Robert Hardy and Shakespeare


Robert Hardy

On Thursday 3 August 2017 one of the UK’s best-loved actors, Robert Hardy, died. His family described him as “Gruff, elegant, twinkly, and always dignified” and most of his admirers would agree. I remember him best as Robert Dudley in the 1971 TV series Elizabeth R to Glenda Jackson’s Queen, just one of his many roles. Late in life he found an entirely new audience through the Harry Potter films.

Although Shakespeare did not feature greatly in his later career, as a young man he was immersed in it, spending several years performing at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, in London and on Tour. Like many people of his generation his career necessarily stalled when he was called up during the Second World War. He had previously been a student at Oxford where he had become friends with Richard Burton. After the war he returned to University and completed his degree, then became an actor.

He was taken on in 1949 by Anthony Quayle to work at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre to play a string of small parts in plays such as Cymbeline and Henry VIII. The following year he continued to work at the SMT, appearing in Measure for Measure and King Lear. In 1951 he took part in Anthony Quayle’s triumphant cycle of four history plays from Richard II to Henry V, celebrating the Festival of Britain. Hardy played Hotspur in Richard II and Henry IV Part 1 and Archbishop Scroop in Henry IV part 2, as well as Fluellen in Henry V, reuniting him with old friend Richard Burton who was playing Henry V. During these years he also performed, first as Friar Francis and then as Claudio, in revivals of John Gielgud’s production of Much Ado About Nothing.

During this period Hardy worked on a large variety of Shakespeare’s plays with many of the best actors and directors at work of the 1950s: not just Gielgud, Quayle and Burton, but Peter Brook as the director of Measure for Measure, Michael Redgrave, Peggy Ashcroft and Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies. Also in the company were other young and talented actors such as Barbara Jefford and Alan Badel.

Coriolanus, 1959, the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. Directed by Peter Hall. Menenius (Harry Andrews), Valeria (Vanessa Redgrave) and Virgilia (Mary Ure) witness Volumnia (Edith Evans) raging at the tribunes, Sicinius Brutus (Robert Hardy) and Junius Brutus (Peter Woodthorpe). Photo by Angus McBean. (c) RSC

In the 1980s Sally Beauman described the performance conditions of the time: only four weeks was allowed for rehearsals, with brief technical and dress rehearsals, and  no previews. The theatre could not be closed for a single night when a new production was brought in. Actors were used to this “baptism of fire” and it was to stand Hardy in good stead when he moved into TV.

After this period with the SMT ,which included a spell in the West End, he played Laertes to Richard Burton’s Hamlet and Ariel in a production of The Tempest. He returned to the SMT for the 1959 season, the starriest that had ever been seen in Stratford-upon-Avon. Paul Robeson was to play Othello, Laurence Olivier Coriolanus, Dame Edith Evans as Volumnia, and the Countess of Roussillon in All’s Well That Ends Well, Charles Laughton both King Lear, and Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Mary Ure played Titania and Desdemona. In this amazing line-up Robert Hardy was tribune Sicinius Velutus in Coriolanus, Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the aging King of France in All’s Well That Ends Well and Edmund in King Lear.

The following year Hardy was offered the opportunity to work with Peter Hall, the newly-appointed Director of the Stratford theatre, shortly to be renamed the Royal Shakespeare Company. He declined, apparently disappointed with the range of parts offered.

Judi Dench (Princess of France) and Robert Hardy (Henry V) in An Age of Kings, 1960

Another door immediately opened. The BBC was undertaking the screening of Shakespeare’s history plays in fifteen live episodes, one a fortnight, in 1960. It was an extraordinarily ambitious project, as John Wyver says “An Age of Kings remains the only occasion when a single company and production team has taken on for television all eight of Shakespeare’s major History plays.” More than three million viewers regularly tuned in. With only two weeks between screenings the actors were allowed four days to learn lines and just a week’s rehearsal, then a couple of days for camera rehearsals before the live broadcast. Even though Henry V, with its battle scenes, suffers from being staged in a studio, Robert Hardy’s Henry V was one of the great successes of the project. Clips of his wooing of the French Princess (Judi Dench) are available on YouTube and after many years of being unavailable the whole series was finally released on DVD by Illuminations in 2013.

Less well-known than his acting, Hardy was also an expert in the history of the longbow, the weapon which won the battle of Agincourt for the English.  He was consulted by archaeologists involved in the raising of Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose, also presenting a TV documentary and writing two books on the subject, and was Master of the Worshipful Company of Bowyers in the late 1980s.

In the SMT season brochure for 1951 he was described as “A young actor from whom great things are expected”. Robert Hardy fulfilled all these expectations and more, and we are particularly lucky that some of his Shakespeare work remains accessible.

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Ira Aldridge, theatre manager: the Coventry connection

On 3 August 2017 a blue plaque is to be unveiled in Coventry commemorating Britain’s first non-white theatre manager, Ira Aldridge, exactly 150 years after his death. I’ve written blog posts before celebrating Aldridge’s work as an actor in Shakespeare’s plays. He was a sensation as Othello and Aaron, his skill surprising some of those who saw him and assumed a man of colour’s acting could not compare to that of a white man.

Aldridge made his name acting in London but he performed many times on provincial stages. In 1851 he even performed in Stratford’s little theatre, the first black Othello to perform in the town of Shakespeare’s birth. This was not to be repeated until 1959 when Paul Robeson took the part. During his considerable UK career he toured widely.

Aldridge’s role as a theatre manager is less well-known, even though short-lived. In 1828 he ran Coventry Theatre, an achievement even more extraordinary for a black man than performing in Shakespeare. The Stage journal notes that the blue plaque being unveiled on 3 August is the result “of a campaign to recognise Aldridge’s contribution to theatre and to the city, with support from the Belgrade Theatre Coventry and Warwick University.” It highlights the fact that ethnic diversity has been part of Coventry’s history for centuries and celebrates the contribution that people of Coventry made in 1828 to support the abolition of slavery.

The plaque will be unveiled by Coventry’s Lord Mayor at the site of the original theatre, the guest of honour being the 99-year-old Bermudan actor Earl Cameron. In an extraordinary link with the past he was taught acting by Aldridge’s daughter and he went on the be one of the first black actors to perform in mainstream film and television. The campaign began last November when, after a torchlit procession, flowers were laid at the site. Those taking place included RSC Associate Artist Ray Fearon who had played Aldridge in the drama-documentary Against Prejudice.

Warwick University’s website contains a great deal of information about this and the rest of its Multicultural Shakespeare project. Tony Howard, its leader, spoke about this event:

Portrait of Ira Aldridge

It was moving. The Black Youth Theatre sang songs that Ira Aldridge himself performed on that spot nearly two centuries ago, and they sang them to a gentleman who knew Ira’s daughter. Three generations came together to honour a forgotten moment in our multicultural past. In January 1828 Ira Aldridge was advertised as a fairground attraction: A Most Extraordinary Novelty, a Man of Colour, yet only a few weeks later Coventry gave him the keys to its theatre.

It was obvious there had to be a permanent memorial.

The building Aldridge managed was demolished long ago, and the Blitz even destroyed the streets around it. So the plaque marking the site will be in the heart of modern Coventry, in the Precinct. Every day hundreds of shoppers will be reminded of a great African American and of the city’s openness to “foreigners and strangers”.

The site is at 43-47 Upper Precinct, Coventry City Centre. Participants will set off from the Belgrade Theatre at 2.15 for the ceremony timed to start at 2.30. A reception will follow back at the Belgrade and people are encouraged to join in.

There is also to be a linked event at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe on September 19 at 7pm. The drama-documentary Against Prejudice: A Celebration of Ira Aldridge, is to be performed, followed by a discussion with historians and performers sharing their perspectives on his importance.

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Shakespeare and Gay Britannia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gregory Doran

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

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

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Marie Corelli’s Stratford-upon-Avon memorial restored

Marie Corelli’s monument

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

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

Marie Corelli’s monument

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

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

Marie Corelli

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

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

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

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Celebrating Ovid 2000 years on

Statue of Ovid in Romania

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

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

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


Shakespeare and Ovid’s Metamorphoses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Edward’s Boys in summer 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shakespeare, culture and the digital

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duke Humfrey’s Library, Oxford

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

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

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Hilary Mantel and Shakespeare: fiction versus fact

Hilary Mantel

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

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

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

The statue of Richard III outside Leicester Cathedral

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

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

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

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

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

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

The tomb of Richard III

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

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

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

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Donald Trump and Shakespeare

A scene from the New York production of Julius Caesar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this article in the Guardian documents the whole story.

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

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

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

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

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Before Shakespeare at the Shakespeare Institute

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

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

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

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

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

A Read not Dead reading at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

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

Here is the full timetable for the marathon:

The Fifth Annual Shakespeare Institute Play-Reading Marathon


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


10.30: Robert Wilson, The Three Ladies of London

2.30: Love and Fortune


2.30: John Lyly, Campaspe

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


10.30: John Lyly, Sappho and Phao

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


2.30: Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy

7.00: Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine


10.30: Robert Greene, Alphonsus, King of Aragon

2.30: Christopher Marlowe, 2 Tamburlaine


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

2.30: Suleiman and Perseda


10.30: Thomas Lodge, The Wounds of Civil War

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


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

7.00: Christopher Marlowe, Dido, Queen of Carthage


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

2.30: Robert Greene, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay


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

7.00: John Lyly, Mother Bombie


10.30: Christopher Marlowe, The Jew of Malta

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


10.30: John Lyly, Midas

2.30: King Lear and his Three Daughters


10.30: The True Tragedy of Richard III

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


2.30: Robert Greene, James IV

7.00: Arden of Faversham


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

2.30: George Peele, David and Bathsheba


2.30: Robert Greene, Orlando Furioso, and Mucedorus

7.00: George Peele, Edward I


10.30: Locrine

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

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