A new source for Shakespeare’s plays?

A page from the newly-discovered manuscript

It’s always exciting when someone claims to have made a new discovery relating to Shakespeare and the writing of his plays. The sources of most of his work are well known: Geoffrey Bullough’s Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, published in eight volumes from the 1950s to the 1970s, includes reprints of the sources as well as commentary on them. It’s still the most important work on the subject although new findings prevent it being complete.

Now a couple of researchers have discovered an unpublished manuscript that they believe Shakespeare consulted repeatedly, leaving a scattering of references in several plays. The manuscript is A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels, written by George North who was a diplomat and minor figure at Queen Elizabeth’s court. The discovery has been made by Dennis McCarthy and June Schlueter, who believe there is evidence that the source was used in King Lear, Macbeth, Richard III, Henry V and several others.

McCarthy started off studying Thomas North, probably a cousin of George North, whose translation of some of Plutarch’s work into English is already well-known as a source of Shakespeare’s Roman plays. Here’s how the New York Times described what happened “Mr McCarthy found a reference to the manuscript by George North, a likely cousin of Thomas, online in a 1927 auction catalog, which noted it would be “extremely interesting” to compare certain passages with Shakespeare. He and Ms. Schlueter scoured libraries and archives for a year before enlisting the help of a manuscript detective, who studies rare documents and traced it to the British Library, which had purchased it in 1933. (The manuscript was filed under an obscure shelf mark, which made finding it difficult.)”

McCarthy also thinks that Thomas and George North might both have been working on their respective books in 1576 at Kirtling Hall near Cambridge. While it’s a wonderful thought, this seems to be pure speculation.

What’s making this discovery particularly interesting is the method by which the researchers have used: rather than depending on their own knowledge or intuition, they have used computer software called WCopyfind, which was designed in order to detect plagiarism in written work submitted by students.

Cover for McCarthy and Schlueter’s new book

The NYT article describes how they think the works are connected: ”The book contends that Shakespeare not only uses the same words as North, but often uses them in scenes about similar themes, and even the same historical characters.” It’s certainly not the first time digital scholarship has been used in Shakespeare studies but it’s usually been in an attempt to prove the authorship of different passages. Here they have compared the use of words and phrases with the database Early English Books Online which brings together digital versions of nearly every work published in English between 1473 and 1700, a mind-boggling collection of nearly 17 million pages.

Coming up with proof is of course tricky. North might have taken the words from another source, also read by Shakespeare and now lost,  many of the links could be coincidence, and  Shakespeare was perfectly capable of inventing his own word and phrase combinations. But McCarthy and Schlueter are convinced that the connections are too interlinked to be coincidental.

McCarthy is a self-taught Shakespeare scholar with a background in computer science, and this unusual starting point may have allowed him to approach the subject with more freedom. While he might be viewed sceptically, the same can’t be said of June Schlueter who has a long and distinguished academic career and here’s a link to a post about one of her well-researched essays.

James Laurenson as Jack Cade for the RSC in 1977

The authors suggest that North’s manuscript may help to explain obscure sections of Shakespeare, like the Fool’s prediction in King Lear, and a number of correlations are found between North and the opening speech of Richard III. Again from the NYT article “The manuscript is a diatribe against rebels, arguing that all rebellions against a monarch are unjust and doomed to fail”. Appropriately, another place where correlation has been found is in the depiction of the rebel Jack Cade in Henry VI Part 2 whose rebellion and eventual defeat is recounted in some detail by Shakespeare.

Scholars have been cautiously optimistic. Michael Witmore, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC has said:“If it proves to be what they say it is, it is a once-in-a-generation — or several generations — find.” The book is to be published on 16 February by Boydell and Brewer in association with the British Library. It’s sure to be closely examined for years to come.

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Women and suffrage in Shakespeare’s Stratford

Elisabeth Scott

In the UK we’re currently celebrating the 100th anniversary, on 6 February 1918, of the Representation of the People Act by which at least some women were granted the right to vote. I’ve written before about Shakespearean links with the suffrage movement here in Stratford. The most notable example of a woman being disenfranchised is Elisabeth Scott. In spite of being a qualified architect and in January 1928 winning the competition to design the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, she was still too young to vote. This was only changed when in July 1928 , the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act gave the vote to all women over 21 on equal terms with men. She went on to develop her plans and to oversee the project, the first important public building to be designed by a woman, that opened in April 1932. Scott was a quiet pioneer whose role has often been downplayed, but surely her major achievement deserves a memorial within the Theatre that is still a monument to her.

Shakespeare Memorial Theatre nearing completion, Stratford-upon-Avon

The suffragettes’ march in Stratford 16 July 1913. Photo from Windows on Warwickshire

Stratford-upon-Avon was an old-fashioned place in the early twentieth century, but the suffrage movement received a lot of support in the town. This link leads to another post that talks about some of the events. Most publicly, many of the leading actors in the Shakespeare Festival were members of the Actresses’ Franchise League, and a branch of the Women’s Suffrage Society was formed here as early as 1907. Suffragists and suffragettes including members of the acting company, regularly took place in the Shakespeare Birthday Celebrations for a number of years.

Just a month after Emily Davison was killed at the 1913 Epsom Derby a march of suffragettes came through Stratford, holding a public meeting in Rother Market. The meeting was not trouble-free, with speakers being heckled and supporters jostled. The vicar spoke up for the suffragettes: ““whether we agree with their views or not, [they] are peaceable citizens and entitled to that free speech, which, within the rights of the law, is the birthright of every Briton”.

Stratford also had its home-grown supporters of the suffragette movement. One of them was Kathleen Scriven. Without any qualifications or professional connections she became in important figure in the town’s Shakespeare Club. Women had only been admitted as members for a couple of years when she joined the Club in December 1902. She came from the same class of people who had originally formed the Club as her husband Edgar Scriven was a coal merchant living in Tyler Street.

Kathleen Scriven didn’t just attend meetings but in spite of her lack of any qualifications contributed a number of talks to the Club’s programme. Her first , in November 1904, was Shakespeare’s Allegory in Folklore. Rather than applauding her effort, the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald reported it condescendingly: “Scriven’s paper was almost entirely subjective in character, treated mainly of abstract affairs. This may be a good way or it may not, it may have merit, or it may have grave demerit, but at least, all is left to the sole arbitrament of the audience and each may judge of it as he or she will’. Later talks were on the three parts of Henry VI (read by Lilian Hartley in May 1906), on Henry IV Part 2 (April 1913) on Macbeth (April 1921) and Notes on Stratford-upon-Avon before Shakespeare’s Time (1920).

Kathleen Scriven’s paper for the Shakespeare Club, 1915

The most controversial of her talks was given in November 1915 with the title  Shakespeare – Women- Human Nature.  The paper was reprinted in full in the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald on 16 December which described it as ‘exhaustive’.  Arguing that Shakespeare would not have denied women’s claim to full citizenship, Scriven was ‘heartily applauded’ by the audience and it was resolved that a precis of her ‘very clever and well worked out paper’ should  be distributed to all Club members.

In 1918 she was the first woman to be elected to the Club Committee, and later on suggested that the Club should work with schools. She resigned from the Committee on 1927 and retired from the club in 1935, three years before she died at the age of 80. Her story, and those of a number of other women who have made a major impact on the Club, is told in the Story of the Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon 1824-2016.

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2018: The Year of Macbeth

Anne-Marie Duff and Rory Kinnear in the National Theatre’s Macbeth

Macbeth is known as Shakespeare’s unluckiest play. For generations it has been referred to by the superstitious as “The Scottish Play” because even speaking its name inside the theatre could bring down disaster. There are many stories of accidents and near-misses, though the violence of this bloody play probably accounts for some.

The most spectacular disaster in the history of the play was the Astor Place riot that took place in New York in 1849. More than 20 people died and well over 100 were injured. The riot was sparked by two rival productions of the play starring William Macready, the greatest British actor of the day, and  Edwin Forrest, the first internationally successful home-grown American actor. Upper class Anglophiles supported Macready while working-class Americans and Irish immigrants favoured Forrest, the rivalry being fuelled by the press. The play itself was not the cause of the disruption, but the riots added to the play’s unfortunate reputation.

The Astor Place Riot, New York 1849

Macbeth is also one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, and this year, 2018 is already being called The Year of Macbeth, with no fewer than seven versions to be seen on the stage and on screen, varying in scale from a two-hander to a full opera.  Here’s a run-down.

The Out of Chaos company is already on tour with their two-man production of the play. They are visiting regional theatres until March.

The Tobacco Factory in Bristol’s production starts on 22 February: “Macbeth speaks to a world we find ourselves living in now; a world in which politicians lie to our faces but no one can plaster over the truth that the planet is threatening to turn on us.” The Macbeths will be played by Jonathan McGuinness and Katy Stephens.

Public booking has just opened for the National Theatre’s production officially opening on 6 March with a live screening in May. The cast will be led by Anne-Marie Duff and Rory Kinnear, directed by Rufus Norris in “Shakespeare’s most intense and terrifying tragedy”. The play “explores the all-consuming effect of power as the Macbeths desperately attempt to cling on to it. Ambitious and ruthless, the couple set about murdering just about everyone in their vicinity in order to take the throne. Once power is attained, they find that it is difficult to hold on to. Macbeth becomes ever more tyrannical, his wife descends into a madness and as their unwavering want for glory grows, a bloody Civil War erupts, costing them a whole lot more than their sanity.”

A new film version of Macbeth is to be released to cinemas across the UK on March 13. The film, by Kit Monkman, is described by Joe Evea from the distributor Cinevent:

“The film represents an entirely new perspective on Shakespeare’s work. Filmed using the latest digital technology, the production offers a challenging and thought provoking vision that will please purists and offer an accessible, immersive experience for a new generation of fans. Filmed specifically for a cinema audience, the innovative use of green screen technology provides a compelling juxtaposition between “real” and “digital” worlds”

And from the website: “The film magnifies the raw, dark, imaginative power of the text with an extraordinary, dynamic modern aesthetic… It is a feast not just for the eye, but also for the audience’s imaginations.”

Also on 13 March, with a live screening on 11 April is the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new version of the play directed by Polly Findlay: “Our contemporary production of Shakespeare’s darkest psychological thriller marks both Christopher Eccleston’s RSC debut and the return of Niamh Cusack to the company.” It will run from 13 March to 18 September.

The witches in the Royal Opera House’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth

The Royal Opera House is also reviving Phyllida Lloyd’s production of Verdi’s magnificent operatic version of the play. It will run from 25 March to 10 April and there is to be a live showing in cinemas of the production on 4 April. Here’s some background from the ROH’s website:

“Verdi’s life-long love affair with Shakespeare’s works began with Macbeth…  Every bar of [the] score… bristles with demonic energy.”

Phyllida Lloyd’s 2002 production… is richly hued, shot through with black, red and gold. The witches – imagined by designer Anthony Ward as strange, scarlet-turbaned creatures – are ever-present agents of fate. Lloyd depicts the Macbeths’ childlessness as the dark sadness lurking behind their terrible deeds.”

At the Old Rep Theatre in Birmingham another production is being staged from 10-14 April by the National Production Company. Venues are still being added so it may be worth checking their website.

Here’s a summary of the important dates if you want to catch any of the Macbeths on offer.

January-March Out of Chaos company on tour

22 Feb Tobacco Factory Bristol

26 Feb 1st performance National Theatre

13 March Film released for cinemas

13 March 1st performance Royal Shakespeare Company

25 March 1st performance Royal Opera House

4 April Royal Opera House version live in cinemas

10-14 April National Production Company at Birmingham Old Rep

11 April Royal Shakespeare Company live in cinemas

10 May National Theatre live in cinemas

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Remembering John Barton, teacher and mentor

Richard Pasco as Richard II, RSC 1973

In the days since his death on 18 January 2018, tributes have flooded in for theatre director John Barton. He was invited to help form the RSC by Peter Hall in the early sixties and both were hugely influential. While Hall’s flair was for management, Barton was a brilliant teacher who helped generations of actors not to be frightened of Shakespeare’s text.

Barton’s productions tended to look simple and undecorated, with timeless period settings and striking visual motifs that emerged from the text itself. The dazzling golden cloak used in Richard II came from the line “Down, down I come; like glistering Phaethon”, and in Hamlet the mask held by the players was taken up by the prince as he examined his own thoughts and motives. Most powerful was the image, in his Richard II, of the King and Bolingbroke holding the crown between them, looking at each other as if they were reflections, an image repeated when Richard is in prison.

Give me the crown.
Here, cousin, seize the crown;
Here cousin:
On this side my hand, and on that side yours.
Now is this golden crown like a deep well
That owes two buckets, filling one another,
The emptier ever dancing in the air,
The other down, unseen and full of water:

The two actors who played the role alternately took on the role of monarch, symbolised by the crown, the central image of Barton’s recital programme The Hollow Crown, which has been performed hundreds of times around the world by many different actors. The title comes from Richard II, again, where Richard makes a parallel between King, and being an actor:

Donald Sinden in Barton’s The Hollow Crown

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene.

Barton’s work is probably best known, though, through his TV series Playing Shakespeare, now to be found on YouTube. In the videos, concentration is on the actors, but in the book that reproduces the text and includes extra material, it’s Barton’s voice that dominates. Here are a few quotes:

Michael Pennington as Hamlet holding the theatre mask, RSC 1980

“Many actors, particularly if they’re not familiar with Shakespeare, very understandably look at the verse as some kind of threat…. But no, it’s there to help the actor. It’s full of little hints from Shakespeare about how to act a given speech or scene. It’s stage direction in shorthand” p25

“If he can find his way through it and make friends with the text [an actor] will become, not bound, but more free… Playing Shakespeare is at bottom to do with playing with words… If the actor enjoys the word games, the audience will enjoy them too. P117

So what have we been trying to prove? Simply that the clues in the text are much richer and more numerous than at first appears…. If the textual points are ignored, then its’s pretty certain that Shakespeare’s intentions will be ignored also or at least twisted. Shakespeare is his text.” p167

He even put his golden rules into blank verse:

We’ve talked of possibilities, not rules,
Of questions, balances, not absolutes.
So are there any rules? Yes. Try to find
What goes on in the text and ask yourselves
If you can use it. You must not reject it
Until you’ve smelt it out and asked the questions.
Never forget the verse is there to help you.
It can be heightened, and yet very often
It’s closer to our own humdrum human speech.
Which of you noticed while I have been talking
That what I’ve just said was in bad blank verse?

Later in 2018 Gregory Doran is directing Barton’s favourite play, Troilus and Cressida,   dedicating the production to him. It obsessed him so much that he directed it three times for the RSC: in 1960, 1969 and 1976. Perhaps he felt there was always more to uncover in this knotty play.

John Barton

In Playing Shakespeare, Barton highlights the important word Time. At the end of the book he quotes Act 4 Scene 5 of the play, where Ulysses and Hector observe the walls of Troy, the semi-mythical city that dominated the imaginations of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Here it is, in memory of John Barton himself:

Hector: Here they stand yet; and modestly I think
The fall of every Phrygian stone will cost
A drop of Grecian blood. The end crowns all,
And that old common arbitrator, Time,
Will one day end it
Ulysses:                       So to him we leave it.

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Shakespeare and the monarchy

The BBC is currently running a Royal Collection season, focusing on the million or so objects owned by British royalty. Many are priceless artefacts, but the Collection also includes objects with extraordinary symbolic and cultural value to the nation. Some also tell very personal stories about the people who have been our kings and queens.  

As one of the leaders of the most prestigious theatrical companies of the day, Shakespeare was able to observe two monarchs at close quarters. Both Elizabeth 1 and James 1 enjoyed plays and performances took place in the royal palaces. After Queen Elizabeth’s death in March 1603, James 1 made his way from Scotland to London. In May he issued a patent for a new King’s Company, including Shakespeare, Burbage, Hemmings and Condell, for them to perform “as well for the recreation of our loving Subjectes, as for our Solace and pleasure when wee shall thincke good to see them”. His coronation in Westminster Abbey was not held until 25 July and the ceremonial procession through London was delayed until the following year because of an outbreak of plague. The King’s Men were issued with scarlet cloth from which outfits were made so they could walk in the royal procession. It’s tempting to think that Shakespeare and his fellow players might also have attended the coronation itself, with all its pomp and ceremony. If so they might have seen one of the most famous of jewels, the Black Prince’s Ruby, said to have been worn by Henry V at Agincourt, adorning St Edward’s Crown that is worn only for the coronation itself. While some of the jewels still exist, the crown itself was melted down at the end of the Civil War for its gold and a new crown was made for the coronation of Charles II when he returned to take the throne, an event that took place, incidentally, on Shakespeare’s birthday 1661. Charles understood only too well the importance of those symbols of power, the crown, the sceptre and the orb.

The coronation spoon

The only part of the Crown Jewels that remains intact from Shakespeare’s time is the Coronation Spoon. Made in the twelfth century it is recorded in an inventory of royal regalia in 1349 and was known to have been used in James 1’s coronation. It might look insignificant but the spoon is used for the anointing of the new sovereign with holy oil, a ritual so secret it is concealed from view under a canopy. 

While he was able to observe monarchy more closely after James’s accession, Shakespeare had already written his plays that cover the Wars of the Roses and the whole period up to beginning of the Tudor dynasty. Between 1591 and 1599 he had written eight plays that examined the awfulness of civil war, the importance of good government and the need to avoid discord. In between, he had written some of his most successful comedies such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing. 

Inscription by Charles 1 in his Second Folio

A further connection between Shakespeare and monarchy featured in the first episode of Andrew Graham-Dixon’s TV series Art, Passion and Power: the Story of the Royal Collection, being screened in 2018. Much of the programme looked at Charles 1, described as “the greatest royal collector in British history”. As well as commissioning items that related to his divine right to rule Charles collected things that he really valued, and one of these is a copy of the 1632 Second Folio of Shakespeare’s plays. His affection for them is apparent because he wrote in the book. On the contents list he noted his favourite characters next to the play in which they appear: Benedick and Beatrice, Pyramus and Thisbe, Malvolio. And on the first page he wrote his personal motto, “Dum Spiro, Spero”, “While I Breathe, I Hope”. What makes these inscriptions so poignant is that Charles wrote them while imprisoned on the Isle of Wight in 1648, awaiting his trial for high treason which would lead to his execution. Instead of finding parallels with the doomed Richard II, Charles found relief in the comedies. Stratfordians might remember that the book was borrowed by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust from the Royal Collection for an exhibition at New Place about 12 years ago. It was also exhibited at Windsor in 2016, and this link leads to an account of it.  

David Mitchell as Shakespeare and Emma Thompson as Queen Elizabeth in The Upstart Crow

For something completely different, there is still just time to catch an irreverent look at Shakespeare and royalty: The Upstart Crow Christmas special is available on IPlayer until 24 January. Shakespeare’s promise of a quiet family Christmas proves impossible. His company of players have been commanded to perform Will’s new play in front of Queen Elizabeth herself. He’s having trouble with the play, not least the title, Eighth Night, and worse, he has to give the Queen a suitable gift for Christmas. His expensive necklace (that might have ended up in the Royal Collection) goes missing. How will the great poet find an acceptable present for the Queen? With Elizabeth played by the wonderful Emma Thompson it’s a real treat so don’t miss it.

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John Barton

John Barton, from his series Playing Shakespeare

It has just been announced that this morning, 18 January 2018, John Barton died. The Royal Shakespeare Company, that owed him so much, has published a wonderful tribute written by their Artistic Director Gregory Doran. John Barton’s name is nothing like so well-known as some of his fellow-directors so I encourage anyone who wants to know more to read it in full, and to enjoy the gallery of photographs. Even though Barton had reached the great age of 89, Shakespeare-lovers from around the world, but especially those who have followed the RSC over the years, will be greatly saddened by his loss.

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Plough Monday and Distaff Day

January, from a mss at the British Library. http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Cotton_MS_Tiberius_B_V/1

Although Christmas is well past, it’s been only a week since many people got  back to normal, so attached are the English to festivities at the turn of the year. It’s not a new phenomenon. From Elizabethan times, and probably well before, it was traditional to take a break from unnecessary work just when nature itself seemed to be at rest.

This was particularly marked in the countryside when the first Monday after Epiphany (6 January), was known as Plough Monday. Thomas Tusser, in his Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry, tells farmers to prepare the ground:
Go breake up land,
get mattock in hand,
Stub roote so tough,
for breaking of plough. 

This gorgeous image of a team of oxen drawing a plough is an illustration of January from an Anglo-Saxon calendar held at the British Library. I’m indebted to Eleanor Parker, who tweets as @ClerkofOxford, for this image and for information about Plough Monday. While reading up on Plough Monday and traditions associated with it, I came across references to Distaff Day, also known as St Distaff’s Day and Rock Day. This was 7 January, and was when women began their task of spinning again after the holiday period. Although spinning wheels were in use, spinning by hand using a distaff and spindle remained the most common way of spinning thread, and using a distaff was always a woman’s task.

The return to work seems to have been taken lightly, as on this day it was traditional for men to burn the women’s flax, who retaliated by throwing water over the men. The early 17th-century poet Robert Herrick, whose most famous poem begins “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may”, refers to this in his poem St Distaff’s Day:

Medieval ladies spinning using the distaff and spindle

Partly work and partly play
You must on St. Distaffs Day:
From the plough soon free your team;
Then cane home and fother them:
If the maids a-spinning go,
Burn the flax and fire the tow.
Bring in pails of water then,
Let the maids bewash the men.
Give St. Distaff’ all the right:
Then bid Christmas sport good night,
And next morrow every one
To his own vocation.’

There was other jollification too. Thanks again to Eleanor Parker for the link to an early twentieth century book Examples of Printed Folk-lore concerning Lincolnshire, collected by Mrs Gutch and Mabel Peacock. This gives examples of Plough Monday plays which were particularly prevalent in Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Rutland. These, described as “the most elaborate of all English seasonal folk-drama”  resemble the much more widespread Mumming Plays, generally including a Fool character, a combat and revival sequence, ballads, dancing and costumes decorated with ribbons.

Plough blessing in church, Thaxted, Essex, 2016, with Morris Dancers.

As well as signalling a return to work, Plough Monday was important symbolically. The Dictionary of English Folklore notes that before the Reformation the celebrations on Plough Monday could be elaborate.  Ploughs were often kept in churches, and they would be blessed and decorated before being taken round the village. Donations were encouraged, to be spent on maintaining “plough lights”, candles kept burning in the church to ensure the continued divine blessing on the plough. These rituals were important in order to ensure the fertility of the soil and the success of the harvest. In a few places it still continues, but then it wasn’t just a bit of fun: in Shakespeare’s lifetime harvests failed and he knew all about the hardships that resulted. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, poor weather defeats all the efforts of the farmers:

The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard.

The Christmas period was marked at court too: entertainments of many kinds, including plays, took place until Twelfth Night when order was restored. Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night celebrates the topsy-turvyness of this time of year, though its plot and characters don’t obviously relate to the date itself. Reading about Distaff Day though, I wondered whether he might not have been thinking about this traditional day when Toby Belch bawdily describes Sir Andrew Aguecheek’s hair: “it hangs like flax on a distaff; and I hope to see a housewife take thee between her legs and spin it off”.

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Shakespeare and Jane Austen

Jane Austen

Before 2017 comes to an end, it’s appropriate to mark it as the two-hundredth anniversary of the death of literary giant and Shakespeare-lover Jane Austen. She died, aged only 41, in 1817, in Winchester.

Her admiration of Shakespeare is well-known and during the year the Folger Shakespeare Library has held an exhibition Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity to explore the links between them.

Austen is known to have performed in family theatricals as a child, and to have attended performances of Shakespeare in the theatre. It’s obvious from her books that she had also read and absorbed Shakespeare’s plays. In Mansfield Park Shakespeare’s influence is discussed by Henry Crawford and Edmund:

But Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is part of an English-man’s constitution. His thoughts and beauties are so spread abroad that one touches them every where, one is intimate with him by instinct. – No man of any brain can open at a good part of one of his plays, without falling into the flow of his meaning immediately.”

“No doubt, one is familiar with Shakespeare in a degree.” said Edmund, “from one’s earliest years. His celebrated passages are quoted by everybody, they are in half the books we open and we all talk Shakespeare use his similes and describe with his descriptions . . . . .”

In the same book, Henry Crawford reads aloud from Henry VIII, and before deciding to stage Lovers’ Vows, Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello are all discussed. People have seen echoes of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well and King Lear in the actual plot of Mansfield Park. There are lots of references in other books, one of the most irresistible being in Pride and Prejudice where the sometimes spiky interchanges between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy are likely to have been inspired by Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing.

Though she lived so much more recently, not a lot more is known about Austen’s life than Shakespeare’s. Both writers have become modern day celebrities, with their own lives being creatively examined on film and TV.

The original exhibition at the Folger is now over, but it’s not the end of the story as there’s lots of information on the subject on the Shakespeare & Beyond blog. The main post includes links to others written by the curators, Janine Barchas and Kristina Straub.

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Preserving Macbeth’s Birnam Wood


The Birnam Oak

I’ve only just caught up with the story of the real Birnam Wood. Birnam Wood in Scotland dates back to medieval times, but now just two trees survive: the Birnam Oak, which is thought to date back around 500 years so would have been there when Shakespeare was alive, and the Birnam Sycamore, about 300 years old.

The oak was already vulnerable but Storm Desmond in December 2015 caused flooding that submerged the base of the oak in several feet of water. It is now in danger of splitting in two under its own weight, and remedial work is needed to support its branches.

From its very first mention in the play, Birnam Wood is no ordinary forest, but one of the play’s supernatural elements. When Macbeth visits the weird sisters to find out about his future they predict:
Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until
Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill
Shall come against him.

He responds:
That will never be
Who can impress the forest, bid the tree
Unfix his earth-bound root?

Macbeth holds on to their prediction when it becomes obvious an army is approaching:
I will not be afraid of death and bane,
Till Birnam forest come to Dunsinane.

Then the messenger brings the impossible news:
As I did stand my watch upon the hill,
I look’d toward Birnam, and anon, methought,
The wood began to move.

It’s a shattering moment for Macbeth. The audience, though, already knows. Shakespeare has carefully prepared them, reminding them more than once of the weird sisters’ prophecy. As Malcolm and his army close in on Macbeth’s stronghold at Dunsinane the commanders talk about what to do in order to conceal the size of their forces:

A German representation of the Birnam Wood scene

Siward: What wood is this before us?
Menteith: The wood of Birnam.
Malcolm: let every soldier hew him down a bough
And bear’t before him: thereby shall we shadow
The numbers of our host and make discovery
Err in report of us.

No wonder the remains of Birnam Wood have such a hold on the imagination: the magic, that the trees did unfix their earth-bound roots, actually seemed to happen.

This story has been in the news because the RSC has had to withdraw its support for conserving the remaining trees but hopefully this seemingly negative event will lead to greater publicity for the project. To find out and donate click here!

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Bright angels: Shakespeare and medieval wall paintings

Fra Angelico’s 15th century Annunciation showing the Angel Gabriel appearing to Mary

Angels have been part of the Christmas story ever since it was told in St Luke’s Gospel where the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary at the Annunciation, and where angels appeared to the shepherds to tell them of the birth of Christ. These beautiful winged messengers from heaven have also been favourites when it has come to creating religious images and even in our secular society our Christmas cards and trees are decorated with angels.

A few weeks ago I came across illustrations of paintings in the church in Mulcheney, Somerset. They date back to the 1600s, well after the Reformation but still at a time when painted images in churches were frowned on. These paintings that cover the wooden ceiling of the church depict angels dressed in Tudor costume. They are rare, beautiful survivors.

Shakespeare often referred to angels as beautiful creatures from heaven who also protect humans, as in Hamlet where the prince, on seeing the ghost for the first time, cries “Angels and ministers of grace defend us!”

In the balcony scene, Romeo addresses Juliet, then describes how people look up to admire the beauty of an angel just as they would have looked at the angels flying on the ceiling of the church.

The angels on the ceiling of Mulcheney Church

O, speak again, bright angel! for thou art
As glorious to this night, being o’er my head
As is a winged messenger of heaven
Unto the white-upturned wondering eyes
Of mortals that fall back to gaze on him
When he bestrides the lazy-pacing clouds
And sails upon the bosom of the air.

Mulcheny is not alone though and I have been looking around for other examples of painted churches, especially where they feature angels. This website contains a free list of painted churches in the UK, though it is not comprehensive. Roger Rosewell’s book Medieval Wall Paintings in English and Welsh Churches lists around 500 churches with some surviving wall paintings, some from as early as the twelfth century. It’s surprising that any still exist, since many were painted over in the sixteenth century as a result of the Reformation, and many churches have been altered, rebuilt or renovated in the intervening centuries.

The inside of St Botolph’s Church in Hardham, West Sussex is almost completely covered in medieval paintings. Above the chancel arch is the Lamb of God, surrounded by angels. Among the most notable are scenes showing the nativity, one depicting the Virgin lying in a four-poster bed and the other a more conventional view of Christ lying in a manger with an ox and ass behind him.

The paintings at St Mary's Church, Kempley

St Mary’s Church, Kempley, Gloucestershire. Taken for Susan Holmes.

St Mary’s Church in Kempley, in Gloucestershire, contains some 12th century paintings including those of the Last Judgement. On the ceiling Christ sits on a rainbow, adored by winged angels while the Virgin Mary and St Peter stand by. This church has remained relatively untouched because of its isolated location, but the paintings did not escape being whitewashed following the Reformation. They were discovered in the twentieth century and have now been restored.

Over in Wales another isolated church that has recently discovered its wall paintings is St Cadoc’s in Llancarfan in the Vale of Glamorgan. In 2013 conservators uncovered fifteenth century paintings depicting the seven deadly sins and a spectacular tableau of St George and the Dragon. These too had been concealed behind limewash for hundreds of years. Restoration has taken nearly five years but now the images are visible again.

This was also the fate of the wall paintings in the Guild Chapel in Stratford-upon-Avon, also showing the Last Judgement, though from a later date, and there are few representations of angels. They were discovered in the early nineteenth century and the methods used to preserve in fact obscured them further. As part of a project to conserve these paintings a number of others have been revealed behind wood panelling, believed to have been installed in the fifteenth century. This project will then reveal paintings that were already hidden in Shakespeare’s time.

Whether these churches feature the Christmas story and its angels or not, over Christmas these beautiful survivors from long ago are sure to be admired and cherished.

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