The British Shakespeare Association, Education and reality TV

bsa logoAlmost every Shakespeare-related cultural organisation puts education high on its agenda, in particular offering to help teachers engage their students. While many are in effect promoting their own services, the British Shakespeare Association “is a professional association and registered charity devoted to promoting the study, practice and enjoyment of Shakespeare throughout the United Kingdom. Founded in 2002, the BSA is committed to bringing together scholars, students, teachers, theatre practitioners, community workers and other professions with a shared interest in Shakespeare.”

The BSA recently held its AGM in Stratford, reporting on the success of its major event, the conference held in Stirling earlier in 2014. The committee were also able to report on the successful revamp of the BSA website and the larger profile now being given to the organisation’s educational work. So important is this strand that from September 2014 – August 2015 free membership is being offered to primary and secondary schoolteachers. As well as its conferences the BSA periodically runs special events for teachers and membership is a great way of keeping up to date with these opportunities.

The website itself provides helpful material for teachers. There’s a page of links to teaching resources including the excellent Times Educational Supplement Shakespeare hub, back issues of the biannual Teaching Shakespeare magazine, and the Education Network blog which offers “a more flexible and responsive format for discussing Shakespeare in education”. Contributions are always welcome, and can take many forms: “articles, lesson plans, reviews, notice of relevant events and more”. It’s great to see international posts like that about using visual aids when working with Chinese students as well as a support pack for teaching Romeo and Juliet.

The editor of Teaching Shakespeare is Sarah Olive, from the University of York, who teaches Shakespeare and education and puts together a collection of lively articles in every issue. Her profile on the University of York’s Research Database lists her  prolific output and, even better, provides links to the full text of some of it.

A couple of her articles are published in a resource new to me, the open access scholarly journal Alluvium. In Shakespeare on Television, This Millenium, she comments on how “television in the twenty-first century is casually saturated with Shakespeare….The bard features as a person, a myth, a quotation, in myriad, often hugely popular, programs: drama, documentary, mocumentary, quiz shows and satire. His presence on the small screen may not steal the show, but as a figure or a fistful of phrases he is part of the texture of daily life in Britain and beyond”.

David Harewood in Macbeth, the movie star and me

David Harewood in Macbeth, the movie star and me

I recently attended her lecture at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford in which she looked at Televised teaching and learning Shakespeare. As she makes clear in the quote above, popular culture is another of her interests, and her talk looked at the genre that seems to be taking over our TV channels, reality TV. She chose three examples that featured Shakespeare: When Romeo Met Juliet, in which two ethnically different schools were chosen to present the Montagues and Capulets in a joint production, Macbeth, the movie star and me, with David Harewood taking a week to teach reluctant schoolchildren from his old school how to perform Shakespeare, and Off By Heart: Shakespeare, in which teenagers competed against each other to perform a speech from Shakespeare, judged by an expert panel. Some of these are also discussed in her article in Alluvium. In each, the experience was sold to the participants as an exceptional opportunity to encounter something difficult and precious, not the message many educators would like to put across to their students. And although it is always suggested that Shakespeare in some way can transform lives, as with many reality TV series it’s the learning of new skills and the need to work together towards a group achievement that makes for compelling viewing.

For another view of Shakespeare and reality TV, including an analysis of the selectivity involved in making these programmes, look at Bailey Gleason’s essay A New Reality: Appreciating Reality TV Through Shakespeare. The examples are, like the author, from the USA, the argument is the same. Reality TV is defended from the usual charge of being “trash”, claiming that its contrivances are similar to the artificiality of a Shakespeare plot, and that the makers are simply, like Shakespeare, story-tellers.

TV is how most people make their first acquaintance with Shakespeare so it’s appropriate that those involved in the British Shakespeare Association, with its aim of inclusivity, should take reality TV seriously. If nothing else it offers a way of engaging with people who have thought that Shakespeare is not for them.

Not reality TV, but The BBC is currently celebrating television drama with a two and a half-minute advertisement that consists of Benedict Cumberbatch reciting Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man speech over appropriate clips from drama productions of the last three decades, including some still to come. Cumberbatch’s massive popularity as Sherlock performing one of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches may encourage viewers to tackle the less popular areas of the TV schedules. Definitely worth a look if you haven’t seen it already.


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Witchcraft on page and stage

The image from the title page of The Witch of Edmonton

The image from the title page of The Witch of Edmonton

The Royal Shakespeare Company is currently staging the multi-authored play The Witch of Edmonton, first performed in 1621. It’s easy to see how attractive the play is since its subject relates so closely to Macbeth. In Shakespeare’s play the weird sisters are evil just because they are: there’s no sense of them as real people, no explanation of why they do what they do. Their appearance is sinister:
What are these,
So wither’d and so wild in their attire,
That look not like th’inhabitants o’ th’ earth,
And yet are on’t? … You should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so.

And their powers make them dramatic, disappearing magically, cooking up a potion from grisly ingredients and conjuring apparitions. Mother Sawyer in The Witch of Edmonton  is labelled a witch because she is poor, old and ugly, and decides that she therefore might as well become one. Excluded and isolated from her community she turns to the devil in the shape of a black dog, Tom.

Witchcraft was of compelling interest in Shakespeare’s day. Witch trials had been held in Europe, particularly in Germany, for some decades before the first Acts of Parliament to control witchcraft came into force in 1542. Beliefs about witchcraft and the supernatural were encouraged by written and published work. Opinion was divided, but Reginald Scot’s 1584 book The Discoverie of Witchcraft was an attempt to prevent the persecution of vulnerable old women. He described them: “One sort of such said to bee witches, are women which be commonly old, lame … poor, sullen, superstitious … They are leane and deformed, shewing melancholie in their faces, to the horror of all that see them”, very like Mother Sawyer in fact. If Scot hoped to calm down the hysteria, he failed.

Shakespeare used as his main source book for the story of Macbeth Holinshed’s history of Britain, the Chronicles, but Shakespeare’s witches owe more to Scot’s description than to the image of the weird sisters that appeared in the first, 1577 edition. These three are rather well-dressed “nymphs”, and modern interpreters of the witches have often chosen to make them attractive or at least trustworthy: I’ve seen them played as children, as pretty girls, and, most chillingly, in the Patrick Stewart film, as hospital nurses. However they are interpreted they are unforgettable.

Jay Simpson as Dog, Eileen Atkins as Mother Sawyer in The Witch of Edmonton, 2014. Photo by Stewart Hemley

Jay Simpson as Dog, Eileen Atkins as Mother Sawyer in The Witch of Edmonton, 2014. Photo by Stewart Hemley

The Witch of Edmonton itself drew on a pamphlet by Henry Goodcole,  The wonderful discoverie of Elizabeth Sawyer, Witch, the real-life model for Mother Sawyer who had been executed on 19 April 1621. Goodcole’s Mother Sawyer, like that in the play, is a bit of a disappointment by contrast with Shakespeare’s witches. As Peter Kirwan comments in his review of the play in The Bardathon, “The Witch of Edmonton is an odd play to choose as a star vehicle”. It isn’t the fault of the excellent Eileen Atkins that in the play she appears infrequently, and isn’t given the opportunity to do  anything very interesting. In both productions I’ve seen, at TOP in 1981 and the one currently at the Swan Theatre, it’s the devil in disguise as a Dog, played by a young man wearing black body make-up and little else, who steals every scene.

Writing Macbeth just a year or two after the Gunpowder Plot, Shakespeare was inspired by King James 1’s known interest in witchcraft. James had been personally involved in the 1590 Berwick witch trials and his own book on the subject, Daemonologie, was published in 1597. A fervent believer himself, he used his book to promote the practice of witch-hunting. He claims “The fearefull aboundinge at this time in this countrie, of these detestable slaves of the Devil, the Witches or enchaunters, hath moved resolve the doubting…both that such assaults of Satan are most certainly practised, and that the instrument thereof merits most severely to be punished”.

The subject remained high in the public consciousness. Middleton’s play The Witch was performed some time between 1609 and 1616, and elements of it illustrating the practice of witchcraft were inserted into Shakespeare’s play, no doubt to make it even more exciting.

Lancashire witches

Lancashire witches

In 1612 the most infamous of witch trials took place in the north of England, mostly in Lancaster. Of twenty people accused of being witches eleven were eventually hanged. One of their supposed crimes was plotting to blow up Lancaster Castle, a charge thought to be a complete invention by the investigating magistrates.

Thomas Potts, the clerk to the court, was commanded to write an official account of the trial published in 1613 as The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the countie of Lancaster. It seems that Potts’ account, extraordinarily detailed as it is, was designed to confirm the justice of the court system and to meet with the approval of the King. Some years later Potts, who had been brought up in the household of Thomas Knyvet who apprehended Guy Fawkes,  apparently received Royal favour.

At 6.30 on 27 November, at Lancaster Castle, there will be an event entitled “Beyond the Lancashire Witches: Writing and Freedom” that will include a dramatization of the womens’ testimonies as well as looking at contemporary writings inspired by the prison and the Castle.

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Celebrating Shakespeare and the Birthday Play

birthdayI recently wrote about the launch of Shakespeare’s Celebrations, a new organisation that is breathing new life into the celebration of Shakespeare’s Birthday in Stratford-upon-Avon. The story can be traced back to David Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee even though, taking place in September 1769, it did not coincide with the birthday itself. Garrick’s Jubilee was also an event imposed on the town by the leading actor of the day who attracted members of London society. After the Jubilee locals hoped to keep an annual festival going but attempts fizzled out after a few years.

It was 1816 when for the first time celebrations were organised on the probable date of Shakespeare’s birth, 23 April. Local historian Robert Bell Wheler wrote to the Gentleman’s Magazine “It may be some gratification to your readers, to learn that the anniversary of Shakespeare’s natal day was not silently disregarded at Stratford-upon-Avon; but that the Bard’s townsmen have, as far as local circumstances would allow, (and what more could be reasonably expected of them?), testified their sense of the honour exclusively belonging to this town.” Bells were rung, cannons were fired, and in Shakespeare’s Hall a public breakfast, luncheon and ball were held. During the evening there was a “brilliant display of fireworks on the Bankcroft, attended by a band of musick”.

Then in 1824 the Shakespearean Club was founded specifically to organise the Birthday Celebrations. When researching the early history of the celebrations I was pleasantly surprised to find that many of the members of the Club’s committee were not the local gentry but small businessmen, among them grocer James George and butcher William Tasker. They introduced events to be enjoyed by everybody, in particular the procession of costumed characters, first held in 1826. Then as now the intention was to balance the honouring of Shakespeare’s work and fame with the promotion of commerce in the town.

In the twenty-first century the economic benefits of tourism to the area are well known. A report released in July 2013 by the Heritage Lottery Fund revealed that heritage tourism’s importance to the UK was increasing. Robin Tjolle, Destination Manager for Shakespeare’s England commented, “We estimate that 4.9m people a year visit the Stratford-on-Avon district and our wide variety of tourism businesses help to generate more than £335 million of spend per year into the local economy which supports over 8000 jobs.”

On Shakespeare’s Birthday the eyes of the world are on Stratford and media attention reaches a high. It’s still important to strike that balance and to honour Shakespeare in a fittingly respectful way.

The entrance to the original Shakespeare Memorial Theatre

The entrance to the original Shakespeare Memorial Theatre

Early celebrations never included a performance of an entire play, but with the opening of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1879 the tradition of the Birthday Play was founded. Its inaugural performance, of Much Ado About Nothing, was the first Shakespeare Birthday Performance, taking place on 23 April.

The only break in this tradition was 1917-1918 when the country was in the depths of World War 1. During the early years it became customary to perform one of the plays rarely performed, so Troilus and Cressida, Henry VI part 1, and Timon of Athens each got an airing. On 23 April 1932 the new Shakespeare Memorial Theatre was opened by the Prince of Wales who saw Henry IV, Part 1,in the afternoon, while Part 2 took place in the evening after the royal party had departed.

Until 1972 the Birthday was celebration on the actual day, 23rd, unless it fell on a Sunday when it moved to the 22nd. But since 1973 the celebrations have been held on the Saturday nearest the 23rd April (occasionally having to avoid the Easter weekend).

In recent years the play performed has been simply one of those in the repertoire, and Much Ado About Nothing has been the most consistently popular. Even though it’s one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays Richard III has been performed just once, and there are a few plays in the traditional canon that have never been performed as the Birthday Play: Titus Andronicus, Henry VI part 3, and surprisingly, Julius Caesar.

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre

It’s always been a Shakespeare play – but in 2015 the RSC are breaking the tradition by performing a month-long run of The Death of a Salesman to mark the centenary of the birth of great American playwright Arthur Miller.

It feels a bit perverse to be celebrating another playwright’s anniversary on Shakespeare’s birthday but maybe RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran has a point when he suggests that between 2014, the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth and 2016 the Quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s death, “I think… we can afford a little pause in our progress”. There will be a special Shakespearean concert on the following day, Sunday 26 April and the temporary blip will be more than made up for by major celebrations in 2016, four hundred years after Shakespeare’s death.

Even if you’ve never attended, I would encourage you to support Shakespeare’s Celebrations to help ensure the continuation of these historic celebrations that honour the world’s greatest playwright in the town of his birth.

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“Your gown’s a most rare fashion”: costume and Shakespeare

The Hardwick Hall portrait of Queen Elizabeth

The Hardwick Hall portrait of Queen Elizabeth

Picture the Elizabethan period and the chances are you will think of portraits, probably one of those dazzling paintings of Queen Elizabeth herself. There are so many, so well-known, they have individual names: the Armada portrait, the Hardwick portrait, the Pelican portrait, the Rainbow portrait and the Darnley portrait are just some of the most famous. But what makes them impressive is not the rather expressionless face of the woman portrayed, but the clothes she is wearing.

Elizabeth was said to have 3000 gowns, many of them embroidered and covered in jewels. They were popular gifts to the Queen from her loyal subjects, and costumes were more than adornments, representing the power of the monarch and the aspirations of the state. The more elaborate and valuable the better. Elizabeth’s interest in costume spread to her courtiers, and from them down to ordinary people.

A small army of skilled seamstresses and tailors must have been employed in creating gorgeous costumes, with more and more people buying elaborate clothes simply because they could afford to. But with people lower down the social scale able to wear clothes formerly only available to the nobility there was a fear of disruption and division.

fashionAnd during Elizabeth’s reign the idea of fashion, with constantly changing designs,  really established itself. I’ve found Sarah Jane Downing’s Fashion in the Time of William Shakespeare a thought-provoking and well-illustrated introduction to the subject. As well as images, she uses many quotations from contemporary writings to demonstrate how controversial clothes could be.

A number of concerns led to the re-enforcing of the Sumptuary Laws from earlier in the century. These laid down rules for who could wear what sort of clothes, and who could carry weapons. One motive was to protect the English wool trade: Sarah Jane Downing has a whole chapter on wool. As a result of the importation of foreign fabrics “the manifest decay of the whole realm generally is likely to follow” because of the “superfluity of silks, cloths of gold, silver, and other most vain devices”. There was also a worry that “the meaner sort” were spending more than they could afford.

But there was also an element of keeping the lower orders in their place with only some people entitled to wear the most expensive items. “All degrees above viscounts, and viscounts, barons, and other persons of like degree” were allowed to wear such exotic fabrics as “Cloth of gold, silver, tinseled satin, silk, or cloth mixed or embroidered with any gold or silver”, and there were different rules for how they could be used. Purple silk was restricted, as was crimson or scarlet velvet, fur, and pearls. Gold trimmings were allowed on the hats and garters of those attending on the Queen. The restrictions were complicated and the Sumptuary Laws were designed to be voluntary rather than strictly enforced, which meant that they were regularly broken.

The English were obviously receptive to the idea that costumes would need updating frequently. Writing in the 1580s William Harrison was exasperated by his fellow-Englishmen’s desire for novelty: “and as these fashions are diverse, so likewise it is a world to see the costliness and the curiosity, the excess and the vanity, the pomp and the bravery, the change and the variety, and finally, the fickleness and the folly that is in all degrees, insomuch that nothing is more constant in England than inconstancy of attire”.

Shakespeare’s comments suggest that he was amused by fashion rather than a follower of it. In The Taming of the Shrew much is made of the creation of a new cap for Katharine by one of what Harrison called “fickle-headed tailors”. In The Winter’s Tale Autolycus describes the items he has to sell at the sheep-shearing:

Citizens of Cambridge, shown in Braun and Hogenberg's map

Citizens of Cambridge, shown in Braun and Hogenberg’s map

Lawn as white as driven snow;
Cyprus black as e’er was crow;
Gloves as sweet as damask roses;
Masks for faces and for noses;
Bugle bracelet, necklace amber,
Perfume for a lady’s chamber;
Golden quoifs and stomachers,
For my lads to give their dears.

In The Tempest Prospero orders Ariel to fetch his “trumpery” as bait “to catch these thieves”. To Caliban’s distress, Stephano and Trinculo are easily distracted from their plan to kill Prospero by the chance to try on some fine clothes. The ridiculousness of fashion is exploited in Twelfth Night where Malvolio is tricked into appearing before Olivia wearing cross-gartered stockings, “a fashion she abhors”.

As Polonius had it, “the apparel oft proclaims the man”, and William Harrison made an exception to his criticism of levity and fickleness for merchants, “albeit that which they wear be very fine and costly, yet in form and colour it representeth a great piece of the ancient gravity appertaining to citizens and burgesses”.

A child, gorgeously costumed complete with ruff

A child, gorgeously costumed complete with ruff

Sarah-Jane Downing explores the development of many kinds of clothing including the different styles of farthingales, jerkins and doublets. The book also contains many examples of that most characteristic of Elizabethan garments, the ruff. They were one of the few garments worn by both men and women, and even children. They were also worn by most levels of society, though they must have been troublesome to wear and difficult to clean and maintain. Those worn by nobility reached huge sizes and were beautifully-decorated.

People still seem to be obsessed with ruffs. Here’s a history of the ruff, with some lovely pictures. This blog is all about collars, with references to ruffs. And this website even shows you how to make one for yourself.

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#LoveTheatre day: celebrating creativity with Twitter

LoveTheatre_bannerOn Wednesday 19 November there’s going to be a real celebration of theatre as the first #LoveTheatre day takes off. Over 300 venues and organisations are taking part from places as far apart as Europe, Australia, Canada, Sri Lanka, Chile and the Czech Republic. It’s not just professional theatre companies, but amateurs, drama schools, venues and museums.

So what’s it all about? The Guardian Culture Professionals website explains:
“In a time of deep funding cuts, imbalances in funding and company closures, this initiative presents an opportunity for theatres to shout about the great work they do, reach wider audiences and make contacts and collaborate with other venues and stage companies from across the world. We want #LoveTheatre day to drive active engagement throughout the theatre community in the lead up to the busy festive season.” It’s an attempt to use social media to reach new audiences and help support local theatres.

national theatre walesThe event is largely taking place on Twitter at #LoveTheatre, but there will be live-blogging on the Guardian Culture Professionals website from 9.30. They’re expecting videos, images and tweets from artists, practitioners, audiences, funders and practitioners, and lots of interaction.

As well as the main hashtag there will be three sub-hashtags (a new term for me) during the day to highlight specific themes:

  • #BackStage (10am-12pm) will offer audiences and other arts professionals a glimpse into how a production comes together in the weeks and months leading up to the big night.
  • #AskATheatre (3-5pm) will offer a unique opportunity for theatre aficionados and aspiring actors to hear first-hand from the individuals and groups that make the magic happen.
  • #Showtime (7-10pm) will give those who can’t make it to a theatre the chance to sit in the “virtual stalls” to experience a performance, or several, via Twitter.

Mar Dixon, of museum professionals group Culture Themes, working with Twitter UK and the Guardian’s Culture Professionals Network comments “We’re expecting Twitter to come to life with an explosion of colour and creativity on Wednesday so follow along on Twitter to make sure you don’t miss out.” She continues:

 “The most important message for me is, like museums, theatres do SO much within their community that goes un-noticed…  Theatres worldwide work with kids, teens, adults and older generation. The community outreach is amazing. I personally know that Wolverhampton Grand Theatre works with Wolverhampton College creative arts department – not just with performing art students but with music, sound and lighting technicians.  They offer £5 tickets to students. They run workshop for others who want to get involved with drama but can’t commit to a full production.”

crucible theatre sheffieldHere’s the list of participants, a truly international bunch. They cover a huge range from amateur groups to the biggest international organisations.  Companies specifically involved with Shakespeare include Shakespeare in Action (Canada), The Isle of Wight Shakespeare Company, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Shakespeare’s Globe and  the Marin Shakespeare Company (USA). Even after the day it’ll be possible to receive news from your favourite theatre using Twitter.

Just a few of the events during the day:

Nick Hern Books will be running a special offer on their books, Chichester Theatre is sharing stories from their archives and asking people to send in their own backstage stories. The Birmingham Rep team will be answering questions from 3-5, and the National Theatre are inviting questions specifically aimed at their costume, casting, literary or production team. Theatre Iolo in Cardiff are celebrating their work in creating work for and by young people. Whatever your interest in theatre, there should be something for you so follow #LoveTheatre or check out the website during the day.

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Remembering Richard Pasco, Shakespearian actor


Richard Pasco

Richard Pasco

On Wednesday 12 November Richard Pasco became the third eminent Shakespeare actor with close associations to Stratford-upon-Avon to die in 2014. Sadly there has been little immediate media interest, unlike that which met the death of Donald Sinden, and, locally at least, Jeffery Dench. But back in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s this modest man was playing leading roles with the RSC: Richard II, Polixenes, Orsino, Jaques and Timon of Athens, and he will be fondly remembered by all who attended these productions or who heard him perform in poetry readings with his wife, Barbara Leigh-Hunt. On TV his most important Shakespeare role was Brutus in the BBC’s Shakespeare production of Julius Caesar screened in the late 1970s (NB this is wrongly attributed in the YouTube clip of the production).

Richard Pasco and Ian Richardson rehearsing Richard II

Richard Pasco and Ian Richardson rehearsing Richard II

There are few recordings of his work, though a number of sound recordings were made at the Aldwych Theatre and are now available at the British Library. An extract of one, his performance of the deposition scene from Richard II, is on The Essential Shakespeare Live CD set. Recorded directly from the stage of the Aldwych Theatre in London it is impressive to hear how much subtle musicality he kept in his voice during live performances in a large theatre. His voice has the warmth of a bassoon played against the bright brilliance of Ian Richardson’s french horn.

That 1973/4 production of Richard II is the one for which he will be best-remembered, the one in which he and Ian Richardson alternated the roles of Richard and Bolingbroke. The concept, by the play’s director, John Barton, would have been remarkable in its own right, but was raised to the highest level by the acting of both leads who were, as Sally Beauman puts it in her history of the Company, “in brilliant form”. This production has gone down in history as one of the RSC’s finest.

Eileen Atkins as Rosalind, Richard Pasco as Jaques, As You Like It 1973

Eileen Atkins as Rosalind, Richard Pasco as Jaques, As You Like It 1973

In the same year, 1973, Pasco showed his versatility in Buzz Goodbody’s production of As You Like It. Pasco played the melancholy Jaques, and was the most experienced actor in the company. In his book on the play in the Shakespeare at Stratford series, Robert Smallwood remarks that “it is possible, (particularly in Richard Pasco’s performance…) for Jaques so to dominate the attention of reviewers and audiences that… the proposition that this is Rosalind’s play becomes questionable”. Later in the book, “Wreathed in cigar smoke he stalked the forest in his crumpled white suit and steel-rimmed spectacles, his greying beard and thinning hair not quite eclipsing the memory of those earlier, more dandyish days”. His delivery of the Seven Ages of Man speech was described by Richard David as “bitter cynicism fired by disgust with himself”, and by Michael Billington as “the repugnant vision of a blinkered cynic”.  J W Lambert, writing in the Sunday Times, explained how:

“He enriches the Ages of Man speech by making each age a self-contained antithesis, with a twist in the tail. He signals recognition of each predictable folly with a most delicate play of feature, points each deflationary line with a musical accuracy that is a joy in itself”.

It was this production that a young Gregory Doran saw and which inspired him to pursue a career as an actor and director. And poignantly, the Rosalind which Pasco so overshadowed was Eileen Atkins, currently performing in The Witch of Edmonton in Gregory Doran’s production at the Swan Theatre.

I didn’t see either of those performances, but I did see his Timon at The Other Place in 1980, in which he perfectly modulated his voice so as never to overwhelm the intimate space. The same year he played Clarence in Richard III, a small part that contains one of Shakespeare’s greatest speeches, describing the horror of drowning. I still remember being mesmerised by hearing it as part of a poetry programme. And I remember hearing him deliver the Seven Ages speech at another poetry reading. He had a rare talent for delivering, in that beautiful voice, those big speeches where all the action stops and the audience concentrates on a single speaker. He would have been my dream casting for Prospero in The Tempest.

He took part in John Barton’s TV series Playing Shakespeare, and it is wonderful to be able to see him in three of the episodes.  I hope you enjoy these performances by a truly great actor who will be much missed.

In the Irony and Ambiguity episode, the Deposition scene in Richard II.

In the episode on Set Speeches, the Seven Ages speech from As You Like It


In the episode Rehearsing the Text he and Judi Dench are Orsino and Viola in Twelfth Night.


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Printing and publishing in Shakespeare’s world

The title-page of Alvearie

The title-page of Alvearie

A couple of weeks go I heard an interview with an author who had tracked down the people who had pre-owned some of his books. It sparked a discussion about writing in books, from a simple signature of ownership, to an inscription in a gift, or notes written in the margins. This can be seen as vandalism, but marginalia can also be worthy of study, particularly if the person doing the writing is interesting enough.

I was recently sent a link to the website Shakespeare’s Beehive.   Back in 2008 two antiquarian booksellers, George Koppelman and Daniel Wechsler bought a copy of John Baret’s Alvearie, a dictionary dating from 1580 that explains each English word before giving the equivalent in Latin and French. It contains many manuscript notes which, as they examined them, gradually convinced them that they were written by Shakespeare. On the website is a complete digitised copy of the original book so it can be examined in detail. There is no charge, but it is necessary to register and sign up for their terms and conditions.

I’m certainly no expert in palaeography so am happy to find that Michael Witmore and Heather Wolfe from the Folger Shakespeare Library have investigated the annotations, reporting their findings on The Collation, in the post Buzz or honey? Shakespeare’s Beehive raises questions.  Any suggestion that a book was owned by Shakespeare has to be treated with extreme caution so they are sceptical. The search for Shakespeare’s books, particularly in the eighteenth century, resulted in many forgeries and the Folger Shakespeare Library must contain quite a few dubious items. I’m not sure if the argument is more or less convincing because this one does not contain anything to link it with Shakespeare apart from the content of the marginalia.

An illustration of Gutenberg's press

An illustration of Gutenberg’s press

The history of printing in the years before Shakespeare was born has been considered by Neil MacGregor in his recently-completed Radio 4 series on Germany. Johannes Gutenberg created the first printing press using moveable type in the German city of Mainz around 1450. MacGregor described how Mainz was in the perfect location: in a wine-growing region so he was able to make use of the technology used in pressing grapes, and in an area specialising in metallurgy so the knowledge required to make individual pieces of metal type was available. Frankfurt, where paper could be bought and from where books were distributed, was easily accessible. Gutenberg was in just the right place at the right time.  His invention was also swiftly copied, and printing was introduced to Cologne where William Caxton observed it, setting up the first printing press in London in 1476.

Durer's engraving of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Durer’s engraving of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

In his next talk MacGregor looked at Albrecht Durer, an artist who, born the son of a goldsmith in Nuremberg in 1471, was also in the right place at the right time. Durer acquired fine metalworking skills, had the imagination of an artist, and the vision to see that creating prints, again to be distributed using the rivers of Germany, would ensure his work reached a wide market. MacGregor likened Durer to Shakespeare in that both men explored all areas of life in their work. Both were also commercially successful, and Durer’s work came to define qualities of German nationality just as Shakespeare does for the English. The recordings are available as podcasts and there are photographs of some of the items described on the website.

I’ve recently come across several references to the role of women in the world of early modern printing. Again at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Sarah Werner wrote a post a few years ago on the subject of women printers.  She refers to Helen Smith, whose book Grossly Material Things: Women and Book Production in Early Modern England was published in 2012.

In her review of the book Alice Eardley explained the significance of Smith’s research, ” revealing women’s participation as printers, stationers, business partners, employers of apprentices, participants in the mechanical processes of book production (including binding), overseers, and as patrons of the Stationers’ Company”.

Albion's England, printed by the Widow Orwin 1596

Albion’s England, printed by the Widow Orwin 1596

She finds that “even where they have not left material traces, women were not absent from the spaces in which book production and distribution took place, not least because commercial premises often coincided with domestic arenas.” She concludes that ” Smith’s insights are important…because they provide further evidence to contradict lazy modern assumptions about women’s complete exclusion, purely because of their gender, from commercial and civic life during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.”

Shakespeare himself had a connection with a woman printer. Fellow-Stratfordian Richard Field was apprenticed to printer Thomas Vautrollier for eight years before Vautrollier died in 1587. His widow Jacqueline was a printer in her own right and she continued to work with Field. The couple married two yeas later, Field succeeding to Vautrollier’s business and a few years later published both of Shakespeare’s long poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Examples can be seen on the website of the University of Illinois which includes illustrations from their exhibition of womens’ publishing.

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Marking the centenary of World War 1 with Shakespeare

Ceramic poppies at the Tower of London

Ceramic poppies at the Tower of London

This week the marking of the centenary of the outbreak of World War 1 has reached its climax with Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day. The installation of the sea of ceramic poppies at the Tower of London has shown how emotionally engaging art can be, but Prince Harry’s visit to Kandahar airfield in Afghanistan, where he has been on active service himself, was also memorable. Representing the Queen, he laid a wreath with a personal handwritten note: “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. They will never be forgotten. Harry.” The quote is adapted from a passage in St John’s Gospel which Harry also read out at the memorial service.

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s act of remembrance for the beginning of WW1 is the scheduling of three linked plays. The play that will complete the trilogy, The Christmas Truce, has not yet opened, but the other two have been performed over the last few weeks. The Christmas Truce will deal with the famous football match on Christmas Day 1914 that took place in No Man’s Land between soldiers whose countries were at war. How do the productions of two of Shakespeare’s comedies, Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing (Love’s Labour’s Won), stand up at this sober time?

The Director of both, Christopher Luscombe, stresses the theme of friendship. Love’s Labour’s Lost begins with four friends vowing to study together although the idea of banning pleasure in the pursuit of learning is almost immediately undercut by “necessity”. Luscombe comments: “The idyllic, pastoral world of Love’s Labour’s Lost, with tragedy waiting in the wings, seems particularly well suited to the fragile beauty of the last Edwardian summer.”

Male friendship, which would be destroyed by the conventional ending of a comedy with marriage, is preserved to the end of the play and beyond. The four young men are all told to live an “austere and insociable life” with “frost and fasts, hard lodging and thin weeds”, that in this production translates into enlisting in the army for World War 1.

Much Ado About Nothing begins with the line-up of soldiers in uniform just as Love’s Labour’s Lost had ended. The boys of the first play, who had written love-poems and dressed up as outrageous Russians, have experienced the camaraderie as well as the horrors of war, and now return to civilian life. Berowne has morphed into Benedick, the King of Navarre into an injured and embittered Don John, and the most innocent of them, the teddy-bear loving Dumain into Claudio. Michelle Terry’s Rosaline becomes, of course, Beatrice, and Flora Spencer-Longhurst is Katherine in the first play and Hero in the second.

Michelle Terry as Beatrice and Edward Bennett as Benedick. in the opening scene of Much Ado. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

Michelle Terry as Beatrice and Edward Bennett as Benedick. in the opening scene of Much Ado. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

Many productions find a setting in which Claudio’s behaviour can be explained, if not excused: India under the Raj in 1976, Cuba in 2006. Al Senter writes in his programme note that these are “societies where much of life is organised around codes of honour and where an innocent young girl’s reputation can be blackened by an illusion”. In this production, set in a post-WW1 country house, the explanation for the appalling behaviour of these young men is that they are physically or mentally scarred by their wartime experiences. Luscombe suggests “ Much Ado About Nothing (or Love’s Labour’s Won) takes place in the aftermath of war, and the erratic behaviour of many of the characters chimes neatly with the fractured society that emerged after the Armistice of 1918.”

Both plays offer many opportunities for music, and Nigel Hess has produced a wonderful score for the plays. It sets both the early twentieth-century scene and the mood of the plays, and is some of the most effective I can remember. The exuberant silliness of the Nine Worthies in Love’s Labour’s Lost is evoked with a “nod in the direction of Gilbert and Sullivan”. After the 1920s dance music for the ball and the Christmas-time gulling of Beatrice and Benedick, the mood in the second half of Much Ado About Nothing changes. Nigel Hess’s setting of the carol “In the Bleak Midwinter”, beautifully sung by the whole cast, signals the developing seriousness of the plot against Hero. It’s a perfect choice, linking the harshness of wartime when “earth stood hard as iron” with the promise of new life if one gives one’s heart. The recurring song and the finale to the play is a version of Marlowe’s “Come live with me and be my love”, joyful without being flashy, with a catchy melody I’ve been humming for the past week.

Edward Bennett as Benedick, Michelle Terry as Beatrice, Much Ado

Edward Bennett as Benedick, Michelle Terry as Beatrice, Much Ado

Friendship, forgiveness, reconciliation, healing, the restoration of harmony and hope for a peaceful future. These productions are a fitting tribute to those who gave their lives a hundred years ago, and yet another reminder of Shakespeare’s understanding of the human heart.

There are several pages about the productions on the RSC’s website, including two written by Christopher Luscombe, their director. If you want to hear the music the RSC have released it on CDs or for download, including recordings of key speeches and of music from the archives.

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Being Human: Shakespeare and the humanities

being humanIt was in 1998 that Harold Bloom’s book Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human was published.  In the book “Bloom presents one of the boldest theses of Shakespearean scholarships: that Shakespeare not only invented the English language, but also created human nature as we know it today.” In his review for the New York Times James Shapiro defined what Bloom meant by this: “his bold argument… is that Shakespeare remains so popular and his most memorable characters feel so real because through them Shakespeare invented something that hadn’t existed before. Bloom defines this as ”personality,” inwardness, what it means to be human.”

Shapiro was bound to disagree fundamentally, studying as he does Shakespeare in his historical context: “Shakespeare was born in the right place and time: his genius flourished in the richly collaborative world of the Elizabethan theater, and his dyer’s hand was steeped in the social and spiritual contradictions of an age poised between the medieval and the modern.”

However unpopular is Harold Bloom’s view that “Shakespeare’s unsurpassed, universal genius” came into being without reference to the times in which he lived, there is no disputing that Shakespeare tells us about being human. So this November’s Being Human Festival includes several sessions about Shakespeare, as well as many that touch on matters which he examines in his work.

Being Human is the first UK-wide festival of the humanities, taking place from 15-23 November 2014, and organised by the School of Advanced Study in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy.

Being Human aims to engage the public with the very best of the innovative research taking place across the humanities. Hosted by higher education institutions and their cultural and community partners across the UK…the focus of the festival will be on activities that make humanities research accessible to the general public and that demonstrate the role of the humanities in the cultural, intellectual, political and social life of the UK.”

“The question of what it means to be human is at the heart of humanities research, and the festival will provide a locus around which to demonstrate the vitality and public relevance of the humanities in 2014….The festival will encourage engagement with humanities research on a national scale.”

I’ve spotted three Shakespeare-specific sessions:

On 16 November Acting against the grain: non-traditional Shakespeare, by the University of Warwick with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. This session will take the form of a panel discussion. Here’s the description from the University website ” This event will bring together university academics leading two major research projects exploring Shakespeare and his work as a mirror for cultural identity, with Shakespearean practitioners from English-speaking theatre in North America and the UK. These performers have overcome many obstacles – racial and gender stereotyping, ingrained casting habits and pre-conceived cultural expectations.

On 17 November there will be another panel session at the University of Birmingham on the subject of Being Human in King Lear, in which Dr Erin Sullivan will be in conversation with 1623 theatre company who have been working on a project called Lear/dementia. “The project takes its inspiration from Shakespeare’s King Lear, which itself questions the nature of the human mind and what happens to it as a result of ageing, trauma, and loss. Lear/dementia looks at the issues King Lear raises from a contemporary perspective, focusing in particular on the understanding and experience of dementia today”

Prince of the Himalayas

Prince of the Himalayas

Also on 17 November from 2-5, in Belfast, Finding Commonality: Hamlet in World Cinema will be the UK premiere screening of a film version of Hamlet entitled Prince of the Himalayas, “a Chinese production that uses the snowy landscapes, epic geography and holy sites of Tibet to present a tragedy of forgiveness rather than revenge”.

Just a few other sessions that I’ve spotted that might be of relevance to Shakespeare:

In Durham on 18 and 19 November there will be a workshop into the work of Robert Grosseteste, “an extraordinary thinker from the thirteenth century”, Facing out. From Dark Ages to Dark Matter followed the next day by a lecture on the relevance of medieval science to the modern world by popular science writer Michael Brooks.

Home to many heroes and villains, the Nottinghamshire programme imaginatively focuses on being human as expressed through subversion with a whole series of events including debates, soap box street interventions, family fun days and the world’s first 24-hour “street tweet” of a film script, “all exploring the mythical and real characters and events of rebellion synonymous with the region – Robin Hood, Mary Cavendish, Byron, the Luddites, the 1831 Nottingham revolt, D.H. Lawrence and Alan Sillitoe.”

And in Northumbria there will be a session on early actresses and celebrity culture.

At Roehampton, a symposium on 15 November entitled Memory Banquet: food and acts of remembering.

On 19 November in Edinburgh a multi-disciplinary panel will discuss “how spaces, places, texts and genes shape our self-understanding, evolving personalities and social interactions” in a session called Spaces, Places, Histories and Genes.

In Swansea there are a series of sessions based on Dylan Thomas, celebrating his recent centenary.

This is just the beginning of what should grow into an important Festival. It’s a showcase for interdisciplinary academic research, often demonstrating the importance of partnerships both between universities and across sectors, with the participation of organisations from voluntary and commercial sectors. It will raise the profile of universities, showing that academics do not exist in ivory towers. And all the events are free, but should be reserved in advance. Some of the 150 sessions are already full.

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Shakespearean dark ladies, George Bernard Shaw and the National Theatre

hudson dark ladyEverybody loves a mystery, and one of the most persistent is the identity of Shakespeare’s so-called Dark Lady. (It’s by no means certain that there ever was such a person).I wrote a couple of years ago about this story, particularly as a result of Aubrey Burl’s book Shakespeare’s Lover. So popular is the story that authors have used it to promote their own favourite theories or obsessions.

I was interested to see John Hudson’s new book Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, which looks at the case for Emilia (or Amelia) Lanier, the candidate championed by historian A L Rowse in the 1970s. Hudson has come up with an even more surprising suggestion, that Emilia Lanier actually wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Burl, promoting his own favoured candidate Mrs Aline Florio, dismisses Lanier as nothing more than “a name written by an optimistic quill”. But Hudson, in a “data-driven approach” that includes diagrams and lists of necessary qualifications for “Shakespeare” concludes that Emilia had every qualification while “other candidates are not plausible”.

Needless to say I’m not greatly persuaded by this argument, but what Hudson’s and Burl’s books succeed in doing is examining the lives of women in the Elizabethan period. The Queen was not the only woman who was educated, intelligent and knew how to get her own way. Many of the women who have been suggested as the Dark Lady either married or became the mistresses of powerful men through whom they had influence. Emilia Lanier was the mistress of Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, Lord Chamberlain and patron of Shakespeare’s company, and in 1611 became one of the first women in England to publish her own collected poems, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, one of which was a religious poem of 1,840 lines.  The Wikipedia entry on her includes lots of information, a bibliography and links to her poetry.

Little of her poetry is quoted in the book, probably because it doesn’t help his cause. “Even a quick glance will reveal that some, perhaps most, of the verse in the Salve Deus collection is not very good”. He then goes on to state it is “deliberately bad”, unlikely given the poem’s religious subject, its dedication to “all virtuous Ladies” and  the dedicatory verses to aristocratic ladies including the queen.  Here are a few lovely lines:
Sweet holy rivers, pure celestial springs,
Proceeding from the fountain of our life,
Swift sugared currents that salvation brings,
Clear christall streams, purging all sin and strife,
Faire floods, where souls do bathe their snow-white wings,
Before they fly to true eternal life.

Hudson’s conclusion is the “As our world slowly becomes less racist, less sexist, and less religiously dogmatic, perhaps the time has come at last for her story to get a hearing.” Lanier was a remarkable woman whose achievements should be acknowledged for what they were rather than making her out to be something she wasn’t.

Mary Fitton

Mary Fitton

One of the earliest candidates for Dark Lady, identified in 1884, was Mary Fitton. She was a maid of honour to the queen who became the mistress of one of those powerful men, William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, but her pregnancy in 1600-1601 had severe consequences for them both.

George Bernard Shaw knew of the popularity of the subject when he came to write a piece to help raise funds for a National Theatre in 1911. In his short play The Dark Lady of the Sonnets, Shaw shows no interest in the mystery, though he uses Mary Fitton’s supposed candidacy as his dark lady is named Mary. In the play, there’s a running joke about Shakespeare stealing lines from those he meets including a Beefeater, the dark lady and a mysterious cloaked lady who turns out to be Queen Elizabeth, with reference to Hamlet and Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Elizabeth’s agonies of guilt for the death of Mary Queen of Scots inspire Shakespeare to write lines for Macbeth: “Mary. Mary. Who would have thought that woman to have had so much blood in her!…Mary’s buried: she cannot come out of her grave”.

Eventually the Dark Lady leaves Shakespeare and the Queen alone, and he asks for what he really wants. ” The boon I crave is that you do endow a great playhouse, or, if I may make bold to coin a scholarly name for it, a National Theatre, for the better instruction and gracing of your Majesty’s subjects”. And why? The playhouses in the capital are only interested in commercial plays. 

The National Theatre, London

The National Theatre, London

I have written two noble and excellent plays setting forth the advancement of women of high nature and fruitful industry even as your Majesty is: the one a skilful physician, the other a sister devoted to good works. I have also stolen from a book of idle and wanton tales two of the most damnable foolishnesses in the world… I have writ these to save my friends from penury, yet shewing my scorn for such follies…by calling the one As You Like It, meaning that it is not as I like it, and the other Much Ado About Nothing, as it truly is. And now these two filthy pieces drive their nobler fellows from the stage, where indeed, I cannot have my lady physician presented at all, she being too honest a woman for the taste of the town. Wherefore I humbly beg your Majesty to give order that a theatre be endowed out of the public revenue for the playing of those pieces of mine which no merchant will touch.

Sadly Shaw’s persuasive plea for a National Theatre, came to nothing until the end of not one but two world wars when as prophesied by the Queen in Shaw’s play, the government did “learn that man cannot live by bread alone”.

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