Theatregoing with Luke McKernan

Luke McKernan

Following on from my post about the MOOC that began 23 October 2017, I’ve only just discovered a relatively new site that reproduces lots of material relating to going to the theatre, put together by the British Library’s prolific Lead Curator of News and Moving Image, Luke McKernan.

Entitled Theatregoing, here is Luke’s description of what the site does:

“The aim of this site is to document the experience of going to the theatre. It does this by gathering eyewitness testimony from diaries, letters, blogs, newspaper articles, memoirs, reports, travel books, pamphlets, histories, photographs and illustrations. By ‘theatre’ is meant all forms of live theatrical performance: stage plays, opera, musicals, concerts, dance, music hall, variety and more. The interest is not in formal reviews (though there are some of these) but rather in informal documents that document the audience’s particular engagement with theatregoing.”

What I particularly like about this approach is that he brings to the fore descriptions often written by ordinary people, not just professional critics. There are links to online versions if they exist and “no distinction or qualification is made about the form of the memory recorded. All written records, and all memories, are subjective”.

Inevitably many of the reports are for Shakespeare productions, including the famous writings of Thomas Platter and Samuel Pepys. Here is Pepys’ judgement from 1662 on what is now one of Shakespeare’s best-loved comedies:

I sent for some dinner and there dined, Mrs. Margaret Pen being by, to whom I had spoke to go along with us to a play this afternoon, and then to the King’s Theatre, where we saw “Midsummer’s Night’s Dream,” which I had never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life. I saw, I confess, some good dancing and some handsome women, which was all my pleasure.

A country theatre, 1790, from the British Library

The site includes lots of material I haven’t encountered before. Here’s an extract from a record of a performance of The Merchant of Venice staged in some kind of put-up theatre in Keswick in 1792, written by Joseph Budworth and reproduced in his book A Fortnight’s Ramble to the Lakes in Westmoreland, Lancashire, and Cumberland (full details are on the website):

In the evening we went to see the Merchant of Venice in an unroofed house. The sky was visible through niches of boards laid across the upper beams. The walls were decorated, or rather hid, with cast-off scenes, which shewed in many places a rough unplastered wall. Some of the actors performed very well, and some very middling. Their poverty shall stop the pen of criticism; and their endeavours were well expressed by their motto – “TO PLEASE.”

Between the acts a boy, seated upon an old rush chair in one corner of the stage, struck up a scrape of a fiddle. By his dress, which was once a livery, we suppose he was a servant of all work, and had belonged to the manager in better days. But I must do Shylock the justice to say, he performed well; and although no person bawled out “this is the Jew that Shakspeare drew,” when he was expressing his satisfaction at Antonio’s misfortunes, a little girl in the gallery roared, “O mammy! mammy! what a sad wicked fellar that man is!”

It’s interesting to see how often these descriptions talk about other members of the audience and their reactions, as well as subjects don’t have much to do with the play.  Some of them, like Thomas Platter’s writings, have provided us with lots of information about what Shakespeare’s theatre was like. This entertaining site is regularly updated and very much worth signing up for. While you’re at it do take a look at Luke’s companion blog, Picturegoing, that does the same thing for film history. You’ll find a link from the About page of Theatregoing.

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Aphra Behn, the first professional woman writer

Aphra Behn, painted by Mary Beale

In England, after Shakespeare’s death there followed a period of tremendous change, with the Civil War and execution of the reigning king, Charles 1, followed by the Commonwealth under Cromwell. When the monarchy was restored in 1660 and Charles II made king everything was different again. Charles II, often known as the merry monarch, encouraged the arts and attitudes to women and sex were also transformed.  Nowhere was this seen more than in the theatres, reopened after nearly two decades, where women were for the first time allowed onstage. The presence of actresses on stage, particularly in breeches parts like Shakespeare’s Viola in Twelfth Night, where they showed their ankles and legs, ensured an audience. A career in the theatre might have sometimes been equated with prostitution but it was certainly a step up.

Women were liberated in other ways too. Aphra Behn was the first professional female writer, and born in 1640 she came along at just the right time to make the most of Charles II’s accession. Little is known of her background though her father is thought to have been a barber. She led an exciting life, marrying young  (it isn’t clear whether her husband died or they separated), going abroad as a successful spy, then returning to London where she became a celebrated author. Between 1670 and her death in 1689 at the early age of 49 she wrote around 19 plays, short stories, poems and novels. This genre didn’t really exist before.

Her first play, The Forc’d Marriage, on the subject of unhappy marriage, was a success. Her plays often featured tragic women trapped by their sexual desires and victims of circumstance. Many of these roles were written for Elizabeth Barry, one of the most famous actresses of the time. Today her most often-produced play is The Rover, first put on in 1677, in which Nell Gwynn starred. Her fictional tale Oroonoko which she wrote shortly before she died was an exploration of slavery and race, and as such has become well known.

Behn’s fame resulted in several portraits being painted: one by Peter Lely, court painter to Charles II and his court, a lost painting by John Riley and another by Mary Beale. Mary Beale was another woman who made her way in a man’s profession following the Restoration, being the first female to make her living  as a painter, very much influenced by Peter Lely. Like Behn, her work is now becoming better known, and coincidentally she is one of the subjects of a recent BBC TV documentary Britain’s Lost Masterpieces. This is a clip from the show and here is the link to the whole programme, available to watch again until 10 November 2017.  Peter Lely’s painting of Aphra Behn featured in a 2016 exhibition about Samuel Pepys at the Royal Museums Greenwich. There’s a lot more information here.

On Aphra Behn’s death in 1689 an anonymous poem by “a young lady of quality” was published. An Elegy Upon the Death of Mrs A Behn, the Incomparable Astraea asks:
“Who now of all the inspired Race,
Shall take Orinda’s Place?
Or who the Hero’s Fame shall raise?
Who now shall fill the Vacant Throne?”

With no woman to succeed her,
“Let all our Hopes despair and dye,
Our Sex for ever shall neglected lye;
Aspiring Man has now regain’d the Sway,
To them we’ve lost the Dismal Day…”

Tod Randolph as Aphra Behn in Or, performed by Shakespeare & Co

As predicted by the writer of the poem, Aphra Behn had no successor, and her work went completely out of fashion.  Her work may still be a rarity on stage but her extraordinary life and achievements are gradually becoming better known. Janet Todd wrote her biography Aphra Behn: Her Secret Life in 1996 and in 2017 has updated and republished it. On 12 October 2017 Behn was the subject of the excellent Radio 4 series In Our Time, in which Todd spoke. An extended version of the programme is available from the BBC, and a bibliography of works about her is also on the site.

Behn has also been the subject of at least three recent plays including Liz Duffy Adams’ 2010 play Or , which has been performed by both Shakespeare & Company in Lennox Massachusetts and the Southwest Shakespeare Company in Arizona.

Aphra Behn’s gravestone in Westminster Abbey

Aphra Behn’s grave, still to be seen in Westminster Abbey, celebrates her wit and the transience of her fame:
Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be
Defence enough against Mortality

The restoration of her reputation began in the early twentieth century when she was championed by Virginia Woolf who wrote in A Room of One’s Own: “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn,… for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds”.

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Shakespeare: Print and Performance

The 1599 Second Quarto of Romeo and Juliet

For many years, even centuries, there was a huge divide between Shakespeare’s plays as they were performed and how they appeared in print. Scholars wrestled with the numerous different editions of the plays issued in the early modern period, trying to establish what Shakespeare actually intended to write, and quibbling over variant words and spellings. Meanwhile acting companies carried on performing the plays, heavily cut or adapted as suited the fashion of the day. Nobody much cared about how the plays had originally been performed. But gradually the two different ways of looking at Shakespeare came closer. Academics, realising that actors could often shed light on the plays, began to take the study of performance history and original performance techniques seriously. In the theatre, the rise of directors with an academic rather than theatrical background ensured that close examination of the texts became more important. Studying Shakespeare from page to stage has now become the norm.  

The Futurelearn MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) Shakespeare: Print and Performance, that first ran last year is now being re-run beginning on 23 October 2017. It promises to be a really interesting introduction to the subject that will take up 2 hours a week for 4 weeks. It’s been developed by King’s College London in partnership with Shakespeare’s Globe and the British Library, three organisations that traditionally would represent  different approaches to Shakespeare.

While the teaching comes from King’s, those on the course will be told about both current and early modern stage practices. “We’ll meet practitioners at the Globe and we’ll step into the world of the early modern actor to examine the processes and conditions that were at the heart of Shakespearean playhouse.” The British Library will supply priceless manuscripts and early printed texts, and the course will look at how the early modern book trade shaped the journey of Shakespeare’s text.  

One of the team, Erica Moulton, gives some details:
Shakespeare likely had nothing to do with the printing and distribution of his own plays, and at first many of these printed editions did not even bear his name. For instance, Romeo and Juliet was printed in 1597 and then again in 1599.

The “first quarto”, sometimes called the “bad quarto” is often thought to be a memorial reconstruction rather than based on Shakespeare’s own “foul papers”, a fact that the printer of the second quarto draws attention to when he writes that his edition is “newly corrected, augmented, and amended” in 1599.

As Shakespeare’s name and reputation as a playwright grew, publishers and booksellers began to use his name on the title pages of his plays (and even on plays that he did not write). It was a full seven years after his death that two of the players from his company, John Heminges and Henry Condell, compiled his works for the First Folio in 1623.

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

During his lifetime, Shakespeare’s focus remained on the playhouse, or playhouses, as was the case when his company finally acquired the right to perform at Blackfriars in 1608. After that, they split their time between the indoor Blackfriars during the winter and the Globe in the summer.”

One of the highlights of the course will be the sessions filmed in Shakespeare’s Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, their intimate theatre that reproduces as closely as possible the indoor theatres at which Shakespeare’s plays were performed, very different from the big open air playhouses like the Globe.

The aim of the course is to get closer to Shakespeare and to enrich people’s engagement with the plays whether they encounter them in print or performance. As with all MOOCs, it is free and very easy to register. Those taking part will be able to join in online discussions where they will be able to share their experiences of Shakespeare on stage.

Stationers’ Hall

I recently heard about another online resource that would enable those whose interest has been whetted to dig a bit deeper. The Stationers’ Company is a London livery company that regulated to early book trade. From 1557-1923 all published material had to be registered by them. The Stationers’ Company Archive contains rare documents dating from 1554 that relate to printing, publishing, bookselling and bookbinding. The documents digitised include their registers of new books, including Shakespeare’s First Folio from 1623, and membership records dating from 1555 to the late 20th century documenting the history of the printing and publishing community.

While I’m sure this is a wonderful resource for those who can access it,  I’m very disappointed to find that unless you are affiliated to a university you can’t get past the  homepage. It’s really irritating to be welcomed and encouraged to explore only to find that nearly all options lead to a blank sign-in sheet. I completely understand that digitisation has to be paid for, but in these days of Open Access surely it would be possible to provide some free content, or a pay per view option? As the growth in MOOCs shows, the interest in lifelong learning is widespread, and family historians would also be keen to search these biographical resources. But good luck to anyone able to enjoy the site!

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A German Hamlet: Fratricide Punished

Photographs taken during the puppet performance of “Der Berstraffe Brudermord” by The Hidden Room theatre company on the fourth day of the Blackfriars Conference at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia on Saturday, October 26, 2013.
Photo by Pat Jarrett

There are many unanswered questions regarding Shakespeare’s plays, many of which relate to Hamlet, Shakespeare’s best-known play. The German Der Bestrafte Brudemord, known in English as Fratricide Punished, is one of the earliest known versions of Hamlet in a foreign language. The play was published in Germany in 1781 but the text itself dated from 1710, years before a proper translation had been made. Rather typically the original text has since vanished. It was translated into English in 1865.

At only a fifth the length of the original play it has often puzzled academics. Tiffany Stern writes “It tells an exaggerated, action-filled version of the story of Shakespeare’s Hamlet that is often hilarious. The Ghost of Hamlet’s father sneaks behind the sentries to box their ears;… Hamlet rids himself of two murderers by asking them to shoot him at the same time. He ducks and they shoot one another instead.”

Most of the philosophical musings of Shakespeare’s play have been ditched along with the poetry. You’ll remember that the death of Ophelia is announced by Gertrude in one of the most memorable speeches in Hamlet. Not here:

Queen:  Gracious Lord and King, I am the bearer of sad tidings.
King:  Heaven forbid; what is it?
Queen: Ophelia has climbed a high hill, and cast herself down and taken her own life.

This might not seem to owe much to Shakespeare’s play, but here is Claudius’s first speech, even in translation sounding much more familiar:

King:  Though yet our brother’s death is fresh in memory of all and it befits us to suspend all state-celebrations, yet from this time it is needful for us to change our black mourning garb to crimson, purple, and scarlet, since my late departed brother’s widow has now become our dearest spouse. Wherefore I pray you, let everyone show himself joyful and make himself a partner in our mirth. But you, Prince Hamlet, pray you, be happy. See here your mother, how sad and troubled she is by your melancholy. Also we have learned that you have resolved to go back to Wittenberg. For the sake of your mother, do not do so. Stay here, for we love you and like to see you, and should not wish any harm to overtake you. Stay with us at court, or, if not, betake yourself to Norway, to your kingdom.

Tiffany Stern again: “What is this slapstick bawdy romp of a Shakespeare tragedy? And how did it come about? For years Shakespeareans have been confused by ‘Der Bestrafte Brudermord’. Is it a unique record of the play preceding Shakespeare’s Hamlet? A corrupt version of Shakespeare’s play? An adaptation?”

There is thought to have been a lost version of Hamlet that was a source of Shakespeare’s play. This is known as the “ur-Hamlet” and Fratricide Punished was closely examined as it might relate to this early play. The first known performance of Hamlet in Germany was put on by English actors in 1626, which might account for an early version being found there.

Wolmark, Alfred Aaron; William Poel (1852-1934); Royal Shakespeare Company Collection;

As a text clearly written for performance there have been a number of explanatory productions in England. The earliest was put on by the pioneering director William Poel on 11 October 1924. Poel had founded the Elizabethan Stage Society in 1895 in order to re-create original staging conditions, and even before this date, in 1881, he had staged Hamlet using the First Quarto text with minimal scenery and props. With a number of “Globe” theatres now operating around the world it’s perhaps hard for us to imagine how daring this was but in his own time Poel was extremely influential.

More recently academics have been looking at the play with renewed interest. I’ve already mentioned Tiffany Stern’s 2014 paper, followed by a lecture at the Britgrad Conference in 2105. From that 2014 paper she explains her continuing interest: “Yet what gave me pause was a stranded marionette now residing in The Collection of Zanella-Pasqualini, Bologna. Called “Amleto”,this Hamlet puppet was apparently carved by Pietro Resoniero (1640-1735) for performance in the Judenmarkt, Vienna, in 1667. That means that a puppet Hamlet did indeed circulate abroad before the play was formally translated.”

Her talk was followed by a puppet version of Fratricide Punished by Hidden Room Theatre, whose director Beth Burns is convinced that the play was intended to be a puppet show. The version has also been put on in different venues, but the idea remains controversial as June Schlueter has written a more cautious article noting that there is a lack of documentary evidence for performance of puppet-plays on the Continent. So more research into this very Shakespearean puzzle is required.

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Influences on Shakespeare

Chipo Chung as Dido and Sandy Grierson as Aeneas in the RSC’s Dido Queen of Carthage. Photo by Topher McGrillis, copyright RSC

The source books from which Shakespeare took the main stories of his plays are well-known, sometimes so important that he quoted almost word for word, as in Enobarbus’s description of Cleopatra from Plutarch’s Lives. Other sources seem to have been absorbed by Shakespeare, appearing maybe years later. We all remember best things that we learned when young, at school, at home, or as young adults and so did he.

I was reminded of some of these early influences when I recently went to see Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage, in the RSC’s repertoire until 28 October 2017. I’m lucky enough to have seen two versions of this rarely-performed play as in 2013 Edward’s Boys did their own production. The play was probably performed around 1587, and the title page from the printed version dating from 1594 states it was acted by the Children of the Chapel, in other words by a company of boys.

Although there’s no actual evidence that Shakespeare and Marlowe met, it’s inconceivable that they didn’t. Marlowe was the same age as Shakespeare and famous before Shakespeare had even begun to write. He has recently been put forward as the co-author of some of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, Henry VI parts 1-3 and the New Oxford Shakespeare puts his name on the title pages along with Shakespeare.

Title page of Dido Queen of Carthage, 1594

Dido, Queen of Carthage was perhaps Marlowe’s first play, set in the aftermath of the fictional Trojan War. After a ten-year siege of Troy the Greeks pretended to give up, leaving a massive wooden horse that the Trojans brought into the city with great celebration. The following night the Greek soldiers hidden within the horse let themselves out, murdering the citizens and setting fire to the city. Aeneas, one of the princes of Troy, escaped and found his way to Carthage in North Africa where he meets Dido. Told by Virgil in The Aeneid, the story leads up to the founding of Rome, that became one of the greatest civilizations in history. The play is a strong reminder of how important this story was to Elizabethans. Both Marlowe and Shakespeare attended local grammar schools where they would have read the Latin texts containing the exciting story of the Trojan War.

There are many echoes of Shakespeare in the play that show that even years later Shakespeare probably had Marlowe’s Dido in his mind: the suicide of Cleopatra at the end of the Antony and Cleopatra, verbal repetitions in Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest. Troilus and Cressida is Shakespeare’s play about the Trojan War just as Dido is Marlowe’s.  Most striking though is “Aeneas’ tale to Dido”, which Hamlet asks the Players to recite when they appear at the court of Elsinore. In Marlowe’s play Aeneas also tells Dido the story of the Trojan War. Editions of Hamlet comment that the speech is inspired by Virgil’s Aeneid, books 2 and 3 but surely this is also a nod to Marlowe, and the first audiences would have immediately made the connection with his earlier version.

Assuming Shakespeare knew Marlowe’s play, perhaps he learned how to improve on Marlowe’s stagecraft. In Marlowe’s version Aeneas’s story of the Trojan War goes on for about 164 lines. In Hamlet, after only 32 lines from the Player King, Polonius comments “this is too long”, and the Player finishes his tale in another 15 lines. Shakespeare knew that at least some of the audience wouldn’t enjoy even the excitement of the sack of Troy if it went on too long. And Shakespeare was lucky that Cleopatra committed suicide by poisoning rather than as Dido does throwing herself into a flaming pyre, described with typical understatement by Stanley Wells in his book Shakespeare & Co as “difficult to stage”.

Whereas Marlowe’s version reflects on Aeneas’ own experience, Shakespeare describes just part of it: ’Twas Aeneas’ tale to Dido; and thereabout of if especially when he speaks of Priam’s slaughter”, including the reactions of Hecuba, Priam’s wife. Shakespeare cleverly concentrates on the section of the story that relates to Hamlet’s own obsession with his own mother’s reaction to his father’s death.

Another major influence on Shakespeare from the classical period was the Roman poet Ovid and his stories called Metamorphoses. Many, such as the tales of Daphne, Adonis, Niobe and Philomel are referred to in his plays. Until the end of October 2017 the RSC are running an Ovid season and a variety of events are planned.

Michael Wood

If you’d like to know more about other ways that Shakespeare’s early life influenced his writings, and you live in the Stratford-upon-Avon area, come along to the Shakespeare Club’s meeting on 14 November when this year’s president, Michael Wood, will be giving a talk on Shakespeare’s Memory, that will include a discussion of his background in rural sixteenth century England. He’s an enthusiastic speaker who really knows his subject and it’s sure to be an interesting evening.

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Fulke Greville, a great Elizabethan

Fulke Greville

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

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

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

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

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

Fulke Greville’s tomb in St Mary’s Warwick

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

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

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

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

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

David Mitchell in Upstart Crow

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

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

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

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

Lawrence Holofcener’s Young Will

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

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

James Butler with his Shakespeare statue

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

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

Building the lego portrait of Shakespeare outside the RST

The completed lego portrait inside the RST


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Thomas Nashe and the end of Summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shakespeare’s Warwick

The Beauchamp Chapel, Warwick

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

Warwick Castle

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

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

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

The tomb of Robert Dudley and his wife Lettice

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

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

Lord Leycester Hospital, Warwick

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


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Securing Shakespeare’s Birthplace for the nation and the world

The auction 16 September 1847

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

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

Paul Greenwood as auctioneer

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

SBT Director Roger Pringle makes the successful bid

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

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

The Birthplace before restoration

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

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

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

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