Plough Monday and Distaff Day

January, from a mss at the British Library.

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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International Migrants Day: Ira Aldridge and theatre

18 December is International Migrants Day, when the courage and contribution of migrants and refugees around the world is especially celebrated.

In the play Sir Thomas More, Shakespeare wrote persuasively about the plight of people fleeing their own countries: he suggests we use our imaginations to put ourselves in their shoes. If you found yourself banished,

whither would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour? go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England,
Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth.

Ira Aldridge as Othello, 1830

People from other countries have made huge contributions to life in this country, not least in the arts. One famous migrant whose life has attracted much attention this year is the American black actor Ira Aldridge. He arrived in this country in 1824 and from 1825 was a professional actor, later in his life touring to Europe. At a time when the abolition of slavery was being hotly discussed, Aldridge’s obvious talent helped to promote the argument for abolition. This year a blue plaque has been unveiled in Coventry where in 1828 Aldridge was appointed manager of the theatre, the first black man to hold such a responsible post.

Aldridge toured the provinces relentlessly for a number of years, meaning that he was seen by a huge variety of people around Britain. At the end of his performances he usually came forward to thank his audiences, sometimes making a direct appeal to them to support abolition. Although he performed Othello (the first black actor to do so) and other Shakespeare heroes later in his career, to begin with the parts he played were often what the audience might have expected: in the farce The Padlock he played Mungo, whose comic songs included “Opossum up a Gum Tree”. In Slave! Or, the Revolt of Surinam, he played the Slave of the title.

Playbill for Nottingham Theatre, November 1827. The African Roscius

I’ve been enjoying helping the British Library’s In The Spotlight project in which volunteers can help to mark up the Library’s massive collection of theatrical playbills. As I’ve done it, I’ve been keeping my eyes open for Ira Aldridge performing in  regional theatres. In November 1827 he appeared in Nottingham in plays including The Padlock, The Slave, and The Revenge. The playbill describes him as “a most singular novelty, to the Dramatic World, in the person of an ACTOR OF COLOUR, known throughout America by the appellation the African Roscius”.

He was popular in Ireland, performing repeatedly at the Theatre Royal in Dublin. The earliest bills I’ve seen are from December 1831, then again December 1832, and both June and December 1833. Dublin audiences were sophisticated: around the same time the theatre welcomed London’s finest performers such as Mr Macready as Leontes in The Winter’s Tale and Macbeth, and Charles Kean as Richard III and Hamlet.

London critics were often unkind to Aldridge, but audiences admired him. In an article for the BBC History magazine, Tony Howard wrote:

The history of Shakespeare in the theatre is a story of great performers and productions but also a study of audiences. As Aldridge’s life proved, the public could react to the unfamiliar with prejudice and hostility but could also be surprisingly welcoming. When he took on the management of their theatre, Aldridge wrote an open letter to the people of Coventry; when he came to the city, he said, he “might have feared that, unknown and unfriended, he had little claim to public notice — did he not feel that being a foreigner and a stranger are universal passports to British sympathy”.

When he performed in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1851, the playbill noted that he

… wended his way to the shores of Old England, where his talented histrionic exertions have been most warmly and kindly patronized, as a triumphant answer to those advocates of the slave trade, who founded their defences of that nefarious traffic on the inferiority of African intellect and feeling.’

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s Collections blog quotes the playbill in more detail. The SBT has also put up an online exhibition of items from the Collections celebrating Ira Aldridge’s theatrical career, a reminder on International Migrants Day of the positive contribution that migrants make to our world.  As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said:

“Migration has always been with us. Climate change, demographics, instability, growing inequalities, and aspirations for a better life, as well as unmet needs in labour markets, mean it is here to stay.  The answer is effective international cooperation in managing migration to ensure that its benefits are most widely distributed, and that the human rights of all concerned are properly protected.”

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Mark Carey’s Into the Breach: a Shakespearean one-man show

Into the Breach poster

People who are best known as actors often have many strings to their bows. David Garrick was a talented writer and today Antony Sher has become a distinguished artist and writer of fiction. Shakespeare himself began his life in the theatre as an actor and would not have been such a successful writer for the stage without this experience. As a mere actor, “an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers” he was criticised by Robert Greene for daring to become a writer who “supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you”. Greene went on to describe him as “an absolute Iohannes fac totum”or, as we would say, a Jack of all Trades.

Few actors become prolific writers, but it’s become common for them to create their own one-man shows in which they are able to create something for themselves that shows off their own particular talents. One that has been successfully performed round the country is Mark Carey’s play Into the Breach. Mark plays all seventeen characters in this portrait of life in a sleepy Devon village during the Second World War. Focusing on Shakespeare’s Henry V the play includes a performance of the St Crispin’s Day speech – well, what actor wouldn’t want to deliver this most stirring of speeches? The play is nevertheless full of nostalgic humour.

Mark Carey in Into the Breach

The following description is quoted from the Islington Gazette:

The show…revolves around handyman George Crocker, who left some of his soul on the battlefields of the First World War. He never speaks about the horrors of the trenches, living a quiet life in the sleepy Devon hamlet of Lowford.

The character of George was inspired by Carey’s grandfather Reg Luxton, who was evacuated from Dunkirk and fought through Europe.

“He fought through the war – notably at Monte Casino in Italy – and survived. But he was a changed man.

“The character of George is based on him. A man who has seen a lot but can never bring himself to speak about it. In George’s case, fate gives him the opportunity to be a different person.”

In the play, George auditions for the Lowford Drama Club, believing they are doing a pantomime. He meets luvvie Simon Trottley Barnes (“it was never like this at the Old Vic”) with a grandiose ambition to put on Shakespeare for the masses.

Through George we experience the small man taking on the big challenge… and get under the skin of Henry V.”

Next Tuesday, 12 December, at 7.45, Mark will be performing his play for the Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon. It promises to be a real Christmas treat: visitors are welcome for £3 and information about membership is to be found on the Club’s website.

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Coventry, UK City of Culture 2021

There have been great celebrations since Coventry was been named as the 2021 UK City of Culture. It was an unexpected winner, most people’s view of the city being based on the confusing road network and its modern housing and shops, constructed to bring the city back to life after the destruction of the 1940 blitz. If people were asked to name the city’s cultural highlights the 1960s Cathedral would probably come top.

In the past Coventry was a city of importance and as such it features in Shakespeare’s plays. In Richard II the crucial scene in which Mowbray and Bolingbroke come to combat each other before being banished takes place in Coventry. This event took place in 1398. The city is mentioned in other places. In Henry IV Part 1 Falstaff talks about the poor men he has “pressed” to be soldiers.

If I be not ashamed of my soldiers, I am a soused gurnet…My whole charge consists of … discarded unjust serving-men, younger sons to younger brothers, revolted tapsters and ostlers trade-fallen, the cankers of a calm world and a long peace…                                          A mad fellow met me on the way and told me I had unloaded all the gibbets and pressed the dead bodies. No eye hath seen such scarecrows. I’ll not march through Coventry with them, that’s flat.

Ian McKellen has said that the last of these lines is one of the funniest written by Shakespeare (probably in view of Coventry’s modern status), but Falstaff probably means to imply that Coventry had some distinction.

Coventry’s medieval Guildhall

Now the city has the opportunity to make the most of its other, less well-known cultural offerings, but in recent years a number of developments have signalled Coventry’s determination to rediscover its past. I’ve written before of the surprising discovery in 2015 of the original floor of the medieval cathedral, a direct link with the past. I’ve been surprised to find how much of the old city still exists, in particular the old Guildhall where, in all probability Shakespeare acted with the King’s Men and maybe other acting companies. Other buildings are still there: Holy Trinity Church dates from the 12th century and contains inside a magnificent medieval Doom painting. Just recently the Historic Coventry Trust was formed as an independent body to take care of a number of medieval buildings that up to now have been the responsibility of the City Council.

Apart from links back to Shakespeare’s time and beyond, there are more recent connections. Coventry was a centre of ribbon manufacture and when David Garrick held his Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford in 1769 the rainbow ribbon which was universally worn was created in Coventry. It was adopted and used for many Shakespeare celebrations for many decades.

Coventry has a strong tradition of dramatic performance, including the Godiva procession and its own cycle of medieval mystery plays. The Guildhall was used for performances during Shakespeare’s time and continued to be used hosting performances by the great Shakespearean actress Sarah Siddons. Ellen Terry, the greatest actress of the late nineteenth century who played many of Shakespeare’s heroines, was born in the city.

Ira Aldridge as Othello, 1830

Earlier in 2017 a blue plaque was unveiled in Coventry celebrating the career of Ira Aldridge, the first black actor to play Othello, who was appointed the manager of the Coventry theatre in 1828, just five years before the Slavery Abolition Act.

The award of UK City of Culture to Coventry has been declared a success for the whole of the West Midlands, not just the city itself. It is sure to have an effect on Shakespeare performance and study in the region and organisations with a focus on Shakespeare were actively involved in the bid. Erica Whyman, Deputy Artistic Director of the RSC, was a Trustee and the University of Warwick, with its strong record of Shakespeare research, was also represented. We can all look forward to 2021 being an exciting year for Shakespeare in the region.

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David Garrick at 300

A print of David Garrick as Richard III

Events to mark the 300th anniversary of David Garrick’s birth have been taking place all year. Born in 1717, Garrick burst onto the London stage in 1841 in the role of Richard III. The Museum of London has held an exhibition relating to him. A man of many talents, he combined the functions of writer, actor and theatre manager and became the most famous person to be associated with the theatre for the rest of his lifetime, and long beyond his death.

He was a talented writer of plays but it’s as an actor that he is best remembered. Garrick knew that making his image widely known, particularly showing him in character,  would help to make him famous and increase his audiences. He was also a collector and The Garrick Club in London’s website notes:

“There are over 250 portraits of Garrick, in private and stage character, original and engraved, more than those of any other actor, and exceeded in the “Catalogue of Engraved British Portraits in The British Museum” only by those of Queen Victoria. The Garrick Club holds some 21 of them, along with his life-mask, chair, silver and other memorabilia. Important caches of material and documents about him are in the Garrick Club Library, the British Library, the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Victoria and Albert Museum. When the British Museum was established in the latter half of the eighteenth century, Garrick’s fine collection of old plays formed the nucleus of its library.”

On the subject of those 250 portraits, Dr Johnson’s House in London will continue to mark Garrick’s tercentenary into 2018 with a lecture by Sheila O’Connell entitled Prints of Me: portraits of Garrick on 31 January at 7pm.  Sheila is the curatorial advisor to Dr Johnson’s curator of prints, formerly working at the British Museum.

Garrick’s stage career is also being celebrated at Dr Johnson’s House where, on the 26 November, 3 and 10 December they are staging Star, a monologue by the Palimpsest company, featuring actor Nick Barber as Garrick. It’s set in September 1747, “as a wave of ‘Garrick Fever’ hits London for the opening of the Drury Lane Theatre under the actor’s management. With the reputation of theatre at an all-time low, Garrick sets out to make himself rich and his profession acceptable. With a Prologue to the new season written by Samuel Johnson, Garrick promises to throw new light on elocution and action, banish ranting and bombast and to restore simplicity and humour to the British Stage.”

I’ve recently been re-reading Vanessa Cunningham’s book Shakespeare and Garrick that concentrates on Garrick’s literary career. Garrick wrote a number of his own plays and the Ode that formed the main event of his Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford-upon-Avon. He is often given credit for restoring Shakespeare’s texts to the stage after many decades when they had been plundered in order to create crowd-pleasing entertainments. Vanessa Cunningham examines this theory, looking in great detail at Garrick’s versions and how they compare with both Shakespeare’s original and other stage versions.

Vanessa Cunningham’s Shakespeare and Garrick

David Garrick had a very long relationship with Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear. He first played the part in 1742, less than a year after he had first performed in London and aged only 25. At this time audiences were used to seeing the version put together by Nahum Tate, best known for its un-Shakespearean happy ending. Tate removed words and phrases deemed offensive, invented a romance between Cordelia and Edgar, and omitted the Fool.  Early in his career Garrick would have used this adaptation more or less as written. Over his career Garrick was to play Lear eighty-five times, the last time in 1776 just before his retirement from the stage. He therefore had plenty of opportunity to restore Shakespeare’s text, and Vanessa Cunningham charts, as far as it is possible, how he changed it. In fact by the 1770s, although Garrick had reinstated 255 lines of Shakespeare he had not put back the tragic ending of the play, nor had the Fool made an appearance.

We shouldn’t judge Garrick harshly for not doing more. Audiences knew and loved the play as Tate had adapted it, and would have been outraged by major changes. Vanessa Cunningham also points out that Garrick’s theatre was very much an actor’s theatre. As well as spectacular entertainment they wanted their leading actors to dominate the plays they were in, and to provoke emotional responses. Garrick was enormously successful at appealing to his audiences.

The theatre for which Shakespeare and his contemporaries wrote relied on the skill of the writer to conjure up compelling characters and situations. Although most Shakespeare performances stay close to what Shakespeare wrote, one only has to take a look at a few modern prompt books to see how many lines are cut, and how many words are changed.  The gap between stage and page is smaller than it once was, but still remains.

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Ovid and Shakespeare: the world’s greatest storytellers

Ovid: The Poet and the Emperor

Anyone who’s interested in Shakespeare will have heard the name Ovid, but how much do we really know about him? I’ve written a couple of posts on Ovid myself, but I have never really investigated the story of this great Roman poet. At last the BBC, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the independent company MayaVision have begun to do him justice. I for one would love to see more programmes on this great subject.

Two programmes were screened one after the other on 16 November 2017 on BBC4: the first, Ovid: The Poet and the Emperor was written and presented by historian Michael Wood, who examined the life and work of the poet, not just the bits that Shakespeare recycled. He visited Ovid’s birthplace where he is still celebrated in Sulmona, central Italy, Rome itself, and the cost of the Black Sea in what is now Romania, where Ovid was banished and died.

The programme’s website explains more:
“Unique among ancient poets, Ovid left us an autobiography, full of riveting intimacy, as well as ironical and slippery self-justification. Using Ovid’s own words, brought to life by one of Britain’s leading actors, Simon Russell Beale, the film tells the story of the poet’s fame, and his fateful falling out with the most powerful man in the world, the Roman emperor Augustus…

“By his twenties he was a literary superstar and a thorn in the emperor’s side, his poetry of sex and seduction falling foul of the emperor’s new puritanism, which had even outlawed adultery. In the midst of a sensational sex scandal involving his daughter, the Emperor Augustus banished Ovid to the farthest edge of the empire – the wilds of the Black Sea coast and the marshes of the Danube delta. It’s a tale full of sex, drama and scandal, but his banishment is still a mystery- as he put it, ‘my downfall was all because of a poem – and a mistake- and on the latter my lips are sealed forever’.”

Simon Russell Beale delivering one of Ovid’s poems

What I found intriguing is that Ovid continued to write after he was exiled, and these poems of separation and loss have been immensely influential ever since. The connection with the story of Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest is strong: Ovid’s own banishment, his being sent to a distant place by sea, is mirrored by Prospero’s experience. Ovid’s magic, and his book, is his poetry. Was Shakespeare referring to Ovid’s own fate when he wrote that speech about how Prospero came to be on his island? Here, actor Simon Russell Beale, the RSC’s most recent Prospero, delivers both Ovid’s original and Shakespeare’s version of one of Prospero’s most famous speeches.

The second programme Ovid from the RSC: The World’s Greatest Storyteller focused in on the Metamorphoses themselves, one actor at a time delivering a story to camera using Ted Hughes’ modern translation, punctuated by discussions with Gregory Doran, the RSC’s Artistic Director. The rather static presentation, reminiscent of the RSC’s Playing Shakespeare series led by John Barton in the 1980s, allowed viewers to concentrate on the words, and the precision of the actors’ delivery. It’s perhaps not fair to single one out from a fine series of performances, but here is the link to Fiona Shaw telling the story of Echo and Narcissus.

From the documentary’s website again: “Ovid’s own words reveal an engaging personality: a voice of startling modernity. ‘He is funny, irreverent, focused on pleasure and obsessed with sex’ says Prof Roy Gibson. But, says Greg Doran, he is also a poet of cruelty and violence, which especially fascinated Shakespeare. Ovid raises very modern questions about the fluidity of identity and gender, and the mutability of nature. He also explores the relationship between writers and power and the experience of exile, themes especially relevant in our time when, as Lisa Dwan observes, exile has become part of the human condition. But above all, says Michael Wood, Ovid is the Poet of Love, and 2,000 years after his death he is back in focus as one of the world’s greatest poets: ironical, profound, and relevant.”

Michael Wood in discussion with members of the Shakespeare Club after his Presidential Address

I can’t end this post without mentioning that this year 2017-8 the Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon is honoured to have Michael Wood as its President. As it happened he delivered his Presidential Address on Tuesday 14 November not on Ovid, but on Shakespeare’s Memory, in particular his Warwickshire background including the stories he would have heard at his mother’s knee. It was a wonderfully memorable evening in a season that will continue until May. Anyone wanting to know more about the Club and its activities should head to the website for full details.

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In Remembrance of Richard Spender

Richard Spender

Had Shakespeare died at the age of 21 we would all be the poorer. He would never have written anything of note: without knowing it, we would have lost his insights into human life, expressed in unrivalled poetry through vivid characters and situations. The sense of loss for young lives unfulfilled is always felt most sharply in November, when we honour those whose lives have been cut short by war, and this year in Stratford-upon-Avon it has been a particularly vivid remembrance weekend.

In March 1943 the young soldier Richard Spender died in action in North Africa. He was 21, and was beginning to make his mark as a poet. Because he died so young it’s impossible to say how successful he might have been, but there are enough clues in what he wrote to be sure that he would have been a writer of note. Spender came to live in Stratford-upon-Avon as a child and from 1930 to 1940 he studied at King Edward VI School, where Shakespeare had been a pupil. The School has now honoured Richard Spender with a brand new building that houses the school library and both the English and Computer Studies Departments. Also last week a collection of his poems together with a biography was published, altogether offering a fitting and permanent recognition. *

The Laughing Cavalier, Spender’s Collected Poems

Over the last few days I’ve been reading the book, enjoying the poetry and finding out more about Richard Spender’s short but eventful life. He was a charismatic, charming young man, hence his nickname “The Laughing Cavalier”. He became Captain of the School, and was gifted academically: in 1940 he could have gone to the University of Oxford to read History, but chose to enlist in the army instead.

Some of his poems were published during his lifetime in prestigious periodicals including the Times Literary Supplement and The Observer. Many of the poems, though, are published for the first time. They bear witness to his love of the school and of the town and surrounding countryside: rowing on the Avon was a favourite pastime and the river often finds its way into his poems. This is part of River:
The river moves beneath a breath
Of mists that swirl and whirl and eddy
In currents of a faery book. 

Dark descends, and the trees retreat into the pillow of the soft black night.
Banks fade within the breathing silence
And the river is a long glass road
Cutting the velvet of the sleeping fields
And chuckling elfishly beneath the boat.

The river too is central to a 1942 poem, The Happy Pain where he writes yearningly for peace in a world of war, even the peace of death.
I shall not know
The clouds of death that creep
In numbing suffocation slow
Over a stifled, palsied brain,
But I shall be with you and sleep
Beneath the willow trees again,
And breathe the peace the river bears,
The peace the river bears, and you.

And in the second part of Embarkation Leave he writes about Big School, the ancient schoolroom which is still in use today.
Amid the silence and the coolness of this roof,
Where the hewn beams meet upon the plaster’s white
Like fingers raised in prayer – somewhere here
Watch the spirits of a host of wise and daring men.
I stood in this music-filled stillness –
Eternity stole from the warehouse of Time –
Hearing in the distance the stamping runs and shouts
Of boys playing. I heard grave voices speak.
They have taken me by the hand and led me;

They have strengthened my heart and made it see a Truth
Which, yesterday, my eyes were feared to look upon.

Until the end of 2017 an exhibition celebrating Spender’s life is being held in Shakespeare’s Schoolroom and Guildhall, including some of his original notebooks.

Tim Pigott-Smith

At the opening of the Richard Spender Building the new Library was also opened. This has been named after another formed Head Boy of the School, Tim Pigott-Smith, who died in April 2017. One of the leading actors of his generation, Tim attended the school from 1962 and 1964 and like Richard Spender remained in close contact with it. In 2013 he performed in their production of Henry V that celebrated a production of the play staged exactly 100 years before, just before the outbreak of the 1914-18 war. In this project the school has successfully made connections between several of its old boys, united as headmaster Bennet Carr has said, by “a common passion for the English language”. It has also shown the school’s extraordinary determination to celebrate its history and the achievements of its students, past, present and future.

For in this happy place is no brown winter leaf, no fallen petal.
Nothing but wild beauty in the flowers of youth.

*The Laughing Cavalier is edited by Richard Pearson, School Archivist for King Edward VI, and Perry Mills, Deputy Headmaster of King Edward VI School.

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