Fulke Greville, a great Elizabethan

Fulke Greville

On 30 September 1628, Fulke Greville died, just days before his 74th birthday. He had lived a remarkable life, that ended dramatically after being stabbed by a servant who supposedly felt cheated after being left out of his master’s will.

It was an ignominious end for a man who had been a major political figure, serving under three monarchs, Queen Elizabeth, King James 1 and King Charles 1. As well as working in government he wrote poems and plays, sometimes sponsored poets and scholars, and knew the great writers of the day. His experience of life at court, and of life in Europe, gave him an extraordinary perspective.

Greville was ten years older than Shakespeare, and it’s hard to imagine that the two of them never met, either in London or back in Warwickshire. Greville came from a prominent Warwickshire gentry family, having distant connections with the Talbots and Dudleys, and through them with the famous Sidney family. He and Philip Sidney were classmates at Shrewsbury School and Sidney became a major influence on Fulke Greville and his literary work.

Sidney was recognised from his earliest days as a brilliant young man who has been described as “the model of perfect courtesy”, and a real Renaissance man. He was well-educated and read widely on many subjects including poetry, horsemanship and government. Best known now for his poetry, he longed to serve his country in the battlefield, and it was in battle in the Netherlands against the Spanish that he received the wound that killed him in October 1586. He was deeply mourned, not least by Fulke Greville who seems never to have got over his death. Indeed Greville’s most remembered achievement now is his Life of Sir Philip Sidney that he wrote many years later in 1610-1612.

There was though much more to Fulke Greville. He found and cultivated powerful friends.  Sidney’s father obtained for him a source of income in the Council of the Welsh Marches and other influential men Sir Francis Walsingham and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, helped him to a seat in Parliament in 1581. He was subsequently elected to five consecutive parliaments for Warwickshire. He longed for the excitement of foreign adventures in battle but his talent for administration ensured he was kept in government in England. Queen Elizabeth showed him favour and he also gained from the accession of James 1. He acquired Warwick Castle in 1604 from the Crown and set about turning it from a defensive castle into a comfortable country house. In 1610 he was appointed as the borough’s recorder and his achievements were recognised in 1621 when he was raised to the peerage.

Fulke Greville’s tomb in St Mary’s Warwick

His closeness to Warwick is shown by the fact that although he died in London his body was brought back to the town to be buried in the Collegiate Church of St Mary. His massive tomb now takes up most of the Church’s Chapter House. Its magnificence indicates that he was not short of money, or of self-importance, and it bears the epitaph he had written for himself:  “Folk Grevill Servant to Queene Elizabeth Counsellor to King James Friend to Sir Philip Sidney. Trophaeum Peccati.”

Greville is also one of the most unlikely candidates for the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. Not only did he have an extremely full life, two plays that he had written, Mustapha and Alaham, still exist. Currently a new critical edition of his plays is being worked on by Dr Sarah Knight of the University of Leicester, to be published by Oxford University Press. As the two plays exist in a number of manuscript and print versions the job of editing them is complex. However both plays are tragedies, have been described as “moralistic and philosophically challenging”, and Greville specified that they were to be read in private not performed in public. They are a far cry from Shakespeare’s popular dramas.

He also wrote sonnets, most on very serious subjects. Here is one, on a theme that also obsessed Shakespeare, Time, that also uses the imagery of the natural world:

The Nurse-Life wheat within his green husk growing
Flatters our hopes and tickles our desire;
Nature’s true riches in sweet beauties shewing,
Which set all hearts with labour’s love on fire.
No less fair is the wheat when golden ear
Shews until hope the joys of near enjoying:
Fair and sweet is the bud; more sweet and fair
The rose, which proves that Time is not destroying.
Caelica, your youth, the morning of delight,
Enamel’d o’er with beauties white and red,
All sense and thoughts did to belief invite,
That love and glory there are brought to bed;
And your ripe years, Love, now they grow no higher,
Turn all the spirits of man into desire.

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What did Shakespeare look like? From Upstart Crow to statues in bronze

David Mitchell in Upstart Crow

We’re surrounded by images of Shakespeare, yet it’s often said that we don’t really know what he looked like. I’ve been greatly enjoying the TV comedy series Upstart Crow, written by Ben Elton whose brilliant scripts for Blackadder back in the 1980s made it a cult. Elton’s brand of irreverent humour works particularly well in a period setting. Like Shakespeare himself he’s not overly concerned about historical accuracy, but on occasion his Shakespeare, David Mitchell looks uncannily like Shakespeare, or at least how I imagine him.

The series has a terrific cast including comedy stars Harry Enfield as a disreputable John Shakespeare (supposedly the prototype for Falstaff), Liza Tarbuck as Anne his wife and Paula Wilcox as Mary his mother. This is the show’s second series. The first got a bit lost amongst all the 2016 Shakespeare celebrations, but this shows Elton back to the sort of form he showed in the Blackadder days. In this interview he talks about it, a studio sitcom recorded in front of a live audience. “To my mind it’s perfect for Shakespeare. He was the ultimate man of the theatre and used every trick available: “asides”, internal monologues, declamatory rants, costume gags, cross dressing and oafish clowning. I wanted all that theatrical energy for our Shakespeare sitcom.”

Elton makes sure we don’t forget the plays are the important thing, and they supply many of the stories. Each episode references the plot of one of Shakespeare’s plays, so episode 3 shows Will writing a romance set in a foreign location that turns out to be The Two Gentlemen of Verona.  It has also been revealed that we can look forward to a Christmas special featuring Emma Thompson as Queen Elizabeth.

Class is said to be the foundation of every UK sitcom and Elton has adopted this as the key to the stories, even in the title. Upstart Crow was the insulting description penned by writer Robert Greene about Shakespeare the actor when he dared to become an author. In this article Shakespeare’s described as “a classic sitcom figure: an aspiring man whose attempts to make it big are forever thwarted by circumstances beyond his control”. There are still people who think the son of a glove-maker from Stratford-upon-Avon who never went to university can’t have been one of our greatest writers. Mitchell’s Shakespeare is constantly insecure, exasperated by his humble background and unimposing appearance.

Lawrence Holofcener’s Young Will

Back in Stratford, or “Stratters” as Shakespeare calls it in Upstart Crow, static images of Shakespeare continue to proliferate: you can already take your pick from rather neglected statue on the Town Hall, the Gower memorial (surely the best), the mosaic above the door of the Old Bank, and the new Lawrence Holofcener statue in the Bancroft Gardens, as well as several in less public outdoor and indoor spaces such as the oldest, the bust in Holy Trinity Church.

 The latest controversy relates to a statue gifted to the town by local businessman Tony Bird. The gift was not unwelcome, but where to put it? The original aim was to site it on the traffic island at the top of Bridge Street until it was decided this could be hazardous, then the rather small space opposite the Town Hall (already overlooked by two Shakespeares). In early September 2017 it was announced that that it may be sited in Henley Street, between the Birthplace and the Town’s public library. 

James Butler with his Shakespeare statue

A fine piece of work by the well-known artist James Butler, the 8-foot high statue will also stand on a large plinth, imposing, dignified and rather formal. Recent images of Shakespeare have tended to be friendlier: the Holofcener statue “Young Will” appeared in 2016 to very little fanfare. It’s a statue for the selfie generation, inviting people to interact with him as he stands with one leg on a bench, leaning over, his arm outstretched. I’ve seen people perching on his leg, sitting so his arm goes round them, and whole groups hugging this man of the people.  

This summer, too, a portrait of Shakespeare has been put together by passers-by. A 2 metre square portrait in lego was put together outside the RST in a single day on Sunday 27 August by anybody who wanted to join in. Whole families got involved in making up the 1024 square sections that were then slotted into place. The portrait was based on the RSC-owned Flower Portrait, and the lego picture is now on display on one of the upper walkways inside the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. We can all participate in creating a picture of Shakespeare.Whether the portrait is on screen, in bronze or even in little pieces of plastic, these images tell us as much about ourselves as about him.

Building the lego portrait of Shakespeare outside the RST

The completed lego portrait inside the RST

 

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Thomas Nashe and the end of Summer

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

Now the autumn equinox has passed summer is really over and it’s fitting that the boy players of Shakespeare’s School, Edward’s Boys, are performing Thomas Nashe’s play Summer’s Last Will and Testament at the end of September 2017.

The play was written during the autumn of 1592 as an entertainment for Archbishop Whitgift and his guests who were sheltering in the safety of his palace in Croydon while plague was rampant in London. The play focuses on the end of summer and the coming of winter, but unspoken parallels with the turbulent times in which it was written and performed are clear. Part play, part pageant, part masque, the seasons are personified and the other characters such as Morris dancers, the hobby horse and Christmas give it a strong pastoral feel that Shakespeareans will recognise from As You Like It. 

It has a simple structure. Summer has been the “King of the world” but, weakening, needs to pass on his legacy. Death, as winter, stalks the play, and there is a sense that the established ways are being threatened by something darker. Early in the play the allegorical figure of Summer enters, leaning on Autumn and Winter’s shoulders, and speaks:

Fair Summer droops, droop men and beasts therefore:
So fair a summer look for never more.
All good things vanish less than in a day,
Peace, plenty, pleasure, suddenly decay.
Go not yet away, bright soul of the sad year;
The earth is hell when thou leavest to appear…. 

What, shall those flowers that decked thy garland erst,
Upon thy grave be wastefully dispersed?
O trees, consume your sap in sorrow’s course,
Streams, turn to tears your tributary course.
Go not yet hence, bright soul of the sad year;
The earth is hell when thou leav’st to appear.

Summer orders Autumn and Winter to be kind to Queen Elizabeth:

Autumn, I charge thee, when that I am dead,
Be prest and serviceable at her beck;
Present her with thy goodliest ripened fruits,
Unclothe no arbours where she ever sat,
Touch not a tree thou think’st she may pass by;
And Winter, with thy writhen frosty face,
Smooth up thy visage when thou look’st on her,
Thou never look’st on such bright majesty;
A charmed circle draw about her court
Wherein warm days may dance, & no cold come;

On seas let winds make war, not vex her rest;
Quiet enclose her bed, thought fly her breast.

Having heard from all his potential heirs, Summer passes his crown to Autumn, and Summer finally makes his farewell. As he is carried away this song is sung:

Autumn hath all the summer’s fruitful treasure,
Gone is our sport, fled is poor Croyden’s pleasure,
Short days, sharp days, long nights come on apace,
Ah, who shall hide us from the winter’s face?
Cold doth increase, the sickness will not cease,
And here we lie, God knows, with little ease.
From winter, plague, & pestilence, good Lord, deliver us.

London doth mourn, Lambeth is quite forlorn,
Trades cry woe worth that ever they were born,
The want of term is town and City’s harm,
Close chambers we do want, to keep us warm,
Long banished must we live from our friends,
This low-built house will bring us to our ends.
From winter, plague, & pestilence, good Lord, deliver us.

The title page of the 1600 edition of Summer’s Last Will and Testament

It’s not just the season that makes the play surprisingly topical but the uncertain atmosphere, the sense of foreboding and change.

Although performed in 1592 the play must have remained current, as it was published eight years later in 1600. Shakespeare must have been aware of it and it will be interesting to see it in the context of his writings too. The text can be read here.

In terms of performance it’s a real rarity, and the production by Edward’s Boys will be the first time since its original staging that it’s has been acted by a boys’ company. Nashe was a highly collaborative writer and this is also his only play authored by himself alone. This link leads to the current project being undertaken on Thomas Nashe and his work.

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Shakespeare’s Warwick

The Beauchamp Chapel, Warwick

I recently went on a tour of one of Warwick’s most ancient buildings, the Collegiate Church of St Mary. As we were taken round, our guide pointed out memorials that made me wonder about the impact this town and its buildings must have made on the young William Shakespeare. For centuries St Mary’s Church has been the most important of Warwick’s churches because of its connection with the Castle. Ordinary people might not have been inside the castle, but visitors to the town, including Shakespeare and his family, would have been to the church to “view the manners of the town,/ Peruse the traders, gaze upon the buildings”, just like Antipholus of Ephesus in The Comedy of Errors on his arrival in Syracuse. At the church they would have seen memorials to the famous occupants of the Castle.  Their names, and their stories, find their way into Shakespeare’s history plays.

Warwick Castle

As county town, Warwick has always been the place from which the whole area was administered. Stratford, a few miles downstream, may have been a busy market town, its river and bridge making it important for communications, but it had little political significance. Magnificent Warwick Castle dominates the town from its situation overlooking the River Avon. It’s described as England’s greatest remaining medieval castle and has been owned and visited by many of the most powerful people in the country. 

There has been some kind of castle on the spot for well over 1000 years, but it was in the thirteenth century that the castle became nationally significant. In 1268 the De Beauchamps became Earls of Warwick and in the mid 1300s Thomas Beauchamp became Earl during the reign of Edward III. Although Shakespeare did not write about this period of English history itself, the story of Edward III and the disastrous complications relating to the inheritance of the crown following the death of his eldest son forms the backdrop to all of Shakespeare’s history plays from Richard II to Richard III. 

This Thomas Beauchamp was one of the original Knights of the Garter who fought alongside Edward III’s son the Black Prince at Crecy and Poitiers. He planned to replace the existing 12th-century church with something grander but died before this could be achieved. His son put the striking tomb of Thomas and his wife Katherine in the chancel of the church, right in front of the high altar.

The tomb of Robert Dudley and his wife Lettice

A later Beauchamp, Richard, the 13th Earl of Warwick, served in France as Captain of Calais and supervised the trial of Joan of Arc, dramatized in Shakespeare’s play Henry VI part 1. The Earldom passed to the Neville family soon after and during the Wars of the Roses, Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, was one of the most powerful men in the country. A Yorkist, he helped Edward IV to the crown and was known as the Kingmaker. He’s a major figure in Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays, eventually crossing to the Lancastrian side and being defeated by King Edward, whose brother Richard III took ownership of Warwick Castle. Under the Tudors the Dudley family were created Earls of Warwick.

The real glory of St Mary’s Church is the Beauchamp chapel, built in 1442-62 to house the tomb of Richard, who died in 1439. It’s a masterpiece of the English Gothic style, said to be the finest chantry chapel in the country and certainly deserves more attention than it gets.  Also buried within the chapel are members of the Dudley family including Ambrose Dudley “The Good Earl”. It’s his younger brother Robert, though, who is for us the most famous person to be buried there. This Robert Dudley was Queen Elizabeth’s favourite. He, his third wife Lettice and his son are all buried in the chapel. 

Lord Leycester Hospital, Warwick

Robert Dudley is also connected with another of the most striking of Warwick’s historic buildings, the Lord Leycester Hospital. This group of timber-framed buildings date from the 14th century and until the reformation was home to Warwick’s medieval guilds. Dudley acquired the buildings in 1571 and repurposed them as a “Hospital” to which elderly and infirm soldiers and their wives could retire. Today it still houses ex-Servicemen and their partners. Parts of the building, including the Guildhall, Chapel and gardens are open to the public. On 3 November 2017 an event is being held at the Hospital that might be of interest to Shakespeareans. It’s a Banquet to celebrate the 400th anniversary of James 1’s visit to Warwick, and on 4 November there will be a daytime continuation of the celebrations. Tickets for the Banquet are already on sale. Music, merriment and a great feast are promised.

 

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Securing Shakespeare’s Birthplace for the nation and the world

The auction 16 September 1847

16 September 1847 is a date that all those interested in Shakespeare should know. On that date an auction was held at the Auction Mart in London at which Shakespeare’s birthplace, described on the sale poster as “The Truly Heart-stirring Relic of a Most Glorious Period, and of England’s Immortal Bard”, was sold.

170 years on it’s being celebrated by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust with a new temporary exhibition at Shakespeare’s Birthplace, running from 16 September to 29 December 2017. The exhibition will show how important figures of the day including academics John Payne Collier and Charles Knight, actor W C Macready and novelist Charles Dickens campaigned to save Shakespeare’s Birthplace.

Paul Greenwood as auctioneer

On the day itself there is also to be a theatrical re-enactment, to be held in Henley Street outside the Birthplace at 12 and 2pm. This isn’t the first time: on 16 September 1997, the 150th anniversary of the sale, the auction was staged. The town’s beadle made the announcements, actor Paul Greenwood took charge as the auctioneer Edmund Robins, and senior employees of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust joined in enthusiastically: Nic Walsh (in charge of running the houses) and the Director, Roger Pringle, both took the roles of people bidding at the auction. Mr Pringle, wearing a magnificent hat, submitted the winning bid of £3000. For the re-enactment American circus proprietor PT Barnum made a dramatic intervention. In fact although there were rumours he would attempt to buy the house, he did not attend the auction. The actual auction included some drama as one person demanded an assurance that Shakespeare had really been born in the house, something that sadly nobody has ever been able to prove, though there is every reason to believe that he had.

SBT Director Roger Pringle makes the successful bid

In some ways the auction was the easy bit. If they think about it at all, most people assume that the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the charitable organisation that now cares for all five Shakespeare houses, was founded immediately after the purchase in 1847. In fact the SBT was not incorporated by Act of Parliament until 1891, 44 years after the sale.

Before the sale took place, assurances had been given that the government would take on the administration of the house once it had been purchased, and two committees were set up specifically to fundraise. The London Committee gained the support of many celebrities, right up to Prince Albert, but the Stratford Birthplace Committee was formed by renaming a body that already existed, the Shakespearean Monumental Committee. This in turn had been formed by Stratford-upon-Avon’s Shakespeare Club that in 1835 successfully restored Shakespeare’s tomb and the chancel in Holy Trinity Church and had indicated its willingness to preserve Shakespeare’s house and other properties such as the site of New Place.

The Birthplace before restoration

After the excitement of the auction around £500 was still needed to pay for the house. The Government declined to take on any responsibility and the London Committee soon lost interest in fundraising. It fell to the Stratford Birthplace Committee to arrange a loan with a local bank that took until 1855 to pay off. They also arranged for the house to be opened to the public and on the strength of a promised inheritance organised the desperately-needed restoration of the house. When this money too failed to materialised they were forced to take out another loan. Finally, this group of mostly local people were able in 1866 to hand over the responsibility for the house to the Corporation of Stratford-upon-Avon, to be managed by a body of Trustees. It was this organisation, with its powers redefined and clarified, that turned into the SBT. The contribution made by local people to the purchase and development of the Birthplace is often overlooked, but should also be celebrated. The story of local involvement in the Birthplace is told in The Story of the Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon and in Dr Levi Fox’s book The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust: a Personal Memoir.

The acquisition of the Birthplace was a hugely significant event. In her book Shakespeare’s Shrine, Julia Thomas concludes “It was the auction of the property and its purchase for the nation that changed the course of the building’s history and, with it, the fortunes of Stratford-upon-Avon. It also changed the fortunes of Shakespeare”. (p 156).Literary tourism, that links the writings of an author with their origins, began with the Birthplace. She also notes that it helped make the connection between Shakespeare’s plays and the home. Not just theatrical texts, they were to be enjoyed more like novels, every home having a copy of the Complete Works that would be read out loud as the Bible was. At least 162 editions of the plays were published between 1851 and 1860, catering to many different markets.

With the house becoming a major tourist attraction, it became necessary to try to answer questions about the connections between the man, his works, a challenge that continues to this day.

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Peter Hall and Shakespeare

Sir Peter Hall

On 15 September 2017 theatres in the West End of London and on Broadway will dim their lights in memory of Sir Peter Hall whose death, aged 86, was announced on 12 September. This has become a recognised tribute to the great in the world of theatre, and nobody is more worthy of it than he. The theatre, especially the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, would today be completely different without his powerful influence.

At the age of only 29 Peter Hall was appointed to run the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he was already working as a director. His appointment must have come as something of a surprise since his reputation had been made by directing modern plays. It followed years under the leadership of Anthony Quayle, a distinguished actor and director who used his many connections to woo the biggest names in the London theatre to the Warwickshire playhouse. Glamorous actors such as Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud and Michael Redgrave, sumptuous settings and costumes, ensure that we look back on the 1950s as a bit of a golden age. Quayle’s years were successful, particularly in raising  the profile of the Stratford theatre, but there was an acceptance that it could not last.

Peter Hall around 1960

He shocked traditionalists, setting about changing everything. Gone were the stars, or at least most of them, and in came young actors, directors and designers. He rightly claimed that these young, talented artists would themselves become stars, and he brought in three-year contracts that gave them some stability. Among them were Peter O’Toole, Ian Richardson and Ian Holm.

He gave the theatre a forward-looking name: the Royal Shakespeare Theatre instead of Shakespeare Memorial Theatre and introduced changes that must have changed the experience of playgoing for audiences. He took away the velvet curtain and painted over the fire curtain that featured a scene of Shakespeare standing in the Warwickshire countryside.  After a couple of uncertain years Hall came up with the production that would define the fledgling RSC: The Wars of the Roses. Working with John Barton the three Henry VI plays (considered virtually unplayable) were conflated into two and with Richard III were played as a trilogy that could be seen in a day. The plays were performed on a single set designed by John Bury, with no decorative flourishes, and costumes that were similarly bold, but not sumptuous. Although young actors took many of the main roles Hall had not parted with all of them, notably Peggy Ashcroft, a past Cleopatra and Rosalind who played Queen Margaret in all three parts.  It was a triumph.

David Warner as Hamlet with the signature red scarf

The Wars of the Roses looked historical, if not conventional. It was another production, in 1965, that announced to the world that Shakespeare at Stratford was modern. The young, gangly and not very heroic-looking David Warner was cast as Hamlet. He had already appeared as Henry VI in the Wars of the Roses. While the older generation wore conventional costumes, Warner’s Hamlet wore a costume accessory that immediately connected him to teenagers: a long red knitted scarf. Teenagers knitted their own red scarves and wore them to performances, and many theatre aficionados now in their sixties and seventies date their love of Shakespeare to attending either The Wars of the Roses or Hamlet.

Hall developed the idea of the Stratford company having a permanent London home to house transfers as well as modern plays. Shakespeare was treated as a political writer as relevant as any contemporary author. Hall wrote about the Henry VI plays “We are forced to experience the passionate responsibility of mother to son, of king to country, of people to king, of blood to blood.” These dynamic changes transformed the RSC in just a few years, attracting a younger, politically-aware audience.

Tributes to Sir Peter Hall have been written by everybody in the world of the arts. If you have missed it, an edition of BBC Radio 4’s Front Row included interviews with many distinguished people including the man who followed him in running the RSC, Trevor Nunn. This link is to a BBC 4 documentary Sir Peter Hall Remembered.

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Shakespeare’s Cleopatra

Josette Simon as Cleopatra, Antony Byrne as Antony, RSC 2017

I recently attended a performance of Antony and Cleopatra at the RSC. Watching Josette Simon playing the Queen of Egypt, I couldn’t help thinking of others I’ve seen in the part, and wondering why it’s such a difficult one. Surely it ought to be as important for female actors as Hamlet is for men, but this isn’t the case.

Perhaps one reason is that Hamlet is described in only the most sketchy way in the play by Ophelia and Horatio. The field is clear for Hamlet to be what the actor wants to be within the confines of the text. Cleopatra, by contrast, has a lot to live up to: not just that most famous of speeches, the description of her by Enobarbus, but the Romans, the tittle-tattle of Egyptians, and of Antony’s friends. She’s a gipsy, a strumpet, a glorious piece of work, a woman of infinite variety.

I’ve recently been enjoying reading Stanley Wells’ book Great Shakespeare Actors, which examines the careers of 39 of them. The author acknowledges the impossibility of his task by dedicating the book “To all the great Shakespeare actors not included in this book”. Only ten are women, and Cleopatra is listed as one of their principal Shakespeare roles for just four: Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, Judi Dench and Janet Suzman. About three quarters of the men excelled as Hamlet.

One of the problems is the play itself: quite soon after it was written there was obvious unease about it. Dryden’s All for Love reworked Shakespeare’s play extensively. It was first staged in 1678, by which time women were on the stage, and remained the only version of the play to be staged until David Garrick restored Shakespeare’s play in 1759. Even David Garrick failed to make the play a success though, and in the first half of the nineteenth century the great actor-managers JP Kemble and Macready, put the play on likewise with little success. Isabella Glyn, acting with Samuel Phelps in 1849 was the most successful Cleopatra to date. Glyn was formidable rather than alluring, but she was followed by several Cleopatras who were known for their beauty including Lillie Langtry and Constance Collier, both making the most of the fashion for Egyptian artefacts.

Peggy Ashcroft as Cleopatra, Michael Redgrave as Antony. SMT 1953. Photo by Angus McBean, Copyright RSC

The twentieth century saw far more successful Cleopatras, Vivien Leigh acting with her husband Laurence Olivier in 1951, followed quickly by Peggy Ashcroft in Stratford in 1953. Ashcroft was not a conventional beauty, though this did not stop her being attractive and compelling, using her intelligence to bind her Antony, Michael Redgrave. Although Edith Evans was indisputably a great actress in many of her roles, Cleopatra, performed in 1925-6 and again in 1946, was not one of her best. J C Trewin described her as “matchless in the early wheedlings, rages, languishing”, but “not a Cleopatra for fire and air”.

Modern Cleopatras still have to contend with the image of Elizabeth Taylor in the 1960s blockbuster Cleopatra. She didn’t play Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, who would probably have been a greater challenge, In 1972, coinciding with the British Museum’s great Tutankhamen exhibition, Janet Suzman and Richard Johnson played the couple in a gorgeous production, again in Stratford. Most of the greatest female actors played the role towards the end of the 1900s: Vanessa Redgrave, Glenda Jackson, Judi Dench and Helen Mirren, Jane Lapotaire for the BBC TV Shakespeare, and at the Globe, Mark Rylance took the part on in 1999 giving a fascinating insight into how the part might have been played and received in the first productions.

Harriet Walter as Cleopatra, RSC 2006

A Cleopatra who made sense of all the conflicts of the part, and one of the most successful I’ve seen, was Harriet Walter who with Patrick Stewart performed in Gregory Doran’s production in Stratford in 2006.  Walter described how she approached the part: “She’s an extraordinarily intelligent, intense woman, a complex character who uses her sexuality as a political weapon. I decided I was going to play Cleopatra as someone with a brain. She’s kept Egypt, this tiny country, in a balance of power with the almighty Roman empire, and she’s done it through force of personality.”

There’s an interview with Doran here in which he talks interestingly about the play, how both Antony and Cleopatra are “playing” themselves, and about how both are on public display all the time, and everybody talks about both of them. In the first scene, Antony is aware of their fame:
When such a mutual pair,
And such a twain can do’t, in which I bind,
On pain of punishment, the world to weet
We stand up peerless.

The parallel with modern celebrities is clear: how can two such famous public personalities have a proper relationship with each other? The RSC’s current production of Antony and Cleopatra has now closed in Stratford but will be at the Barbican in London from 30 November 2017 to 20 January 2018. An interview with Josette Simon on playing the role is here.

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Hamlets onstage in 2017

Tom Hiddleston as Hamlet

Of all Shakespeare’s plays, it’s Hamlet that holds most fascination for audiences, and new productions often make the headlines. In recent years we’ve seen Maxine Peake at the Royal Exchange in Manchester in 2014, Benedict Cumberbatch’s production staged at the Barbican in 2015 and Paapa Essiedu at the RSC in 2016. Each was notable in its own way. Rolling through all three years was Dominic Dromgoole’s production that toured to almost 200 countries around the world.

These production were all notable, each for different reasons that sometimes had little to do with the quality of the acting: with Peake media interest focused on her gender, finding her angry and emotionally direct, one critic noting with some surprise that she was a good fencer. It’s a pity that consideration of Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance received much less media attention than the fact that the famous TV Sherlock had to plead with the audience not to film the show on their mobile phones. His Hamlet, in contrast to his highly intellectual Sherlock, was a case of “arrested emotional development. What we are watching is a man still struggling to grow up”. It was estimated that 250,000 people saw the production either in the theatre or via the relay in cinemas worldwide. In the RSC’s production “the focus is less on politics than on the predicament of a prince who finds himself an outcast in his own land”,Paapa Essiedu a young man “palpably isolated and bereft”. The production was so successful the RSC has now announced it is to go on tour to five regional theatres before heading for London in 2018.

The wonder of Dromgoole’s Hamlet was that it happened at all, setting out the seemingly impossible task of performing in every country on earth. They might not quite have managed that, but it was still a considerable feat, and Dromgoole has now written an account of it  that focuses on the difficulties of achieving it rather than the production itself, or even international reactions to it.  This production too played to over 100,000 people.

The Brandreth Hamlet

We never seem to have had too much of Hamlet and in 2017 there have been a new crop. They were discussed on the BBC’s Front Row on 28 August.  

The only one of the three Hamlets in London this summer that anyone still has a chance of seeing is the three-handed version at the Park Theatre, Finsbury Park with Benet and Gyles Brandreth and Benet’s wife Kosha Engler. It runs until 16 September. Inevitably it’s a family affair, labelled a kitchen sink drama and probably not meant to be taken too seriously. 

The highest-profile of these is the current production at RADA’s Jerwood Vanbrugh theatre, starring Tom Hiddleston. Directed by Kenneth Branagh (himself a notable Hamlet on several occasions) most media interest has been caused by the fact that it’s virtually impossible to get a ticket. Only 4000 tickets were available for the three-week season from 1-23 September, in a studio seating only 160. They were allocated by ballot (allegedly reviewers had to go through the ballot too through the Guardian’s Michael Billington still got a seat). The idea is to raise funds for RADA though it’s hard to resist the feeling that it would have been easy to make an awful lot more by playing in a larger space or live-streaming it to cinemas. Like Cumberbatch’s production, and venue would have been sold out in hours, and the media attention is again more on the fight for tickets than on the production itself. 

Having said that,  people attending dress rehearsals described the production as a “thriller”, “vibrant” and “the grief Hamlet”. The Guardian commented that the production stresses the domestic rather than the political aspects of the play, and “Tom Hiddleston captures the sweetness as well as the fury”.

Andrew Scott as Hamlet (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

The other London production, now closed, is Andrew Scott’s Hamlet at the Almeida which then transferred to the Harold Pinter Theatre in the West End, closing on 2 September. Famous for other high-profile roles including Moriarty in, again, Sherlock, Scott’s performance has been widely praised and the whole production called “an all-consuming marvel”. Not just about the prince, the production has had a terrific cast including Juliet Stevenson as Gertrude. Elsinore is a place where everybody is being watched, spied on, under surveillance.  

With the production now having closed, it is great news that it will be screened by the BBC in 2018. No further information is available yet but this link leads to the BBC’s announcement. Who knows how many other gloomy but charismatic Danes will appear on the stage in 2018.

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Announcing the Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon’s new season

Michael Wood

With summer turning to autumn, it’s time to think about the many enjoyable ways to fill the longer evenings. Shakespeare-lovers can now look forward to the new season of meetings of the Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeare Club. The Club is the oldest Shakespeare organisation still in existence and at the monthly gatherings members can hear distinguished speakers talking on a variety of Shakespeare-related subjects. Meetings are held at the Shakespeare Institute in Church Street, Stratford, on the second Tuesday of the month from October to May.  Visitors are always welcome and parking is available at the rear of the building. If you would like to find out more about the Club, its history, the upcoming season and how to join all the information is on the website.

This year the Club’s President is to be the popular TV historian Michael Wood, who has produced many fascinating series including In Search of Shakespeare and a single documentary on Mary Arden, Shakespeare’s mother. He’s long had connections with Stratford-upon-Avon.

For his presidential evening on 14 November he will be talking on ““Shakespeare’s Memory”, examining the primary  influences on him as a young man,  the ones that came from family and community. He will look at Shakespeare’s local roots  in Warwickshire,  and especially at his parents’  generation in a time of great  social, economic and religious change.  Wood’s research is always thorough and he’s an enthusiastic, engaging speaker so this is likely to be a real highlight.

A full list and description of all the upcoming lectures is on the website. As usual, several of our lectures are on unusual aspects of Shakespeare study. In October, Professor Gary Watt will examine how Shakespeare uses sound effects to move us in the same way as music does.  In December Jerry Brotton will examine the extensive contacts between Elizabethan England and the Islamic world, with Muslims being viewed as either exotic or barbarous. He will examine the ways in which this ambivalence is also seen in Shakespeare’s plays. Other talks will include a light-hearted look at acting Shakespeare and, appropriately for the May meeting when spring will have sprung, a description of Shakespeare’s gardens and plans for their future.

To get a flavour of the Club’s activities go to the website where you will find a gallery of photographs including some recent events, and the minutes of the last few years’ meetings which summarise the lectures.  The recently-published history of the Club, The Story of the Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon, 1824-2016,  details of which are also on the website, will also be available for purchase at each meeting. All are welcome.

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Shakespeare and Greenwich

Greenwich Palace in the Tudor period

There is something special about the place where important events took place, no matter how long ago. Even where there are no remaining signs on the ground people still visit: perhaps the draw is that these sites make us use our imaginations so strongly.  

It’s always surprising to find bits of the London that Shakespeare knew beneath the city streets and buildings. A couple of weeks ago it was announced that remains of Greenwich Palace had been found.  

Greenwich, on the banks of the Thames several miles downstream from London, has been a place of significance for many centuries. The Tudor palace was where Henry VIII was born in 1491, where he married Catherine of Aragon, where their daughters Mary and Elizabeth were born to his first two wives. Later Henry married his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves there. When she became Queen, Elizabeth 1 continued to use Greenwich as well as other royal palaces, and it has a particular significance for Shakespeare. Over the Christmas period in 1594 the newly-formed Lord Chamberlain’s Men played twice at court in Greenwich. The accounts list William Kempe, Richard Burbage and William Shakespeare as payees. It’s the earliest document that links Shakespeare to a theatrical company, showing that he was one of its leaders, and tells us that the company was important enough to perform before the monarch. It must have been an extraordinary experience for them all.  

The remains of the Tudor palace at Greenwich

Sadly the excavation can not bring us any nearer to those actual events, and the remains are relatively humble, finding “two rooms of the Tudor palace, including a floor featuring lead-glazed tiles. Being set back from the river, these are likely to be from the service range, possibly where the kitchens, bakehouse, brewhouse and laundry were. One of the rooms was clearly subterranean and contains a series of unusual niches, which archaeologists believe may be ‘bee boles’ for the keeping of skeps (hive baskets) during the winter months when the bee colonies are hibernating.” The palace known to Henry VIII and Elizabeth was demolished and the magnificent buildings that are now the Old Royal Naval College, designed by Christopher Wren, were erected on the same site. The current finds were made during the restoration of this building’s magnificent Painted Hall which is to be fully opened complete with a new visitors centre.  In 2006 an earlier excavation uncovered remains of the chapel build by Henry VII where those two marriages of Henry VIII took place.  

Among the descriptions of the palace I was intrigued to find another link to Shakespeare. The original palace that was replaced by Henry VII was built by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester in 1443. This is Shakespeare’s “Good Duke Humphrey”, they youngest brother of Henry V. He appears rather briefly in Shakespeare’s play of the same name, but after Henry’s death Humphrey became a major political figure, appointed regent to the young Henry VI. As Lord Protector, the most powerful man in the kingdom, he built his palace in Greenwich. In Henry VI parts 1 and 2 he constantly battles against the other English nobles, making enemies who eventually get him arrested for high treason, and is brutally murdered. Writing Humphrey’s lament, and the King’s later speech, Shakespeare uses some of those long extended metaphors that relate to his own rural upbringing:
A
h! thus King Henry throws away his crutch
Before his legs be firm to bear his body.
Thus is the shepherd beaten from thy side,
And wolves are gnarling who shall gnaw thee first.

And Henry speaks out in his defence, but too late.

Ah, uncle Humphrey! in thy face I see
The map of honour, truth and loyalty:
And yet, good Humphrey, is the hour to come
That e’er I proved thee false or fear’d thy faith.
What louring star now envies thy estate,
That these great lords and Margaret our queen
Do seek subversion of thy harmless life?

Thou never didst them wrong, nor no man wrong;
And as the butcher takes away the calf
And binds the wretch, and beats it when it strays,
Bearing it to the bloody slaughter-house,
Even so remorseless have they borne him hence;
And as the dam runs lowing up and down,
Looking the way her harmless young one went,
And can do nought but wail her darling’s loss,
Even so myself bewails good Gloucester’s case
With sad unhelpful tears, and with dimm’d eyes
Look after him and cannot do him good,
So mighty are his vowed enemies.
His fortunes I will weep; and, ‘twixt each groan
Say ‘Who’s a traitor? Gloucester he is none.’
 

“Good Duke Humphrey” is one of the most sympathetic of Shakespeare’s nobles and even though nothing of his palace has been found it’s to be hoped that in the new visitors centre that the story of Duke Humphrey and his palace will be told.

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