare’s characters, “Charles the Black”, a “man of colour”, as Othello. This was the most magnificent procession that had yet been seen, and was not matched for many years. A special pavilion was erected in Rother Street under the management of Francis Raymond who supplied the costumes that had been hired from the London theatres. Local newspapers and later reports mention the names of many who took part, but Charles was singled out by at least three of them. In the Theatrical Tatler, published in Birmingham, it was noted that “Some people extolled Othello who was personated by a black, in service (chiefly as Cook, I believe), at the Woolpack, Warwick.” I believe this was the first occasion when a black man had represented one of Shakespeare’s characters appeared in Stratford. Ira Aldridge himself did not perform in Stratford until 1851.

Paul Robeson as Othello, SMT 1959

Paul Robeson as Othello, SMT 1959

The most important black figure in twentieth century theatre was Paul Robeson who combined singing with acting on stage and screen. As a young man he performed Othello in London in 1930 with Peggy Ashcroft as his Desdemona, then played the role again at the end of his career in 1959 in Stratford-upon-Avon. In between he became a political activist in his native USA and his known communist sympathies made him a target during the McCarthy period when his passport was taken away. In spite of being much in demand in Europe he was unable to leave the USA, returning to Stratford to perform not long after his passport had been returned to him.

Next week, on Tuesday 21 October, at 1.45pm, BBC Radio 4 will be broadcasting a programme in the series Hidden Histories of the Information Age relating to Paul Robeson. In 1957 the transatlantic telephone cable was used to allow him to sing live from New York to an audience in London. At the time this was a technological marvel, but apart from the technical innovation the compelling reason for the broadcast was that Robeson was at the time banned from leaving the USA.

There is lots more information about Paul Robeson’s Othello and other more recent black Othellos in the podcasts linked to from this page.  There’s also a blog with up to date information about the project,  including a post by Dr Jami Rogers, now BBAS’s Honorary Fellow and Research Assistant, about the Shakespearean Glass Ceiling, reproduced in full here.

Nicholas Bailey, who is playing Macduff at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester

Nicholas Bailey, who is playing Macduff at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester

In celebration of Black History Month the Mercury Theatre Colchester is hosting the British Black and Asian Shakespeare’s exhibition until Saturday 18 October. It coincides with their production of Macbeth (also closing on Saturday)  in which BBAS Honorary Fellow Nicholas Bailey is performing Macduff. Jami Rogers went to the opening night of the play and her interview with Nicholas Bailey is available here.

In another interview, Bailey talks about the aims of the project: “What we are trying to do is get all the surviving Black and Asian actors we can to be interviewed about their Shakespearean life and we want to get testimony, via our website, from audiences about performances they have seen involving Black or Asian actors. What we want to do is create a true history because it hasn’t been written or talked about with any authority until now”.


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Shakespeare’s marvellous sweet music

Elizabethan musicians

Elizabethan musicians

Shakespeare’s own use of music, and the many ways in which Shakespeare’s works have inspired composers in the centuries since he wrote them, are among the most recurrent subjects for this blog. And in the next few weeks there are a few events coming up that I would like to mention.

On Thursday 16 October there begins a series of lectures and recitals on the subject Shakespeare and Music.This is the Kingston Shakespeare Seminar for Autumn 2014, promoted by Kingston University On six Thursdays, late in the afternoon, this series of events will take place at the Rose Theatre in Kingston-upon-Thames or at the University itself. Best of all, each event is free.

The first three are as follows:
Thursday October 16 at 5.30pm. Chantal Schutz (University of Paris 111) with Jamie Akers, lute. “The scholar’s melancholy is emulation; the musician’s, fantastical”: Shakespeare and Dowland.

Thursday October 30 at 5.30pm. Christopher Wilson (University of Hull) “By the sweet power of musicke”: Effect in Shakespeare’s musical imagery.

Thursday November 6 at 5.30pm. At Kingtson University, Coombehurst Studio. Katy Hamilton with Michale L Roberts, Katie Coventry, Caitlin Frizzel, Julien Van Mellaerts and Paul McKenzie, piano (Royal College of Music). “The radical gap between words and action”: Singing Shakespeare.

The final three take place on 20 November, 27 November and 11 December, and you’ll find full details on the Cardiff Shakespeare blog here. At the time of writing the full details don’t seem to have made it to the Kingston University website.

Also on Thursday 16 October the Stratford Music Festival begins, carrying on until 25 October with a full programme of recitals of many kinds of music, performed in a great variety of venues: I particularly like the sound of the lunchtime concerts in Stratford’s beautiful Town Hall. Click on the link for the full programme.

Lute player by Bernardo Strozzi, 1635

Lute player by Bernardo Strozzi, 1635

For those with an interest in Shakespeare, the unmissable event is the concert on Tuesday 21 October at 7.30pm at the Guild Chapel, under the name Marvellous Sweet Music. Quoting the publicity:

Opera stars Mary Bevan and Benedict Nelson will join musicians from the RSC to perform twenty-one of the most famous songs in Shakespeare’s plays from over a century of productions.

The plays of Shakespeare are filled with music & song: they include more than 2000 references to music, over 400 separate musical terms & around 100 songs.

In this concert by the Royal Shakespeare Company, twenty-one of the most famous songs in Shakespeare’s plays are performed in settings dating back over a century, which highlight not only the changing style and aesthetic of theatre music across the decades, but also reveal some of the fascinating biographical stories of the composers themselves.

Those composers form a select and diverse group, including some of the great names of classical and popular music of the 20th Century such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Billy Bragg, Lennox Berkeley, Roberto Gerhard, Stephen Warbeck, Ian Dury, Nigel Hess, Laura Marling and Paul Englishby.

The concert is under the direction of Bruce O’Neil, RSC Director of Music, and it’ll be a great opportunity to hear some of the terrific music that has been written for the stage rarely to be heard again.

And finally, one for the diary: in December there will be a small exhibition on Shakespeare and Music at the Shakespeare Institute Library in Stratford-upon-Avon, which is sure to be worth a look. There’s more about the Library here including an email address for more information.

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Shakespeare and the memories of the German nation

The statue of Shakespeare in Weimar, Germany

The statue of Shakespeare in Weimar, Germany

The British Museum is just about to launch its new exhibition Germany: Memories of a Nation.  Following a successful formula, the Museum’s Director Neil MacGregor has a Radio 4 series under way that links museum objects with an idea or event. He’s tackling Germany over centuries of its history from many points of view. Last week he got to the concept of Germany as a nation, and this is where, perhaps surprisingly, Shakespeare broke in.

One programme looked at Fairy tales and forests, and how in the early nineteenth century after Germany’s defeat by Napoleon the work of the Brothers Grimm came to be influential. I’ve just been reading Philip Pullman’s version of the Grimm Tales, and reminding myself, as MacGregor pointed out, how very strong was the idea of the forest in German culture. In Grimm’s tales the forest is usually threatening: in Hansel and Gretel, for instance, the children are abandoned in the forest which contains the witch who intends to kill and eat them, and other examples are Snow White and Rapunzel. Shakespeare drew on the Northern European tradition of forests being dark and forbidding, where witches and fairies might be met. This is often overlooked in favour of his debt to Italian sources, but the fear of forests comes from the same sort of folk tales as were later collected by the Grimms. In both Shakespeare and the tales, though, the forest is also the place where character is tested and evil is overcome.

The real obsession of the Brothers Grimm was the German language, and the way in which it had grown from within. Language bound Germans together in a way that was different from French or English, both of which had been heavily influenced by other languages. And English has become the most universal of languages: it’s because of this that Shakespeare is himself such an international figure.

The programme One nation under Goethe looked at the way Goethe unified Germans, but also at how heavily influenced the German poet was by Shakespeare. In 1771, inspired by the Garrick Jubilee two years before, and aged only 22, Goethe held a celebration of Shakespeare in his own house. He proclaimed : “The first page of Shakespeare that I read made me aware that he and I were one… I had been as one born blind who first sees the light…I did not hesitate for a moment to renounce the rule-ridden theatre of the ancients… I leaped into free air and for the first time was aware that I possessed hands and feet…In the face of Shakespeare I acknowledge that I am a poor sinner, while he prophesies through the pure force of nature”.

Goethe’s famous love of Shakespeare came to be shared by many of his compatriots. In an article published in 2010 Lyn Gardner wrote an article about the long history of Shakespeare in Germany: ” the first complete works was published in the country between 1775 and 1782. A further eight separate translations of the complete works were published between 1818 and 1839″. There were German productions of the plays, German academic conferences, a German Shakespeare society, and a German statue of Shakespeare in Weimar.

It’s a fascinating series, and will undoubtedly be a terrific exhibition, running from 16 October 2014 to 25 January 2015. Even if you’re not likely to get there I’d recommend listening to the podcasts and taking a look at the BBC’s website which includes, as well as images of all the items MacGregor has chosen to talk about, some enlightening maps and illustrations showing how Germany has contracted and expanded since the days of the Holy Roman Empire.

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Stratford-upon-Avon’s historic Town Hall

Stratford Town Hall from High St

Stratford Town Hall from High St

Standing at the busy junction of Sheep Street, Chapel Street, Ely Street and High Street is Stratford’s Town Hall. From the outside it’s a dignified building built of Cotswold stone and facing towards the High Street, in a niche, is the statue of Shakespeare that was presented by David Garrick at the time of his Jubilee in September 1769.

There has been a Town Hall on this spot since 1633. The original building consisted of a covered market area at ground level with a room above that could be used for functions. In 1642 it was being used as a munitions store by Parliamentary forces when it exploded. It was repaired in 1661 but was mostly neglected and by 1767 it was “in a dangerous and ruinous state”, and a decision was made to rebuild it, re-using as much of the original material as possible.

This first building had the distinction of being the venue for the first recorded performance of a Shakespeare play in Stratford when on Tuesday 9 September 1746 John Ward’s touring company performed Othello, in aid of the bust of Shakespeare in the church which was “through length of years and other accidents become much impair’d and decay’d” “The receipts arising from which Representation were to be solely appropriated to the repairing the Original Monument aforesaid”. In the sole surviving playbill for this historic performance the words “in the Town Hall” have been added by hand.

Stratford Town Hall, the Chapel Street frontage

Stratford Town Hall, the Chapel Street frontage

The new building followed the plan of the first, but it was to be built in finer fashion. The idea of inviting a David Garrick to contribute came from lawyer Francis Wheler,  “in order to flatter Mr Garrick into some such hansom present… it wou’d not be at all amiss if the Corporation were to propose to make Mr Garrick an Honourary Burgess of Stratford”.  From this suggestion came the three-day Garrick Jubilee though the Town Hall, the starting point for the festivities, was hardly used apart from public breakfasts on each day. The statue of Shakespeare remained in the specially-built pavilion and was hoisted into position at some point later, though there is no record of this. The final event of the Jubilee, a ball, did occur in the Town Hall, when the highlight of the evening was the dancing of Garrick’s wife.

The decoration of the hall was remarked on: “neatly and magnificently decorated with Festoons and Ornaments in Stucco, with the Harp string etc very curiously expressed in Basso-Relievo”. Within the hall were several paintings including Gainsborough’s portrait of Garrick, one arm nonchalantly draped round  a pillar on which stood a head-and-shoulders statue of Shakespeare.

After the Garrick Jubilee the Hall was used for many regular social functions. For many years it was referred to as Shakespeare’s Hall, a reminder of Garrick’s grand Jubilee. After the formation of the Shakespeare Club at the Falcon Inn in 1824 it was only two years before they needed to move to the Town Hall for their annual dinner, which 225 gentlemen attended. These were boozy affairs with dozens of toasts, speeches and songs being sung. The dinner continued to be held on Shakespeare’s birthday until 1879 when the evening began to be marked by a performance at the new Memorial Theatre.

Over the years alterations became necessary. Social events such as hunt balls were becoming more elaborate, and magnificent celebrations were being planned for the 1864 Shakespeare tercentenary which included events at the Town Hall.  There was no plan to alter the upper room “said to be the finest in Warwickshire”. With the open area on the ground floor not really needed as a market the answer was obvious. This area was enclosed, and a new entrance and grand staircase was built.

From 1868 the Town Council moved its meetings into the newly-created rooms on the ground floor, and at the same time the boards giving the names of mayors and town clerks which are still a major feature were created.

The upper room of the Town Hall set up for a dinner

The upper room of the Town Hall set up for a dinner

In the twentieth century the upper room was also used for the Birthday luncheon attended by diplomats and other representatives of national and international organisations, until it outgrew the space. The Hall  continued to be the venue for a variety of local activities, including dances. It was after one of these in December 1946 that a fire broke out in the room. Many items relating to the traditions of the Town Council were saved, but the upper floor was gutted and the roof collapsed. The painting of Garrick was destroyed. Ironically it had only been put back a year before after being removed for safety during the war.

The Shakespeare sconce

The Shakespeare sconce

Huge efforts were made to rebuild the Town Hall, making it even better than before. The chandeliers were replaced and it was possible to cast new plaster sconces from the one which survived the fire. These were some of the room’s most attractive decorative features (they can be seen between the windows), and the opportunity was taken to include a different face on each one. Not surprisingly both Shakespeare and Garrick were chosen.

The Town Hall is not regularly open to the public, but the rooms are increasingly being used for events. They don’t allow 226 people to dine there nowadays, but I was lucky enough to attend a dinner there earlier this year that gave me time to reflect on the Shakespeare Club meetings and dinners, and even performances of Shakespeare’s plays, that have been held in this historic spot.

I’m indebted for many of the details in this post to Mairi Macdonald’s pamphlet The Town Hall, Stratford-upon-Avon, published by the Stratford-upon-Avon Society in 1986.

There is more information about the Town Hall on the Town Council’s website.

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Shakespeare and the Bake-Off

cakeThe final of the Great British Bake-Off screens on the evening of 8 October. Watching this immensely popular series over the last few weeks I wondered how much Shakespeare knew about how his food was produced, and whether he ever prepared food himself. Shakespeare has been reckoned to be a soldier, sailor, lawyer and many other professions, but never a cook or baker.

Yet in Troilus and Cressida he shows he understands all the stages of baking, Pandarus comparing it with the stages of courtship, both of which require patience.
Pandarus: He that will have a cake out of the wheat must needs tarry the grinding.
Troilus: Have I not tarried?
Pandarus: Ay, the grinding; but you must tarry the bolting.
Troilus: Have I not tarried?
Pandarus: Ay, the bolting, but you must tarry the leavening.
Troilus: Still have I tarried.
Pandarus: Ay, to the leavening’ but here’s yet in the word “hereafter” the kneading, the making of the cake, the heating of the oven and the baking; nay, you must stay the cooling too, or you may chance to burn your lips. 

He shows too that he knows the sort of ingredients that are used to make food for a feast in The Winter’s Tale.
Let me see; what am I to buy for our sheep-shearing feast? Three pound of sugar, five pound of currants, rice….I must have saffron to colour the warden pies; mace; dates…nutmegs, seven; a race or two of ginger, but that I may beg; four pound of prunes, and as many of raisins o’ the sun.

Baking bread

Baking bread

For Shakespeare, cakes seem to be associated with the more unsophisticated characters in his plays. It’s Touchstone in As You Like It and the Clown in All’s Well who talk about pancakes, Doll Tearsheet who tells us that Pistol lives on “mouldy stew’d prunes and dried cakes”, Pistol who mentions “wafer-cakes”, and Dromio of Ephesus talks about cakes in The Comedy of Errors. Hugh Otecake and Alice Shortcake are mentioned by comic characters in Much Ado About Nothing and The Merry Wives of Windsor respectively. Almost the only reference to cakes from someone higher up the social scale is Sir Toby Belch’s famous attack on Malvolio: “Dost thou think, because thou art Virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”

Maybe this is because cakes tended to be associated with celebrations marking particular moments in the farming year. I’ve recently been reading P W Hammond’s Food and Feast in Medieval England which explains that at the end of ploughing it was traditional for seed cake to be served, for instance. Cake is never an essential part of the diet, but even now it cheers people up and the Bake-Off is a great restorative at a time when the news is full of gloom.

So what sort of sweet things might Shakespeare have known? We’re familiar with the idea that ingredients were very different in Shakespeare’s day. Honey was used for sweetening more than sugar, there was no coffee or chocolate, and fruits were strictly seasonal. Raising agents used in cakes, (other than yeast) were only invented in the mid-nineteenth century. But many familiar cake ingredients were available: cream, butter, eggs, flour, dried fruit, even exotic spices.

Hammond’s book tells a depressing story of the diet of most people in the fifteenth century. Not only was the choice of ingredients restricted, so was the method of cooking the food. Five acres of ground would produce enough grain for a family. Ideally most of it would be made into bread, but “Possession of an oven was rare (judging by archaeological evidence), and those without ovens probably asked neighbours or used the communal oven. It has been suggested, in fact, that, except in the south of England, the consumption of bread was rare and that cereals were eaten as the staple diet chiefly in the form of porridge and broths.” Not much chance of cake here, then, and even if progress was made by Shakespeare’s time there must have been many people for whom access to an oven was rare.

A modern wood-fired oven

A modern wood-fired oven

Without an oven cooking was restricted to pots over an open fire, so cakes as we know them would be off the menu, though pancakes and griddle cakes would have relieved the monotony. In any case ovens were difficult. They were usually insulated metal boxes, designed to keep heat in. First the oven would be heated up by burning twigs inside it, then when hot enough they would be raked out and the bread went in. The oven was sealed and the bread would be left to cook as the oven cooled down.

I once took part in a food festival in which we prepared some Elizabethan food (this is now done regularly at Mary Arden’s Farm, see their facebook page). My contributions included these Fine Jumbals, adapted from Lorna Sass’s book To The Queen’s Taste. I remember them being very good.

Fine Jumbals
Half a cup of sugar
2 egg whites
1 egg yolk
1 cup sifted flour
4 tablespoons cooled melted butter
1 and a half teaspoons rose water
Three quarters of a cup of ground almonds
A few drops almond essence
Aniseeds, or ground coriander seeds

Whisk the sugar and egg whites until thick. Add the egg yolk, flour, butter and rose water and mix well. Add almonds and essence. The mixture should be quite thick, thicker than a cake mix. Put teaspoonfuls of the mixture onto greased baking sheets, leaving room for spreading. Sprinkle with seeds and back at 375 degrees for 12-15 minutes until brown and the edges. Remove from sheets while hot.

More recipes for sweet Elizabethan treats are given on the Ugborough history group’s website.

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Presenting Shakespeare’s Venice on stage

St Mark's Square, Venice. Italian School

St Mark’s Square, Venice. Italian School

The RSC recently announced its Summer 2015 season, beginning in March. They’ll be focusing on the Italian city Venice, with three plays that are fully or partly set there: The Merchant of Venice, Othello, and Ben Jonson’s Volpone. It’s sure to be interesting to take a look at the city through the eyes of two English renaissance writers. In his piece written for the RSC Members News, Artistic Director Greg Doran suggests “Venice to the Elizabethan mind was a mixture of Wall Street and the red light district of Amsterdam. It was a hub of international trade, and seedy corruption”.

Today Venice retains its air of glamour and sophistication, if not the seedy corruption. It was recently chosen as the venue for the lavish three-day celebration of George Clooney’s wedding to Amal Alamuddin, and described by George Clooney’s father in his speech as “The loveliest, most intriguing city on the planet”.

Shakespeare’s plays set in the city are also among his most controversial. Productions of The Merchant of Venice, along with The Taming of the Shrew (also set in Italy but not in Venice), regularly generate demands that they should not be performed. The three plays often offend modern sensibilities, raising issues regarding gender, race and religion and the rights of all people for equality and respect.  In the sixteenth century Venice and London were both thriving trading centres and using Venice as a location allowed both Shakespeare and Jonson to examine the same hot issues from a safe distance.

An early view of Venice

An early view of Venice

The 2012 British Museum exhibition Shakespeare: Staging the World devoted a whole section to Venice. In the book of the exhibition Jonathan Bate writes that it was “a fair city, an open society grown rich on maritime trade, a multicultural population, a place of fashionable innovation and questionable morals: in Venice Londoners saw an image of their own desires and fears, their own future”.  Many travellers wrote descriptions of this city. John Florio, in his Florio his First Fruites, published in 1578, wrote “You shal see a fayre citie, riche, sumptuous, strong, wel furnished, adorned with fayre women, populated of many people, abundant, and plentiful of al good things”.

A Venetian Courtesan

A Venetian Courtesan

Venice’s sexual sophistication  was certainly controversial. Venetian women were famed for their beauty, but prostitutes operated much more openly than in England. A catalogue printed in 1570 gave the names of 215 available women in Venice, complete with prices. The list included women ranking from courtesans downwards, only omitting prostitutes who worked within brothels. In such a setting it was possible for Othello to be persuaded by Iago to think that his wife was licentious:
In Venice they do let heaven see the pranks
They dare not show their husbands: their best conscience
Is not to leave’t undone, but kept unknown.

An English visitor, Thomas Coryate, was so impressed by the appearance and behaviour of women in Venice that he wrote about it, and other travellers recorded their fashions in records they kept of their experiences. Their extravagance was encouraged by the prosperity of the city.

Venice was above all a great city of international trade, as Shakespeare comments in The Merchant of Venice: “the trade and profit of the city/ Consisteth of all nations”. Setting his plays in this exotic location Shakespeare was able to examine the uncomfortable relationship between foreigners and the resident population. In London in the 1590s tension was high between English workers and immigrants, and Jews were a traditional target.

Neither Shakespeare nor Jonson paint a particularly attractive picture of Venice, but Jonson’s city is full of and corrupt parasites, whereas Shakespeare’s Venetians are human, for all their weaknesses. Jonson’s leading character, Volpone, is a con man who pretends to be at death’s door in order to get lavish gifts from those who hope to inherit his wealth. In this moral fable the plot is turned back on himself as he’s betrayed by his servant Mosca. The idea of Venice, you feel, held little fascination for Jonson.

The Venetian glass goblet

The Venetian glass goblet

In his book Shakespeare’s Restless World, British Museum Director Neil MacGregor chose to represent Shakespeare’s Venice with a luxurious glass goblet. Venetian glass, beautifully-decorated, was expensive and in demand all over Europe. As the goblet is made up of ingredients from many countries it represents the city’s trading links. Dora Thornton of the British Museum explains “The striking cobalt blue is likely to come from the Erzgebirge region on the German-Czech border. The white, which is made from tin oxide, is made using tin that has probably come from Cornwall or Britanny. And the gold, heavily used all over the rim and for touching up details and for the arms,  is probably from Africa”. On one side the glass is decorated with a glamorous Venetian lady, perhaps a courtesan, while the other side features a coat of arms that is almost certainly German. There was a large market in Germany for Venetian drinking glasses: indeed in The Merchant of Venice Portia’s German suitor is characterised as being a heavy drinker. The goblet then represents the preoccupations of Shakespeare and Jonson regarding Venice where beauty, indulgence, wealth and sensuality come together. We’ll have to wait to see how these qualities manifest themselves on the RSC’s stages in 2015.

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Cross-gender casting for Hamlet and Henry IV

Maxine Peake as Hamlet

Maxine Peake as Hamlet

Gender issues in the performance of Shakespeare’s plays are being discussed in the press again with Maxine Peake playing Hamlet in a production at the Manchester Royal Exchange. Here is the review from the Observer by Susannah Clapp, and that of Sarah Hemming in the Financial Times.

As Susannah Clapp points out, it’s the first major female British version of Hamlet for 35 years, since Frances de la Tour’s. This is surprising, given the rich history of women playing the role, and the current near-obsession with gender, feminism in particular. In his programme note Tony Howard, the author of Women as Hamlet, Performance and Interpretation in Theatre, Film and Fiction, suggests this may be to do with the rise of the director in post-war theatre. ” Put two women in charge of theatres – Sarah Frankcom at the Royal Exchange and Josie Rourke at the Donmar – and there is a sudden burst of parts for women over 40 by cross-gender casting.”

Peake is not the only woman playing a man’s role: there are female gravediggers, a Player Queen and Polonia instead of Polonius. It’s suggested, then, that these are being played as women, rather than women in male costume. Peake’s situation is not so clear-cut. ” She is a stripling prince, almost pre-sexual, who glides, without swagger and without girlishness.”

It sounds as if it may be a rather straightforward attempt to give an outstanding female actor a great part, and the production is justified by the strength of Peake’s performance. This has been the motivation for many earlier female Hamlets, such as Sarah Bernhardt and Sarah Siddons back in 1777. And Hamlet is “the most female of all of Shakespeare’s male protagonists”. In spite of the statement above, and her blonde haircut that makes her resemble the androgynous David Bowie, the verdict of the audience is that she is playing Hamlet as a man.

Katie West as Ophelia and Maxine Peake as Hamlet.

Katie West as Ophelia and Maxine Peake as Hamlet.

In another article Mark Lawson discusses the whole issue of gender in productions of Shakespeare. The all-female production of Henry IV Part 1, led by Harriet Walter, begins at the Donmar Warehouse on 3 October, running until 29 November. In some ways the questions about sexuality and gender are made simpler in single-sex companies like that Phyllida Lloyd is directing, and Edward Hall’s all-male Propeller. Although Lloyd’s production of Julius Caesar was well-directed and beautifully-acted I thought placing the whole play within the frame of a women’s prison made it a bit too easy for the audience: maybe Henry IV will be different.

Harriet Walter as Brutus in the Donmar Warehouse production of Julius Caesar

Harriet Walter as Brutus in the Donmar Warehouse production of Julius Caesar

Shakespeare can be a useful lens through which to examine our own prejudices and attitudes. And as the debate about gender and sexuality continues to shift, so do the productions of Shakespeare’s plays. King Lear has been another favourite because of what one critic of Kathryn Hunter’s performance called “the androgyny of old age”. Gender reversals can be unsettling and enlightening. I’m not aware of any female Macbeths, but I think it could be really interesting. How would the audience react to a woman killer, in particular of children? We’re all aware that women are taking more active roles in the armed forces, and cases of women committing murder are far from unknown.

The Observer review and the Mark Lawson piece each generated dozens of responses demonstrating how strongly people feel about the issue. It’s not a simple choice: there are several ways of crossing the gender divide on stage, and lots of reasons for doing so. If you want to follow up the subject, Jim Bulman’s edited book Shakespeare Re-Dressed: Cross-Gender Casting in Contemporary Performance was published by Farleigh Dickinson in 2008.

Finally a last-minute plug for the discussion that’s being held on Saturday 4 October at the Royal Exchange, Manchester. From 12-1 a panel including director Sarah Frankcom and academics Tony Howard and Maggie Gale, Chair in Drama at the University of Manchester will discuss The Female Hamlet. It’s free but ticketed. Book at 0161 833 9833. The production itself runs until 25 October.

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