Wordsworth, Shakespeare and nature in time of crisis

Kingfisher on the Avon April 2020

7 April 2020 is the 250th anniversary of the birth of William Wordsworth. Since most of the world entered into lockdown, short walks have become our only distraction, and we have been taking more notice of the natural world. David Attenborough, who has done more than anyone to promote nature recently wrote “We are dependent on the natural world for every breath of air we take and every mouthful of food we eat. But …we are also dependent on it for our sanity and sense of proportion…“In times of crisis, the natural world is a source of both joy and solace…[it] produces the comfort that can come from nothing else”

These sentiments echo those expressed by William Wordsworth. In the poem usually known by the shortened title Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth examines the effects nature has had on him. These are extracts from the longer poem: if you don’t know it, please read the whole thing.

After describing beautiful scenes of the natural world Wordsworth writes about how their memory affects him:

But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration:—feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:….


For I have learned;
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.—And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear,—both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being. …
Knowing that Nature never did betray
The heart that loved her; ’tis her privilege,
Through all the years of this our life, to lead
From joy to joy: for she can so inform
The mind that is within us, so impress
With quietness and beauty, and so feed
With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,
Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
The dreary intercourse of daily life,
Shall e’er prevail against us.

The natural world is ingrained in almost everything Shakespeare wrote, and in Sonnet 98 he writes about the pleasures of Spring, to be enjoyed even in isolation.


From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in everything,
That heavy Saturn laughed and leaped with him.
Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odour and in hue,
Could make me any summer’s story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew:
Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight
Drawn after you, – you pattern of all those.
    Yet seem’d it winter still, and, you away,
    As with your shadow I with these did play. 

I’m lucky enough to take my once-a-day walks on the outskirts of Stratford-upon-Avon, along the river and through scrubby areas where trees, bushes and wild flowers grow. I’m always aware that Shakespeare probably walked through these meadows, seeing the same plants and wildlife. It must look pretty well to us how it looked to him. So I’m posting some photos taken recently by my husband Richard Morris for anyone feeling starved of Shakespeare’s natural world.


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Live streaming Shakespeare during lockdown

Schaubuehne Theatre Hamlet

It’s spring 2020 and many of us are confined to home in social isolation during the Coronavirus pandemic. With theatres, museums, galleries and cinemas closed, cultural organisations have been quick to announce initiatives to keep people entertained and educated. I’m putting together some links to online offers that Shakespeare-enthusiasts might enjoy, beginning now with theatre productions that can be watched on our computers.

It’s become routine for these to be live-streamed to cinemas, then available either on DVD or to watch on demand by subscription. The difference now is that many companies are making their productions free. While some come from the most obvious sources a few are more obscure. I hope you will enjoy sampling some productions you would never normally think of watching. Some have been very recently announced and details have not yet been finalised so do keep watching the websites for more information.

Coming up imminently are two offerings from the Schaubuehne in Berlin. Their productions are unlikely to have been seen by those off us in the UK so this is a great opportunity to discover something new. They are streaming Hamlet on Wednesday 1 April, and Richard III on Friday 3 April. Both are in German with English subtitles. There’s an explanation in Time Out.


You’re more likely to be familiar with Cheek by Jowl. Some of their productions, along with output from other arts organisations, are made available on The Space. At the moment Cheek By Jowl’s production of The Winter’s Tale is available free (as is incidentally Emma Rice’s Wise Children). There’s also a link to it on YouTube here.

Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet, RSC

The Royal Shakespeare Company is offering a month’s free trial of Marquee TV, allowing access to all their content. Details have to be handed over but no money will be taken until the month is up. According to the RSC’s website, RSC members will be able to access this offer for three months. 17 Shakespeare plays are available including comedies Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Tempest, Richard II and the Henry IV plays.

Some of the same productions are available as part of the BBC’s virtual festival of the arts Culture in Quarantine. Details aren’t available yet but six recent titles will be available: Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing and Othello.


National Theatre at Home is going to be streaming four of their productions, one a week beginning with One Man, Two Guv’nors in the week beginning 2 April. The fourth week will be their production of Twelfth Night with Tamsin Greig as Malvolia (23-30 April).

Shanty Productions Twelfth Night

From 6 April Shakespeare’s Globe is also to stream six of its productions, each viewable for two weeks in turn. Plays will include Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merry Wives of Windsor. The announcement is here but details have not yet been finalised.

Another one you might not have heard of, but which should be worth watching is a special one-hour edit of a 2018 film version of Twelfth Night from Shanty Productions. Sheila Atim won an award for her performance, and the full film is only normally available on Amazon Prime. The link to YouTube will I believe function when the play is being streamed on a loop 12-6pm GMT every Wednesday evening during the Coronavirus lockdown.

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Social distancing in Shakespeare’s Stratford

Shakespeare’s Birthplace in a deserted Henley Street March 2020

On Monday evening, 16 March 2020 I was consulting with colleagues in the Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon about whether, in the light of the coronavirus pandemic, we should cancel our upcoming events, when notifications popped up on my computer informing me firstly that the Royal Shakespeare Theatres were closing down, and then that the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust properties were closing down, both with immediate effect. Our decision was made for us.

On Tuesday the Birthday Celebrations at the end of April were cancelled and since then the town’s tourist attractions have followed suit. Stratford Town Walks are suspended, and as from Thursday 19 March Shakespeare’s Schoolroom and Guildhall is closed. The Guild Chapel remains open for quiet contemplation but all services are cancelled. Holy Trinity Church is holding services but is closed to tourists. Checking the website this morning Tudor World, an independent museum in Sheep Street, appears to be still open. Henley Street, newly-repaved, is almost eerily quiet.

Hanging basket at the Shakespeare Hotel

Non Shakespeare-related events are also being cancelled including the Shakespeare Marathon, the Arts Festival, the Spring Literary Festival and the River Festival.

Charity shops are closing. Stratford is a haven for retired people: cultural offers are normally everywhere and the town is a lovely place for friends and relatives to visit. Many tourist sites, including RSC, SBT, the churches and Schoolroom, rely on volunteers, many of whom are in the at risk group. And the volunteers themselves enjoy the social stimulation of volunteering.



The Royal Shakespeare Theatre temporarily closed March 2020

We don’t know yet if total lockdown will be enforced in the UK. But for now, if you’re not in self-isolation, and in Stratford, there are still things you can do. Town centre businesses are open and hanging baskets, troughs and flower beds are in bloom making it a pleasure to walk round while the “Cradle to Grave” pavement plaques will guide you around the historic streets and buildings. It’s easier than usual to visualise the town as it was before the age of the car. Shakespeare monuments like the Town Hall statue and the Gower Memorial are outdoors and the Riverside walks are as popular as ever.

This is of course a time to follow official advice and by the time this blog is read it may already be out of date. Safety has to be our priority, like Proteus in The Two Gentlemen of Verona we need “to walk alone, like one that had the pestilence”. If we are lucky, the worst we will have to put up with is boredom, and I’m going to be publishing some ideas for staving this off in a day or two. For now I’d like to share one offering with you. A few years ago Jonathan Bate, in collaboration with SBT, created an online course Shakespeare and his world, connecting objects in the SBT’s collections with Shakespeare. The course is not currently available, but Professor Bate has generously made available the excellent short videos which he made for it. Do check them out: hopefully it won’t be too long before we can enjoy the real things again.


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Everything to Everybody: opening up Birmingham’s Shakespeare Memorial Library

For years Libraries have been under severe pressure, with many closing their doors, having their opening hours restricted, or having to rely on volunteers. So it’s wonderful to report that one of the great Shakespeare libraries in the West Midlands, the Birmingham Shakespeare Library, is the subject of an aspirational new project that will unlock its treasures for everyone.

Everything to Everybody is a collaboration between the University of Birmingham and Birmingham City Council, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and History West Midlands. The Project Director is Professor Ewan Fernie, Chair of Shakespeare Studies and Fellow of the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham.

What’s particularly heartening about the project is the emphasis on culture in general, and Shakespeare in particular, as something for everyone. Shakespeare organisations already know this: the RSC alone brings Shakespeare to 500,000 young people every year, and cultivates a network of partner schools. And libraries have long argued that they offer far more than books, being valuable community resources, that can provide social cohesion and inspire civic pride. It’s refreshing to hear the democratic aims of Libraries being praised and rewarded.

Ewan Fernie and Adrian Lester examining playbills from the Birmingham Shakespeare Library

The name of the project comes from the founder of the Birmingham Shakespeare Library, George Dawson. He came to the rapidly-growing and dynamic town of Birmingham in 1844 and hoped to educate, and improve the lives of, all the people who lived and worked there. Actor Adrian Lester, project patron, quotes his words: ‘Everything to everybody,’ urged the Library’s visionary founder, George Dawson. What belongs to Britain, belongs to you. No obstacles, no gaps, no separation. It remains an inspiring and relevant challenge.

You’ll find everything you could wish to know in the beautifully-produced guide here.

There are also links from the History West Midlands site here. 

If you’d like to see and hear Ewan Fernie talking about the project, click on the link to watch a lecture he gave recently.

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Hung be the heavens with black! Terry Hands remembered

Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!

Terry Hands

The opening line of Henry VI Part One seems appropriate as a memorial for the great theatre director Terry Hands, who died on 4 February 2020. The success of the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1970s and 1980s was in large part due to him and since his death a number of obituaries here and here have been published outlining his career.

A serious-looking, tall, spare figure usually dressed in black, Hands was intellectual and articulate. His productions were visually striking, but never over-decorated. Rather than using elaborate scenery he painted the stage with light, often taking on the role of lighting designer, and relied heavily on the effect caused by the costumes and props created by the great designer Farrah, particularly in the history plays. The climax of his Henry V, when Alan Howard, newly-crowned, marched slowly and stiffly downstage wearing a dazzling gold suit of armour charted Howard’s progress from madcap prince to untouchable King perfectly.

The RSC in the 1960s was dominated by The Wars of the Roses, a conflation of the three parts of Henry VI into two, completed by Richard III. It was a risk to challenge its success, and the full Henry VI trilogy was widely regarded as unstageable. Hands was successful and the trilogy became one of the productions that defined the RSC as a risk-taking, ambitious company. Casting too was risky combining established actors Alan Howard and Helen Mirren as King Henry VI and Queen Margaret, with Anton Lesser, pretty well straight out of drama school, as Richard III.

Hands is usually thought of as a serious director of political plays and tragedies, but he successfully directed his fair share of comedies. Much Ado About Nothing, with Derek Jacobi and Sinead Cusack, was a hit, and, combined with Cyrano de Bergerac, transferred to the USA. Poppy, by Peter Nichols, sounded unlikely: a musical comedy in the style of a pantomime on the subject of the nineteenth-century Chinese opium wars, but with Hands’ sure-footed direction it transferred to the West End after its initial Barbican Theatre run.

George the Silent Dragon in The Swan Down Gloves

Another surprise treat that showed Hands’ lighter side was the RSC’s own pantomime written by company-member Bille Brown and staged at the end of the 1980 season, The Swan Down Gloves. Leading members of the company clearly enjoyed letting their hair down. The most delicious in-joke of the evening came when George, the Silent Dragon, having moped around the stage during the evening, finally found his voice and was revealed, of course, to be the company’s leading tragedian Alan Howard. It’s for his working relationship with the late Alan Howard that Hands may best be remembered, and in 2011 the two came together to reminisce on the stage of the RST.

While he had many successes on the large stage, he played an important role in developing the RSC’s small-scale work. During the 1960s he was brought in specifically to run outreach work in schools, founding a touring branch of the RSC called Theatregoround. Rather than featuring a “second 11”, actors from the main Stratford company went off in groups to deliver a variety of plays and recitals around the country. This work led directly to the founding of The Other Place in Stratford where the strategy of using the main acting company to put on productions on a shoe-string was applied again.

After the opening of the Swan Theatre in Stratford in the mid 1980s Hands directed a number of plays in this intimate auditorium with considerable subtlety and sensitivity. Romeo and Juliet and Singer in 1989, and one of my favourite productions ever, Chekhov’s The Seagull in 1990 that featured the up and coming Simon Russell Beale.

I never met Terry Hands, but I have a favourite memory of him. It dates back to 11 July 1989. I was attending the performance at the RST, and the death of Sir Laurence Olivier had just been announced. Before curtain up, Terry appeared on stage and, rather than asking for a minute’s silence or dimming the theatre lights, both traditional ways of marking the passing of a notable person, he asked the audience give Olivier one final standing ovation. It was typical of Terry Hands to think of such a beautifully-judged tribute to this great man of British theatre.

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The Dugdale Society’s centenary

One hundred years ago this week, on 22 January 1920 to be exact, the Dugdale Society was formed with the aim of promoting the history of Warwickshire. Over the past century the Society has grown to be a significant force. It has now published fifty-two volumes of edited texts of important county records and a series of Occasional Papers based on lectures delivered at its annual meetings.

Sir William Dugdale (1605-1686) was the most important historian the county has produced, even though his name is not generally well known. Born in Shustoke, in the north of Warwickshire, and educated in Coventry, Dugdale took an interest in historical research and was appointed to a post within the College of Arms, eventually becoming Garter King of Arms in 1677. He published a number of books including a history of Saint Paul’s Cathedral but his best-known work is The Antiquities of Warwickshire, published in 1656. Not surprisingly, his interest in heraldry is to be seen in all his works.

I’ve referred to some of the Dugdale Society’s publications where they have related to Shakespeare, both here and in my jointly-authored history of Stratford-upon-Avon’s Shakespeare Club. Stratford has always been well-represented, not least because the founder of the Society, Frederick Wellstood, was the Secretary and Librarian of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust until his death in 1942. And the SBT is still the official address of the Society.

Anyone interested in the biography of Shakespeare will also be familiar with Dugdale’s name. Although a child when Shakespeare died, Dugdale was perfectly aware of this Warwickshire lad. The Stratford-upon-Avon section of his Antiquities of Warwickshire contains the following sentence “One thing more, in reference to the ancient Town is observable, that it gave birth and sepulture to our late famous Poet Will. Shakespeare, whose Monument I have inserted in my discourse of the Church.”

Shakespeare’s monument, as in Dugdale’s Antiquities of Warwickshire.

Dugdale’s book contains many engravings of important memorials, and as he indicates above this included the first published illustration of Shakespeare’s monument in Holy Trinity Church. This illustration has itself become the source of some controversy, as it is sometimes cited as evidence that William Shakespeare of Stratford was not the author of the works that bear his name. It’s thought that Dugdale made a rough sketch at the time of his visit to the church, from which a finished engraving was made. In Dugdale’s version Shakespeare’s hands are both placed on what seems to be a bulging bag (a sack of wool?), rather than holding a quill pen above a cushion bearing a piece of paper as in the Church monument. Anti-Stratfordians claim that the monument was changed later in order to include the detail of the quill. It’s a strange claim, since Dugdale goes out of his way to note that Shakespeare was a poet, and includes all the lines from the monument about his importance as a writer. The idea that the monument was changed during its restoration in the 1740s is also easily refuted since George Vertue made a sketch of the monument in 1737 clearly showing Shakespeare holding a quill.

Dugdale’s remains, though, the first printed illustration of the monument, and the first publication of the verses. His diary is also the source of the information that Gheerart Janssen was the creator of Shakespeare’s monument.

In order to honour and celebrate its centenary as a publishing society, the Society is holding a conference in Stratford-upon-Avon on 16 May 2020. Titled Warwickshire’s Changing Past the contributors will show how, during the past century, British society, politics and culture has changed profoundly, and how historical writing of all kinds, both local and national, has reflected those changes. As well as looking back, they will consider current and future developments in subject matter and approach. Full information about the Society and its conference can be found at the Society’s website.

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December 12th: a date to remember in Stratford-upon-Avon’s Shakespearean history

December 12th is probably not the date anybody would choose for an important event. There’s hardly any daylight, the weather’s cold and damp, and everybody’s preoccupied with Christmas and the New Year. It’s true for the General Election in 2019, but December 12th was also the date in 1827 when they opened the first purpose-built theatre Stratford had ever seen, a building that is now almost entirely forgotten.

The date can’t have been a popular choice. When the foundation stone was laid on 23 April thousands of people attending the Birthday Celebrations cheered enthusiastically, and in advance of the opening enthusiasm was high. But that was in springtime. The theatre was expected to be ready during the autumn, when days are warmer and longer, but as the money to buy the land had only been handed over on 23rd February 1827 deadlines were tight. Even by opening night the theatre still wasn’t finished. The Stratford Theatrical Review and Stage Reporter’s first issue described what decorations were in place:

On the ceiling is beautifully represented the four seasons, the circle of the gallery is ornamented with the following devices from the Poet’s Tragedies. Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard III, Othello and Julius Caesar.; the centre is the statue of Shakespeare being crowned by the tragic and comic muses”. But the lower circle was still to be decorated: “the lower, or box circle is to have corresponding devices from Shakespeare’s comedies…the centre over the stage is represented, the infant Shakespeare in the arms of his favourite muse.

It was declared to be “one of the most compact, and ornamental theatres in the kingdom”.

Part of the Playbill for the opening of the Shakspearian Theatre 12 December 1827

Townspeople were still optimistic, but was the time of year to blame for the poor attendances that were quickly reported ? On the playbill advertising the opening performance of Shakespeare’s sunny comedy As You Like It, audience members were reassured that “the Theatre being fully completed and carefully aired, it will commence its first season”. Warnings like these were often seen when opening new buildings, and catching a chill by sitting in a damp, cold building was obviously a real possibility.

The manager Mr Francis Raymond and his company tended to visit Stratford in the coldest months of the year. Even stars like Edmund Kean and W C Macready visited in November and January respectively. As manager of a circuit of small Midland Theatres including the larger towns of Northampton and Leicester Mr Raymond might not have had much choice.

Another factor was transport: to fill a house with a capacity of around 550 and a population of only two and three thousand they needed to attract people from outside the immediate area, but how was anyone to travel to the town and get home again at the darkest, coldest time of the year?

This must have been an issue because of the relief as soon as the railway came to the town. In 1864 Edward Fordham Flower launched the Tercentenary Festival: a week-long festival of exclusive events mostly held in a purpose-built pavilion, coinciding with the Birthday, followed by a week of events for local people. Railway timetables were widely circulated: it was even possible to get to Stratford from London and back in a day as long as you didn’t mind getting back in the small hours.

It’s hard to believe that the Shakspearean Theatre, in its 45 year history from 1827-1872, never put on a Shakespeare play on Shakespeare’s birthday. There were lots of other festivities and on several occasions individuals read a whole play. But the main event remained an expensive dinner at the Town Hall. It was Charles Edward Flower who saw that the most appropriate way of celebrating Shakespeare’s Birthday was to hold a full performance, by professional actors, of one of his plays, and this realisation is one of the factors that made the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre so successful. It’s lucky for us that Shakespeare was born in April, a much more auspicious and optimistic time than the depressing days of mid-December.

I’m talking about the untold history of Stratford-upon-Avon’s forgotten theatre, that stood on the site of the Great Garden at New Place, on Monday 16 December,  for the Stratford Society.

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Dickens and the theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon

Dickens in 1842

Nineteenth-century novelist Charles Dickens is particularly associated with the festive season. His “little Christmas book” A Christmas Carol was published in 1843 and with its larger than life characters, dramatic plot and heartwarming message, it was an instant success. It was adapted for the stage just six weeks after it appeared and it’s been a favourite in every medium ever since. It’s been rewritten and updated even more times that Shakespeare’s plays, and in 2019 versions can be seen at many theatres including Wilton’s Music Hall in the East End where for the first time in the UK a woman plays Scrooge. Sally Dexter is Fan Scrooge, Ebenezer’s sister, just as miserly and miserable as her brother.

I’m currently researching the history of early theatre in Stratford, and although the focus is on Shakespeare, the name of Charles Dickens keeps on cropping up. It was the actor Charles Mathews the Elder, while on one of his trips to the town in 1820, who proposed that the town needed a proper memorial, ideally a theatre, to Shakespeare. Although Dickens was only a child at the time, he later came to admire Mathews who impersonated a number of different characters in his one-man shows.

The 1827 theatre in Chapel Lane, around 1860

Mathews’ rallying call resulted in a national attempt to raise money by public subscription for a monument to Shakespeare, but when this failed in 1824 townspeople took on the idea of celebrating Shakespeare and created the Shakespeare Club. Their aim to begin with was simply to mark the Birthday with a fine dinner, but two years later club members formed a group to build a theatre, issuing shares to raise the £1000 or so needed. The theatre opened in 1827 under the name of the Shakspearean Theatre, and many Shakespeare plays featured in its first season. It stood in Chapel Lane, on the site of New Place Great Garden.

The manager of the theatre invited famous actors to perform in it, including, in 1829, William Charles Macready. Some years later Dickens would become a great friend of Macready and dedicated his novel Nicholas Nickleby to him. The novel contains a long section in which Nicholas joins the Crummles Theatre Company and ends up playing Romeo for them. This Company travels from town to town performing in small provincial theatres very much like the Stratford one. By the late 1830s when Dickens was writing the novel, companies like Crummles’ and theatres like the one in Stratford, were struggling to stay in profit. Many of them were closed or remodelled as larger theatres in the cities became popular.

Dickens adored the theatre, and was a good amateur actor. His best-known intervention in Stratford was to raise money in the aftermath of the purchase of Shakespeare’s Birthplace by heading performances of several plays including The Merry Wives of Windsor in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Edinburgh and Glasgow during the summer of 1848. Most of the performers were amateurs, and Dickens revelled in the experience. What’s less well-known is that Dickens and his company intended to perform in Stratford’s little theatre. It would have been wonderfully appropriate, so why didn’t it happen? From Dickens’ collected letters and contemporary newspaper reports the picture emerges. Privately Dickens decided that a Stratford performance might draw people away from Birmingham, but the reason given in public was that the theatre was too small. His correspondence includes details about the Stratford theatre itself. He estimated that at top prices it would have taken £200, seating 550 people (top prices would have been half a guinea for the best seats). One friend sent him a sketch of the layout in a letter now held at the Victoria and Albert museum. I’m waiting impatiently for a photograph of this document – images of the inside of the theatre are almost non-existent. Dickens visited Stratford several times, and the letters also reveal that while in Birmingham he and some of his company visited Stratford, signing the visitors’ book at Holy Trinity Church.

A provincial theatre similar to Stratford’s theatre suffering a small audience, around 1830.

The letters also reveal rather more about Dickens’ motivation for the tour: although the playbills stated that the aim was to raise money for a curatorship of Shakespeare’s Birthplace, the letters show that he would only hand over the profits if his friend Sheridan Knowles was appointed. Knowles was a well-known writer whose plays, like The Hunchback, were among the most popular in pre-Victorian England. Knowles was well-known in Stratford: he delivered an oration on Shakespeare at the Shakspearean Theatre at the Birthday Celebrations in 1837. By the 1840s he had fallen on hard times, though not hard enough to refuse a pension of £100 per year from the government. When, for whatever reason, no curator was appointed at the Birthplace, it seems Dickens handed the money over to Knowles regardless (at least £1500, half the price of the Birthplace itself). Dickens’ generosity to the Birthplace suddenly doesn’t seem quite so impressive.

My searches for other Dickens links with the little Chapel Lane Theatre continue. Was an adaption of any of Dickens’ books, particularly A Christmas Carol, ever staged there? It’s disappointing to find that a performance came so close, a connection with Dickens would not have saved the theatre from being demolished in 1872 in order to re-establish the area as Shakespeare’s garden.

If you’re interested in the history of this theatre I’m giving a lecture on the subject to the Stratford Society on Monday 16 December. Details can be found on the Society’s website.

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Shakespeare annotated: John Milton’s First Folio

(c) Christ’s College, University of Cambridge; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Over the last few weeks the hottest story in Shakespeare studies has been the identification of a First Folio in the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Rare Book Department as John Milton’s own copy, annotated in his own hand. The book had been in the Library for over 70 years, and Library staff had often put on display this volume with its interesting additions. It had been studied in depth by Professor Claire Bourne from Pennsylvania State University’s English Department who had narrowed the annotations down to the middle of the seventeenth century, and her article was read by Jason Scott-Warren from the University of Cambridge’s English Faculty. Bourne noted that the reader who had made the annotations made interesting comments, and the handwriting reminded Warren strongly of the poet John Milton. There is a detailed discussion of the palaeography here, and Jason Scott-Warren spoke to the BBC’s Front Row on 17 September 2019.

Milton was known to be an admirer of Shakespeare. He was born in London in 1608 where his father was a scrivener and composer living close to the Mermaid Tavern which was frequented by theatre people. Their lives overlap by just a few years so I suppose it’s just about possible that Milton might have met Shakespeare The first poem Milton wrote that appeared in print was “On Shakespeare”, included without attribution in Shakespeare’s Second Folio in 1632.  It would be many years before Paradise Lost but Milton was already writing about Shakespeare’s influence.

What needs my Shakespeare for his honoured bones,
The labor of an age in pilèd stones,
Or that his hallowed relics should be hid
Under a star-ypointing pyramid?
Dear son of Memory, great heir of fame,
What need’st thou such weak witness of thy name?
Thou in our wonder and astonishment
Hast built thyself a live-long monument.
For whilst to th’ shame of slow-endeavouring art,
Thy easy numbers flow, and that each heart
Hath from the leaves of thy unvalued book
Those Delphic lines with deep impression took,
Then thou, our fancy of itself bereaving,
Dost make us marble with too much conceiving;
And so sepúlchred in such pomp dost lie,
That kings for such a tomb would wish to die.

An addition in Milton’s hand: the prologue to Romeo and Juliet

Looking at the annotations Warren was able to see how Milton was reading Shakespeare as a writer. He suggested changes to the metre of a line, referenced sources, and examined how some of Shakespeare’s best speeches worked. It’s one of the most exciting literary discoveries in recent years, based on the work of two academics working thousands of miles apart, but able to share the images by the wonder of digitisation.

Many congratulations to both researchers who have made this great discovery. But, especially as it’s Libraries Week, let’s also take our hats off to the Librarians in Special Collections who make these rare items available to the public.

Caitlin Morgan, curator of the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Rare Book department, has written a lively post about the role of the Library, refuting the usual image of libraries as dusty places where fascinating items get hidden. In fact libraries are now places where information can be spread more speedily and effectively than ever through digitisation, cataloguing and the writing of blogs. This year Libraries Week is celebrating libraries in a digital world, and this is certainly appropriate for this story.

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David Garrick’s Apotheosis today

George Carter’s Apotheosis of Garrick

The 250th anniversary of the Garrick Jubilee has been celebrated in a number of ways in Stratford-upon-Avon during September 2019. Church bells have been rung, Morris dancers have performed, talks and exhibitions have been put on. There’s also a more lasting legacy. The Royal Shakespeare Company owns an extraordinary collection of Shakespeare-related paintings and for the anniversary they have restored the quirkiest of them, The Apotheosis of Garrick by artist George Carter, painted in 1782, and displayed it in the circle bar of the RST, at least for a while.

It’s a painting that needs an explanation. When it was painted after David Garrick’s death his face was universally known, both through his stage performances and the many paintings of him. But who are all the other people, and what’s going on? The RSC have placed some excellent information panels beneath it, and the following has been adapted from them.

Shakespeare and the muses of comedy and tragedy, in The Apotheosis of Garrick

The setting is classical: Garrick is lifted to Mount Parnassus by angels where Shakespeare waits to greet him flanked by the muses of Comedy and Tragedy, all bearing laurel garlands. In the foreground his Drury Lane Company dressed as their favourite Shakespearean characters gather to bid him farewell.

From left to right, they are as follows. Kneeling at the front dressed in pink is Elizabeth Pope as Cordelia from King Lear. Next to her is Mary Anne Yates, leading tragedienne, as Isabella in Measure for Measure, arm outstretched.

Some of the actors in The Apotheosis of Garrick

Fanny Abington is in silvery white as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. Famous for her sense of fashion, she was painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Kneeling next to her is Elizabeth Hartley as Desdemona from Othello, whose beauty prompted a brawl in Vauxhall Gardens. Behind them, in the hat, is Jane Pope as Mistress Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Robert Bensley or Roaring Bob is Prospero in The Tempest. William “Gentleman” Smith is Hamlet. He was educated at Eton and Cambridge and eloped with Elizabeth Hartley. John Hayman Packer often played old men and here he is Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet.

Richard Yates, hand on chest, is Malvolio from Twelfth Night. As a theatre manager he set up the New Theatre in Birmingham in 1773. John Palmer or Plausible Jack kneels with his sword and shield as Iachimo in Cymbeline. He was a theatre doorkeeper before becoming an actor. Behind him is another actor in Cymbeline, Thomas Hall, feather in cap, as Pisanio.

Actors in The Apotheosis of Garrick

The most obvious is Thomas King, in motley as Touchstone in As You Like It. A Drury Lane favourite, he performed over 100 roles during a long career. Next are Joseph Vernon as Thurio in The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Robert Baddeley as Dr Caius in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

The last little group are John Moody as Old Adam in As You Like It, then William Parsons leaning on his spade as the Gravedigger in Hamlet. Finally William Brereton is Orlando in As You Like It.

Though the painting doesn’t have a direct link to the Jubilee, there are connections.

Of these seventeen actors, more than half are recorded to have been either at the Stratford Jubilee or in its London staging. In Stratford, Thomas King took part in a staged interruption to Garrick’s address after the Ode on the second day, Mr and Mrs Yates attended the grand Masquerade, and William Smith was scheduled to walk in the procession.

Continuation of the Procession of Shakespear’s Characters [London, 1769]. From the collections of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

As Garrick had arranged that his own company would process through the streets we can assume some of the others were there too, though as the procession had to be abandoned there are no written reports. The engravings of the procession (at least one prepared in advance) don’t give a good impression of how it would have been.

When the Jubilee was staged in London, Garrick again called on his leading actors. Several are named in reports including Mr Vernon, Mr King (as Touchstone), Mr Moody, Miss Pope, Mrs Abington and Mr Brereton.

Apollo and the Muses from The Apotheosis of Garrick

Now restored and hung in a brightly-lit room the quality of the painting and its details can be seen. The classical references are much more obvious. At the top of Mount Parnassus, the home of poetry, music and learning, is Apollo, the sun god and the remaining seven muses, in the rosy glow of dawn. In the world of the painting, Shakespeare comes down the mountain with Thalia the muse of Comedy and Melpomene the muse of Tragedy to welcome David Garrick to take his rightful place. Apollo holds his lyre and several of the muses are with their identifying emblems. On the left Euterpe, muse of Music holds her flute, and Clio, muse of History, holds a large open book. On the right Urania, muse of Astronomy sits with her globe and compass.

There’s something rather wonderful about the fact that this eccentric, wacky painting is on display just yards away from the spot where David Garrick delivered his Jubilee Ode and in so doing laid the foundations for all the Shakespeare-worship that has taken place in Stratford-upon-Avon in the last 250 years.

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