Shakespeare’s Schooldays brought to life

King Edward VI School, Stratford-upon-Avon

On Tuesday 4 April I addressed the pupils of King Edward VI School in Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s School, at their morning assembly, part of our efforts to publicise the town’s two hundred-year old Shakespeare Club. The school has been in existence much longer than the Club, of course, but there are points of connection especially relating to the celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday. To the Headmaster of the School we owe the idea of the floral procession from the town to Shakespeare’s grave. The tradition began in 1893 with a single floral wreath, and quickly became a popular offering of humble springtime flowers open to anyone. It was only when this ritual became so popular the church could not accommodate everybody that the Shakespeare Club stepped in, setting a time and place for the start of the parade, requesting that all should bring flowers, and providing other entertainments during the day. Within a few years the Celebrations had become an international event.

There is another connection: at least one former pupil of the school, Charles Frederick Green, was one of the founders of the Club in 1824. Green, the son of a hatter, came from the same social class as Shakespeare, and was an avid admirer. His aim in helping to create and promote the Club was to “create an enthusiasm amongst the associates of [his] youth” for the memorials of Shakespeare in the town and the plays. In 2016, after the completion of a restoration project, the school has opened the room in which Shakespeare was a pupil and the Guild Hall where it is thought he saw his first plays. The pupils of the school are now involved in telling the story of Shakespeare’s education, and if Charles Frederick Green was alive today he would certainly be taking part.

Reliving the Elizabethan schoolroom today

Green writes about his enthusiasm for Shakespeare in the introduction to his book on the legend of Shakespeare’s Crab Tree, and gives the impression that he enjoyed his school days. Perhaps by the early 1800s there was less emphasis on rote learning, and less discipline, than there had been in Shakespeare’s time. Shakespeare always comments on how much schoolboys disliked school: from As You Like It, “the whining schoolboy, with his satchel/And shining morning face, creeping like snail/Unwillingly to school” to Romeo for whom “Love goes toward love, as schoolboys from their books,/ But love from love, toward school with heavy looks”.

The conversation of the Schoolmaster Holofernes and curate Sir Nathaniel in Love’s Labour’s Lost is dull and pedantic, though Shakespeare fills it with wordplay which his audience would have enjoyed. And in The Merry Wives of Windsor a boy called William is quizzed by his schoolmaster Sir Hugh Evans on his Latin. Here’s part of it, missing out the comic misunderstandings of Mistress Quickly.

Sir Hugh. William, how many numbers is in nouns?
William. Two.
Sir Hugh. What is “fair”, William?
William. Pulcher.
Sir Hugh. What is “lapis”, William?
William. A stone.
Sir Hugh. And what is “a stone”, William?
William. A pebble.
Sir Hugh. No, it is “lapis”: I pray you, remember in your prain.
William. Lapis.
Sir Hugh. That is a good William. What is he, William, that does lend articles?
William. Articles are borrowed of the pronoun, and be thus declined, Singulariter, nominative, hic, haec, hoc.
Sir Hugh. Nominativo, hig, hag, hog; pray you, mark: genitivo, hujus. Well, what is your accusative case?
William. Accusativo, hinc.

The Latin lesson from John Marston’s What You Will

I hadn’t realised, until reading tweets from Jose A Perez Diez, how closely this parody of a Latin lesson is matched by one in John Marston’s play What You Will, probably written a year or so earlier than Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (subtitled What You Will). Diez is working on the new critical edition of the complete works of Marston, due to be published by OUP in 2020. In this play, written for a company of boys, the schoolmaster appears before a class who greet him in Latin. One of them is then asked to “Stand forth repeat your lesson with out booke”. He says ““In nownes bee two numbers, the singuler and the plurall, the singuler number speaketh of one as Lapis a stone, the plural speaketh of more then one, as Lapides stones.”, and carries on to talk about figures of speech including nouns, adjectives and verbs, and their declensions. Much of this is apparently based on William Lily’s Short Introduction to Grammar, the standard Latin text book in use in schools.

Diez seems to be correct in noting that, judging by the evidence, many English dramatists hated learning Latin as schoolboys. If you want to get a flavour of what it was like to be a schoolboy in Shakespeare’s time, go along to Shakespeare’s Schoolroom where you will find out more.


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Shakespeare commonplace book on Antiques Roadshow

The seventeenth century commonplace book

An inside page of the miniature commonplace book

The BBC Antiques Roadshow has often featured items with a Shakespeare connection, but on Sunday 2 April 2017 we saw “one of the most remarkable items to ever feature on the Antiques Roadshow”. Its appearance had been widely anticipated and was even thought by some to be an April Fool since Tweets had started to appear on April 1.  


The object was a tiny commonplace book, written in a seventeenth century hand, on the subject of William Shakespeare’s Comedies and Tragedies. The gentleman who brought it in was a distant descendant of eighteenth-century antiquarian John Loveday who lived at Caversham Court where the programme was coming from (currently used by the BBC). He had found it among his mother’s possessions. Loveday had a library of 2,500 books and this was thought to have been acquired by him. The notes were written “by an unknown seventeenth century William Shakespeare scholar”.  

We were treated to tantalising glimpses of a few pages but not enough to really get a sense of what was written, which the owner said he had never been able to read. Manuscript specialist Matthew Haley claimed to be trembling with excitement at handling this little object, and we can be sure that academics will be queuing up to examine it properly.  He placed a value of £30,000 on the book.

The full piece can be found here.

Any new discovery relating to Shakespeare always creates huge interest, even when, like this one, it seems to have no direct connection to Shakespeare himself. Its value will probably be in providing evidence of how Shakespeare was received during or shortly after his lifetime.  

As Matthew Haley thought, interest was immediate, with a number of Shakespeare academics Tweeting about it almost as soon as the piece had finished. It’s to be hoped that the commonplace book, or rather high quality photographs and transcriptions, will be made available to academics. I look forward to hearing more about this terrific find!

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Shakespeare’s Birthday news update

With April just around the corner, Shakespeareans around the world will be planning how to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday on the 23rd. I looked forward to the 2017 events a few weeks ago, and this post is to provide an update on what will be going on in Stratford-upon-Avon, the town where he was born and died.

Looking forward to Stratford’s Birthday Celebrations 2017


The Birthday luncheon on Saturday 22nd is now sold out, but tickets are still available for the new initiative, The Bard’s Night.  This grown-up evening will go up to and beyond midnight on Friday 21 April, and promises to be a terrific start to the weekend’s proceedings. The website promises “The Bard’s Night will be a highly enjoyable feast of food, drinks and astonishingly good performances from Fred Theatre, Diabolus in Musica, Bukechi and others”.

It will feature favourite songs and speeches from many of the plays as well as spinoffs such as Brush up Your Shakespeare from the musical Kiss Me, Kate. The full programme is available on the website, as is the menu, and the event will take place at the ArtsHouse in Rother Street, Stratford-upon-Avon. If you’re on Twitter, there’s a chance to win a ticket to The Bard’s Night. All you have to do is to follow @BardsNight to be entered into a prize draw. Tickets will be drawn on 1 April so you have to get in today 31 March 2017!

Of course the traditional floral procession will take place as usual on the morning of Saturday 22nd April. Town Clerk Sarah Summers says “come and join in the festivities in 2017 – as well as the Birthday Parade, there will be entertainment and activities for all the family taking place around the town, many of them outdoors and mostly free of charge.  It will be a perfect way to finish the Easter holidays.”

And the RSC are holding their own events at the theatre and in their gardens including acrobatic performances and demonstrations.

The Birthday weekend is always a great time to visit Stratford-upon-Avon and this year it comes at the end of the Easter break, perfect timing for anyone on holiday, or wanting to do something different before getting back to work.

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Shakespearean replicas then and now

A few weeks ago at a local book fair I bought a collection of engravings of Shakespeare’s Birthplace all dating from the nineteenth century. Shakespeare’s Birthplace was a major tourist attraction, and one which changed in appearance several times, the changes giving clues of the dates when the images were made. The images show how the house was transformed from being a neat, though humble little building with chickens scratching around in front of the door to the neat and prosperous-looking detached house that it became in 1864 after restoration.

The Birthplace 1840s

One of the engravings shows the house, in a sadly dilapidated condition, being shown to two ladies by a gentleman in the costume of the 1840s. He points to the sign “THE IMMORTAL SHAKESPEARE WAS BORN IN THIS HOUSE”. In an upper window a flowering pot plant can be seen, but the rest of the house is in a terrible state. The location is carefully represented, with buildings on either side and a sign for the Coach and Horses inn (now a café) across the road.

Stuck on the other side of the piece of paper is an almost-identical image of the same building, but this one is labelled “Erected from Drawings by Alfred Crowquill, in the Surrey Zoological Gardens, July 26th 1847.” So what was this about?

The replica in the Surrey Zoological Gardens 1847

I checked out a book that’s a mine of information about Shakespeare-worship in Stratford during the nineteenth century, Julia Thomas’s  Shakespeare’s Shrine: the Bard’s Birthplace and the Invention of Stratford-upon-Avon. The author describes how in the summer of 1847 “it was difficult to beat the Surrey Zoological Gardens. Children could peer through cages holding wild and exotic animals; mothers could visit the flower and fruit shows; while fathers and older boys could be entertained by a pyrotechnic display of the siege of Gibraltar and the blowing up of battering ships. In 1847, however, there was an added attraction. Occupying a prime position in the fifteen-acre plot stood a house. With its higgledy-piggledy beams and exposed brickwork, the property had seen better days, but this did not stop thousands of tourists from waiting in line to enter it.”

She continues, “as far as replicas went, this was certainly impressive. In many ways it was better than the actual Birthplace. For one thing, it was closer to London, and it also came with a complete interior and furnishings, in contrast to the dilapidated condition of the Stratford house. The two properties were identical.” The Illustrated London News confirmed “Nothing can exceed the minuteness of the copy…right down to the blackened and worm-eaten timbers and the broken paving stones outside the front door”. It was apparently the most successful attraction that had ever been shown at the Zoological Gardens, which  were in Newington, on the east side of Kennington Park Road.

The copy drew crowds because the original house in Stratford was to be sold, an event that was causing enormous public interest in the press. She reckons that “The Shakespeare industry that we recognise today, the economy that has transformed Stratford into a tourist mecca…was a direct result of the auction of 1847”. Souvenirs of the sale process, even copies of the Auction Catalogue, were sold and collected in large numbers. It’s strange to think that, if American circus-owner Mr Barnum had bought the Birthplace and shipped it off to the USA as he was rumoured to be planning, England would have been left with the Surrey copy to take its place and Stratford would never have become that tourist mecca.

The history of replica buildings is certainly strange, with the modern Shakespeare’s Globe in London being the most obvious example, though this at least was built only a few hundred yards from the location of the original.

The New Zealand pop-up Globe

There are replica Globe Theatres all over the world, but just at the moment a “Pop-up Globe” is in full swing in Auckland, New Zealand. It claims to be the world’s first temporary working replica of the second Globe, and its second successful season full swing. The three-storey building this year has a new hand-painted ceiling and large stage, and until 19 May 2017 is staging Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V, Othello and As You Like It.

I have to confess I’m not sure how this initiative relates to the well-established Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand, which has for over twenty years worked with Shakespeare’s Globe under the leadership of Dawn Sanders. This group became well-known for their educational work and for the donation of a set of classically-inspired embroidered hangings made in New Zealand for Shakespeare’s Globe, and which now hang in the exhibition in the UnderGlobe. Unlike the copies of the theatres themselves, these are original work as no records have survived of the original Theatres, but how extraordinary it is that New Zealand should have such a powerful record of involvement in Shakespeare’s Globe theatres.

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Queen Elizabeth’s wardrobe lost and found

A couple of months ago a new discovery for those of us interested in early modern England was announced. One of Elizabeth 1’s dresses, or at least part of one, had been found in a small church in rural Herefordshire. This gorgeously-embroidered piece of material has become known as the Bacton altar cloth. Using gold and silver thread, indicating it belonged to royalty, it was many years since it had been used, but was kept in a case in the church until spotted. The story of the cloth is told by Joint Chief Curator for the Historic Royal Palaces Tracy Borman, in her new book The Private Lives of the Tudors. Tracy has said: ‘This is an incredible find – items of Tudor dress are exceptionally rare in any case, but to uncover one with such a close personal link to Queen Elizabeth I is almost unheard of. We’re thrilled to be working with St Faith’s Church to conserve this remarkable object, which will now be further examined by our conservation experts at Hampton Court Palace, where we hope to be able to conserve and display it in future.’

The Bacton Altar Cloth

This article explains more about the process by which the dress was found and is being conserved.

Tracy is currently promoting her book with a series of talks, including one in Stratford-upon-Avon for the Literary Festival, on 29 April at 1.30pm. Details of her other talks are on her website.

A new online resource about Elizabeth 1 has been recently launched by The National Archives, also curated by Tracy Borman: “Including transcripts and commentary on a collection of original manuscripts, it explores her style of monarchy and considers whether she really was a ‘weak and feeble woman’.”  This fabulous resource is aimed at schools, but contains lots of great material and background about the Virgin Queen.

Queen Elizabeth, and her dresses, have also been highlighted in the past few years by the other Joint Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, Lucy Worsley. Both curators are doing a fantastic job of promoting these collections that include 10,000 pieces of costume worn by kings, queens and their courtiers and known as the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection. Lucy’s documentary Tales from the Royal Wardrobe was screened a few years ago now and unofficial copies come and go on YouTube, but a terrific clip of Lucy being dressed in a copy of one of Elizabeth 1’s outfits is available.

The Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth 1 used for Tracy Borman’s book

There has been some speculation that the Bacton cloth might be part of the dress worn by Queen Elizabeth in the Rainbow Portrait, as the gorgeous embroidered flowers are similar in style to those on the bodice she wears in the picture. However without any representation of the skirt, which is surely what the altar cloth must have been, this remains unproven.

Elizabeth was known to have many dresses, and it’s perhaps surprising that these highly-decorated and valuable items disappeared. This one is thought to have survived because it was given to one of Elizabeth’s ladies in waiting who was a parishioner at Bacton. The reported fate of some of her other clothes shows they were held in less respect. On 8 January 1604, only the year after Elizabeth had died, a masque was performed in the Great Hall of Hampton Court Palace. This was The Vision of the Twelve Goddesses, written by Samuel Daniel and one of the earliest Stuart Court masques. It was one of the first occasions when royalty and courtiers took part in entertainments instead of just watching them. The twelve Goddesses were represented by Queen Anne of Denmark, consort of James 1, and eleven of her ladies in waiting. The Queen took the part of Pallas Athena, and the ladies danced and paraded to the Temple of Peace while others sang.

The sumptuous costumes were ransacked from the wardrobe of Queen Elizabeth, containing 500 dresses, many of which had been worn only once. They included a sky-coloured mantle embroidered with gold and peacock feathers, and a mantle embroidered with silver half moons. The real expense came, however, with the jewels worn by the ladies. It was said that the value of the Queen’s gems came to £100,000. For obvious reasons, Royal masques continued to be enormously popular, but their extravagance was one of the factors that went on to make the Stuart kings unpopular. Clothes have probably never been just about fashion, and whereas Queen Elizabeth had used costume to demonstrate her power and that of her country, the new dynasty used these same items to entertain themselves and their friends.


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William Roxby Beverley, a forgotten theatre artist at Stratford-upon-Avon

Photo of the interior of the SMT around 1920 including the drop curtain

A couple of weeks ago I was browsing the Stratford-upon-Avon Then and Now Facebook page when I spotted an unusual image posted by David Mills. With nearly 2000 members, this group demonstrates the level of interest there is in images of Stratford-upon-Avon and members share a wide range of professional postcards and family snaps.

The image David Mills posted was interesting because it showed a little-remembered feature of old Stratford, the act drop curtain painted for the 1879 Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. In Victorian theatres, the act drop was a painted canvas mounted on a frame that was lowered during scene changes to conceal onstage activity. They were usually decorative, because the audience would have to look at them for several minutes. For the new Memorial Theatre an act drop was commissioned from one of the top scenic artists of the day, William Roxby Beverley (or Beverly). I’m grateful to retired RSC Head of Stage Roger Howells for explaining to me that it would have been  painted on canvas in London, probably at Drury Lane itself where they had the necessary equipment, before being rolled up and brought to Stratford and nailed to its frame.

Seascape by William Roxby Beverley

Beverley came from a theatrical family. His father was a well-known actor-manager and all his five children worked in the theatre at some time. William, born around 1810, was the youngest son. Like his brother Henry, William acted onstage but in July 1831 he began painting scenes for the Theatre Royal in Manchester which his father managed. Many of the backdrops required for the theatre were scenes, and when he wasn’t painting for theatres William painted atmospheric land and sea-scapes, often shown at the Royal Academy. While, as far as I can tell, none of his theatre work still exists, and little of it was ever photographed, existing paintings can be found here.

By the 1840s and 1850s his work was being compared favourably with that of the great theatrical artist Planche, and in 1854 he began an association with Drury Lane Theatre that was to last twenty years. As well as painting spectacular scenery, particularly for pantomimes, he worked on a number of Shakespeare revivals including King John, Henry IV part 1, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra and Richard III, but apart from the scene-drop he seems not to have worked for the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre.

Beauty and the Beast, Drury Lane Theatre 1869 playbill

This playbill, for a Christmas pantomime Beauty and the Beast, at Drury Lane Theatre in 1869, boasts “with new and characteristic scenery by William Beverly whose personal services are now exclusively devoted to illustrating the productions of this Theatre”. His name is on the bill in letters much larger than those for the author and actors. It is now kept at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

On his death in 1899 the Daily Telegraph obituary described him as the ‘long acknowledged chief and doyen of English scenic artists’, also praising his ‘noble water-colours done in leisure hours.’ Ironically it’s on these, rather than the painting that made him famous, that his reputation now depends. But we do, too, have images of the act-drop he painted for the Stratford theatre. It appears on photographs, and, in colour, on a postcard, rather oddly as a portrait rather than landscape-shaped image. Strangely his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography does not mention the Stratford act-drop.

Painting used as drop between acts at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, showing a state procession of Queen Elizabeth to the old Globe theatre in Southwark. CC-BY-NC-ND Image Courtesy of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

It shows the imaginary scene of a state procession of Queen Elizabeth to the old Globe Theatre in Southwark. On its first appearance during the opening performance the act drop was applauded. The Stratford Herald  described it “In the foreground is Alleyn, a great friend of the Bard, who is talking to the Earl of Leicester and standing near him is the Earl of Southampton. They are supposed to be having a chat respecting the play, before leaving their horses with their pages and entering the theatre”. The Daily News said “the scene is animated, the composition picturesque, and the colouring brilliantly harmonious”. A postcard of the act drop, printed in colour, is held at the SBT Library and Archive (SC67/46).  Repaired in 1895 and partially repainted in 1903, it met its end during the fire that destroyed the Memorial Theatre in 1926.

Photographs of the interior of the 1879 building show that its decoration was austere and it has often been compared to a non-conformist chapel, misleadingly implying that it was uncomfortable and probably cheaply furnished. In fact Charles Flower’s intention was always that the building would be a fitting tribute to Shakespeare, decorated with high-quality materials. Details that still exist in the newly-restored “Swan wing” like the stained glass windows, oak panelling and stone-carved fireplace illustrate how this aim was achieved. The act drop, by a leading artist of the day, was another beautiful feature, designed to impress but sadly now forgotten.

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Edward’s Boys and Thomas Middleton’s A Trick to Catch the Old One

Programme cover for Edward’s Boys

On Sunday 12 March 2017 I attended the last of four performances given by Edward’s Boys of Thomas Middleton’s city comedy A Trick to Catch the Old One. It was another triumph for this group, led by Perry Mills, consisting of boys attending King Edward VI School in Stratford-upon-Avon, almost certainly attended by Shakespeare himself. In his note, Perry explains “The work is demanding, requires discipline and is enormous fun. It also involves a great deal of sex and violence. Onstage. What more could a group of boys ask for?”

It’s an inspired idea: Edward’s Boys explore the repertoire of the boys’ companies of Shakespeare’s times, but do so in a way that makes sure we never forget we are in the twenty-first century. In some productions (though not this one), boys have come on wearing elements of school uniform, as if to remind us who they are. This time the first thing the audience saw as they took their seats was the drum kit, electric keyboard and guitars. And the coolest place to be all evening was in the 5-piece band, Teenage TricKES, in which the leads took it in turns to do the vocals.

The production found its style in the anti-establishment energy of punk, so much so that the programme includes a two-page article by Dr Jonathan Heron examining the beginnings and development of the movement, and how it relates to Middleton. He suggests Middleton’s writing “has all the danger of a Sex Pistols lyric”,  and is “fascinated by the psychological complexity of human desire and acts of atrocity, committed with punk-ish abandon”.

A scene from A Trick to Catch the Old One

The concept frees the production of any quaintness and allows us to concentrate on the extraordinary vitality of the play, the brilliant choreography, and the subtle detail of the performances. There’s no attempt to turn the boys into seventeenth century highly-trained members of early modern boys’ companies, or us into seventeenth-century audiences. Instead we see that, as today, most people are out for themselves. The plot turns on the protagonist who has lost all his own money and is denied his inheritance by a wealthy uncle. He comes up with the idea of trying to trick the old ones of the title by bringing to London a young prostitute (or courtesan) under the pretence that she is a wealthy widow. The vision of the old men behaving badly as they compete for her is enough to ensure we side with the young prodigal and the courtesan.

Watching the play now, the audience can’t help but ask why these particular plays were written to be performed by boys rather than adults. This play was written around 1605, when the boys companies, as Hamlet reminds us, were all the fashion, and Middleton wrote several comedies for them. In his book Shakespeare & Co. Stanley Wells comments “It is difficult for us to imagine the effect produced by these young actors when they were performing the highly sophisticated, often bawdy, plays written specifically for them”.  Laurie Maguire notes, too, “the boys – of all ages- are simultaneously innocent and knowing in performance”.

Thomas Middleton

Shakespeare is thought to have seen Middleton’s talent and promoted it.  They collaborated on Timon of Athens, and we can see a direct parallel between the line of tradesmen demanding money from Witgood and Timon’s so-called friends who abandon him when he loses his money. A recent theory suggests that Middleton may have also collaborated on Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well. The themes of obsession with property, money and power, deception and disguise, corruption and family breakdown between the generations, so strong in these plays by Shakespeare  and particularly in King Lear, are also here in A Trick to Catch the Old One, albeit dealt with in a completely different way by Middleton.  It’s also thought that Middleton made additions to Macbeth and Measure for Measure, probably after Shakespeare had died when alterations were needed.

Unlike Shakespeare, Middleton did not tie himself to a theatrical company, and no collected edition of his works was issued around the time in which he lived. Many of his plays were published anonymously or with false attributions so arriving at an agreed body of work has been challenging, particularly given the realisation over the last few decades that collaboration was normal when writing for the high-pressure world of the theatre. In 2007 Oxford University Press published Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works.  There is more information at this website.

Audience reaction to Edward’s Boys remains outstanding, not least among the academic community who have commented that the productions are “joyful” and “inspired” as well as “outrageous”. Performances are now regularly given in Oxford and London as well as Stratford and nobody needs to miss them as each production is available on DVD through the website. Here’s to the next one!

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Elisabeth Scott, architect and pioneer on International Women’s Day

Elisabeth Scott

8 March 2017 is both the UK’s Budget Day and International Women’s Day, when attention is drawn to gender inequality in all fields including education and jobs. In addition, demonstrations will be held at Westminster by WASPI campaigners fighting for the pension rights of women suffering from a lack of transitional arrangements to cover changes in their retirement age.

Equality may not yet have been achieved, but in Stratford-upon-Avon stands one of the most obvious manifestations of women’s entry into the professional world in the early twentieth century. The Royal Shakespeare Theatre (formerly the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre), although much changed by the transformation project completed in 2011, was designed by a woman, Elisabeth Scott. Following the disastrous fire of 1926 a competition was held for a new design, and the resulting theatre was opened in 1932. The Builder pointed out that “this was the first important work erected in this country from the designs of a woman architect”, and The Lady suggested “Miss Scott’s theatre will stand as a landmark in the professional and artistic achievements of women”. Not only was Elisabeth Scott a woman, she was a young woman, and at the time she entered the competition she was still too young to vote. Women only gained equality with men in 1928 when the voting age for women was lowered from 30 to 21.

The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, 1932

Scott was related to Sir George Gilbert Scott, the designer of London’s St Pancras Station, but she was also a qualified architect, having spent five years studying for her Architectural Association diploma. She worked for Maurice Chesterton’s architectural firm in London and colleagues collaborated with her on developing her ideas. The location, where all four sides of the theatre would be visible, made it particularly challenging. “The Stratford site offers difficulties and opportunities” she said at the time.

In accepting the award she stated:
I belong to the modernist school of architects. By that I mean I believe the function of the building to be the most important thing to be considered. In terms of theatre…this means…that acoustics and sight lines must come first…At the same time I have taken full advantage of the exceptionally beautiful site on the banks of the Avon.

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre from the river, during the 1960s

For the assessors, her design had won because it had “a largeness and simpleness of handling which no other design possesses. The general silhouette and modelling to fit the lines of the river are picturesque and the character of the design shows consideration for the locality”.

After winning the award she spent a year developing detailed plans, visiting theatres in other countries with the theatre’s Director William Bridges-Adams and Archibald Flower, Chairman of the Theatre’s Governors. Bridges-Adams explained “The need is for absolute flexibility, it should be, so to speak, a box of tricks out of which the childlike mind of the producer may create what shape it pleases”, not the clearest guidelines for an architect called on to make decisions as work progressed. The Governors of the theatre meanwhile brought in experts in theatrical equipment, stage designers, acoustics and electrics. Some of Scott’s original ideas were abandoned, and many changes were made for financial rather than artistic reasons. There was inevitably an air of disappointment when the theatre opened.  When it came to performing, actors felt cut off from audiences and audibility was a major problem, though sight-lines were good with most of the audience directly facing the stage.

They may have said that “nothing but the best is good enough for Shakespeare” but in spite of, or perhaps because of, the amount of advice offered, the theatre was far from perfect. Writing in 1993, Iain Mackintosh suggested that while Elisabeth Scott thought she had created a focused intimate theatre, she had not. “The theatrical profession, when roused, is more vociferous than the architectural profession and the nation accepted the theatrical view: it was all the fault of the architect. It is clear that there had been a breakdown in communication between the two professions”.

There were many attempts to remedy the situation, and the transformation of the last 10 years has now completely changed the auditorium, altering the actor/audience relationship and making the theatre much more intimate.

Two pages (featuring Elisabeth Scott from the new British passport design. Home Office/PA Wire

The modernist exterior had both admirers and critics, but many of the beautifully-crafted details such as the richly-decorated doors, the spacious foyer and the spiral staircase with its marble fountain (designed by another woman, Gertrude Hermes) were often remarked on and have been enjoyed by generations of theatre-goers.

The theatre building is its own memorial to Elisabeth Scott as the heart of her theatre remains. So important is she seen to be that an image of her, and the theatre she designed, now graces the United Kingdom passport. But it seems to me a pity that there is no acknowledgement to her within the theatre, nor to the part she played in establishing the role of women in the workplace.

NB The quotations, and many of the details in this post are taken from Marian J Pringle’s book The Theatres of Stratford-upon-Avon 1875-1992, published by the Stratford-upon-Avon Society, 1994.

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Shakespeare and the destructiveness of fire

Shakespeare uses fire as a metaphor for the energy of life as well as the destructiveness of death. He writes of the fires of purgatory, of the warming fire on the hearth and of the fires lit to tell of victory in war. In his everyday life Shakespeare experienced fire’s dreadful, swift violence in both Stratford and London and fire has continued to be part of the Shakespeare story.

The theatre burning, showing the wind blowing away from the Library wing on the left

6th March is the anniversary of the most famous of Stratford-upon-Avon’s many fires. A few people are still alive who remember how in 1926 the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre caught fire and, within a few hours, was reduced to a charred and smouldering ruin. The cause of the fire has never been established, but the theatre was being made ready for the Shakespeare Festival to begin a few weeks later. It might have been a dropped cigarette, or perhaps an electrical fault. It was a common occurrence: in the nineteenth century the average life of a theatre was only 20 years, because of the regularity with which they burned down.

Stratford saw many fires during Shakespeare’s lifetime, the worst taking place in 1594, 1595 and 1614. The first two of these have already been extensively written-about, but in his new essay in Warwickshire History* Dr Robert Bearman closely examines the evidence for the 1614 fire, estimated at first to have caused £8000 of losses with fifty-four houses and many barns and outbuildings destroyed. It happened on Saturday 9 July, and devastated areas near to Shakespeare’s house New Place. A diagram shows that the worst-affected areas were the lower end of Chapel Lane (below the garden of New Place), and Sheep Street.

With several hot dry summers leading to fires in a number of other towns, Stratford’s Corporation had recently discussed the town’s fire precautions, finding them inadequate. Orders in 1612 had suggested that members of the Corporation should provide leather buckets “to cary water in for the better defence and preservacion of the houses & buildings…against casualtie of fyer”, but most had failed to do so. It’s hard now to believe that even if all forty-two buckets had been provided they could have made much difference to a fire fanned by strong winds.

Early modern firefighting using buckets and fire hooks

The essay  explains how the destruction of fires was dealt with in the days before insurance. As in other towns, the Stratford Corporation authorised several people to go around the country gathering donations. Although it was in everybody’s interest to contribute (it could be your town next), the system was inefficient and open to corruption. Bob’s research shows that the collection was poorly organised, bringing in only a fraction of the money needed. The largest local contributions were given by people in Bridge Street, a commercial street in the town unaffected by the fire, but collectors went as far as Kent. As there is no mention of Shakespeare I assume there’s no way of knowing if he contributed to help his neighbours.

A report noted that fires “had their beginnings in poore Tenements and Cottages which were Thatched with Strawe, of which sort very many have byn lately erected”. The solution was to replace the thatch with tile or slate, but the poor could not afford to do so making the anti-thatching policy impossible to enforce. The fire impacted severely on the prosperity of those affected, delaying the rebuilding by five years or even longer. The whole essay offers a fascinating glimpse of a rarely-seen aspect of life in Jacobean England.

It’s thought that by 1614 Shakespeare had retired to Stratford permanently, so he may well have watched the buildings near his own house going up in flames. This must have brought back dreadful memories: less than a year before, on 29 June 1613, the Globe Theatre in London had burned down during an early performance of his play Henry VIII. As a spectacular part of the action, cannon were set off to welcome the arrival of the King, and as a result burning material landed on the thatched roof, setting it alight. Sir Henry Wotton told how the audience were so engrossed in the play it took some time for them to notice. The fire “kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very grounds”. By a miracle, nobody was hurt. Shakespeare must surely have been there: both a shareholder and the joint author of the play, he would have wanted to observe how the play was received by the audience and to assess the performances of the actors. The fact that the Globe was rebuilt within a year, with a fire-resistant tile roof this time, shows what a thriving and profitable business the theatre was. Around this time Shakespeare retired to Stratford, presumably looking for a quieter life. Instead he experienced the anxiety of another major fire approaching his own doorstep.

*With thanks to Dr Robert Bearman who has generously allowed me to quote from his essay Stratford-upon-Avon’s Fire of 1614, published in the Winter 2016/7 edition of Warwickshire History.

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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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