The story of Shakespeare’s brooch

The history of Shakespeare's brooch

The history of Shakespeare’s brooch

On Tuesday 8 September 2015 the new season of meetings of Stratford’s Shakespeare Club will begin.  Following the AGM to be held at 7.15 the subject of the evening’s talk will be Shakespeare and Jewellery. It will be given by David Roberts, Executive Dean of Arts, Design and Media at Birmingham City University. Birmingham has been a centre of jewellery making for centuries with its own Jewellery Quarter. Dr Roberts will be examining Shakespeare’s references to jewellery and precious metals, and will also look at the developments in the industry during his lifetime.

Shakespeare often mentions rings and chains, and rings play a crucial part in some of his plays such as Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice. I’m sure it’s going to be a fascinating start to the season.

Maybe Dr Roberts will mention the gold seal ring rumoured to have been Shakespeare’s that was found in Stratford in 1810. While there’s no actual proof that it belonged to Shakespeare, the story has never been disproved, and the ring now receives serious attention. There is, however, another piece of jewellery which just might have belonged to Shakespeare.

Details of the brooch, coloured by my grandfather

Details of the brooch, coloured by my grandfather

This is a little brooch, and its history is some ways mirrors that of the ring. Like it, it was found by a poor workman, this time in 1828. Like it, the brooch was examined by antiquarians in Stratford and proclaimed to be genuine. The full story is told in leaflets that were published in 1883 and 1884, entitled The History of Shakespeare’s Brooch and A Lecture on Some Portraits of Shakespeare, and Shakespeare’s Brooch. Both were reprinted from newspapers.

The man who found the brooch, Joseph Smith from Sheep Street, in 1864 made a statement on oath: “in the year one thousand eight hundred and twenty-eight I found the Brooch now shown to me, and having the name “W Shakespeare” engraved at the back thereof, upon a heap of rubbish brought out of, and laid in front of, New place, in Stratford-on-Avon aforesaid, during alterations being made in those premises. The said Brooch is made of silver, set with imitation stones, in the form of a harp (heart), with a wreath on top”.

James Saunders' pictures of the brooch, published 1829

James Saunders’ pictures of the brooch, published 1829

Captain Saunders offered Smith £7, which he refused, having been told it was worth more, and already having it on show in his house. Saunders, convinced of the brooch’s authenticity, wrote a piece for the Mirror of Literature on 26 September 1829 including his own illustrations: “This brooch is considered by the most competent judges and antiquarians in and near Stratford, to have been the personal property of Shakespeare”. Robert Bell Wheler, Stratford’s other leading antiquarian, also tried unsuccessfully to acquire it. In the 1830s, as a result of his poverty, Smith lost possession of the brooch and shown at the Stratford Arms in Henley Street, another attraction for those visiting the Birthplace. While there, the brooch was broken and roughly soldered together which accounts for some of the differences between Saunders’ images and later ones. In 1864 the brooch was examined by a specialist of the South Kensington Museum, and by one of the most eminent firms of jewellers in Birmingham and London, who suggested the way the stones were cut was in the pre-Restoration fashion. “The brooch has every appearance of an antiquity bringing it at least as early as the time of Shakespeare”. The lettering was examined and claimed to be compatible with being of Shakespeare’s period, in particular the interlacing of the W and the way the H, A and K of the name are joined, a detail Saunders missed. If Saunders had been gullible, so were many other people. By 1883 John Rabone of Birmingham had acquired the brooch, and wrote both the pamphlets. The lecture contains additional information.

One of the illustrations of Luckenbooth brooches from Rabon's lecture

One of the illustrations of Luckenbooth brooches from Rabone’s lecture

The Birmingham Natural History Society visited the Museum of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, in Edinburgh where they came across a display of “Luckenbooth brooches, 16th century”, mostly French, imported when relations between France and Scotland were close. Many, it was noted, are similar to Shakespeare’s brooch. Online information about Luckenbooth brooches is not very great. There is a page here, and to the National Museum of Scotland

Unhappily for those trying to make the case for the brooch, Luckenbooth brooches became popular love-tokens in Scotland just around the time this one was found, making it likelier to be dismissed. Rabone’s carefully-researched lecture, concluding that “it seemed beyond doubt that it was once Shakespeare’s, and was to be treasured with his signet ring as one of the very few of his personal belongings which have been preserved to us”, fell on deaf ears.

The brooch was also found at a time when relics, real or fake, were a source of local income, so the chances of it being fully authentic are remote indeed.

I first came across these pamphlets years ago among my father’s books, but heard no more until I recently searched the SBT’s website for items relevant to Shakespeare Club history. There was an entry for the brooch, with a photo, a relatively recent acquisition. The brooch is currently part of the Tudor Courtship display at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage. The caption, reading Heart-shaped brooch, made in the style of the 1500s: once thought to have belonged to William Shakespeare, but now believed to be a Luckenbooth brooch, conceals a complex story that could deserve further investigation.

One final thought: on the brooch, Shakespeare’s name is spelled as we would expect, but though Shakespeare himself used this spelling for The Rape of Lucrece, and it is used on the First Folio, this spelling has not always been used. In particular, at the time of the brooch’s discovery Shakspeare was the usual spelling. Might this lend weight to the idea that the brooch is earlier in date?

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Australia’s Shakespeare

The Bell Shakespeare's production of Macbeth

The Bell Shakespeare’s production of Macbeth

It’s easy, living in Stratford-upon-Avon, to get stuck in English and particularly RSC Shakespeare, so I’m indebted to Sally McLean and Elizabeth Schafer for bringing to my attention the vibrancy of Shakespeare on the other side of the planet, in Australia.

Australia has a long history of interest in Shakespeare: there were Shakespeare societies in both Adelaide and Melbourne in the early years of the twentieth century and many Australians have distinguished themselves in Shakespeare: actors Robert Helpmann, Cate Blanchett and Keith Michell, director Gale Edwards and designer Loudon Sainthill, to name just a few.

Many people will have heard of the Bell Shakespeare Company, founded by John Bell in 1990, based in Sydney, and just now performing The Tempest. John Bell, after leading the company for twenty-five years is, at the age of 75, handing over its direction to his co-director Peter Evans. Bell’s is an extraordinary achievement, and it’s to be hoped that the company will continue to thrive under its new leadership.

The Australian Shakespeare Company is based in Melbourne, performing accessible and contemporary productions. They are best known for the outdoor Shakespeare in the Park, but that’s not all they do. Their youth ensemble Bravehearts is for instance engaging young audiences by putting on a version of Romeo and Juliet later in September in Williamstown.

Another Melbourne-based project, just getting under way, is Shakespeare Republic. Their aim is to bring some of Shakespeare’s works to the small screen in a way that shows how relevant he is to modern life. You will find their trailer on their website and on their YouTube channel. They will be building a series of stand-alone episodes, each one featuring one of Shakespeare’s monologues or sonnets, with a slightly modern twist. As it’s all online we can all get a flavour of Shakespeare in Australia. From the look of the trailer it’s going to be a sophisticated twenty-first century series with its own particularly Australian flavour.

Publishing shot of Geoffrey Rush as King Lear

Publishing shot of Geoffrey Rush as King Lear

Later this year one of Australia’s best-known actors, Geoffrey Rush (Shakespeare in Love, The King’s Speech), will be playing King Lear with the Sydney Theatre Company from 24 November 2015 to 9 January 2016. It will be, it is claimed, “a King Lear like no other”. He’s no stranger to the play, but has been reading it with fresh eyes. In this interview Rush talks about how he sees the play “Lear… is a brilliant microcosm of a family that has become completely dysfunctional. They just happen to have the head of state as the father… The arrogance of leadership and the unchallengeable sense of authority. Lear is a kind of man who probably has no understanding of himself… The bigger metaphor is quite intriguing….It’s something that echoes the kind of torture and ruthlessness that we’re seeing going on diplomatically around the planet.”

In a piece she wrote for Shakespeare at the Centre back in 2007, Dr Elizabeth Schafer wrote about how what makes Australian Shakespeare distinctive is that it is “haunted by land rights”.

“Because European Settlement of Australia began …when Shakespeare was already a British national icon, Shakespeare, his thinking, his poetry, his politics, can be seen to have contributed to first contact. And this is why Simon Phillips’ production of The Tempest, for the Queensland Theatre Company…was so challenging. Casting Ariel and Caliban as indigenous added a painful poignancy to most of the action. Similarly any play dealing with land can become newly charged in Australia – whether this be King Lear directed by Gale Edwards and John Gaden, where the division of the kingdom begged the question of who actually owned that land, or As You Like It directed by Neil Armfield, with an …indigenous Rosalind, escaping to Arden, just like her dispossessed father. This distinctive take on the plays can serve as a useful reminder that Shakespeare knew about the lure of land ownership, the temptation to dispossess, and to enclose common land.”

Tom E Lewis as Lear in The Shadow King

Tom E Lewis as Lear in The Shadow King

In the last couple of years these questions have been brought even more to the fore with The Shadow King, “after William Shakespeare”, based on King Lear. Originally performed at the Melbourne Festival in 2013 it was described in this review as “fascinating, ultimately shattering theatre”.

It has since toured to Sydney, Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane. This was the description when the production reached Adelaide: “Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy King Lear is an unmatched epic of connection, country, land, justice and despair. Now skillfully redefined as The Shadow King, this contemporary retelling speaks to the tangled legacy of Indigenous Australia in a sprawling combination of modern English, Aboriginal languages, Kriol, music and dance. A majestic performance.”

The English Guardian also reviewed it while in Melbourne, commenting on the central theme of land ownership: “After descending into madness and being cast adrift in the wilderness, Lear is reminded by Cordelia that he belongs to the land. As the red dust swirls and Lear dances and sings, the audience journey with him as he becomes healthy and whole again. Juxtaposed with destructive wealth generation and evil plotting, and Lear’s other daughters and Edmund, this scene has great resonance.”

It’s great news that this exciting theatrical event is being brought to the Barbican Theatre in London in 2016. Booking is already open.


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Last call for Magna Carta at the British Library

magna-carta_624x351v22015 has been the eight-hundredth anniversary of the great document Magna Carta, one of the world’s most famous documents, which is still controversial. Is it, as the British Library’s website asks, the “foundation of democracy or rallying cry for modern rights?” The website includes lots of information about the document.

This summer the British Library has mounted a major exhibition about its history and long-term significance: Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy has received rave reviews, but closing on Tuesday 1 September you have only the long Bank Holiday weekend to see it. Even if you miss it, though, this site includes information about some of the treasures on display.

This website takes you to a zoomable copy of the document, a transcription in the original Latin and translation into English.

King John from Shakespeare's First folio

King John from Shakespeare’s First folio

One of the items in the exhibition is a copy of Shakespeare’s 1623 First Folio, open at a page in the play King John. Although the creation of Magna Carta is the most famous event of King John’s reign Shakespeare, famously does not mention the document at all. Perhaps in order to satisfy audiences who came expecting to see it dramatized, or in order to provide an opportunity for pageantry and display, Herbert Beerbohm Tree inserted a scene in which King John was shown granting Magna Carta to his barons. A painting of Hubert Beerbohm Tree playing the role in 1899-1900 is also included in the exhibition, and this blog post includes an explanation of Shakespeare’s omission of the event.

All these great resources accompany the exhibition but are also a reminder of the significance of Magna Carta, a document that began its life as a “practical solution to a political crisis” before becoming “an international symbol of freedom”.

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Shakespeare and the Book of Common Prayer

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer

On Radio 4 on 26 August 2015 Quentin Letts asked “What’s the point of the Book of Common Prayer?” This little book, written by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, was originally published in 1549 during the brief but emphatically protestant reign of King Edward VI. For centuries it was universally used in the Church of England, providing not just prayers but the orders of service for baptisms, marriages and communion. In the last fifty years or so it has been mostly superseded by versions written in modern English. Letts’ programme acknowledges that it tends to attract “people who don’t much care for the modern world”, but those who love it are not simply clinging to the past. In the eighteenth century Dr Samuel Johnson commented that is “the genuine language of piety impregnated by wisdom”, and in the programme writer and theatre director James Runcie claimed “You don’t understand English literature without the Book of Common Prayer, the Bible and Shakespeare”. The words of the Book of Common Prayer have gone deep into the minds of many writers.

There have been a number of attempts to define Shakespeare’s own debt to this little book. Every time he attended church he would have heard Cranmer’s prose, and like most people he probably knew the book by heart, having heard it repeated throughout his life.

Daniel Swift's book Shakespeare's Common Prayers

Daniel Swift’s book Shakespeare’s Common Prayers

In his 2012 book Shakespeare’s Common Prayers: The Book of Common Prayer and the Elizabethan Age, reviewed here, Daniel Swift agrees that the book’s influence has been neglected… “neither the Bible nor the Book of Common Prayer are mentioned in Bullough’s six-volume collection of Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare” or other books looking at Shakespeare’s sources. “For Bullough, as for the generations of literary scholars who have relied on his invaluable resource, the sources of Shakespeare are specifically nondevotional”. Bullough reproduces whole narratives: “here are these old stories, they say, waiting for the magic of his touch. The source not only precedes the play: it is transformed and improved by it”. Swift calls for “a messier and more engaged definition of a source”.

Others who have looked at the subject include Margot Thompson whose booklet The Prayer Book, Shakespeare and the English Language has been published by the Prayer Book Society which also has a page on the subject containing a link to a programme by Melvyn Bragg that looks at the book’s importance.

For Shakespeare, then, the importance of the book is subtle rather than obvious. This review suggests “There’s a vast amount of truth to the claim of debt… Swift attempts to trace that debt through the echo-chamber of Shakespeare’s plays, sifting everything for an echo here, a purloined catechism there. “Perhaps the only final proof of all that I have written here,” he tells us, somewhat unnecessarily, “would be if we were to discover Shakespeare’s own annotated copy of the Book of Common Prayer.”

A tantalising copy of the Book of Common Prayer is owned by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. The copy contains the 1559 edition of the book together with the psalms that first appeared in 1594, and the whole book was printed in 1596 by Christopher Barker, the official printer to Queen Elizabeth. What makes the copy special is that it contains two signatures by W Shakespeare or William Shakespeare. A post was written by Pete Hewitt on the SBT’s Finding Shakespeare blog a few years ago that sadly concludes these signatures are almost certainly forged, perhaps from the hands of the infamous forger William Henry Ireland (1775-1835). There is also a mention of the book on the SBT’s Treasures page.

One of the pages of "Shakespeare's Prayer Book"

One of the pages of “Shakespeare’s Prayer Book”

Zoomable photographs of this fragile volume are on the Windows on Warwickshire website, as are photographs of many other fascinating items relating to Shakespeare.

It’s maybe not, then, the book that Daniel is hoping to find, but another of the many forgeries that demonstrate the desperation of some at the end of the eighteenth century to find Shakespeare memorabilia. The little book, heavily worn and clearly much used, is still a treasure, demonstrating how important the liturgy was to people, heard on their weekly visits to church and part of their everyday lives. People for whom the book was, to quote Quentin Letts, the “popular poetry of the English language”, its rhythms and phrases known by heart.

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Outdoor Shakespeare

Open air Shakespeare at the Dell

Open air Shakespeare at the Dell

The summer of 2015 has been mostly chilly and often damp, with just the occasional hot days. These conditions must have been trying for all those companies that now put on outdoor theatre productions in the UK. Many of them include at least one Shakespeare play, and no wonder: Shakespeare wrote his plays knowing that some of the time they would be performed outside, in a variety of touring conditions. It’s been another cold, rainy day, but the weather looks as if it may improve for the Bank Holiday weekend at the end of August. There are still a few opportunities to grab some outdoor Shakespeare even if you would be well advised to bring along a blanket and waterproof.

In Stratford, the Dell near Holy Trinity Church will see afternoon performances of As You Like It by BMH and Twelfth Night by Combat Veteran Players on Saturday and Sunday.

The Illyria Theatre Company are still on tour with The Taming of the Shrew and will be in Winchester and Newbury over the weekend.

Creation Theatre, Oxford

Creation Theatre, Oxford

Creation Theatre are performing their production of As You Like It in the gardens of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, until well into September.

Handlebards are performing Hamlet in Scotland, taking their Secret Shakespeare to another level as the audience are expected to get on their bikes and ride five miles during the show.

The Festival Players continue their tour of As You Like It and Henry IV at various venues including Glastonbury.

Open air theatre at Arundel Castle

Open air theatre at Arundel Castle

The GB Theatre Company are performing the final nights of their Twelfth Night on 28 and 29 August in the spectacular setting of Arundel Castle in Sussex.

If you need some encouragement to think about outdoor Shakespeare, you might like to try Andrew Muir’s delightful study of the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival, Shakespeare in Cambridge. It makes a refreshing change from some of the rather dry academic studies of Shakespeare on stage. The author remembers to mention Cambridge’s early connections with Shakespeare. Performances of Hamlet were staged in the city: the 1603 Quarto tells us the play “hath beene diverse times acted …in the two universities of Cambridge and Oxford.” Around the same time the student dramas, the Parnassus Plays, were put on by the students at St John’s College. These contain references, although somewhat cryptic, to Shakespeare as both actor and writer. He also points out that Francis Meres, one of the first to praise Shakespeare in print, was educated at Pembroke College Cambridge.

But the main part of the book, and what makes it such a pleasure to read, is Muir’s obvious love for Cambridge’s Annual Shakespeare Festival. Quite simply, he says “The Cambridge Shakespeare Festival (CSF) has changed my life. Not only has it come to dominate my every summer, but, more importantly, it has challenged and refocused my views of Shakespeare’s plays while reinvigorating my appreciation of them”.

Shakespeare in Cambridge by Andrew Muir

Shakespeare in Cambridge by Andrew Muir

Muir’s account of how the open air productions at CSF help to demonstrate the workings of Shakespeare’s plays would be a clear and readable account for anyone coming to the subject for the first time:
All the companies prior to, and in, Shakespeare’s time were obliged to change their productions to suit whatever locations and conditions they found themselves in. …With its almost total lack of scenery, other than what nature provides, its varied venues and its small casts, the CSF is at the mercy of the same exigencies… It sounds from all this as though the productions, both back then and now at the CSF, suffer from terrible constraints but, paradoxically, the opposite is true. The release from any obligation to provide naturalistic stage productions is liberating, and the absence of such cluttering distractions affords a total concentration on the words. These words, the greatest ever written, are designed to paint in our minds, if we let them guide us, all the scenery necessary for this and other worlds.

The liberation is boundless: the plays can move anywhere or any time via words, gestures, and symbols… The actors move, and the audience with them, simply by someone saying, “we are in a forest”, or an orchard, a castle, or “we are in Rome”, now Egypt and now Rome again. They can go from room to room, upstairs to downstairs, inside a house to out in the street, they can cross the street to enter a tavern or be held deep in a dungeon, all through language only. Even though, in reality, they are physically occupying the same bare stage, be it the thrust stage of the Globe, an Elizabethan courtyard inn or a spot of grass in a Cambridge college garden. 

The Cambridge Shakespeare Festival is still running this week with its final performances of Timon of Athens ending on 29 August in Robinson College Gardens. This weekend is pretty well your last chance of seeing some outdoor Shakespeare for another year, so make the most of it.

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“To be or not to be”: Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet. Photo by Johan Persson

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet. Photo by Johan Persson

So Benedict Cumberbatch, playing Hamlet in Lyndsey Turner’s production of the play at the Barbican Theatre in London, has bowed to pressure by moving “To be or not to be” from the beginning of the play to its usual place. It’s not unusual for changes to be made in preview, but it’s a pity that a decision made for artistic reasons has been changed because of pressure from those who have seen the play before its official opening next week.

Theatre practitioners have now criticised the media for “hysteria” and “contempt”. Every comment on the play I’ve seen has focused on either the placing of this speech or on Cumberbatch’s plea for the audience not to photograph or record the live performance, which was itself shown on TV news. Nobody seems very interested in the performance itself.

As I understand it, the idea of placing the speech at the start of the play was to explain Hamlet’s state of mind at the beginning of the play, though his first soliloquy “Oh that this too too sullied flesh would melt” actually expresses his desperation and loneliness pretty fully.

Most journalists and audiences haven’t spotted the irony of the decision to move this speech around, but one of the many textual questions academics have discussed is where Shakespeare originally meant this speech to appear. In the first printed edition, the 1603 “Bad Quarto”, thought to be based on early theatrical practise, the speech appears in Act 2 Scene 2. Claudius and Gertrude have offered to pay Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for information about Hamlet, and Claudius and Polonius have also plotted to “loose” Ophelia to Hamlet while the two of them “mark the encounter” from behind an arras. With Hamlet being so comprehensively spied on, the speech shows him at his most vulnerable.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet

The conventional place for the speech is in Act 3 Scene 1, after Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have reported their failure to get anything out of Hamlet, and immediately before the nunnery scene with Ophelia. As well as getting the better of his old friends, Hamlet has by this time encountered the players and come up with the scheme to make Claudius give himself away by presenting on stage a scene like the murder of his father. After this, the speech about suicide seems out of place, but this is where the second Quarto, published in 1604 and thought to be a kind of official version, puts it.

In her commentary on the play in the Penguin Edition, Anne Barton commented that the Q1 placement “may well indicate stage practice in early productions. Some modern directors have found that placing the soliloquy there, at a low point in Hamlet’s despair, is more effective than it is here, just after his vigorous decision to test Claudius. The placing of the soliloquy here may indicate an afterthought – not altogether successful – influenced by the fact that including it in II.2 gives the actor a very long period on stage.”. As she suggests, sometimes these decisions are made for purely practical reasons.

Alex Jennings as Hamlet, 1997. Photo by Malcolm Davies, copyright Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Alex Jennings as Hamlet, 1997. Photo by Malcolm Davies, copyright Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Moving the speech around, and experimenting with the opening of the play, is therefore nothing new. Apparently the Lyndsey Thomas production has also toyed with the idea of Hamlet sitting on stage alone at the beginning of the play, listening to (presumably melancholy) music. In the RSC’s 1997 production, directed by Matthew Warchus, the play opened with a black and white home movie of a young boy playing with his father in the snow. Alex Jennings, as Hamlet, stood at the front of the stage holding a casket, from which he emptied his father’s ashes. The scene moved immediately to a noisy party and the court scene, at which Hamlet seemed even more out of place than usual. The whole of the first scene, in which the ghost appears, was cut so the opening of the play focused not on the avenging of a murder but on the tragedy of a son losing his father. This was a much more radical opening than the one that has been seen in London: the first scene in Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s most dramatic opening and contains speeches which it’s thought he might have written for himself as the Ghost.   This piece by Andrew Dickson looks at some of the many changes that have been made to Hamlet over the years, and asks “Does it matter?”

Collectors of Hamlets in all their variety may then be disappointed to miss this unusual and much-discussed bit of staging, but it’s likely that we’ll see it again. Now let’s hope that on the 25th the critics will concentrate on the quality of the production and the performances.

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Shakespeare and the British Renaissance

James Fox

James Fox

James Fox’s three-part documentary series A Very British Renaissance has just finished on BBC 4. It was first shown in 2014, and having missed it first time I’m very pleased to have caught up with it. The presenter, an art historian, has found some wonderful and unfamiliar items representing the British Renaissance from 1500 to the 1640s that make the series very much worth watching.

Fox’s premise is that the British had its own Renaissance, and although the resulting arts were “a bit rough around the edges” they were significant and should be better recognised. Unfortunately his insistence on mentioning the Renaissance kept bringing to my mind visions of Michelangelo’s David, the Sistine Chapel, and Titian’s glorious paintings. I’d have preferred to celebrate the artistic achievements of this country and the wonderful collections documenting them.

The tomb of Henry VII, Westminster Abbey

The tomb of Henry VII, Westminster Abbey

His first example was the tomb of Henry VII and his queen in Westminster Abbey, dating from after Henry’s death in 1509. The gilt bronze effigies, by Italian sculptor Pietro Torrigiano, are behind a grille, so it was a treat to see them and the chubby cherubs which Fox claims define this work as the first of the English Renaissance. In this programme he looked at how foreign artists imported Renaissance ideas, and examined the work of Hans Holbein, a real star of Henry VIII’s court, beginning with the immensely popular National Gallery painting, The Ambassadors, then moving on to stunning portrait sketches in the Royal Collection. It was worth watching the whole programme just for these. English artists took inspiration from the Europeans: Thomas Wyatt in poetry and Thomas Tallis in music. Tallis apparently wrote Spem in Alium, his choral work written in 40 parts in response to an Italian motet. It apparently beat the Italian piece hands down.

Holbein's sketch of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey

Holbein’s sketch of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey

The second programme looked at “the development of artistic ideas in Elizabethan England. An age obsessed with secrets, with poets writing in code and artworks and buildings concealing hidden messages.” Many of these hidden messages related to the religious upheavals of the time, when the country moved from Catholic to Protestant, back to Catholic and finally back to Protestant within a few dizzying decades. With the consequences of being on the wrong side possibly being a horrific execution it is hardly surprising that people concealed their feelings. Architecturally he looked at the buildings created by Thomas Tresham, the triangular Lodge at Rushton and the unfinished Lyveden New Bield which subtly reveal their builder’s strong Catholic faith.

The programme also examined the British hunger for exploration and discovery. I’m not sure that mathematician, astrologer and mystic John Dee was really responsible for Queen Elizabeth’s decision to explore and conquer foreign countries and create a British Empire, but Fox combined the two elements of secrecy and exploration when talking, inevitably, about Shakespeare. In its energetic, emotional and hugely popular homegrown drama, Britain has no need to feel second-rate compared with Europe. Fox chose to focus, again, on John Dee, suggesting he might have been the model for Prospero in The Tempest. Aged over 80, Dee had died shortly before the play was written, but in his time he had been known throughout Europe. It’s not impossible, but Shakespeare needed no real-life inspiration for his god-like magician.

Inigo Jones's copy of Palladio

Inigo Jones’s copy of Palladio

The third programme looked at how, around the time of Shakespeare’s death, tensions grew between the real world and the world of the royal court. The man whose work symbolised this split was architect Inigo Jones. Fox examined another amazing treasure kept at Oxford’s Bodleian Library, Jones’s own heavily annotated copy of Andrea Palladio’s The Four Books of Architecture. Jones’s first building in the Palladian style was the glorious Queen’s House in Greenwich, which promised much for the future. But while Robert Burton was unlocking the secrets of the mind in his Anatomy of Melancholy, and Gabriel Harvey was working out the circulation of the blood, the court commissioned the talented Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones to create vastly expensive court masques, entertainments that had nothing to do with the lives of ordinary people. In the end, this divergence led to the Civil War of the 1640s.

British culture went underground during the period of the Commonwealth, with every artistic activity banned. Fox’s point is that we tend to ascribe the artistic flowering of the country to the period after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660s. In the series, he’s demonstrated that, in fields other than drama, Britain had its own renaissance before that date, that “changed British culture forever”. For Shakespeare-lovers, it provides an insight into the culturally shifting world he inhabited.

A couple of reviews of the series from its first airing by The Guardian and the Telegraph. It’s now available to watch on the BBC IPlayer here , and even if you don’t watch the whole thing, do take a look at the clip of the Holbein sketches.

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Fred J Kormis’s Everyman in Stratford-upon-Avon



Passing the jewellery shop at the top of Sheep Street in Stratford-upon-Avon, I’ve often wondered about the statue of a young man who looks across the road towards the Town Hall. I had always assumed it must have a Shakespeare connection because pretty well every statue in Stratford does. On the wall of the Town Hall is the 1769 statue of Shakespeare, and on another corner is the Old Bank with its terracotta sculptures of scenes from Shakespeare’s plays and a mosaic based on the church bust.

A few weeks ago I took a better look. The young man in the statue stands behind a shield bearing the Stratford coat of arms. He wears a cloak, tunic, trousers and sandals that could be from almost any period. His expression is unbearably sad, and his clothes are tattered, but there is something noble, even heroic, about his pose. Both the building and the statue are unmistakeably 1960s, but there is no plaque to say what the statue represents or who it is by. Who is he, and why is it so anonymous?

While I can’t say I’ve solved all the mysteries, I now know the statue is called Everyman, the work of the artist Fred J Kormis. I found a great deal of information on the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association website.

Fred J Kormis was born in Frankfurt of Jewish parents in 1887 and died in 1986 in London. As a young man he was apprenticed in a sculptor’s workshop, then at the start of  World War 1 he served in the Austro-Hungarian army, but was captured and spent from 1915 to 1920 in a Siberian war camp. After his release he returned to Frankfurt but when the Nazis came to power he was unable to work and fled to Holland in 1933, then England in 1934 where he anglicised his name from Fritz to Fred. He established his own studio in London but this was destroyed by bombing in 1940.

The Marchers

The Marchers

After the war he became well-known for his bronze medals, with a wide range of subjects including the Duke of Edinburgh, the sculptor Henry Moore, Charlie Chaplin and Winston Churchill. The impact of his experiences as a young man in Siberia and Germany  can be seen in his more serious work such as The Marchers, another wall-sculpture at King’s College on the Strand in London. For many years he planned a Memorial to Prisoners of War and Concentration Camp Victims and by 1967 the work was well advanced. He hoped to install his series of five figures into a building that had been bombed in World War 2, but no suitable site was found and it was placed in Gladstone Park in the London Borough of Brent in 1969. The figures illustrated aspects of his own experience of imprisonment.

The memorial in Gladstone Park

The memorial in Gladstone Park

In 2013 West Hampstead Life reproduced an interview with him from the time:
“First there is the numb shock of realizing you are a prisoner in the hands of the enemy. Then there is the dawning awareness of your predicament and the primitive conditions. The next phase is the thought of escape and freedom. After that many succumb to despair and a sense of hopelessness. Others overcome their dejection and manage to escape.”

The fifth figure in Kormis's series

The fifth figure in Kormis’s series

Kormis had two designs in mind for the fifth and central figure – a figure with outstretched arms, alive and hopeful for the future, or a seated woman, face in hands, sunk in deep grief. “I prefer this but I must admit it is a very sad study. It could be too depressing.” 

From 1944 to his death Kormis lived at 3B Greville Place in north London. The house had been home to Frank Dicksee, a Victorian artist who painted many Shakespeare subjects, most famously Romeo and Juliet. The house was later split into flats, and a Stratford link emerges. His neighbour at 3A was the artist and engraver John Hutton, who created the wall of glass angels in Coventry Cathedral and the glass engravings of Shakespeare characters commissioned for the 1964 Shakespeare Centre in Henley Street. Kormis’s Stratford statue was also put in place in 1964, just at the time when he was making plans for his own tribute to those affected by war.

Close-up of Fred J Kormis's Everyman

Close-up of Fred J Kormis’s Everyman

So maybe there is a Shakespeare connection. The Sheep Street statue has always made me think of the boy in Henry V: a young and unwilling participant in war, to whom Shakespeare gives an individual voice, complaining about those he serves; “As young as I am, I have observed these three swaggerers. I am boy to them all three, but…indeed three such antics do not amount to a man….They would have me as familiar with men’s pockets as their gloves or their handkerchiefs, which makes much against my manhood…. Their villainy goes against my weak stomach”. Although it was the most famous of victories, Shakespeare reports that the boys attached to the English army were all killed during the battle of Agincourt.

The statue makes sense when seen in the context of Fred J Kormis’s other work and his preoccupation with the effects of war on individuals. Everyman surely represents all the young men, from Stratford and every other town, sent to war either never to return, or bearing emotional and physical scars.

PS The owl at the foot of the statue is not a symbol of Athena, or the occult. I believe it is intended to deter pigeons. It is totally ineffective.

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Shakespeare with a twist

Gareth Somers 1616

Gareth Somers 1616

Shakespeare in Stratford isn’t just about the RSC and in fact the town has a number of venues, and several theatre groups, performing a wide range of drama including some by our very own playwright. Sometimes, too, we see plays that put a bit of a twist on Shakespeare and his plays.

One new piece being performed in Stratford at the moment on the subject of Shakespeare’s life. is Gareth Somers’ one-man show 1616: The secrets and passions of William Shakespeare at the Attic Theatre in Stratford from Wednesdays to Sundays until 23 August 2015.

I haven’t seen it myself (yet) but have heard good things about it, and here’s the description from the Attic Theatre website: A poetic and physical one-man performance that sees Shakespeare re-live his own dramatic, grimy, romantic, humorous and poetic life story.

The poet, actor, lover, betrayer, moneylender and ‘king’s man’ conjures a final audience to pick through the ‘rinds and fruits’ of his life.  He revisits the people, passions and politics that formed his life, art and wealth. Turning his acute perception and wit towards his own fears and works  Will wonders if he has any lasting legacy and asks where true value, duty  and love ultimately lie.

Following his one man Woyzeck at Edinburgh 2014 and after playing playwright Christopher Marlowe, Actor Gareth Somers brings the same versatility, skill and energy to play Shakespeare and his old friends and adversaries in a mesmerising performance of this lyrical and enlightening new play.

1616 has a directorial team that Includes Polish Physical Theatre Director Lucyna Hunter and twice award nominated former RSC Actress Kirsten Parker

You can hear a podcast of Gareth Somers talking about it on Radio 4’s Front Row here. There’s information about Gareth Somers and his work here.  This is the link to the Attic Theatre for tickets.  Performances are on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7.30 and on Sundays at 5pm until 23 August.

Poster for R&J

Poster for R&J

This summer I’ve managed to completely miss the Chapel Lane Theatre Company’s performances of Joe Calarco’s R&J that were first performed at the Bear Pit Theatre in London and subsequently transferred to the Tabard Theatre in Chiswick. The play, originally written about twenty years ago, involves the reading of Romeo and Juliet by a group of teenage schoolboys, looking at how their emotions is revealed, and their relationships develop, through reading the play. It’s been widely reviewed and received some great feedback here and here. This new company is proving to be a great addition to Stratford’s active theatre scene so do look out for their next production.

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Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson

Joshua Reynolds' painting of Samuel Johnson, at the National Portrait Gallery

Joshua Reynolds’ painting of Samuel Johnson, at the National Portrait Gallery

Today, Monday 10 August 2015 , an exhibition opens at Dr Johnson’s House in London to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Samuel Johnson’s edition of William Shakespeare’s works published in 1765.

In the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Johnson is described as “arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history”. He wrote biography, essays, was a moralist and literary critic. He was one of the most noted of lexicographers, with his Dictionary, and editor of Shakespeare’s works. With the assiduous James Boswell accompanying him and writing down his saying, his life is, fortunately, well documented. Boswell’s The Life of Johnson has been hailed as the best biography ever written.

Born in 1709 in the Staffordshire town of Lichfield, Johnson was entranced by Shakespeare from childhood. In the 1740s he planned to make his name by publishing an edition of Shakespeare’s work. Probably put off by the glut of other editions being published at the time, including one by the scholarly Warburton, he shelved the idea and proposed instead compiling a dictionary of the English language as a suitably high-profile project. The Dictionary occupied him from 1747 to 1755 and having with it established a reputation as a serious writer, he returned to the idea of editing Shakespeare. His 1756 Proposals for Printing the Dramatick Works of William Shakespeare was a brilliantly thought-through exposition of what an edition should do. He intended to collate all earlier editions, to trace the sources of Shakespeare’s knowledge and to compare Shakespeare’s with the work of other great poets. His original date of completion was, optimistically, 1757 but it was in October 1765 that The Plays of William Shakespeare, in Eight Volumes, with the Corrections and Illustrations of Various Commentators; to which are added Notes by Sam. Johnson, was published.

Johnson’s work was often delayed. He wrote “Indolence, interruption, business, and pleasure, all take their turns of retardation; and every long work is lengthened by a thousand causes that can, and ten thousand that cannot be recounted. Perhaps no extensive and multifarious performance was ever effected within the term originally fixed in the undertaker’s mind”. Modern editors will appreciate how ambitious was Jonson’s undertaking especially since he intended to carry out much original research.

The title page of the 1765 edition of Shakespeare's Works, edited by Samuel Johnson

The title page of the 1765 edition of Shakespeare’s Works, edited by Samuel Johnson

Johnson’s edition was perhaps not a complete success: he was not a scholar of the Elizabethan period, but he was knowledgeable about the English language. He wrote “I have endeavoured to perform my task with no slight solicitude. Not a single passage in the whole work has appeared to me corrupt, which I have not endeavoured to restore; or obscure, which I have not endeavoured to illustrate. In many I have failed like others; and from many, after all my efforts, I have retreated, and confessed the repulse”.

His preface is still often quoted, and this is one of the best-known sentences: “Shakespeare is above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirrour of manners and of life.” In a comment to Joshua Reynolds Johnson admitted that it was writing about literature, rather than editing, that was his real forte. “There are two things which I am confident I can do very well: one is an introduction to any literary work, stating what it is to contain, and how it should be executed in the most perfect manner; the other is a conclusion showing from various causes why the execution has not been equal to what the authour promised to himself and to the public”. The edition was, none the less, received as Boswell put it “with high approbation by the publick”, was reprinted in 1773 and several times subsequently.

The exhibition, entitled Shakespeare in the 18th century: Johnson, Garrick and friends, does more than just celebrate the edition, and I hope to write another post once I’ve had the opportunity of visiting it. From the website, ” The exhibition explores the contributions of Johnson and those in his circle to the treatment of Shakespeare in their day and proudly displays a related selection of prints, portraits and books from the permanent collection of Dr Johnson’s House and several private collections.”

Dr Johnson's House in London

Dr Johnson’s House in London

In addition there are a number of events, beginning on Tuesday 11 August with a guided tour of the house by Fiona Ritchie entitled Women and Shakespeare in the 18th Century, that will explain how Shakespeare was read and popularised by women during the period. On Thursday 13 August there will be a round table discussion by Fiona Ritchie, Professor Robert DeMaria, Katherine Tozer, Professor Philip Smallwood and Professor Peter Sabor, sharing their expert knowledge on topics from collecting the works of Shakespeare to the 18th-century stage. Towards the end of the month performer, director and researcher Mark Howell will present Samuel Johnson & Drury Lane: The Imaginative genius of its Three-Sided Stage. He will talk about his experience of performing popular 18th-century plays at the surviving Georgian Theatre Royal in Richmond.

Most Saturday afternoons there will be Tours of the Exhibition given by the curators, who really know the collection. Though some of the events are being charged for, the Exhibition is free after paying for admission to the house, and will be on until Saturday 28 November.

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