Shakespeare and Gay Britannia

On 27 July 1967 the Sexual Offences Act received Royal Approval in the UK, making private homosexual acts between men over the age of 21 legal. In the intervening fifty years attitudes have changed profoundly. Back in 1953 the newly-knighted John Gielgud, the greatest Shakespearean actor of his time, was arrested, charged and fined for soliciting. Within hours the story was on the front pages of the newspapers and Gielgud, in rehearsal for a play in the West End, faced terrible humiliation. Perhaps coincidentally, in 1954 the Wolfenden committee was set up to look at the law and when it reported announced, more or less, that what consenting adults did in private was not the law’s concern.

That Gielgud’s career and reputation was not wrecked was due to the support he received from his professional colleagues and the tolerance of audiences who were more interested in his acting than his personal life. There have always been gay people in the arts, whether or not their sexuality has been discussed publicly.

In that relatively short period of fifty years changes have been massive. Now exuberant LGBT Gay Pride events are held around the world, under the rainbow flag symbolising diversity and peace.

The BBC’s current Gay Britannia season celebrates that diversity and the nation’s artistic success. The photographic exhibition Love Happens Here documents the LGBT community in London. There’s a celebration of E M Forster’s novel Maurice and a series of programmes by Simon Callow about the history of the representation of gay sexual relationships in the arts. He has already discussed how nineteenth century artists commented on male sexual relationships and in the episode on 24 July he will talk about  how theatres and music halls across Britain endlessly explored sexuality, gender and difference while managing to avoid the censors.

Inevitably Shakespeare is involved in this debate, and RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran was invited onto Radio 4’sToday programme on 21 July to talk about whether Shakespeare was gay or not. There is an extract of the interview here, and the full five-minute interview can still be listened to as part of the Today programme. It begins at 1hr 43 minutes in. This article in the Telegraph is based on the interview.

Gregory Doran and Antony Sher were branded “Theatre’s leading gay power couple” in this 2015 article . They have been partners for thirty years, became civil partners in 2005 and married in 2015.

Actors and directors, particularly in the theatre, know Shakespeare’s plays more intimately than anyone else, committing them to memory and making sense of the words in order to speak them. Doran, first as an actor then as a director, has been doing this for over thirty years and his opinion has considerable weight. He finds that Shakespeare frequently writes from the point of view of the outsider, like the Jew Shylock and the Moor Othello, and suggests Shakespeare may have felt himself to be an outsider, perhaps as a result of his sexuality. He also points out, though, that as a gay man himself, he may be casting Shakespeare in his own image, just as every biographer has done.

With Shakespeare, of course, nothing is simple. When he wrote his plays, the actors performing them were men. Might Romeo and Juliet have been unconvincing, their sexuality ambiguous? Shakespeare solved the problem by keeping the would-be lovers apart in the balcony scene, making them declare their love in beautiful words rather than actions. And Shakespeare had no trouble writing about heterosexual desire in his long erotic poem Venus and Adonis.

Gregory Doran

Doran repeats the suggestion that Shakespeare’s sonnets, the most personal of poems, are overwhelmingly addressed to a man. Many editions have certainly heterosexualised them, replacing “he” with “she”, but there is always a question mark about them. The sonnets were published in 1609 without Shakespeare’s permission. When a selection was reprinted some thirty years later the then-publisher changed the order, giving sonnets titles and conflating some of them. The original publisher too might have rearranged them in order to provide a developing “story”. Read individually there is often nothing to indicate the sex of the addressee. In their edition, Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson recommend this approach. Rather than one young man and one dark lady there could be many addressees, of both genders.

The main point of Doran’s interview, though, was to insist that characters such as Antonio in The Merchant of Venice, desperately in love with Bassanio, should be played as gay, rather than toned down. And here he surely has a point. The Gay Britannia season also intends to reveal the discrimination still facing people today. We still have a long way to go before people are treated equally, and before Shakespeare’s words of love can be appreciated regardless of who they address. It’s the love that’s important after all.

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Marie Corelli’s Stratford-upon-Avon memorial restored

Marie Corelli’s monument

The monument to Shakespeare monument was put in place by 1623, and has been visited by tourists almost ever since. Over the past four centuries it has occasionally suffered damage, and has been restored several times. At least, though, its location high on the wall in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church has protected it. Back in 2012 another statue to a famous writer who died in Stratford-upon-Avon was not so lucky. Marie Corelli’s memorial, a large statue of The Angel of the Resurrection, was positioned near the entrance to the town’s modern cemetery where it could be seen from the road, and during the night vandals climbed over the railings, pulling the statue off its plinth and causing it severe damage.

With the romantic novelist no longer the celebrity she had been during her lifetime (she died in 1924), it might have been difficult to raise the money to restore the statue. But she has a local champion in the shape of Nick Birch. One of Corelli’s flights of fancy was to import from Italy a gondola, complete with Italian gondolier, that she took out on the Avon on summer days. Lost for many years, this is now owned by Nick Birch who runs Avon Boating, a company that hires boats on the river, and occasionally puts it on show. He runs a website dedicated to the writer and I’ve written a piece about the story of the gondola.

Marie Corelli’s monument

Birch took the lead and received a grant from Stratford Town Trust to ensure the restoration could take place. Although it had been badly damaged, with one of its wings broken off, the statue is now returned to its full beauty and on 7 July 2017, a ceremony took place returning it to its original spot. Carried out as the result of local enthusiasms, it’s also satisfying that the old firm of local masons Clifford and Sons put the statue back in place. The story is told here.

In order to celebrate the statue’s return, and to inform people of the town’s link with Marie Corelli, Nick Birch is giving a free lecture at 6.30pm on 19 July 2017 at Stratford-upon-Avon Town Hall entitled Marie Corelli, the Life Literature and Legacy of Stratford’s “Great Little Lady”. His talk will be illustrated with photographs, illustrations and extracts and there will be a reception at the end with an opportunity to buy books and biographies about her.

Marie Corelli

On her arrival in the town Marie Corelli was celebrated as the most famous author of her day. She had chosen to make her home in Stratford because of its Shakespeare connections, and took part in the activities of a number of organisations, including its Shakespeare Club. The recently-published book The Story of the Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon 1824-2016: Long life to the Club call’d Shakspearean, notes her involvement:

Corelli was one of the first celebrity members of the Club joining in December 1901. Two years before she had moved into Mason Croft in Church St. and was settling into her role as grande dame, patron and benefactor in the town. She was invited to respond to the toast to art and literature at the 1903 Birthday luncheon, and spoke with her customary coyness:˜The mayor had asked one of the least among the students of literature to respond for the greatest of professions” one who was moreover altogether the wrong sex to undertake such a responsibility”, she was reported as saying in the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald (24 April). By November she had, more robustly, resigned from the Club, a result perhaps of her single-minded campaign to defend historic Stratford. That year her opposition to the location of a new public library in Henley St. a few doors from Shakespeare’s Birthplace made her enemies throughout the town and especially among the Trustees of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust whom she described as “brewers and retired tradesmen who really care nothing at all about the Poet’s scarred fame”. Some of them, G.M. Bird (wine merchant),  W.G. Colbourne (proprietor of the Red Horse Hotel) and George Boyden (editor of the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald), were also members of the Shakespeare Club. It ended in the defeat of her libel action at Birmingham Assizes in December 1903.

The joint authors of the book, Susan Brock and Sylvia Morris, are giving a fully-illustrated talk about the history of the club, including links and memorabilia relating to Marie Corelli, at 7 for 7.30 on 27 July at The Old Slaughterhouse, at the back of Sheep Street, Stratford-upon-Avon. For more information email

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Celebrating Ovid 2000 years on

Statue of Ovid in Romania

2017 marks the 2000th anniversary of the death of the Roman writer Ovid, whose  Metamorphoses has continued to be one of the most influential of literary works.

As Shakespeare’s favourite writer, the RSC, and its current Artistic Director Gregory Doran in particular, have long championed Ovid’s work. His influence can be seen in the plots of his plays, in the allusions within them, and often in the language itself. Ovid continues to inspire creative artists today, but Ovid himself, and the stories he wrote, are in danger of being forgotten. As Doran has said: But today, some of those fantastical stories are being forgotten and our appreciation of Shakespeare’s plays will be lessened if that happens.  Who was Proserpina, and why did she “let her flowers fall”? What happened when glistering Phaeton lost the manage of his father’s chariot? And why was Niobe “all tears“.

Ovid’s fame can be seen in surviving books like the fifteenth century manuscript in French, now at the British Library, that illustrates the powerful scene in which Thisbe, finding Pyramus dead, stabs herself. This moment is dramatised by the mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.


Shakespeare and Ovid’s Metamorphoses

I’ve written before about some of the references to Ovid in Shakespeare’s work, but how did his work come to influence Shakespeare, and what was it  that affected him so deeply?

The death of Thisbe in the BL’s 15th century manuscript

In his book In Search of Shakespeare, historian Michael Wood notes that Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus “contains one of those throwaway remarks that he seems to put in for no apparent reason”, when a young boy brings a copy of Metamorphoses on stage and comments “my mother gave it me”. It’s a tantalising thought that Shakespeare could have been placing a reference to his own mother’s gift of this much-loved book inside the play. It may be wishful thinking, but it is pretty certain that Shakespeare first encountered Ovid as a child. Michael Wood notes that, assuming Stratford’s curriculum was similar to other grammar schools, he would have begun to read his stories aged about nine. He also quotes the French philosopher Michel Montaigne who recalled how “the first taste or feeling I had of bookes, was of the pleasure I took in reading the fables of Ovid’s Metamorphosies; for being but seven or eight years old, I would steale and sequester myselfe from all other delights, only to read them”.

Edgar Innes Fripp’s 1938 two-volume book Shakespeare, Man and Artist, although old-fashioned, is still a great read. He describes the delights of the Metamorphoses: “Here was a young poet’s treasury, Nature, mountains, sunshine and moonshine, flowers, woods, caves, pools, seas, storms, spirits, gods and goddesses, fairies, nymphs, lovers, shepherds, maidens, the music of the pipe and the lyre, hunting, bathing, centaurs, warriors, fighting, dragons, witches, Hades, horrors, magic, wonders, transformations and transmigrations of souls and of human beings into beasts and birds”. Michael Wood notes that today’s children are still captivated by the wonderfully imaginative worlds of Harry Potter, Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, as well as, Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy.

Ovid’s pagan tales were allegorical: one thing could stand in for another, or be turned into another. He celebrated change, and nature as the great creator. His stories allowed the reader’s imagination to fly free, unlike the literal readings of the Bible that were drummed into people at church. Here Ovid’s explains his view of the world:
The elements themselves do not endure;
Examine how they change and learn from me…
Nothing retains its form; new shapes from old
Nature, the great inventor, ceaselessly

Shakespeare seized on these ideas, showing us in play after play things that are not what they seem, that we are beguiled by illusions, and that nature is careless and unpredictable.

Edgar Fripp, like Michael Wood, hoped to find a direct link between Shakespeare and Ovid. In his book he described the Bodleian Library’s 1502 copy of the work, in Latin as “one of the treasures of the Bodleian”. Why? Because it contains an abbreviated Shakespeare signature, and opposite is a handwritten note “This little Booke of Ovid was given to me by W Hall who sayd it was once Will. Shakesperes. T.N.1682.  No longer mentioned as one of the Library’s treasures, it has, along with several other similar signatures in books, been accepted as a forgery, and become merely a curiosity.

Adonis with Venus from the RSC’s puppet version, 2004

Celebrations of Ovid get under way with a revival of Gregory Doran’s puppet version of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, from 26 July to 4 August. This much-admired production was first staged in 2004 and is a great introduction both to the poem and to Ovid’s ideas. For three weeks in October the RSC is putting on a series of Ovid-related events. Many are intended to introduce the stories to children, but there are also events for adults such as a reading from Ted Hughes’ adaptation Tales from Ovid.

Because of the brilliance of the BBC’s services, it’s still possible to find out more with an edition of In Our Time on Metamorphoses, and a 2017 radio documentary Ovid in Changing Times.

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Edward’s Boys in summer 2017

A scene from Edward’s Boys production of The Dutch Courtesan

I’ve written lots of posts mentioning Edward’s Boys, the brilliant troupe of boys from King Edward VI School in Stratford-upon-Avon who, under the leadership of Deputy Head Perry Mills perform plays that come mostly from the repertoire of the Boys Companies of Shakespeare’s own time.

Over the past couple of decades interest has grown in the wider field of early modern plays and theatrical practice, not just as they might reflect on Shakespeare’s plays. The current project Before Shakespeare is one, but there are others and Edward’s Boys are finding themselves much in demand right through the summer when it might be thought they would all be enjoying a few weeks off.

Towards the end of July they are involved in The Marston Project, on 22nd July 2017 performing selected scenes from the plays of John Marston at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. This is part of a series of events to mark the ongoing publication of The Complete Works of John Marston. When published, this will be the first complete critical edition of the work of this neglected playwright whose output included comedies, satire and tragedies. It’s a major project involving a team of fifteen scholars led by Martin Butler of the University of Leeds and Matthew Steggle of Sheffield Hallam University.  The performance by the boys is intended to provide clues for the scholars relating to how Marston’s work is received by an audience.

A preview performance, free of charge, is to be given the preceding evening at King Edward VI School in Stratford-upon-Avon. Tickets for all their performances in Stratford-upon-Avon can be booked here. Tickets for the performance at the Globe can be booked here .

Later in the summer Edward’s boys continue to be in demand, with a workshop on 25 August as part of the Before Shakespeare conference at Roehampton University, London. This is open only to conference delegates.

The poster for Edward’s Boys production of Summer’s Last Will and Testament

But Edward’s Boys major event this summer is to be a production of Thomas Nashe’s play Summer’s Last Will and Testament, dating back to 1592 when Shakespeare’s career as a writer was just beginning. The performances on 26 and 27 September will take place at the school in Stratford, followed by one performance on 29 September in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe and the final one by invitation only in the Great Hall, The Old Palace School, Croydon.

This production is linked to another major scholarly editing work in progress, The Thomas Nashe Project, in which Oxford University Press will be publishing all of Nashe’ known writings and some that are dubious. As well as the new edition, there are to be a number of additional events of which this is one, and the project will also be making multi-media resources about Nashe available on its website.

Nashe is one of the most interesting of Elizabethan writers. He is thought to have collaborated with Shakespeare on some of his earlier plays. He was a brilliant man, a graduate of Cambridge University, but never found a literary form in which he could develop his skills, and died in 1601 aged only 34 . He’s now best known as a satirist and commentator, his pamphlet Christ’s Tears over Jerusalem an indictment of Elizabethan society. Summer’s Last Will and Testament, his only surviving play, is thought to have received its first performance in early October 1592.  It was performed in the Great Hall of the residence of Archbishop Whitgift, Croydon Palace, which explains the venue for the final performance in September.  The play was written and performed during one of the worst periods of plague in London, and Croydon was well away from the pestilence in the City. Playhouses in London were closed to avoid spreading illness even further, the Queen and many other people who were able to having temporarily left the city. The play has an elegiac quality suited to the sombre mood of the time. “Weepe heavens, mourn earth, here Summer ends”.  The lovely if mournful song from the play, “Adieu, farewell earth’s bliss” is well known:

Beauty is but a flower,
Which wrinkles will devour.
Brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair;
Dust hath closed Helen’s eye:
I am sick, I must die.

Here’s to a busy and hopefully fulfilling summer for Edward’s Boys!

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Shakespeare, culture and the digital

On Monday 3 July it was announced that the DCMS (Department of Culture, Media and Sport) would change its name to the Department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport. Sadly this has nothing to do with digital developments in the arts, as the Secretary of State stated that the focus of the Department had changed so that “half of its policy and delivery work now covers the digital sectors – telecommunications, data protection, internet safety, cyber skills and parts of media and the creative industries”. Unnoticed by most of us, the “Culture ” bit of the Department seems to have been somewhat demoted.

Digital developments, however, have been embraced by cultural organisations. One of the most popular has been the digital live streaming of performances of plays and operas, usually shown to paying audiences in cinemas but occasionally freely online to viewers worldwide.

Screenings have brought these cultural offerings to people who would never be able to get to a theatre performance, enlarging audience numbers, and have also created a great deal of academic interest. Theatre organisations have not always welcomed them, because producing a hybrid event watched by remote viewers could compromise their main job of staging live shows to live audiences. Knowing that a show is to be filmed, would it change the live production? Would the audience for live theatre be reduced or changed? And would the cinema audience behave and respond differently from a theatre audience? Erin Sullivan, of the Shakespeare Institute, has frequently addressed the issues on her Digital Shakespeares blog.

David Troughton as Titus in the RSC’s 2017 production of Titus Andronicus

In an attempt to make the process of judging audience reaction less subjective, the RSC is conducting an innovative research project in collaboration with Ipsos MORI to monitor the emotional engagement of audiences watching Shakespeare’s most violent play, Titus Andronicus. A carefully-selected group of volunteers watching simultaneously in the theatre and a cinema will wear heart-rate monitors during the performance, then will be interviewed on the strength of their reaction to the play which includes scenes of rape, multiple murders and mutilation. In the theatre, members of the audience often faint. Might audiences used to seeing more realistic violence on cinema screens be less affected by stage effects, or just be distanced from the horrors of the play?

The article on the RSC’s website tells us that this is intended to be a more scientific study than any undertaken so far. ” There has been previous research around the impact of cinema broadcasts, but this will be the very first time there will be direct measurement and comparison of the emotional experience of both theatre and cinema audiences for a Shakespeare play.”  It will take place on 9 August, and the results will be released in November. It’ll be interesting to see what the survey shows, with implications beyond the live digital screening of a Shakespeare play.

In Oxford from 10-12 July a conference will be held at which the issue of live screenings is sure to be raised. Convened by the Bodleian Libraries and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, Digitising the Stage: Rethinking the Early Modern Theatre Archive will look at the many ways in which digital technology is being used to enhance the study of stage performance.

The conference will include a whole range of approaches, including analysing early modern buildings, the creation of multimedia digital texts, describing the archives  themselves and papers examining the ways in which digital media can be used in teaching.

I’m not familiar with some of the newer developments, and I’m sorry I’m not going to be able to be at the conference to find out more. The RSC’s archives, which I cared for over many years, included materials in a huge variety of analogue and digital formats from wax cylinders to DVDs. I wholeheartedly welcome the creative use of technology to enable theatre archives created and stored in a variety of ways and in many different locations to be made more widely available.

Duke Humfrey’s Library, Oxford

I’m sure the archivists at the conference will remind the other participants that even in a world where everything is theoretically available anywhere you have an internet connection there are still many challenges. Many collections are not yet fully catalogued, let alone digitised, and copyright and other intellectual property rights remain hurdles to be overcome.

Despite the conference’s 21st-century subject, I notice participants are being offered a tour of Duke Humfrey’s Library, built between 1450 and 1480 and still in use, housing rare books including a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio. The fact that several copies of the Folio are available online for anybody to view does not stop people wanting to engage with the real thing. It’s going to be interesting to see whether the research into live versus cinema viewings will show similar results when published later in 2017.

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Hilary Mantel and Shakespeare: fiction versus fact

Hilary Mantel

This year’s Reith lecturer, the award-winning historical novelist Hilary Mantel, is in the middle of her five-lecture series on Radio 4, delivered on Tuesdays and repeated on Saturdays. Her subject is writing historical fiction, though rather than talking about the Tudor period which she has made her own, her subjects are more personal. She has maintained that historical fiction “can bring the dead back to life” in a way that factual history, with its focus on accuracy, does not. In her books, as in plays and paintings, “we sense the dead have a vital force still”. Should you wish to catch up, you will find the first here, with links to transcripts and other related material, on the BBC’s iPlayer site.

Her books Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies focus on the reign of Henry VIII, in particular the life and career of Thomas Cromwell. History has not been kind to him, characterising him as a ruthless fixer. Shakespeare’s play Henry VIII concentrates on the downfalls of Katharine of Aragon and Thomas Wolsey, with Cromwell a relatively minor figure, even after Cardinal Wolsey’s fall from favour.

One of the reasons Shakespeare’s history plays have continued to be popular is because they too bring the dead back to life, imbuing them with that vital force that Hilary Mantel talks about. Nowhere is this seen more forcefully than in Richard III, the villainous Richard being one of Shakespeare’s most compelling characters.

The statue of Richard III outside Leicester Cathedral

Many will remember the drama that unfolded when the remains of the historical Richard were discovered beneath a Leicester car park, followed by his reburial within the cathedral itself in 2015. I wrote several blog posts at the time including this one about the killing of the princes in the tower which Shakespeare, following his sources, laid on Richard.

Now two performances of Shakespeare’s play are to take place within the cathedral, on 19 and 20 July, by the Theatre Group Antic Disposition. They are taking their production to several of England’s cathedrals and churches including Ely, Salisbury and the Temple Church, London.

Not surprisingly the idea of performing Shakespeare’s play in the same space as the King’s tomb has been controversial, with the Richard III Society and Richard III’s Royal Supporters arguing it is disrespectful and insensitive. The full story, including the Dean’s response to their petition,  is told here by the Leicester Mercury.

Ben Horslen, one of the company’s artistic directors, explains their position:

“By bringing our production to Leicester, one of our aims is to enable the audience to explore the wider story around Richard, a more balanced and nuanced version than Shakespeare’s.

“We hope that performing this wonderful play, a core work of English Literature, in the remarkable setting of Leicester Cathedral, will present a unique opportunity for a wide audience to engage with Richard III, both the man and the myth, and the real history behind Shakespeare’s story.”

The tomb of Richard III

The decision has been defended by the cathedral authorities who have suggested the play allows people to “engage with different dimensions of this complex story”. “The legacy of myths, the mystery and the man himself will continue to interplay and at times this will arouse strong responses.

“These performances will be memorable as Richard’s earthly remains lie in our midst. Our commitment is to ensure that new generations keep on encouraging his legacy.”

Surely they have a point. The performances are certain to have an additional frisson, but could be wonderful experiences providing a direct opportunity to explain that Shakespeare’s brilliantly imagined king is an invention. And Hilary Mantel’s lectures are a terrific place to start for anyone wanting to understand more about the difference between the creative artist and the historian. Maybe the followers of the historical Richard could celebrate these performances. Shakespeare’s Richard is unforgettable: without him Richard III would probably only be remembered as the last of the Plantagenet kings of England and his bones would have remained buried under the car park for ever.

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Donald Trump and Shakespeare

A scene from the New York production of Julius Caesar

Shakespeare’s fascination with politics can be seen in many of his plays, not only those directly based on British history. The Roman plays too examine the workings of power, looking at how countries have been governed and how those who do the governing take control. The late plays are often called romances, but question authority and how it is wielded: in Pericles Marina, a victim herself, demands of the ruler of the city how he can tolerate and even participate in corruption by visiting a brothel.

Do you know this house to be a place of such resort,
And will come into ‘t? I hear say you are of honourable parts,
And are the governor of this place.  

If Shakespeare was alive today he would certainly be watching the worldwide political scene with interest. As long ago as January the Times Literary Supplement was publishing articles relating the then-new President to characters and episodes in Shakespeare’s plays.

Shakespeare would probably have made the most of the 140-character limitation, and would be writing beautifully-crafted tweets. President Trump’s tweets are more spur of the moment, and many subsequently are repeated in other media as well as on Twitter. One now-famous tweet featured the word “covfefe”. President Trump may have been half asleep while writing this one, and lots of people have had fun with it including writing humorous definitions of the new word. Pretty quickly somebody came up with another tweet suggesting this was actually a word used by Shakespeare. It would have been lovely if this had been true, but a bit of digging around shows it to be, inevitably, fake news.

The first clue was that the word was said to be in the First Quarto of Hamlet, published in 1603 and known as the “Bad” Quarto, “bad” being a word often used by the President. Rather than being buried in an obscure corner, the word appeared in the most famous speech in the play “To be or not to be”, one of the most corrupt sections of the text. Just to make it more convincing the tweet included a photograph showing the word in the quarto, a terrific bit of photoshopping. I had a look at online facsimiles of the Quarto and found that the word which had been replaced by “covfefe” was, appropriately, “vanity”. I take my hat off to the imaginative individuals who created this bit of clever light relief at a time when we’re much in need of it.

The President Trump/Shakespeare issue that has really hit the headlines, though, is the news that a production of Julius Caesar, staged in Central Park, New York, has created outrage. The actor playing Caesar has blond hair and dresses very much like the current President. There have been protests at performances, and it is reported that after Donald Trump’s son questioned it, two major funders, Delta Airlines and Bank of America, have pulled their funding of the theatre.

Stephen Greenblatt wrote an article on the subject, including the story about Queen Elizabeth’s own objections to a royal deposition, for the Washington Post.The Trump family shouldn’t fight Shakespeare

And this article in the Guardian documents the whole story.

Rather alarmingly, the Boston Globe has noted that theatres with Shakespeare in their names are now being targeted.

The theatre has of course defended itself, and the play: “Our production of Julius Caesar in no way advocates violence towards anyone. Shakespeare’s play, and our production, make the opposite point: those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic means pay a terrible price and destroy the very thing they are fighting to save.”

Trump is not the first President or leading politician to be represented in this way, and he certainly won’t be the last. The extreme reaction to the impersonation, though, indicates the sensitivity of the current administration. In a recent tweet, Greg Jenner wrote “remarkable that a play written 400 years ago, about a man murdered 2000 years ago, is the focus of political debate in 2017 #JuliusCaesar”. Shakespeare himself knew how powerful the bloody murder of the ruler would be, with Cassius stepping out of the moment to consider its historical significance.

             How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!

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Before Shakespeare at the Shakespeare Institute

A summer of great events for those interested in Shakespeare and his theatrical background is just getting under way. From 12-30 June 2017 the fifth play-reading marathon will be held at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon. Up to now, these have focused on the development of a single creative writer. Subjects have been John Fletcher, Thomas Heywood, Philip Shirley and Thomas Dekker. As in previous years students, staff, alumni, and friends of the Shakespeare Institute will take part in unrehearsed, round-the-table readings organised by Dr Martin Wiggins.

Quoting from the Institute’s website, “this year we have decided to concentrate on all of the extant plays of a particularly fruitful and important period of the emerging English theatre. Not only do these works give an invaluable insight into the theatrical world in which the young William Shakespeare began his career as actor and writer, but they also reflect a significant moment of cultural change and creativity in which the theatre became a powerful and frequently controversial form of public art.” The period covered is 1581-1591, the eleven years immediately before Shakespeare became a fully-fledged playwright for the public theatres. Many of them are plays that Shakespeare must have seen himself, and must have inspired his own work. Only forty-one plays have survived from this period, and every one is being read, in chronological order.

This year’s marathon is being run in association with the Before Shakespeare project that is currently exploring the early plays and playhouses of the Elizabethan era, run by Andy Kesson.

Later this summer Before Shakespeare is running a conference at the University of Roehampton, London, from 24-27 August. It will cover a wide range of subjects including the playhouses themselves, writers, the plays that were performed, stagecraft and theatrical companies. The full schedule and details about how to apply are available here.

Also related to Before Shakespeare is a series of readings at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, including Fedele and Fortunio by Anthony Munday on 18 June, the anonymous play Mucedorus on 16 July and, timed to coincide with the conference, John Lyly’s Sappho and Phao on 27 August.

A Read not Dead reading at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Another event that readers of this blog might be interested in will be taking place at the Shakespeare Institute on the afternoon of Thursday 6 July: the first performance since the seventeenth century of a recently discovered play The Dutch Lady. It’s a Restoration comedy that will be introduced by the discoverer of the play, Joe Stevenson, and followed by a panel discussion with scholars of the drama of the period. More information is available here.

Here is the full timetable for the marathon:

The Fifth Annual Shakespeare Institute Play-Reading Marathon


All readings take place in the Reading Room; live-tweeting will be displayed on screen.  The readings will be recorded for archival purposes.


10.30: Robert Wilson, The Three Ladies of London

2.30: Love and Fortune


2.30: John Lyly, Campaspe

7.00: Anthony Munday, Fedele and Fortunio, and George Peele, The Arraignment of Paris


10.30: John Lyly, Sappho and Phao

2.30: John Lyly, Galatea, and The Famous Victories of Henry V


2.30: Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy

7.00: Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine


10.30: Robert Greene, Alphonsus, King of Aragon

2.30: Christopher Marlowe, 2 Tamburlaine


10.30: John Lyly, Endymion, the Man in the Moon

2.30: Suleiman and Perseda


10.30: Thomas Lodge, The Wounds of Civil War

2.30: Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus (A-text), and George Peele, The Battle of Alcazar


2.30: The Wars of Cyrus, King of Persia, and John Lyly, The Woman in the Moon

7.00: Christopher Marlowe, Dido, Queen of Carthage


10.30: Robert Wilson, The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London

2.30: Robert Greene, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay


2.30: George Peele (?), The Troublesome Reign of John, King of England

7.00: John Lyly, Mother Bombie


10.30: Christopher Marlowe, The Jew of Malta

2.30: Robert Greene and Thomas Lodge, A Looking-Glass for London and England


10.30: John Lyly, Midas

2.30: King Lear and his Three Daughters


10.30: The True Tragedy of Richard III

2.30: John Lyly, Love’s Metamorphosis, and Fair Em


2.30: Robert Greene, James IV

7.00: Arden of Faversham


10.30: Jack Straw, and Anthony Munday, John a Kent and John a Cumber

2.30: George Peele, David and Bathsheba


2.30: Robert Greene, Orlando Furioso, and Mucedorus

7.00: George Peele, Edward I


10.30: Locrine

2.30: William Shakespeare, The First Part of the Contention between York and Lancaster

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The power of poetry

In the last few months I’ve been finding it hard to concentrate on Shakespeare: it’s all seemed trivial compared with the important issues that confront us like deciding how England relates to the other countries of the UK, Europe and the world, how we are governed and what sort of country we aspire to be. This week’s awful bombing in Manchester, specifically targeting young people out enjoying themselves at a long-anticipated concert, has been followed by a raising of the security level to critical, the highest possible level.

Ironically this comes during a week in which the UK is enjoying the warmest weather of the year so far, our towns and countryside looking at their most beautiful. Like many people I’ve been taking refuge in early-morning walks, making the most of the peace of Stratford and the River Avon. And as I’ve been walking, Shakespeare’s words have come back to me. It is usually supposed that he immersed himself in the natural world during his childhood in Stratford-upon-Avon, knowledge that he repeatedly brought in to his poetry and plays throughout his career.

I often find the mood of the sonnets rather gloomy, even self-indulgent, but Sonnet 18 is more optimistic than many. It’s a celebration of the beauty of nature, defiantly life-affirming, bringing comfort even in the face of death. It reminds us of the importance of love and memory. As one of the most beautiful, it’s also probably the best-known and most often-quoted of them.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

We have seen the power of words and poetry to express emotion and meaning very powerfully in the last few days. In Manchester we have heard heartbreaking accounts of the events of Monday night and the despair of parents who have lost their children. It’s been amazing to hear them speak so bravely, and, at a time of their own terrible grief, for them to be able to think about the larger need to bring people together in a spirit of love.

Poets are uniquely skilled in putting feelings into just the right words. At the vigil held in the city the poet Tony Walsh delivered his ode to Manchester, its achievements and its spirit, an uplifting moment during this sober event. The link to the Telegraph report, including both his reading and the text of the poem, are both here.

The photographs and the video on this post were taken today, 25 May 2017, on Shakespeare’s Avon. I hope you enjoy them. Special thanks to James Stredder and, as ever, to Richard Morris who took the wonderful video of the new swan family.

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Bram and the Guv’nor: Henry Irving and his manager onstage together

Henry Irving as Hamlet

Through his novel Dracula and the numerous adaptations of it, writer Bram Stoker is probably now better known than the man who was his “Guv’nor”, the great late-Victorian actor Henry Irving. The two men had a working relationship that lasted almost thirty years, during which time Bram was Irving’s business manager at the Lyceum Theatre in London. Although Irving performed a wide range of plays, it was Shakespeare that was the heart of his career, and it had been Shakespeare that brought them together.

This week the relationship is being dramatised in a play, Bram and the Guv’nor, specially written by playwright Jefny Ashcroft and inspired by the Bram Stoker Collection which is cared for by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust on behalf of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Bram Stoker was a compulsive collector, and the Bram Stoker Collection consists of many boxes of material that he kept relating to the career of Henry Irving encompassing his work at the Lyceum Theatre and many tours. The play is part of the Arts Friendly Archives project funded by Arts Council England that brings people into contact with archive material by creating fact-based dramas. It’s a fascinating approach, that will be even more special because before and after the performances audiences will be able to view an accompanying exhibition of the original material that inspired it. Even better, tickets are free.

Bram Stoker and Henry Irving met in 1876 when, as a young civil servant who wrote short stories and theatre reviews on the side, Stoker went to see Irving’s Hamlet in Dublin. Impressed by his review, Irving invited Stoker to dinner and later treated him to a private reading. Later Stoker wrote “So great was the magnetism of his genius, so profound was the sense of his dominancy that I sat spellbound. Outwardly I was as of stone…The whole thing was new, re-created by a force of passion which was like a new power.”

One of the few photos of Henry Irving (in the top hat) and Bram Stoker (a few steps behind), leaving the Lyceum Theatre

So began one of the most extraordinary of theatrical partnerships, explored by Michael Kilgarriff of the Irving Society here. He describes how “Irving provided the star power and the driving force, Bram a bottomless well of loyalty and the administrative capability to keep the show on the road.” Bram was also “genial, the ideal Front-of-House meeter and greeter”, and some of the most intriguing items in the Bram Stoker Collection are hand-written seating plans for dinners hosted by himself and Irving. The Collection contains lots of printed material relating to performances including reviews, programmes and illustrations, but these little scraps are particularly telling. Stoker obviously took considerable care to place people around the table, these dinners being the places where business was done and plans made. Together he and Irving were what Kilgarriff calls “a matchless team”.

The Bram Stoker Collection contains little personal material, and, disappointingly for Dracula fans, hardly anything relating to Stoker’s most famous creation. There has been much speculation, though, about whether Irving’s stage presence as Faust was the inspiration for Count Dracula. It is not surprising that Jefny Ashcroft has chosen to focus on the writing of Dracula and the effect that it may have had on the relationship of the two men. This extract comes from the press release:

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth 1889 John Singer Sargent 1856-1925 Presented by Sir Joseph Duveen 1906

“the play is set in 1897 and showcases Bram’s career as a business manager to Sir Henry Irving (played by Barrie Palmer), acclaimed actor-manager of London’s Lyceum Theatre. Irving, also known as the Guv’nor, was the doyen of the Victorian stage particularly applauded for his Shakespearian roles and performed alongside his leading lady, Ellen Terry (played by Jo Price). Unbeknown to them, Bram (played by David Reakes) is also writing a strange new book, Dracula and attempts to persuade Henry Irving, who he idolises, to play Count Dracula. But all is not what it seems, as friendship and professional pride come into conflict and sparks fly. “

By 1897 Irving had passed the peak of his success. With his leading lady Ellen Terry he had performed many of Shakespeare’s greatest plays including Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, King Henry VIII, The Merchant of Venice and Much Ado About Nothing. He had made acting respectable, was favoured by Queen Victoria, and in 1895 was the first actor to receive a knighthood. Although Bram Stoker always remained out of the spotlight his talent was occasionally recognised. In 1888, on tour, the Chicago Daily News wrote ‘We know of no manager more vigilant, more indefatigable, more audacious than he. He knows how to make friends, how to keep them, and how to utilize them… In the manipulation of Mr Irving’s intricate and enormous business he exhibits a coolness, a shrewdness, and an enthusiasm that are simply masterful…Irving is fortunate in having so able and so loyal an associate.’

Bram and the Guv’nor is great opportunity to explore the relationship between these two extraordinary characters. Performances, lasting an hour, are free but people are asked to order tickets in advance. There are performances on 16, 17 and 20 May at the Shakespeare Centre in Stratford-upon-Avon.


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