Spring events in Stratford-upon-Avon

The Birthplace before its restoration, around 1847

Fresh for 2017, there is quite a crop of new ideas and events for the Shakespeare-lover in Stratford-upon-Avon. In particular, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust have come up with some different ideas to be held at the Shakespeare Centre in Henley Street.

SBT Research Conversations

These are thirty-minute free sessions in which you will find out more about the Shakespeare and Stratford-upon-Avon-related research taking place at The Shakespeare Centre and in the wider world. They comprise a thirty-minute presentation followed by up to thirty minutes for questions and discussion. No booking required, just turn up.

These are the first two in a series that will take place at The Shakespeare Centre each month (except April) from 5.00pm to 6.00pm.

​​Wednesday 19th April, 5-6pm – Dr Tara Hamling and Dr Cathryn Enis (University of Birmingham), ‘Shakespeare’s Lost Domesticity and the Mulberry Trees of New Place.’​​

Wednesday 10th May, 5-6pm –  Professor Ewan Fernie (University of Birmingham), ‘The Birthplace and Revolution.’

On Saturday 20 May, SBT is holding a one-day Conference:   The Faith of William Shakespeare. On the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this conference will explore what that important event meant to Shakespeare and Stratford-upon-Avon.​ ​

Professor Peter Marshall (University of Warwick) will present an overview of religion during Shakespeare’s time; Professor Graham Holderness (University of Hertfordshire) will talk about Shakespeare’s Calvinism; Dr Tara Hamling (University of Birmingham) will curate a special exhibition based on Reformation-related material from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s Collections; Professor Ann Hughes (Keele University) considers Stratford-upon-Avon’s Puritans; Dr Jonathan Willis (University of Birmingham) discusses public worship; Dr Cathryn Enis (University of Birmingham) will speak about friendships at a time of religious division; and Dr Robert Bearman (Honorary Fellow, The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust) will talk about religion and Shakespeare’s daily mind. The conference is hosted by Dr Paul Edmondson, Head of Research, The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

​​The cost is only £25.00 (£20.00 SBT Friends), including refreshments (not lunch), and participants will receive a copy of Graham Holderness’s new book, ​​ The Faith of William Shakespeare.  The Conference will take place at The Wolfson Hall in The Shakespeare Centre. Doors open at 9.45am and the first session will begin at 10am. The day will finish at 5pm.  ​ Bookings can be made for the conference via the website

Meanwhile, over at the Royal Shakespeare Company it’s worth remembering their own blend of talks and activities from the family-friendly exhibition The Play’s the Thing to Director talks sessions and post-show talks. Full information is to be found at the RSC’s website.


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Talking to the Stratford Society

The publication and now the promotion of the book I’ve co-written with Susan Brock on the history of Stratford’s Shakespeare Club has been a constant and enjoyable preoccupation over the last few months. I’m pleased to report that with the book now being stocked by the local branch of Waterstones and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s own bookshop in Henley Street, sales are looking healthy. Copies are also being sold direct via the Club’s website 

Next week, on Monday 20 February, we are giving a presentation to the Stratford Society, the  town’s Civic Society, set up in 1966 with the aim of protecting the heritage of the town and its residents. It takes a particular interest in the town’s buildings, promoting high quality design in keeping with the character of the famous and much-visited area.    

It’s appropriate that we’re talking to this Society because decades, even centuries before preservation societies were founded to care for the historic buildings in our towns, Stratford’s Shakespeare Club had done just that. By the 1820s places associated with Shakespeare were under threat: his own house at New Place had been first replaced, then razed to the ground, his monument in the church was in poor repair, and the Birthplace in Henley Street, in spite of being open to tourists, appeared semi-derelict. 

Shakespeare’s Birthplace before it was purchased for the nation, c. 1845

Physician Dr John Conolly was an inspirational leader of the Club. At the 1835 dinner he addressed the members, suggesting that protecting the Shakespearean relics in the town should be a priority: “for a long time after his death there was either an indifference to his immortal memory, or the want of a Shakspearean Club to concentrate individual regard and give it an honourable utility”. From the 1830s to the 1860s the Club helped to care for these sites, making sure their future was secure. In the case of the Birthplace this meant promoting its purchase by public subscription to ensure it was not left in private hands. When the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust was finally created, many years after the purchase, it became a sort of blueprint for how buildings associated with literary people should be dealt with. Many British writers, including Jane Austen and John Clare, are now celebrated through their houses.   

Although always independent, the Club was bound up with the life of the town. By the time of the first major celebrations for Shakespeare’s Birthday the Club numbered 200 members, including many burgesses and aldermen of the Corporation. When the Club refounded itself in 1874 the Mayor and his Deputy became the President and Vice-President of the Club and the tradition of the Mayor being President was only discontinued in 1941. 

As we researched the book we realised that the club and its activities were not simply recreational but had a real impact on how the town developed, in particular how it came to be the world centre of Shakespeare performance and celebration that it is today. Its influence, as with the founding of the theatres, was often behind the scenes, but it was there nevertheless. This is why we often refer to the book as an alternative history of the town.  

The Club’s archives, like so many other records relating to the town’s history, are cared for by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and the display of related materials will illustrate the activities of the Club over two centuries. These will include the magnificent glass goblet given to the Club in 1830 and a unique blue and white pottery tankard dating from the same period. Medals, books, minute books and other documents will be included. All these reinforce the role taken by the Club in the history of the town. 

This is a rare opportunity to see these items on display together and to hear the authors talk about researching the subject. They will also be bringing along their own personal items of historic Club memorabilia. The meeting will take place at 3pm at the Wolfson Hall in the Shakespeare Centre, Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon on Monday 20 February. It is open to guests for £5, and copies of the book will also be available to buy for £12.99.

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Looking forward to Stratford’s Birthday Celebrations 2017

The traditional Birthday Procession

After the extravaganza that was 2016 it might be thought that Stratfordians would be putting their feet up for the Birthday Celebrations over the weekend of 22 and 23 April 2017. But no, I’m glad to report this year there will be some changes, and additional events to enjoy.

After three years of lunching in a magnificent solid marquee in the gardens near the church, a decision has been made to hold the luncheon on Saturday 22 April in the banqueting hall of the Crowne Plaza Hotel at Bridgefoot in Stratford (formerly the Holiday Inn). This will be a slightly more intimate affair with “only” 450 places, and a ticket price of £45 to include an initial glass of sparkling wine followed by the full luncheon. It’s being organised by Stratford Town Trust chairman Alan Haigh, who said in an interview with the Stratford Herald last year: 

I wanted to reassure people that the 2017 luncheon would go ahead and I hope to make the event more open to the people of Stratford and aimed specifically at Shakespeare. The previous committee did a great job and organised some tremendous lunches but as we don’t have any big Shakespeare anniversaries coming up, now is the time to celebrate the ordinary birthdays with the Stratford people. 

The Crowne Plaza Hotel

It’s hoped that there will be more community input this year and the Shakespeare Club is intending to display material about the Club’s history, closely involved as it is with the history of the Birthday Celebrations.  Alan has also had the delightful idea of carrying guests for the luncheon from the Church, where the procession ends, down to the hotel by boat.  It’s a fair walk and those taking part will already have spent over an hour on the traditional parade around the town.

Tickets will be sold through the RSC box office and will go on sale on Friday February 3rd. It isn’t clear whether these bookings will be available online as well as in person: there’s no sign of it yet on the booking page here but keep lookingAll other aspects of the lunch will be as in previous years with a number of speeches and toasts and the presentation of the Pragnell Prize. It should be a great event for lovers of Shakespeare.  

This is all good news, but there’s more!

On the evening of Friday 21 April, that’s before the Birthday Celebrations, a new entertainment is to be put on at Stratford’s ArtsHouse. It is called The Bard’s Night, and will be “A Feast of an Evening Celebrating the Life of William Shakespeare”. It will feature a sumptuous three course dinner with wine, and performances from professional actors, dancers and musicians. As a finale to the evening the Methuen Shakespeare bust, with the players, the sponsors and selected VIPs will process by candlelight from the Atrium foyer to the centre stage. A specially-written tribute will be delivered and the audience will drink a toast, followed by three cheers, to the life of the genius William Shakespeare. Full details are available on the website, and the organiser, Gill Davies is currently offering four tickets for the price of three if people contact her direct. Otherwise tickets are already on sale via the ArtsHouse box office.   

Eating and drinking have long been traditional elements of the Birthday weekend, and it sounds as if there will be plenty to enjoy this year.

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Shakespeare in Padua

A view of Padua

Just recently we’ve been experiencing cold, grey, depressing weather in the UK and we must all be thinking longingly of long, warm days spent somewhere exotic. It’s just the time, of course, for planning a summer holiday and for the third time the organisation Shakespeare in Italy is running a residential Summer School.

No ordinary holidays, these Summer Schools are a way of spending a fortnight in a glorious location learning something new in the company of like-minded people and highly experienced theatre professionals. This is the description from the website where all the information you need is to be found:

Shakespeare in Italy seeks to enhance experience and international understanding of the works of Shakespeare and in particular appreciation of the influence of the Italian Renaissance, culture and philosophers on all his writing.
The Company aims to explore this with actors and artists through performance in the UK, Italy and beyond, as well as via a programme of education and outreach.
Shakespeare in Italy was founded by two former Royal Shakespeare Company actors, Julian Curry and Mary Chater in association with the Italian theatre manager, Sandro Pascucci. Their aim was to create opportunities to explore – through performance and workshops with people young and old – the important influence of Italian culture on Shakespeare and his writing. 

The first two Summer Schools, in 2014 and 2015, took place in Urbino, but this year they go to the town of Padua, the location for The Taming of the Shrew, the place from which Dr Bellario sends his advice to Portia in The Merchant of Venice, and the home of Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing.  Petruchio describes the town as “Fair Padua, nursery of the arts”, and it was indeed the home of a renowned university: also, it seems from the evidence of The Taming of the Shrew a place where young ladies might find flirtation while supposed to be learning languages and music.

Marjorie Bland as Portia and John Nettles as Bassanio, 1978

Each year they concentrate on a handful of plays set in Italy,
to explore them in depth, and their relationship to the huge European cultural wealth that Shakespeare imaginatively drew upon. Course work will include discussions, textual and character analysis and work on scenes. This year we will be focusing on one of the great tragedies, Othello, an early Roman play, Titus Andronicus, and The Merchant of Venice.

As always, they have found some terrific actors and directors with whom the participants will work. Director Lucy Bailey will take on Titus Andronicus: she has already directed the play, as well as other Shakespeare plays including Macbeth, Timon of Athens and Julius Caesar. John Nettles is focusing on The Merchant of Venice. Although much better known for his television roles in Bergerac and Midsomer Murders he has had a distinguished career in theatre including several years with the RSC during which he played Bassanio and a second spell when he performed Leontes in The Winter’s Tale and Brutus in Julius Caesar.

John Kani as Othello and Joanna Weinberg as Desdemona, Market Theatre Johannesburg 1987

Finally Dame Janet Suzman will work on Othello, a play with which she has a particular connection. In 1987 in her native South Africa she directed the first black Othello (John Kani), opposite a white actress, Joanna Weinberg as Desdemona. She recently wrote “What I am always interested in is how the play relates to our world. Othello at that time suited apartheid South Africa like a glove”. She is sure to find twenty-first century parallels in this new investigation. Dame Janet’s Shakespeare credentials are impressive to say the least having performed many of Shakespeare’s heroines from Joan of Arc, Portia and Kate to a definitive Cleopatra.

The Summer School will run from 24 June to 8 July, and will afford an extraordinary opportunity for participants to immerse themselves in Shakespeare in Italy and to find that as Shakespeare said “Padua affords nothing but what is kind”.

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Shakespeare and the White House

President Obama is about to hand over to the incoming President Trump, and in the last few days an interview with Obama about the books that are important to him has been published in the New York Times. One of the authors he mentions is of course Shakespeare. 

Shakespeare applied to our national bereavement, April 1865

President Obama has not made it a habit to quote from Shakespeare in his speeches, unlike his predecessor President Lincoln, who Obama has often mentioned as a source of inspiration. Lincoln was so closely associated with Shakespeare that after his death in April 1865 this document “Shakespeare applied to our national bereavement” was published quoting from Macbeth, in particular the murder of Duncan.

Many presidents have been influenced by Shakespeare and his interest in politics, as this essay that appears on the White House Historical Association’s site shows, and I have cited before this section from the Folger Shakespeare Library that includes a piece on how many US presidents owed ideas or quotations to Shakespeare.

My blog post on early American visitors to Stratford included the visit of two Presidents-to-be who came a pilgrimage to visit the Birthplace in the astonishingly early year of 1786. John Adams and  Thomas Jefferson were the men.

President Obama at Shakespeare’s Globe April 2016

President Obama may not have come to Stratford-upon-Avon, but during his visit to the UK in April of 2016 when the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death was being marked he visited Shakespeare’s Globe in London, where, among tight security,  they staged a medley of scenes from Hamlet specially for him.

It seems unlikely that the new occupant of the White House will be reading, or quoting, much Shakespeare over the next four years, but Shakespeare will still remain relevant. The Shakespeare play most appropriate for the political situation we find ourselves in at the start of 2017 seems to be Coriolanus, though the parallels are complex. Even written for a very different world, four hundred years ago, Shakespeare brings out those similarities, and a production of the play in New York just before the election in succeeded in reflecting the concerns of many in the USA. It isn’t just the interplay of Coriolanus, Aufidius, and those Roman tribunes, but Menenius’s speech about the belly’s place in the body as a metaphor for a political system, that strikes a chord.

There was a time when all the body’s members
Rebell’d against the belly, thus accused it:
That only like a gulf it did remain
I’ the midst o’ the body, idle and unactive,
Still cupboarding the viand, never bearing
Like labour with the rest, where the other instruments
Did see and hear, devise, instruct, walk, feel,
And, mutually participate, did minister
Unto the appetite and affection common
Of the whole body…
The belly responded:
‘True is it, my incorporate friends,’ quoth he,
‘That I receive the general food at first,
Which you do live upon; and fit it is,
Because I am the store-house and the shop
Of the whole body: but, if you do remember,
I send it through the rivers of your blood,
Even to the court, the heart, to the seat o’ the brain;
And, through the cranks and offices of man,
The strongest nerves and small inferior veins
From me receive that natural competency
Whereby they live:…
Though all at once cannot
See what I do deliver out to each,
Yet I can make my audit up, that all
From me do back receive the flour of all,
And leave me but the bran.’ …
The senators of Rome are this good belly,
And you the mutinous members; for examine
Their counsels and their cares, digest things rightly
Touching the weal o’ the common, you shall find
No public benefit which you receive
But it proceeds or comes from them to you
And no way from yourselves.
Whatever happens next, it seems certain that Shakespeare will already have written about it.

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Documenting the oldest Shakespeare organisation in the world

Club ribbon, 1830

Regular readers will be aware that The Story of Stratford-upon-Avon’s Shakespeare Club, 1824-2016: Long life to the Club call’d Shakspearean has recently been published, documenting the history of the oldest surviving Shakespeare organisation in the world. The Club began as a small group of local tradesmen wanting to promote their own businesses as well as celebrating the life and work of Stratford’s most famous son. Some records still exist dating back to the foundation of the club and its first activities in the 1820s, and for over 150 years the Club’s archives have been kept by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

At 3pm on Tuesday 24 January 2017 the authors, Susan Brock and Sylvia Morris, will be giving a talk and display of related material at the Shakespeare Centre in Stratford-upon-Avon. The Collections Department of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust will be bringing some of this historic material that we featured in the book out of its secure storage for the event. These will include the magnificent glass goblet given to the Club in 1830 to celebrate its outstanding success and a unique blue and white pottery tankard dating from the same period. Medals and ribbons created for members will also be on display, as will a range of images and newspaper cuttings of the Celebrations organised by the Club. Documents will include minute books, the handwritten list of the first committee, playbills, photographs and programmes for performances sponsored by the Club. All these reinforce the vital role taken by the Club in the development of the town as a centre for Shakespearean performance and celebration.

These items have never been displayed together to the public before, so this will be a rare opportunity to see them and to hear the authors talk about some of the mysteries they had to solve when researching this unexplored topic. The authors will also be bringing along their own personal items of historic Club memorabilia.

Friends of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust will be admitted free of charge, but a small number of places are still available to the general public for £5 paid on the door. Because there is a limit on numbers, if you want to come along please email stratfordshakespeareclub@gmail.com  in advance.

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The Tempest in production

A scene from the RSC's Tempest, Simon Russell Beale as Prospero

A scene from the RSC’s Tempest, Simon Russell Beale as Prospero

On Wednesday 11 January the Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Tempest is to be live streamed to cinemas around the UK. The play always brings with it a number of challenges, with its magical elements and the difficulty of putting a shipwreck on stage.

With its innovative use of technology it will be particularly interesting to see how it works on screen. The RSC’s collaboration with technology company Intel goes back at least two years. The inspiration was in fact the innovations of Shakespeare’s period:  Gregory Doran, who directs, says “Shakespeare includes a masque. They were then the multimedia events of their day, using innovative technology from the Continent to produce astonishing effects, with moving lights, and stage machinery that could make people fly, and descent from the clouds…So I wanted to see what would happen if the very latest technology could be applied to Shakespeare’s play today”.

However it isn’t the masque, or the opening storm scene, where the technology is most used, but in the character of Ariel. Using the expertise of The Imaginarium Studios they decided to think about Ariel as a digital character. Quoting from the programme, the Studios are “Pioneers in the art of  ‘performance capture’, (where an actor’s work is electronically tracked and translated into computer-generated imagery” and this is what has been done with the actor Mark Quartley. Sensors in his costume pick up his movements that are then rendered into the computer-generated character and projected live on stage. Somehow, we see both the real Ariel and one or more projected avatars on or above the stage. Combined with other projections and a magnificent set the result is a sumptuous theatrical experience.

The use of  special effects sometimes distances the actors from the audience, but this isn’t the case here. Mark Quartley copes well with being wired up for each performance, and Simon Russell Beale as Prospero is certainly not put off by the experience. He has said in the past that we should take liberties with Shakespeare in order to move with the times, and this production proves it can be done successfully.

Harriet Walter as Prospero

Harriet Walter as Prospero

Just before Christmas I was lucky enough to be able to see both the RSC’s The Tempest and that put on by the Donmar at King’s Cross, and what a contrast there was. The Donmar’s production was the final part of a trilogy that also included Julius Caesar and Henry IV Part 1. The audience was led into a starkly-lit four-sided auditorium to watch a production put on by the inmates of a women’s prison. No sign of special effects here. Before the action started Harriet Walter (Prospero) introduces herself as a woman who has been in prison for decades, with no prospect of release. The prison bars are real and immovable, the action of the play created by the imagination of the participants. Shakespeare’s play ends with Prospero leaving the island, returning to Milan, but in this production Walter’s situation is closer to that of Caliban. All the other inmates are shown one by one joyfully leaving the prison until she remains desolate and alone.

Time and again, in both productions we are drawn back to Prospero, at the centre of the play. With no real drama within the story (Prospero is after all in charge), the conflict has to be within his mind. Harriet Walter, literally imprisoned, is powerless and angry. Simon Russell Beale always finds the humanity in every role, and enables us to see Prospero’s conflicting feelings: vengeance versus mercy to those who have done him wrong, happiness for his daughter versus sadness at losing her, returning to Milan versus losing his magic. His anger seems mostly to be aimed at himself, unable to resolve these conflicts.

Watching these two productions made me think back to other interpretations of the role of Prospero, and I’ve dipped back into David Lindley’s book The Tempest in the Shakespeare at Stratford series, published in 2003, that covers the RSC’s productions of the play from 1945-2000. At the beginning of this period Prospero, the magician, was firmly in control, with Michael Redgrave in 1951 being the best example. In 1957 Peter Brook changed the way in which the role was played, with John Gielgud playing him. Gielgud dressed humbly, looked like a hermit, and most importantly, was angry. Lindley describes him as tormented and problematic, and the reviewer of the Times remarked: “We are almost invited to wonder if forgiveness will after all triumph over lower feelings. For through the performance the actor throws out a persistent suggestion that though Prospero intends of his own accord to surrender the omnipotence which he has only valued as the instrument of impersonal ends, he nevertheless has an inner battle of his own to fight”.

Gilz Terera as Ariel, Philip Voss as Prospero, RSC 2000-2001

Gilz Terera as Ariel, Philip Voss as Prospero, RSC 2000-2001

Anger and even vindictiveness came to be the norm for Prosperos in the 1970s and 1980s, so I remember Philip Voss’s performance at TOP and on tour in 2000-2001 coming as something of a relief. Voss played Prospero as a kindly figure and in spite of being modestly staged the production included a number of innovations such as projected images, a delightful masque, and gorgeous a cappella music composed by Orlando Gough. I still remember it being a magical production.

Gregory Doran describes the innovations of computer-generated effects as “storytelling for the 21st century, taking the audience’s imagination into new realms”. He may be right, but no amount of special effects are more important than the creative artists and performers who put them before us.

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New Year’s Honours for Shakespeare

Patricia Routledge

Patricia Routledge

At the beginning of 2017 the New Year’s Honours List was published in which the great and the good were recognised for their services. Following the successful 2016 Rio Olympics it was inevitable that many of those honoured would be sportspeople such as the runner Mo Farah, but theatre and drama, including Shakespeare, were not forgotten.

The recipients who got the most media attention were those best known to television audiences, Mark Rylance and Patricia Routledge, who receive a Knighthood and a Damehood respectively. Rylance’s work, particularly at Shakespeare’s Globe, is very well known. Patricia Routledge’s interview in which she stated how thrilled she was to be recognised for her stage, rather than her TV work, was broadcast repeatedly. Shakespeare fans may remember her as Queen Margaret in the 1984 production of Richard III for the Royal Shakespeare Company which starred Tony Sher. She has continued to act on stage even though now well into her 80s.

Other Shakespeare-related honours included an OBE for Helen McCrory who has played many Shakespeare roles on stage, and one for Tim Pigott-Smith who has worked with the RSC many times, and has the rare distinction for an actor of also having been educated at Shakespeare’s School. There was also a CBE for Rupert Goold, Artistic Director of the Almeida Theatre and an Associate Director of the RSC.

Richard Eyre

Richard Eyre

I’m saving, though, the best till last, and it’s an honour that I haven’t heard reported anywhere this week. Sir Richard Eyre has been made a Companion of Honour, granted as a reward for outstanding achievements and conferred to only a very limited number of people (only 65 at any one time). It’s a great recognition for a lifetime’s devotion to the performing arts including drama, opera, television and film work. Richard Eyre is best known for being Artistic Director of the National Theatre from 1987 to 1997. At the National Theatre he directed the famous production of Richard III starring Ian McKellen, set in 1930s Germany, and that of King Lear starring Ian Holm. Longer ago, he directed a well-known production of Hamlet at the Royal Court Theatre that starred Jonathan Pryce and another starring Ian Charleson. More recently, and on TV, he directed Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2 as part of The Hollow Crown series that was screened by the BBC in 2012.

Quite by chance, Sir Richard Eyre is the President of Stratford-upon-Avon’s Shakespeare Club for the 2016-2017 season and I’m delighted to be able to say that he is giving his presidential address on the subject of “Shakespeareana” to the Club on Tuesday 10 January 2017 at the Shakespeare Institute, at 7.45pm. Visitors are very welcome for £3, students will be admitted free, and after the meeting refreshments will be served. It promises to be a wonderful evening. More details at www.stratfordshakespeareclub.org

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Shakespeare at the close of 2016

One of the newly-discovered documents showing Shakespeare's Coat of Arms

One of the newly-discovered documents showing Shakespeare’s Coat of Arms

The year in which we marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death may be over, but there is still much to celebrate. The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, is a great source of information about Shakespeare, and I subscribe to their bi-weekly newsletter Shakespeare Plus.  The current edition in January 2017 is available here and you’ll see it contains a real mix of material as varied as a link to a podcast on the making of the First Folio, an article about Elizabethan Christmas, another on Shakespeare in Hollywood and even a seasonal recipe. In the section on the highlights of 2016 I noticed a subject relating to Shakespeare’s life that I’d missed. Here’s their description:

In June, The New York Times published important discoveries about Shakespeare’s coat of arms made by Heather Wolfe, Folger’s curator of manuscripts. These documents show Shakespeare’s intimate involvement in his family’s application for a coat of arms, reinforcing the evidence that Shakespeare the man from Stratford was also Shakespeare the London playwright.

You can see the documents on Shakespeare Documented, the largest and most authoritative collection of primary-source materials documenting the life of William Shakespeare, which the Folger launched this year in partnership with the Bodleian Libraries, British Library, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and The National Archives UK.

The New York Times piece explains that Heather Wolfe has discovered, among the archives at the College of Arms in London and other places, around a dozen manuscript versions of Shakespeare’s coat of arms, some of which are very early. One, complaining about Shakespeare’s right to a coat of arms, describing him as “Shakespeare, ye player”, can be reliably dated to around 1600 unlike the similar document held by the Folger which is thought to date from 1700. And most of them link the coat of arms to William rather than to his father John, officially named as the person responsible for seeking the arms, making it obvious that it was William who pushed the application through, doing a little social climbing. While the documents in themselves don’t provide any new information, Professor Alan Nelson finds it significant. It “helps to confirm everything we know about the arc of Shakespeare’s career and the way he understood himself in the context of his society,” he said.

If you’d like to get their regular updates, this is the address where you can give them your details.

Shakespeare Lives

Living Shakespeare


I’ve only just caught up with yet another of the BBC’s offerings for 2016, and it’s one that will remain available on the internet. It was entitled Living Shakespeare, and looked at Shakespeare’s impact across the globe. Filmed partly in Stratford-upon-Avon during the summer it takes five stories from China, South Africa, Lebanon, the UK and India and shows how Shakespeare is relevant to people’s lives. The programme begins with South Africa’s John Kani talking about playing Othello in apartheid Johannesburg in the 1980s, moves on to China where Shakespeare’s sonnets offered a voice to a gay woman when she felt herself to be an outcast in the 1980s. An Indian actress commented on how, in her country, “We are all modern Ophelias”, defined by the opinions of the men in their lives as either traditional and pure or independent and sultry. Profoundly deaf musician Evelyn Glennie finds that in The Tempest Shakespeare uses sound to colour his characters, with a vibrant use of noises and sounds. Finally a Lebanese choreographer noted that in her country “we really recognise his voice”, and created a dance version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream following the country’s civil war that heralded a time of peace. The conclusion, inevitably, is that all these people find that Shakespeare’s writing still speaks to people, particularly those who find themselves in opposition to the status quo in their own countries. We may all be quite relieved that 2016 is now over, but Shakespeare’s influence shows no sign of abating.

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Sir Arthur Hodgson, Shakespeare and Australia

Thaddeus, Henry Jones; Sir Arthur Hodgson, KCMG, DL, JP, Mayor (1883-1888), High Steward (1896-1902); Stratford-upon-Avon Town Hall; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/sir-arthur-hodgson-kcmg-dl-jp-mayor-18831888-high-steward-18961902-55784

Thaddeus, Henry Jones; Sir Arthur Hodgson, KCMG, DL, JP, Mayor (1883-1888), High Steward (1896-1902); Stratford-upon-Avon Town Hall; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/sir-arthur-hodgson-kcmg-dl-jp-mayor-18831888-high-steward-18961902-55784

Stratford has been lucky to have attracted a number of influential people who have contributed significantly to the town’s development as a vibrant cultural centre. One of these was Sir Arthur Hodgson, a wealthy businessman who retired to the town and devoted his last thirty years to it. His portrait, hanging in the town hall, oversees the business meetings of today’s Town Council.

Hodgson was born in Hertfordshire, the son of a vicar, in 1818, and educated at Eton and Cambridge. After three years in the Royal Navy he set off to Australia, arriving in Sydney at the age of 20 following a four and a half month sea voyage. He had met influential people on board and arrived with letters of introduction that ensured he was able to set up a sheep station, founding a settlement, Eton Vale, in 1840.  He also became a politician, rising to Colonial Secretary for Queensland in 1869, before he left Australia to return to England in 1870, his fortune made. In 1873 he purchased the Clopton Estate near Stratford-upon-Avon and quickly settled into the community. This post-retirement career was impressive.  He was Mayor of Stratford a record five times 1883-88, High Steward of the borough in 1884-89, Deputy-lieutenant and High Sheriff of Warwickshire in 1881 and was also honorary colonel of the 2nd battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment.  He was appointed Companion of the Grand Cross  in 1878 and Knight Commander of the Grand Cross in 1886 for his services to Queensland.

He also involved himself in local charitable and sporting activities, including the Shakespeare Club, becoming a member in 1876. While Mayor he would have been the Club president ex officio, but he rarely attended meetings. The Club had reformed in 1874  but by the late 1880s it was lacking in energy, probably owing to the ongoing illness of its Vice-President Charles Flower. When Flower died in 1892 Hodgson stepped into the vacuum. Under his influence the next year the Club organised the most elaborate Birthday Celebrations for years. It was, fortuitously, Easter Sunday, and the town was decorated with flags, streamers and laurel festoons and, led by the town band, the Mayor and Corporation, the Trustees of Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Shakespeare Club members and the Governors of the Memorial Theatre walked in procession to the church for a special service in honour of the poet’s birthday.

This revival may also have encouraged another of the town’s Shakespeare traditions, as it was also in 1893 that King Edward VI School began its involvement in the Birthday Celebrations with its first presentation of a floral wreath.

Hodgson was responsible for improving the quality of Club meetings, giving his own paper on Shakespeare and Italy in which he referred to his correspondence with well-known scholar Mary Cowden Clark. He encouraged women into the Club, first welcoming them to meetings as visitors, then introducing membership for them (his wife and daughters were some of the first members). He improved the quality of the speeches at the birthday by including a talk by the eminent physician Sir Benjamin Ward, on Shakespeare’s Psychological Point of View and introduced outside speakers to the monthly meetings of the Club, one of the first being the American poet and author William Winter. At this time too the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald began printing full reports of the Club’s meetings.

His enthusiasm for Shakespeare was genuine. He was a member of the Memorial Theatre’s Board of Governors when it opened in 1879 and a Life Trustee of Shakespeare’s Birthplace.  In 1902, the year of his death, he published for private circulation Shakespearean Jottings,  a lecture given in the Stoneleigh Institute, Warwickshire. In it he aimed “to give inadequate expression to my love and reverence for the master-mind of all literature and the interpreter of all future ages of human nature”. Reading it recently I found the man’s forthright character comes through, though he seems to have had a rather careless concern for facts. He writes with absolute certainty that at 11 Shakespeare saw the celebrations at Kenilworth Castle, and was “a good husband and a kind father”, though he acknowledges no diary or correspondence survives.

Described in the Australian Dictionary of Biography  as ‘upright and inflexible’, the Town Hall portrait of him shows a man proud of his achievements, but also, his head turned and slightly bowed, a man who listened, perhaps something he learned from the works of Shakespeare. At his death in 1902 Hodgson had been involved in the town for thirty years, an extraordinary record of service to his adopted home.

The State Library of New South Wales, Sydney

The State Library of New South Wales, Sydney

The other reason I have been reading up about Hodgson is that link with Australia, which I visited earlier in 2016. While in Sydney I went along to the State Library for New South Wales (the oldest Library in Australia), which has a Shakespeare Room, and have since been in correspondence with their Curator Sarah Morley who tells me they hold manuscript material and photographs relating to Arthur Hodgson. As there is this connection, a copy of our book The Story of the Shakespeare Club of Sratford-upon-Avon 1824-2016: Long life to the Club call’d Shakspearean has been presented to the Library. More information on Sir Arthur Hodgson and the history of the Club can be found in the book.

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