Recently, across BBC radio and television, there’s been a season of excellent programmes dedicated to Shakespeare. Best of all was Neil MacGregor following up his 100 Objects with Shakespeare’s Restless World, 20 programmes that explored the world of Shakespeare through twenty objects from that turbulent period. On BBC4 James Shapiro re-examined the work of Shakespeare during King James I’s reign in an excellent short series, The King and the Playwright: A Jacobean History, while back on Radio 3 The Essay featured five essays about love in the work of Shakespeare.
This is Drake’s Circumnavigation Medal, a small silver medal showing Sir Francis Drake’s 1577-80 voyage around the world. It was created in 1589, around the time that Shakespeare began his theatrical career in London. Neil MacGregor chose this as the first object of his series in order to illustrate how Shakespeare’s generation was the first to conceive of a world whose limits were known. Suddenly, the world looked like a very different place. The 1580s and 1590s saw English figures joining the great adventure of exploration, exploitation, trading and looting that marked the European age of discovery – bringing with it exotic goods and even more exotic tales that would fire the public imagination.
Oberon: ‘We the globe can compass soon,
Swifter than the wandering moon.’
(A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 4.1.96-7)
Puck: ‘I’ll put a girdle round about the earth
In forty minutes.’
(A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 2.1.175-6)
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, MacGregor , pointed out, Oberon, king of the fairies, and his mischievous attendant Puck boast that they can circumnavigate the globe in just over half an hour. It took Francis Drake nearly three years.But it was not really until this period that people could have had a real visual sense of the whole world, and in particular the roundness of the world.
In a series of brilliant essays, MacGregor evoked a powerful sense of Shakespeare’s times through objects such as the Stratford Chalice (above), from which Shakespeare may even have drunk (chosen to reflect the changing religious landscape of Elizabethan England), a theatre-goers fork excavated from the site of the Rose Theatre on London’s south bank, and a Plague proclamation from King James I issued in 1603 , the year that a fresh epidemic swept through London forcing the theatres to close for almost a year and leaving Shakespeare’s company little choice but to head out on the road to tour the provinces.
In one essay, MacGregor’s starting point was Henry V’s battle gear, which can be seen the museum at Westminster Abbey. In Shakespeare’s day, he said, there were two easy ways to learn about national history: you could go to the theatre and see England’s famous victories chronicled in performance; or you could head to Westminster Abbey where in amongst the royal tombs you could be instructed on the ‘living monuments’ of dead kings. If you did either, it’s probable that one monarch’s heroic deeds would have stood out above all others – those of England’s valiant, dashing, and heroic ‘warrior king’ Henry V. In the 1590s, as England headed for war with Spain 150 years after Henry’s death, spectacular chivalric displays at Westminster and performances on stage across the river, harked back to this powerful king who personified the ability to unite Englishmen against the enemy.
It was the same for the generation that lived through the Second World war: Laurence Olivier’s film version depicted a handsome and valiant Englishman taking his people onward into battle.
King Henry: In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favoured rage;
(Henry V, 3.1.3-8)
In Westminster Abbey we can still see Henry V’s battered shield and sword, sturdy helmet and saddle for a war horse. The reason these instruments of battle are in the Abbey, MacGregor said, is because for centuries they were put on public display, hung over Henry V’s tomb.
One of the programmes, ‘New Science, Old Magic’, told the fascinating story of how, in 1608, after acquiring a second indoor playhouse to complement the Globe, Shakespeare’s company were able to begin to deploy magical effects in stage performances such as The Tempest. Greg Doran of the Royal Shakespeare Company explained the impact:
When they moved inside to the Blackfriars theatre, they had control of light and that’s a very important factor. If you can control the light, you can control the effect. In the Globe’s stage, in the open air with no lighting effects to speak of, with the audience wrapped all the way around, very very difficult to as it were to hide the strings.’
Indoors at Blackfriars, stage magic reached a new pitch of sophistication in The Tempest, employing effects developed by Dr John Dee, an Elizabethan celebrity and famous practitioner of the occult arts who inspired great theatrical characters such as Marlowe’s damned Dr Faustus and Shakespeare’s own master of magical effects, Prospero. Dr Dee was particularly known in England for what he called his ‘showstones’, reflective mirrors in which, combining prayer and optics, he was able to conjure and talk to angels.
One of Dee’s mirrors is in the British Museum (above). It’s a large round disc of highly polished obsidian, a black volcanic glass. It was almost certainly a piece of Spanish booty from Mexico, and is in fact an Aztec mirror, painstakingly crafted in Mexico some time before the Spanish arrived. It was shaped with stone tools and we now know, although Dr Dee probably didn’t, that the high polish was achieved by long rubbing with bat excrement. Aztec royalty used obsidian mirrors, like this one, as symbols of their power and as a means of seeing into the future, deriving part of their authority from a god they called ‘Lord of the Smoking Mirror’. ‘When Spanish science defeated the magic of Mexico’, said MacGregor, ‘this magical object travelled to Europe where it became part of a different, but disconcertingly similar, structure of knowledge possessed only by a few’.
The series concluded with a superb example of MacGregor’s scholarship and humanitarian sensibility. In his final essay, Shakespeare Goes Global, he explored how Shakespeare’s words have circled the Earth in the centuries since the publication, by a group of friends a decade after his death, of the First Folio which preserved Shakespeare’s plays for future generations. I thought this episode so powerful that I’ll quote extended passages here:
On 22 July 1942, the German SS announced that all the Jews in Warsaw would, in the euphemism of the day, be ‘resettled’ to the camp at Treblinka. It was effectively a death sentence:
‘There were however six groups of people who were to be exempted from the resettlement. These included all able-bodied Jews of working age, all persons employed by German public authorities or in German production facilities or those who were on the staff of the Judenrat and the Jewish hospitals. One sentence suddenly set me thinking; the wives and children of the people in these categories were not to be resettled either.’
The 22-year-old Marcel Reich-Ranicki was one of those exemptions. Now over 90 years old and Germany’s leading literary critic, he told his story to the German Parliament in January 2012. A German-Polish Jew, he was working for the Judenrat, the Council of Jews set up by the Nazis. He had no wife or children, but he was engaged, and he realised that, if he acted straight away, he could prevent his fiancee from being ‘resettled’. He must marry her at once:
‘The ceremony did not last long. I cannot recall whether in all the rush and excitement I actually kissed Teofila, I don’t know. But I well remember the feeling that engulfed us, a feeling of fear, fear of what would happen in the coming days. And I still remember the Shakespearean line that occurred to me at the time: ‘Ward je in dieser Laun’ ein Weib gefreit?’
‘Ward je in dieser Laun’ ein Weib gefreit?’: ‘Was ever woman in this humour wooed?’ It’s a quotation from Shakespeare’s Richard III and it’s an astonishing thing for a young German Pole to think of at such a moment. At this time of extreme need, the only words Marcel Reich-Ranicki found were Shakespeare’s. [...]
In this final programme I want to look at the many things that Shakespeare’s plays have come to mean to the whole world. For hundreds of years, people like Marcel Reich-Ranicki have found in Shakespeare the words to express their own deepest feelings. How has this supremely public writer become the private companion of so many, his words the stuff that their hopes, fears and dreams are made on? How did this very English playwright go global?
Well the answer, I think, is here in the British Library, and it’s in this book that I’ve got in front of me: Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies – often referred to simply as the ‘First Folio’. … The first folio was advertised for the Frankfurt Book Fair of 1622, six years after Shakespeare had died, but as often happens, the publishers ran a bit late and it appeared only in 1623. Now, it was rare for plays in English by a single author to be gathered and published like this. That tribute was usually reserved for the great writers in Latin. But with this book, people everywhere, people who had never seen Shakespeare played in the theatre, could make his works part of their lives. And from the beginning, we know that they did.
The First Folio allowed Shakespeare to travel out of the theatre and into the world. The copy I’m looking at now belonged to William Johnstoune, who lived in Dumfriesshire in Scotland. [...]
Johnstoune’s copy of the First Folio is now in Meisei University in Tokyo. But I am studying it in a cafe in London on my smartphone. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck puts a girdle round the earth in forty minutes. In the world of modern magic, online Shakespeare circles the globe instantly.
And on every circling the words mean something new. In 2012, the very new state of South Sudan found echoes of its post-conflict recovery in an officially sponsored production of Cymbeline in Juba Arabic. [...]
Memorably [Shakespeare] was there on Robben Island, the infamous South African jail, where in the 1970s, leaders of the African National Congress were imprisoned during the struggle against apartheid. Sonny Venkatratham was one of them:
‘When I got to Robben Island we had no access to a library or any other reading material. I applied to buy some books and the reply came that I am allowed only one book. Eventually I decided the only book that would keep me going for some time would be the Complete Works of Shakespeare – well I knew they wouldn’t allow me to have the Das Kapital or something.’
In order to keep his Shakespeare with him in his cell, Sonny Venkatratham disguised it by sticking Hindu cards sent to him for Diwali over the covers. The Robben Island ‘Bible’ is now part of the legend of the battle against apartheid:
‘About six months before my due release date, I circulated The Complete Works of Shakespeare and asked my comrades there to select a line or a passage that appealed to them and sign it. All of them chose lines or passages that inspired them and strengthened the resolve for the struggle.’
On the 16 December 1977, the disguised Robben Island Bible reached Nelson Mandela. He signed his name beside this passage on courage and death from Julius Caesar:
Caesar: Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear,
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.
(Julius Caesar 2.2.32-7)
The same passage had moved William Johnstoune in Scotland 350 years earlier: ‘Death a necessarie end will come when it will come and is not to be forefeared’. The prisoner Walter Sisulu, pondering racial injustice in South Africa, fascinatingly does not choose as his passage words chosen by Othello, the Moor of Venice, and victim of many racist slurs. He chooses instead the Venetian Jew, Shylock:
Shylock: You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
. . .
Fair sir, you spat on me on Wednesday last,
You spurned me such a day, another time
You called me dog
(The Merchant of Venice 1.3.108-25)
Imagining Sisulu reading these lines, is to imagine Shakespeare conjuring the humiliations of apartheid South Africa. The Robben Island Bible, like the First Folio, allows everyone to see in Shakespeare the mirror of their own predicament and, in the Warsaw ghetto or in a South African prison, Shakespeare speaks to the unsettled condition of our time. In the First Folio, his contemporary Ben Jonson described him as the ‘soul of the age’, but also as ‘not of an age, but for all time’. Shakespeare scholar, Jonathan Bate:
‘I think the key to Shakespeare’s endurance, and the fact that in every culture and every age he seemed to speak to the present, comes from that paradox. On the one hand he was the ‘soul of the age’, all the great conflicts and innovations of the age, the sense of the discovery of new worlds, new ways of looking at the world, it all is there in Shakespeare. He was the soul of the age, but at the same time he never confined himself to the particularities of his historical moment and that meant that because he sort of plugged in to the fundamental questions about human society and human life, he speaks to every age. Shakespeare is always our contemporary.’
I’ve been an admirer of James Shapiro, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University , since reading 1599: A Year In The Life of William Shakespeare and another of his books, Shakespeare and the Jews. In the Shakespeare Unlocked season he presented a three-part series about Shakespeare in the reign of King James, The King and the Playwright: A Jacobean History. It proved to be fascinating stuff, with revealing insights into the background that informed plays such as Macbeth, Coriolanus, Measure for Measure and King Lear.
Shapiro began by sketching in the anxious mood of 1603 when the Scottish king succeeded to the English throne. Puritans, plague, an extravagant gift to a Spanish diplomatic delegation, and a new British coin called the Unite all featured in Shapiro’s rich and fascinating history of a troubled time which saw an extraordinary creative outpouring. Shapiro’s main purpose was to relate Shakespeare’s late plays to the politics and the tensions of the Jacobean period, much as he did for later Elizabethan England in his book 1599. He pointed out that the theatre was of tremendous significance in Jacobean London: in a city of just 200,000 people, there were eight theatres. There would need to be 300 for an equivalent ratio today.
What Shapiro (and MacGregor, too) made clear was just how much the death of Elizabeth was a political chasm that opened at the feet of the age. Shapiro emphasised what an enormous change it represented for Shakespeare in particular. As he said, we tend to think of him as an Elizabethan playwright who simply progressed from triumph to triumph. But James’s accession endangered that progress. Shapiro, drew attention to the difference between Hamlet (1600) and Measure for Measure (1604):
The distance he travelled… suddenly you have this play of incredible ambiguity and disturbing resolution that has come out of a different world … I am struggling as a cultural historian to understand this moment.
Measure for Measure was not the first Shakespeare play to be presented before the new king, but was likely the first to be written in his reign. James hated crowds and was awkward with people: he was far happier in a library or on a hunting field than playing the part of a king. Or, as the Duke puts it, ‘I love the people but do not like to stage me to their eyes’. In addition, Measure for Measure addresses the exact same issues of good governance, of pragmatism versus piety that were preoccupying James at the start of his reign.
In Macbeth, written in 1606 in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot when the authorities were cracking down on Catholics, Shakespeare captured the anxiety and obsessions of the time. Shapiro drew out the links between Macbeth, especially the famous and chilling Porter’s speech, and the Gunpowder Plot.
Here’s a knocking indeed! If a man were
porter of Hell Gate, he should have old turning the
key. (Knock.) Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there,
i’ the name of Beelzebub? Here’s a farmer, that hang’d
himself on th’ expectation of plenty. Come in time!
Have napkins enow about you; here you’ll sweat for’t.
(Knock.) Knock, knock! Who’s there, in the other
devil’s name? Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could
swear in both the scales against either scale, who com-
mitted treason enough for God’s sake, yet could
not equivocate to heaven. O, come in, equivocator.
The Porter, he points out, uses the word ‘equivocate’ once and ‘equivocator’ twice. The Catholic priest Henry Garnet, executed for complicity in the plot, had written A Treatise of Equivocation instructing Catholics in how to conceal their faith. Concealment, secrecy and ‘equivocation’ were words that signified the fears of the age.
The Essay on Radio 3 marked the season with a week of essays about love in the work of Shakespeare. Margaret Drabble explores how our concepts of love and humanity have been deepened by the power of Shakespeare’s poetry and how his many and varied versions of love continue to shape our imaginations: from the first love and love at first sight shared by the teenage Romeo and Juliet to the all consuming last love of the ageing Antony and Cleopatra.
Other essays were given by Stanley Wells – who suggested that, though Shakespeare’s work is not generally considered to be autobiographical, there is good reason to believe his varying portrayals of love and romance may reflect the changing nature of Shakespeare’s own experiences – and by the actor and director Samuel West, who explored the many and varied portrayals of love in Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays. Professor Helen Hackett examined in some depth the love sonnet spoken by Romeo and Juliet and how, like so many of his poems, it creates a moment of extreme unreality. Time stands still as the protagonists pour out their hearts in what is effectively a sonnet whose lines are handed back and forth between the two lovers, a sonnet that takes us beyond poetic convention and beyond realism to tell the truth about love:
Romeo [To Juliet]: If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
Juliet: Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.
Romeo: Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Juliet: Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
Rome: O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray — grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
Juliet: Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
Romeo: Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take. [Kisses her.]
Thus from my lips, by yours, my sin is purged.
Juliet: Then have my lips the sin that they have took.
Rome: Sin from thy lips? O trespass sweetly urged!
Give me my sin again. [Kisses her.]
The final essay was in some ways the most interesting, related as it was to Neil MacGregor’s final essay. In it, the writer and journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown recalled how her own heart was captured by Shakespeare as a child growing up in Uganda, East Africa, where his plays were performed at her school on a regular basis. She told her own astonishing story, a tragic variant on Shakespeare’s tale of forbidden love between families divided by hatred and prejudice. After playing Juliet to a black African Romeo, scandal followed and her father never spoke to her again until he died. Alibhai-Brown recalled the experience in article for the Independent:
I am forever grateful that some of my teachers were brave enough to instil in us ideas which were inimical to those held by our parents and communities. That they took on their more conventional colleagues, broke rules, took risks and made us into questioning little upstarts and worthy rebels instead of a generation of little obedients. Our poor old British teachers today would never be allowed to get away with such subversive behaviour.
Mrs Mann, my English teacher is the true heroine of the one-woman show I have been performing as part of the RSC’s new work programme based on my life as a young girl in Uganda and my love of Shakespeare. Mrs Mann came into our predominantly Asian school (with a minority of black pupils) and shook things up by producing Romeo and Juliet with Asians playing the Capulets and Africans playing the Montagues. I was Juliet. Shame and scandal followed and my father never spoke to me again until he died.
Africans in the early Sixties had grown to despise us, even the massive good we did. Asians thought of Africans as inferior beings. After independence we had to make a different country. Mrs Mann made us break from those deep prejudices. She came to the show in London on the final night and I publicly told her that whatever had happened within my family, she was right to do what she did. I often talk to pupils in schools and am increasingly appalled at how poor they are at challenging each other’s ideas, how they reproduce the prejudices of their parents and tribes, how unfree they are.
In her radio essay, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown argued that, though Shakespeare may never have left England, he had a global outlook on love. ‘He wrote so perceptively and eloquently about cross-cultural and interracial relationships that no playwright since has ever come near’, she said. From Titus Andronicus and the Merchant of Venice to Othello, the plays are full of rebellious lovers, mixed race couplings whose complex lives are portrayed with such moral clarity and moral ambivalence that they resonate today.
Note: The painting of William Shakespeare at the head of this post is the only portrait of him that has any claim to have been painted from life. It may be by a painter called John Taylor who was an important member of the Painter-Stainers’ Company. The portrait is known as the ‘Chandos portrait’ after a previous owner. It was the first portrait to be acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in 1856. In June, this and other portraits from the NPG will be available to view online when a further 21,000 paintings will be added to the excellent Your Paintings website.
- Shakespeare Unlocked: BBC website
- Shakespeare’s Restless World: podcasts, transcripts and images of the objects
- The King & the Playwright: A Jacobean History: clips from the TV series
- Shakespeare offers us lessons in race relations: by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (Independent)