Shakespeare Birthday Celebrations 2017 in Stratford-upon-Avon

The band at the head of Bridge Street

In 2017 I am more aware than ever how lucky I am to live in Stratford-upon-Avon, able to take a full part in the whole weekend of the Birthday Celebrations, not just the day itself. So many events take place it isn’t possible to follow more than a few as many organisations run their own jollifications. We were particularly busy because we have also been promoting the Story of the Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon, the organisation which originated the regular celebrations for Shakespeare’s Birthday almost 200 years ago.

I like to help out at the Celebrations by being a volunteer marshall, a role that mostly consists of guiding people to the places where they are supposed to be, and making sure they pull their flags at the right moment. Because of this and the Shakespeare Club’s historic role in the town I was invited to a reception at the Town Hall on Friday evening hosted by the Town Council. This included entertainment from a Rock Choir, the introduction of a new William Shakespeare, a gentleman by the name of Paul Workman, who appeared in the procession for the first time on Saturday, a birthday cake and confetti along with gracious speeches from our Mayor Juliet Short.

The quill is held high by the Head Boy of KES, with William Shakespeare standing by

On the day itself we helped get the parade into order in the beautiful gardens of New Place before setting off for Bridge Street where the Head Boy of KES was presented with a quill by William Shakespeare, flags of the nations and cultural organisations were flown, bands played and the national anthem was sung. The parade, led by the pupils of Shakespeare’s school,  then set off for Holy Trinity Church where Shakespeare is buried, for the handing over of floral tributes. The Shakespeare Club was allocated space in Bridge Street and members marched under their brand new banner, all in glorious sunshine.

After the parade, many different events take place and this year we opted to take part in the traditional grand luncheon, for the first time held in the Crowne Plaza Hotel. The hotel stands on the bank of the river and guests were able arrive at the luncheon by boat. The 500 diners drank a number of toasts including “The Immortal Memory of William Shakespeare” which dates back to the very first celebrations, and the award of the Pragnell Award for outstanding achievement, this year won by Sir Antony Sher.

The Shakespeare Club wreath

The celebrations do not end on the Saturday, as the Shakespeare service at Holy Trinity Church is always held on Sunday morning. Another colourful, if relatively short, parade, is led by one of the bands on duty on the Saturday. I watched the parade, and later on visited the Church to enjoy the sight and scent of the flowers left on Saturday. I spotted the Shakespeare Club’s laurel wreath on a special stand across the chancel from Shakespeare’s monument.

If you want to think about visiting for the weekend next year you can already save the date, with the big parade taking place on Saturday 21st April 2018. The website Shakespeare’s Celebrations will in due course reveal what is being planned: all we know so far is that it’s going to be very different, with much more participation from local groups and a real carnival atmosphere. Perhaps you might even like to take part, or to help.

The following photographs were all taken by myself or my husband Richard Morris over the course of the weekend. I hope they convey something of the festive atmosphere and perhaps encourage you to join Stratford-upon-Avon’s unique celebrations next year.

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Directing Shakespeare

Michael Bogdanov

With the sudden death of Michael Bogdanov this week theatre directors and their importance in the staging of Shakespeare’s plays have been on my mind in the build up to Shakespeare’s birthday. Shakespeare was the first director of his own plays: he above all people must have known how he wanted roles to be played, and how scenes were to be staged. Given Hamlet’s advice to the players, “Let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them”, we might assume he didn’t appreciate adlibs from his comics, but Shakespeare also gave actors space within the plays giving them choices to make about movement, gesture, emphasis, breathing.

From what I’ve heard about Michael Bogdanov he allowed his actors to be creative and even anarchic. The first scene I saw that was directed by him was in the John Barton production of Measure for Measure in 1970. While Barton took the serious scenes between Angelo, Isabella, and the Duke, he gave Bogdanov, his Assistant Director, the job of setting the scene in the prison. The character Pompey, who has previously worked in a brothel, is given the job of assisting the executioner Abhorson. This scene, in the prison, at night, was played as a riotously funny number, a major shift in mood from the serious discussion of power and corruption to the black comedy of a discussion about execution. Yet on the page there is hardly anything there at all. It was the first time I’d been aware of those spaces that actors can fill with life.

The ESC’s Wars of the Roses

I became a fan of his work having seen three Shakespeares at the Young Vic followed by The Taming of the Shrew in 1978/9 at the RSC. At the RSC he worked with actor Michael Pennington on The Shadow of a Gunman, a partnership that led in 1986 to the pair forming the English Shakespeare Company. This was at least partly born out of frustration with the RSC for whom Bogdanov had only just directed a modern and controversial Romeo and Juliet (the one with an Alfa Romeo). The ESC’s greatest achievement, though not the only one, was a touring seven-play cycle of Shakespeare’s history plays The Wars of the Roses. You can hear him speaking himself in 1987, as his company began to define itself, in his Desert Island Discs interview. This week his publicist described his Shakespeare productions as “political, accessible, joyous and transformative”.

A WINTER’S TALE by Shakespeare, , Writer – William Shakespeare, Director –
Declan Donnellan, Designer –
Nick Ormerod
, Cheeck by Jowl, 2015, Credit: Johan Persson/

I was reminded of Bodganov’s approach when watching Cheek by Jowl’s live-streamed production of The Winter’s Tale. I admired so much of it: the modern, clear and uncluttered trajectory of the first half of the play, the physicality of the performances, the inventive set and lighting, and the energy of it. The production seemed less sure of itself in the second half, coming up with a number of parallels for Bohemia that reminded me only what an unpleasant and violent world we live in. Autolycus as the Jeremy Kyle type host of a chat show for unhappy people was at least funny, but Shakespeare’s conman uses nothing more violent than threats to extort bribes: here Autolycus changed into a border guard who viciously beat up a traveller for failing to supply documentation. Was this meant to make a point about the normalisation of violence? In just a couple of minutes I felt alienated from a production I had wanted to love, by a director, Declan Donnellan, I’ve always admired. It’s still a production very much worth watching, skilfully filmed from a live performance, and is available until 7 May 2017.

We’ve also been hearing more about the troubled Artistic Directorship of Shakespeare’s Globe in London. The outgoing Artistic Director, Emma Rice and her predecessor Dominic Dromgoole have both written open letters to whoever will be the new appointee, expressing their opinions of the job of being Artistic Director, and pointing out the shortcomings of the process at the Globe.  Both insist that the Artistic Director must be allowed a free hand in the creative running of their theatres. The letters are written more in sorrow than in anger, talking with passion about the great opportunity of running this theatre, while warning the new Artistic Director about obstacles placed in their way by the Board. It will need to be a brave person who steps into Rice’s shoes, knowing what a difficult time she has had. But all credit to the Globe for publishing these critical letters on their website.

Bringing Shakespeare’s plays to the stage has probably never been easy: the man himself may have had frank discussions with his fellow-shareholders about what he wrote, and he probably argued that he needed a free hand too.

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The Winter’s Tale live streaming: a play for our times

A scene from Cheek by Jowl’s The Winter’s Tale

The Winter’s Tale, with its theme of the pain of loss followed by the joy of resurrection, is a play that is particularly appropriate around Easter and Shakespeare’s Birthday, while the portrayal of mental illness makes it very much a play for our troubled times.

As Pat Tatspaugh points out in her excellent Shakespeare at Stratford study in The Arden Shakespeare series, it’s a play that has proved more popular on the stage than in the study where it has tended to be seen as “too complex or too crudely constructed” with a whole list of “problems” including “Leontes’ sudden and apparently inexplicable jealousy; the abandonment of his infant daughter; his public humiliation of Hermione… the abrupt leap forward sixteen years [and] Hermione’s restoration and reunion with Leontes and their daughter”.  Yet audience’s rarely seem bothered by these, and the play’s conclusion is one of the most moving scenes in Shakespeare.

The brilliant international company Cheek by Jowl is currently touring their highly-praised production of The Winter’s Tale and on Wednesday 19 April 2017 it is being live streamed from the Barbican Theatre in London.  With audiences from around the world, the play will be screened with French and Spanish subtitles, and with the option of English access subtitles. This multi-camera screening will be free, and streamed to your computer, made possible due to the support and partnership of the Barbican Centre, The Space, Arts Council England, the BBC, Spain’s El País, France’s Télérama and The Sydney Morning Herald in Australia. Although it will be very special to watch it live, it will be available until midnight on 7th May, on

A scene from Cheek by Jowl’s The Winter’s Tale

Start time will be 19.30 (BST) and the live link for the show is here on the British Council’s site. The running time will be 2 hrs 40 minutes including a 20 minute interval.

The production, directed by Declan Donnellan, has been described as “an original masterpiece” that “pairs irreverence and inventiveness with emotional clarity and power” (Reviews from Le Figaro and The Stage), and I’ve received more tweets praising it than for any production I can remember. More information about the play is also available at the Barbican website at the moment. It centres around the figure of the King, Leontes “a delusional and paranoid king who tears his family apart”.  This link leads to an interview with Orlando James who plays the role.

Antony Sher as King Leontes in the RSC’s The Winter’s Tale, 1999

I particularly remember Antony Sher’s portrayal of Leontes in the RSC’s 1999 production. On a set that included billowing black cloths, claustrophobic walls and unnatural perspectives, he lurched, wild-eyed, downstage at one point, clearly in the grip of some kind of delusion. Tatspaugh includes extracts from an interview Sher gave to critic Charles Spencer in which he explains that he visited a number of psychiatrists who offered diagnoses of Leontes’ condition. Sher decided the closest match was “psychotic jealousy”, which “descends from a clear blue sky. The patient becomes irrationally convinced that his partner is betraying him and it causes wildly obsessive behaviour, morbid fantasies and paroxysms of rage and violence followed by periods of intense remorse”. Sher’s performance accurately reflected these symptoms, but how, four hundred years ago, did Shakespeare know about them?

This year’s recipient of the annual Pragnell Award, given on 22 April 2017 at Shakespeare’s Birthday Luncheon to someone who has achieved great success in the world of Shakespeare, will be Sir Antony Sher. His most famous roles include Richard III, Macbeth, King Lear, Falstaff and Prospero but my favourite over the years has been Leontes, the relatively unknown, psychologically complex King of Sicilia in the flawed but magnificent  The Winter’s Tale.

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Springtime in Stratford with Shakespeare and Chaucer

This year, 2017, the blossom trees in Stratford-upon-Avon seem to me to be even more glorious than ever, and Easter has come at just the right time to enjoy the spectacle at its finest. It always seems a pity that Shakespeare would never have seen the full blowsy beauty of a flowering cherry tree, but he obviously loved what he did see, and the apple blossom, coloured delicately blush-pink and white, is certainly spectacular.

For those of you not lucky enough to be able to experience Stratford in its spring glory I’m posting a few recent photos taken by my husband of some of the beautiful blossom trees, and one of our favourite swan, nesting once again this year downstream of Lucy’s Mill. Last year this pair successfully brought up two cygnets that have only recently left their parents. It has been delightful to watch them as a family group over the past nine months, and hopefully we will be able to do so again this year.

Shakespeare was a keen observer of the natural world including both flowers and birds and spring is the season about which he comments most frequently. Blossoms, though beautiful, are used as a metaphor for thwarted ambition by Richard III while Duke of York:
Thus are my blossoms blasted in the bud
And caterpillars eat my leaves away;

and in Henry VIII they remind Wolsey that as the promise of fruit may be destroyed by cold weather so his success was ended by losing the favour of the King.
This is the state of man: to-day he puts forth
The tender leaves of hopes; to-morrow blossoms,
And bears his blushing honours thick upon him;
The third day comes a frost, a killing frost,
And, when he thinks, good easy man, full surely
His greatness is a-ripening, nips his root,
And then he falls, as I do.

Another author who loved the spring was Geoffrey Chaucer, and one of my regular readers has drawn my attention to a website which is making available digitised images of many medieval manuscripts, including an early manuscript of The Canterbury Tales.

The opening of the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales: Harley MS 7334, f. 1r.

This is the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site, which has a welcoming, newsy blog that provides access to what is a rather dry main site aimed at academic researchers.. Here is the Chaucer blog, and the link to the actual digitised images. In the image here you can see the famous opening lines, which read,  ‘Whan that aprille with his schowres swoote / The drought of marche haþ perced to þe roote’ [When that April with his showers sweet/ The drought of March has pierced to the root’].

On the subject of plants, the same site includes images of one of the British Library’s  earliest illustrated herbals, a book of plants that include details of herbal remedies for a range of illnesses, and an astonishing 1000 years old. Here is part of their description: “This manuscript (Cotton MS Vitellius C III) is the only surviving illustrated Old English herbal, or book describing plants and their uses. (There are other, non-illustrated manuscripts of the same text, for example in Harley MS 585.) The text is an Old English translation of a text which used to be attributed to a 4th-century writer known as Pseudo-Apuleius, now recognised as  several different Late Antique authors whose texts were subsequently combined. “

This link is to the blog post and this to the digitised images.

There is much else to enjoy on this terrific site which continues to grow as more and more of these extraordinary manuscripts are digitised and made available. Happy browsing, and Happy Easter!

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Tim Pigott-Smith and Shakespeare

Tim Pigott-Smith as King Lear

Since the announcement of Tim Pigott-Smith’s death on Friday 7 April 2017 tributes have flooded in for this much-loved and admired actor. Many have also commented that in the last few years he was reaching his peak. His kindness and charm have been commented on almost as much as his qualities as an actor so it’s rather a pity that the role which made him famous and for which he will probably always be best-remembered was as an out and out baddie, Ronald Merrick in the brilliant 1980s TV series The Jewel in the Crown.

I’ve seen him more often on TV than in the theatre, having missed for instance his  successful King Lear for the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2011. I did though catch his performance as Prospero in The Tempest at the Theatre Royal Bath, directed by Adrian Noble with a cast full of other actors who have been RSC regulars. Pigott-Smith gave a wonderfully generous performance in which he also communicated his enormous enjoyment of being on stage.

Tim Pigott-Smith as Prospero, Mark Meadows as Ariel, The Tempest, 2012

The most recent time I saw him in the theatre was on another memorable occasion in March 2013 when he played the Chorus at two performances of Henry V for Edward’s Boys, the acting company of boys from King Edward VI School in Stratford. It was exactly 100 years since “the Boys of Shakespeare’s School” had put on two performances of the play in the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, encouraged by Frank Benson. On both occasions only the role of the Chorus was taken by a professional actor, in 1913 Nancy Price, and Tim Pigott-Smith in 2013. Even more appropriately, Pigott-Smith had attended KES himself, becoming Head Boy. He played the part in the gown of an old-fashioned schoolmaster, seated on a wooden chair just like the one in Shakespeare’s schoolroom. The 1913 performance had added poignancy because all the boys who took part in it were later involved in the First World War, seven of them being killed in conflict, and the 2013 performance, given within the same space the first had been, was a very special event.

King Edward VI School is good at remembering its past – when I spoke to their assembly last week the Headmaster pointed out to me a corridor wall covered in newly-digitised and printed photographs of the whole school, some of which went back over 100 years. Tim Pigott-Smith’s performance at the school may not have been a particularly important one in his career, but it is already one of the highlights in its recent history, and his death will be greatly mourned.

Tim Pigott-Smith as Angelo, Measure for Measure, BBC

He is currently being seen in the BBC adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, and Mike Bartlett’s fantasy on the succession of the current Prince of Wales in which he starred, Charles III, has been filmed and is to be screened on BBC2 later in 2017. Looking back at his Shakespeare career, he featured in two of the BBC Shakespeare series of the 1980s, as Angelo in Measure for Measure and Hotspur in Henry IV Part 2. The whole series has been made available so it will remain possible to see him in these Shakespeare roles. As a stage actor with the RSC he made several Shakespeare appearances in the 1970s, notably as Posthumus in Cymbeline.

Just a week or so ago I was lent a copy of Julian Curry’s Shakespeare on Stage volume in which the author, himself an actor, interviews actors who have appeared in important Shakespeare roles. One of these, which I had already read, was the interview with Tim Pigott-Smith about his performance of Leontes in The Winter’s Tale at the National Theatre and on international tour in 1988. The interview took place in 2006 and in spite of the 18-year gap it’s clear that he remembered the rehearsals and performances very clearly. He spoke very frankly in the interview about conflicts between actors and the director, and the technical difficulties they faced. He also recalled the thinking behind some of the decisions made, and how performances can change during a run. Speaking of the moment when as Leontes he had to reveal his jealousy, he admitted “It’s an astonishing moment. Very tricky…it really is a huge shock. It took me a long time to learn how to do that so it didn’t blow the audience out of their seats, and make them think “What’s going on here?…I don’t understand this at all!…It’s a major problem of the part, to take the audience round that corner”.

We are fortunate that the book makes it possible to find out how one of the most successful actors of modern times approached playing one of Shakespeare’s most challenging roles, made poignant by Tim Pigott-Smith’s sudden death.

Some of the articles about Tim Pigott-Smith are here: from The Guardian, The Telegraph, another from The Telegraph about Charles III and one also about Charles III from The Guardian.

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Shakespeare’s Schooldays brought to life

King Edward VI School, Stratford-upon-Avon

On Tuesday 4 April I addressed the pupils of King Edward VI School in Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s School, at their morning assembly, part of our efforts to publicise the town’s two hundred-year old Shakespeare Club. The school has been in existence much longer than the Club, of course, but there are points of connection especially relating to the celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday. To the Headmaster of the School we owe the idea of the floral procession from the town to Shakespeare’s grave. The tradition began in 1893 with a single floral wreath, and quickly became a popular offering of humble springtime flowers open to anyone. It was only when this ritual became so popular the church could not accommodate everybody that the Shakespeare Club stepped in, setting a time and place for the start of the parade, requesting that all should bring flowers, and providing other entertainments during the day. Within a few years the Celebrations had become an international event.

There is another connection: at least one former pupil of the school, Charles Frederick Green, was one of the founders of the Club in 1824. Green, the son of a hatter, came from the same social class as Shakespeare, and was an avid admirer. His aim in helping to create and promote the Club was to “create an enthusiasm amongst the associates of [his] youth” for the memorials of Shakespeare in the town and the plays. In 2016, after the completion of a restoration project, the school has opened the room in which Shakespeare was a pupil and the Guild Hall where it is thought he saw his first plays. The pupils of the school are now involved in telling the story of Shakespeare’s education, and if Charles Frederick Green was alive today he would certainly be taking part.

Reliving the Elizabethan schoolroom today

Green writes about his enthusiasm for Shakespeare in the introduction to his book on the legend of Shakespeare’s Crab Tree, and gives the impression that he enjoyed his school days. Perhaps by the early 1800s there was less emphasis on rote learning, and less discipline, than there had been in Shakespeare’s time. Shakespeare always comments on how much schoolboys disliked school: from As You Like It, “the whining schoolboy, with his satchel/And shining morning face, creeping like snail/Unwillingly to school” to Romeo for whom “Love goes toward love, as schoolboys from their books,/ But love from love, toward school with heavy looks”.

The conversation of the Schoolmaster Holofernes and curate Sir Nathaniel in Love’s Labour’s Lost is dull and pedantic, though Shakespeare fills it with wordplay which his audience would have enjoyed. And in The Merry Wives of Windsor a boy called William is quizzed by his schoolmaster Sir Hugh Evans on his Latin. Here’s part of it, missing out the comic misunderstandings of Mistress Quickly.

Sir Hugh. William, how many numbers is in nouns?
William. Two.
Sir Hugh. What is “fair”, William?
William. Pulcher.
Sir Hugh. What is “lapis”, William?
William. A stone.
Sir Hugh. And what is “a stone”, William?
William. A pebble.
Sir Hugh. No, it is “lapis”: I pray you, remember in your prain.
William. Lapis.
Sir Hugh. That is a good William. What is he, William, that does lend articles?
William. Articles are borrowed of the pronoun, and be thus declined, Singulariter, nominative, hic, haec, hoc.
Sir Hugh. Nominativo, hig, hag, hog; pray you, mark: genitivo, hujus. Well, what is your accusative case?
William. Accusativo, hinc.

The Latin lesson from John Marston’s What You Will

I hadn’t realised, until reading tweets from Jose A Perez Diez, how closely this parody of a Latin lesson is matched by one in John Marston’s play What You Will, probably written a year or so earlier than Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (subtitled What You Will). Diez is working on the new critical edition of the complete works of Marston, due to be published by OUP in 2020. In this play, written for a company of boys, the schoolmaster appears before a class who greet him in Latin. One of them is then asked to “Stand forth repeat your lesson with out booke”. He says ““In nownes bee two numbers, the singuler and the plurall, the singuler number speaketh of one as Lapis a stone, the plural speaketh of more then one, as Lapides stones.”, and carries on to talk about figures of speech including nouns, adjectives and verbs, and their declensions. Much of this is apparently based on William Lily’s Short Introduction to Grammar, the standard Latin text book in use in schools.

Diez seems to be correct in noting that, judging by the evidence, many English dramatists hated learning Latin as schoolboys. If you want to get a flavour of what it was like to be a schoolboy in Shakespeare’s time, go along to Shakespeare’s Schoolroom where you will find out more.


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Shakespeare commonplace book on Antiques Roadshow

The seventeenth century commonplace book

An inside page of the miniature commonplace book

The BBC Antiques Roadshow has often featured items with a Shakespeare connection, but on Sunday 2 April 2017 we saw “one of the most remarkable items to ever feature on the Antiques Roadshow”. Its appearance had been widely anticipated and was even thought by some to be an April Fool since Tweets had started to appear on April 1.  


The object was a tiny commonplace book, written in a seventeenth century hand, on the subject of William Shakespeare’s Comedies and Tragedies. The gentleman who brought it in was a distant descendant of eighteenth-century antiquarian John Loveday who lived at Caversham Court where the programme was coming from (currently used by the BBC). He had found it among his mother’s possessions. Loveday had a library of 2,500 books and this was thought to have been acquired by him. The notes were written “by an unknown seventeenth century William Shakespeare scholar”.  

We were treated to tantalising glimpses of a few pages but not enough to really get a sense of what was written, which the owner said he had never been able to read. Manuscript specialist Matthew Haley claimed to be trembling with excitement at handling this little object, and we can be sure that academics will be queuing up to examine it properly.  He placed a value of £30,000 on the book.

The full piece can be found here.

Any new discovery relating to Shakespeare always creates huge interest, even when, like this one, it seems to have no direct connection to Shakespeare himself. Its value will probably be in providing evidence of how Shakespeare was received during or shortly after his lifetime.  

As Matthew Haley thought, interest was immediate, with a number of Shakespeare academics Tweeting about it almost as soon as the piece had finished. It’s to be hoped that the commonplace book, or rather high quality photographs and transcriptions, will be made available to academics. I look forward to hearing more about this terrific find!

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Shakespeare’s Birthday news update

With April just around the corner, Shakespeareans around the world will be planning how to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday on the 23rd. I looked forward to the 2017 events a few weeks ago, and this post is to provide an update on what will be going on in Stratford-upon-Avon, the town where he was born and died.

Looking forward to Stratford’s Birthday Celebrations 2017


The Birthday luncheon on Saturday 22nd is now sold out, but tickets are still available for the new initiative, The Bard’s Night.  This grown-up evening will go up to and beyond midnight on Friday 21 April, and promises to be a terrific start to the weekend’s proceedings. The website promises “The Bard’s Night will be a highly enjoyable feast of food, drinks and astonishingly good performances from Fred Theatre, Diabolus in Musica, Bukechi and others”.

It will feature favourite songs and speeches from many of the plays as well as spinoffs such as Brush up Your Shakespeare from the musical Kiss Me, Kate. The full programme is available on the website, as is the menu, and the event will take place at the ArtsHouse in Rother Street, Stratford-upon-Avon. If you’re on Twitter, there’s a chance to win a ticket to The Bard’s Night. All you have to do is to follow @BardsNight to be entered into a prize draw. Tickets will be drawn on 1 April so you have to get in today 31 March 2017!

Of course the traditional floral procession will take place as usual on the morning of Saturday 22nd April. Town Clerk Sarah Summers says “come and join in the festivities in 2017 – as well as the Birthday Parade, there will be entertainment and activities for all the family taking place around the town, many of them outdoors and mostly free of charge.  It will be a perfect way to finish the Easter holidays.”

And the RSC are holding their own events at the theatre and in their gardens including acrobatic performances and demonstrations.

The Birthday weekend is always a great time to visit Stratford-upon-Avon and this year it comes at the end of the Easter break, perfect timing for anyone on holiday, or wanting to do something different before getting back to work.

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Shakespearean replicas then and now

A few weeks ago at a local book fair I bought a collection of engravings of Shakespeare’s Birthplace all dating from the nineteenth century. Shakespeare’s Birthplace was a major tourist attraction, and one which changed in appearance several times, the changes giving clues of the dates when the images were made. The images show how the house was transformed from being a neat, though humble little building with chickens scratching around in front of the door to the neat and prosperous-looking detached house that it became in 1864 after restoration.

The Birthplace 1840s

One of the engravings shows the house, in a sadly dilapidated condition, being shown to two ladies by a gentleman in the costume of the 1840s. He points to the sign “THE IMMORTAL SHAKESPEARE WAS BORN IN THIS HOUSE”. In an upper window a flowering pot plant can be seen, but the rest of the house is in a terrible state. The location is carefully represented, with buildings on either side and a sign for the Coach and Horses inn (now a café) across the road.

Stuck on the other side of the piece of paper is an almost-identical image of the same building, but this one is labelled “Erected from Drawings by Alfred Crowquill, in the Surrey Zoological Gardens, July 26th 1847.” So what was this about?

The replica in the Surrey Zoological Gardens 1847

I checked out a book that’s a mine of information about Shakespeare-worship in Stratford during the nineteenth century, Julia Thomas’s  Shakespeare’s Shrine: the Bard’s Birthplace and the Invention of Stratford-upon-Avon. The author describes how in the summer of 1847 “it was difficult to beat the Surrey Zoological Gardens. Children could peer through cages holding wild and exotic animals; mothers could visit the flower and fruit shows; while fathers and older boys could be entertained by a pyrotechnic display of the siege of Gibraltar and the blowing up of battering ships. In 1847, however, there was an added attraction. Occupying a prime position in the fifteen-acre plot stood a house. With its higgledy-piggledy beams and exposed brickwork, the property had seen better days, but this did not stop thousands of tourists from waiting in line to enter it.”

She continues, “as far as replicas went, this was certainly impressive. In many ways it was better than the actual Birthplace. For one thing, it was closer to London, and it also came with a complete interior and furnishings, in contrast to the dilapidated condition of the Stratford house. The two properties were identical.” The Illustrated London News confirmed “Nothing can exceed the minuteness of the copy…right down to the blackened and worm-eaten timbers and the broken paving stones outside the front door”. It was apparently the most successful attraction that had ever been shown at the Zoological Gardens, which  were in Newington, on the east side of Kennington Park Road.

The copy drew crowds because the original house in Stratford was to be sold, an event that was causing enormous public interest in the press. She reckons that “The Shakespeare industry that we recognise today, the economy that has transformed Stratford into a tourist mecca…was a direct result of the auction of 1847”. Souvenirs of the sale process, even copies of the Auction Catalogue, were sold and collected in large numbers. It’s strange to think that, if American circus-owner Mr Barnum had bought the Birthplace and shipped it off to the USA as he was rumoured to be planning, England would have been left with the Surrey copy to take its place and Stratford would never have become that tourist mecca.

The history of replica buildings is certainly strange, with the modern Shakespeare’s Globe in London being the most obvious example, though this at least was built only a few hundred yards from the location of the original.

The New Zealand pop-up Globe

There are replica Globe Theatres all over the world, but just at the moment a “Pop-up Globe” is in full swing in Auckland, New Zealand. It claims to be the world’s first temporary working replica of the second Globe, and its second successful season full swing. The three-storey building this year has a new hand-painted ceiling and large stage, and until 19 May 2017 is staging Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V, Othello and As You Like It.

I have to confess I’m not sure how this initiative relates to the well-established Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand, which has for over twenty years worked with Shakespeare’s Globe under the leadership of Dawn Sanders. This group became well-known for their educational work and for the donation of a set of classically-inspired embroidered hangings made in New Zealand for Shakespeare’s Globe, and which now hang in the exhibition in the UnderGlobe. Unlike the copies of the theatres themselves, these are original work as no records have survived of the original Theatres, but how extraordinary it is that New Zealand should have such a powerful record of involvement in Shakespeare’s Globe theatres.

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Queen Elizabeth’s wardrobe lost and found

A couple of months ago a new discovery for those of us interested in early modern England was announced. One of Elizabeth 1’s dresses, or at least part of one, had been found in a small church in rural Herefordshire. This gorgeously-embroidered piece of material has become known as the Bacton altar cloth. Using gold and silver thread, indicating it belonged to royalty, it was many years since it had been used, but was kept in a case in the church until spotted. The story of the cloth is told by Joint Chief Curator for the Historic Royal Palaces Tracy Borman, in her new book The Private Lives of the Tudors. Tracy has said: ‘This is an incredible find – items of Tudor dress are exceptionally rare in any case, but to uncover one with such a close personal link to Queen Elizabeth I is almost unheard of. We’re thrilled to be working with St Faith’s Church to conserve this remarkable object, which will now be further examined by our conservation experts at Hampton Court Palace, where we hope to be able to conserve and display it in future.’

The Bacton Altar Cloth

This article explains more about the process by which the dress was found and is being conserved.

Tracy is currently promoting her book with a series of talks, including one in Stratford-upon-Avon for the Literary Festival, on 29 April at 1.30pm. Details of her other talks are on her website.

A new online resource about Elizabeth 1 has been recently launched by The National Archives, also curated by Tracy Borman: “Including transcripts and commentary on a collection of original manuscripts, it explores her style of monarchy and considers whether she really was a ‘weak and feeble woman’.”  This fabulous resource is aimed at schools, but contains lots of great material and background about the Virgin Queen.

Queen Elizabeth, and her dresses, have also been highlighted in the past few years by the other Joint Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, Lucy Worsley. Both curators are doing a fantastic job of promoting these collections that include 10,000 pieces of costume worn by kings, queens and their courtiers and known as the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection. Lucy’s documentary Tales from the Royal Wardrobe was screened a few years ago now and unofficial copies come and go on YouTube, but a terrific clip of Lucy being dressed in a copy of one of Elizabeth 1’s outfits is available.

The Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth 1 used for Tracy Borman’s book

There has been some speculation that the Bacton cloth might be part of the dress worn by Queen Elizabeth in the Rainbow Portrait, as the gorgeous embroidered flowers are similar in style to those on the bodice she wears in the picture. However without any representation of the skirt, which is surely what the altar cloth must have been, this remains unproven.

Elizabeth was known to have many dresses, and it’s perhaps surprising that these highly-decorated and valuable items disappeared. This one is thought to have survived because it was given to one of Elizabeth’s ladies in waiting who was a parishioner at Bacton. The reported fate of some of her other clothes shows they were held in less respect. On 8 January 1604, only the year after Elizabeth had died, a masque was performed in the Great Hall of Hampton Court Palace. This was The Vision of the Twelve Goddesses, written by Samuel Daniel and one of the earliest Stuart Court masques. It was one of the first occasions when royalty and courtiers took part in entertainments instead of just watching them. The twelve Goddesses were represented by Queen Anne of Denmark, consort of James 1, and eleven of her ladies in waiting. The Queen took the part of Pallas Athena, and the ladies danced and paraded to the Temple of Peace while others sang.

The sumptuous costumes were ransacked from the wardrobe of Queen Elizabeth, containing 500 dresses, many of which had been worn only once. They included a sky-coloured mantle embroidered with gold and peacock feathers, and a mantle embroidered with silver half moons. The real expense came, however, with the jewels worn by the ladies. It was said that the value of the Queen’s gems came to £100,000. For obvious reasons, Royal masques continued to be enormously popular, but their extravagance was one of the factors that went on to make the Stuart kings unpopular. Clothes have probably never been just about fashion, and whereas Queen Elizabeth had used costume to demonstrate her power and that of her country, the new dynasty used these same items to entertain themselves and their friends.


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