John Clare celebrated in terrific 750th episode of In Our Time

John Clare celebrated in terrific 750th episode of <em>In Our Time</em>

Terrific In  Our Time this morning (the 750th broadcast!) on John Clare, with his biographer Jonathan Bate joining Melvyn Bragg and other experts to discuss the Northamptonshire labouring class poet. The small cottage in Helpston he shared with his parents, his wife Patty and their six children still stands, now renovated by the John Clare Trust. Continue reading “John Clare celebrated in terrific 750th episode of In Our Time

Shakespeare: Staging the World

Shakespeare: Staging the World

A nifty toothpick-cum ear scraper, a hornbook of the sort that Shakespeare might have used to learn his ABC, the eye of a Jesuit priest hung for his part in the Gunpowder Plot, the only piece of text in Shakespeare’s own hand, a striking portrait of the Moroccan Ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I: just a few of the objects to see in the British Museum’s marvellous exhibition, Shakespeare: Staging the World.

Visiting London, I was determined to see this exhibition, having enjoyed Neil MacGregor’s companion radio series, Shakespeare’s Restless World earlier this year.  The exhibition’s co-curators, Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton, have brought together an array of objects, images and curiosities selected for their Shakespearean associations.  It’s a portrait the world that created Shakespeare, and of the world that he created from his imagination.

It’s a vivid glimpse of what it was like to live in London around 1600: a turbulent world where violence stalked the streets while the Crown feared conspiracy and an uncertain succession. Round the corner from the Globe there was bear-baiting and heretics were hanged, drawn and quartered in public.  But this was also an exciting time when mental and geographical frontiers were expanding, with explorers extending the limits of the known world, and trade bringing Londoners into contact with emissaries from distant lands and exotic cultures. As the Museum puts it in their introduction:

The exhibition provides a unique insight into the emerging role of London as a world city, seen through the innovative perspective of Shakespeare’s plays. It also explores the pivotal role of the playhouse as a window to the world outside London, and the playwright’s importance in shaping a new sense of
national identity.

Shakespeare: Staging the World shows how a historical understanding of the places, the objects and the ideas with which Shakespeare was familiar can enhance the experience of watching his plays.

Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
(Henry V, Act I, Scene 1)

Shakespeare, as Jonathan Bate says, probably never left these shores, but ‘he travelled in his imagination’. This exhibition enters his world – both real and imagined. It takes us from Elizabethan London and finishes on Prospero’s mysterious island. Along the way it passes through the pastoral retreat of the forest of Arden, explores the classical world of Greece and Rome that fuelled Shakespeare’s stories, notes how Britain’s identity as a nation was being defined at the time partly by the new mapmakers (and by Shakespeare himself), before coming ashore in places such as Jamaica and Venice that fired the playwright’s imagination.

Brian Sewell, in a review for the Telegraph that embraced both the exhibition and the catalogue (which, he said, ‘should be in every school library in the land. Indeed, every such library should have 20 copies in armour-plated bindings that will survive a century of careless handling. Indeed, I shall go further and suggest that every student of English literature should have his own copy and that the book should never go out of print), wrote eloquently about the places to which Shakespeare journeyed in his imagination:

To London from Stratford-upon-Avon was Shakespeare’s only significant journey. For him there was no sitting at the feet of philosophers and theologians in the universities of the Low Countries and Paris; nor was there a Grand Tour to inform his imagination (what would he have made of the hostile grandeur of the Alps?), and what he knew of Italy from Venice to Messina, he knew by proxy from others who had travelled there, or from visitors to London, implied by the British Museum to have been an entrepôt that was at least a match for Constantinople, Venice, Seville and the Hanseatic ports of northern Europe.

He was, perhaps, further informed by maps, a not entirely new source of knowledge and mystery, but one greatly expanded in the 16th century and increasingly available, not just to the rich and educated, but to wider reaches of society. The merchants of once parochial London, through trade with the Far East and the new riches pillaged from the Americas, in Shakespeare’s day ringed the globe with their enterprise and began her conversion into a world city.

The untravelled Shakespeare, enchanted by old tales of Troy and ancient Rome, and by new of Bohemia, Sicily, Cyprus and the Caribbean, imagined the faces and places there, became their atlas and geographer, and dubbed the new theatre of which he was a housekeeper (the Elizabethan term for any owning part or all of a theatre), The Globe. “All the world’s a stage,” said the authentic voice of Shakespeare in the role of Jaques, the philosophical idler of As You Like It; he could as readily have said, “A stage is all the world,” for in his hands that is exactly what it was.

There are so many interesting objects here – some of them I mentioned in my review of the radio series – so I can only pick out a few that caught my attention as I explored the exhibits.  The hornbook (above) was not a book, but a small wooden board with a handle. A sheet of vellum inscribed with a lesson – perhaps the alphabet or the Lord’s Prayer – was attached to one side and covered by a thin, transparent layer of horn or mica. They were an important element of  early education in the 16th and 17th centuries in England and on the continent.  Shakespeare mentions a ‘hornebook’ in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and it’s probable that Shakespeare first learned his letters on a hornbook.

And this is what he learned: the exhibition opens (just as it closes) with an edition of Shakespeare’s plays, in this case the First Folio of 1623.  It included 36 of his plays – and what always staggers me is that 17 of those had never been published before 1623, being prepared from Shakespeare’s ‘foul papers’ or working drafts of a play or the prompt-book used by the prompter during a performance of the play.

Wenceslaus Hollar: View of London with the (mis-labelled) Globe Theatre and the Bear Garden

On the wall  the behind the First Folio is a large reproduction of Wenceslaus Hollar’s panoramic Long View of London that serves as introduction to the objects that bring to life the London of Shakespeare’s time.  It depicts the Thames teeming with rivercraft, the rubric ‘eel boats’ inscribed under one small flotilla,  while in Southwark, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre is misidentified by the engraver as ‘the beere-bayting house’ – a reminder of the attractions with which Shakespeare’s plays had to compete. Nearby is displayed the skull of a bear, excavated from the mud of the Thames during the rebuilding of the Globe.

The new playhouses, like the bear pits and other low-life attractions, were were situated well away from the centre of town.  Bankside, where the Globe was established, was an area with a dangerous and notorious reputation. The theatres needed to attract large numbers of playgoers and so performances had to appeal to a wide spectrum of society, from groundlings to courtiers. There is a rather jolly print on show, entitled ‘Going to Bankside’ (top) which depicts a well-heeled group being rowed across the river by two boatmen.  Objects excavated from the sites of the Globe and Rose theatres – such as a beautiful Italian fork for sweetmeats, a set of dice, a pipe, a piece of oak balustrade from the theatre, and a curious implement designed with a toothpick at one end and an ear-scraper at the other – vividly bring to life the Southwark of Shakespeare’s day, when the playhouse rubbed shoulders with bear-baiting arenas, brothels and pubs. A rapier and a dagger found in the Thames nearby – possibly dropped by a young man as he got in or out of one of those  Bankside ferry boats – illustrate the extent of violence in Elizabethan London when gentlemen ‘and others of higher degree and place’ were permitted by law to routinely carry such weapons.

Another section of the exhibition reveals how, at the same time as they explored the new world and laid the foundations of empire, the Elizabethans also focused on defining the national identity at home. One way in which this was accomplished was through the vast and detailed mapping of England that was completed under Elizabeth for the first time in history.

Saxton map, Warwickshire, 1576

Several maps made in this period are displayed, including the Saxton map of of 1576 and the Newell-Burghley Atlas of 1564, commissioned by Elizabeth’s first Minister, Sir William Cecil (underlining the point made the exhibition’s co-curator Jonathan Bate in his BBC Radio 4 series Discovery of England that such mapping was a state enterprise designed both to collect data valuable for military purposes, but also to help strengthen a sense of national identity).

Nearby are exhibits loaned by Westminster Abbey that reflect the same national project, and which would have been on public display in the Abbey in Shakespeare’s day.  The playwright would have seen the  funery relics of Henry V – his helmet and sword – inspiring his portrayal of him as the brave, patriotic soldier-king, and written into the prologue of act five of Henry V, as ‘his bruisèd helmet and his bended sword’.

Just as Shakespeare almost single-handedly built the reputation of Henry V, so, by contrast, did he reduce the standing of Richard III, portraying him as a deformed, incompetent, cruel king. A portrait of Richard III painted by an unknown artist around 1555 illustrates how his reputation was manipulated.  The king is shown with a disfigured hand, evidence of a warped and malign nature, and a broken sword signifying dishonour and the impotence of evil.  Shakespeare’s play reinforced this image of Richard and provided further support for the legitimacy of Richard’s successors, who were also  his patrons.

The exhibition shows how Shakespeare delved into the stories of classical Greece and Rome in order to create plays, such as Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, that addressed political questions that could not otherwise be safely debated in public: questions of power and authority, legitimacy and succession were explored, but in the context of ancient Rome or Athens.  The relevance of the classical world is powerfully contained in one tiny coin, minted by Brutus to commemorate the assassination of Julius Caesar. On the reverse are the daggers with which Caesar was killed and a cap of liberty to symbolise the liberation of Rome from his rule. In one of several video installations featuring actors, Paterson Joseph (Brutus in the RSC’s African production of the play) is seen brandishing the same coin.

Shakespeare was fairly adept at making acute political points about the questions of the day without bringing the wrath of the authorities down upon his head, or losing a play to censorship. In a TV series a few years back, the historian Michael Wood explored the question of whether Shakespeare was a crypto-Catholic, given that his father left a ‘spiritual testament’ professing his adherence to Catholicism (only found in the rafters of the Shakespeare home on Henley Street in 1757) and had associations with Catholics, both in Warwickshire and Lancashire.  His conclusion was that ‘as one would expect, he was a Christian, but his mind was wide and his scepticism of any system of power was pronounced. … If he retained in his heart a sympathy for the Old Faith of his parents, he kept his cards close to his chest’.

An object which signifies the religious divisions and fears of the time is a silver reliquary said to contain the right eye of the Jesuit priest Edward Oldcorne, who was executed for allegedly having played a part in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, which was collected at his execution at Worcester in 1606.  Is this the counterpart of Gloucester’s eye, ruthlessly gouged from his face – ‘Out, vile jelly! Where is thy lustre now?’ – by Cornwall in King Lear?

Other objects help us understand contemporary references made in the plays.  For example, Jonathan Bate was fascinated by the fact that Othello, just before killing himself, refers to a ‘sword of Spain’ he keeps in his chamber. What would one have looked like?  On show is a rapier with a long Toledo blade and an exquisitely worked French hilt. And when Caliban in The Tempest tells Stephano he will teach him ‘how to snare the nimble marmoset’, how did that reference jump into Shakespeare’s head? Marmosets were exotic primates recently being brought back from the New World to Europe as pets for princes, and we are presented with a drawing of one.

Could Ariel from The Tempest, be inspired by artefacts of spirits from the pre-colonial religion of Jamaica?  Possibly: the curators have displayed a 15th century wooden figure from the island. Meanwhile (as in the radio series), Prospero’s wizardry is illustrated by magical objects that belonged to the Elizabethan occultist John Dee, including ‘Dr Dee’s magick mirror’, an artefact originating in Mexico some time in the 14th or 15th centuries.

I was much taken with the only surviving example of a manuscript in Shakespeare’s handwriting – an extract from Sir Thomas More, a play to which he contributed only one scene that takes place during the ‘Evil May’ race riots of 1517, in which he has Thomas More, as undersheriff of London, quell riots directed at immigrants living in London with this speech:

Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding tooth ports and costs for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another. […]

You’ll put down strangers,
Kill them, cut their throats, possess their houses,
And lead the majesty of law in line,
To slip him like a hound. Say now the king
(As he is clement, if th’ offender mourn)
Should so much come to short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whether would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbor? 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,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? this is the strangers case;
And this your mountanish inhumanity.

ALL: Faith, a says true: let’s do as we may be done to.

Ian McKellen performs Shakespeare’s monologue from Sir Thomas More

A later section of the exhibition is concerned with Shakespeare’s representations of ‘strangers’ and reflects  encounters he might have had with those from other lands and other cultures.   The striking portrait of Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, Moroccan Ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I (above), depicts the leader of a delegation from Morocco that came to London in 1600 on a state visit to negotiate an alliance against Spain. The presence of these men had a great impact on London at the time. They were a source of both fascination and fear. El-Ouahed and his men were in the city for six months and would certainly have been known to Shakespeare as one of  Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  Abd el-Ouahed may well have informed the character of Othello, the soldier and ‘noble moor’.

Alongside this portrait are other representations of black Africans: a beautiful bust of a black African by Nicolas Cordier (a French artist working in Rome) and ‘Portrait of an African Man’ (below) by the Dutch painter Jan Jansz Mostaert. Painted around 1525, it is the earliest portrait of a black African to have survived from the Renaissance.

This part of the exhibition shows how Shakespeare utilised Venice, the dazzling entrepot of his day that drew in and accommodated ‘strangers’ from the Mediterranean lands and beyond, not only in Othello but also The Merchant of Venice. A Sabbath lamp, predating the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290, is presented as a reminder that, following Edward I’s expulsion of the Jews, it is possible that no Englishman, including Shakespeare, had encountered a professing Jew. However, in London Shakespeare would have encountered Spanish or Portuguese marranos, forcibly converted Jewish immigrants (or their children), people regarded with deep suspicion by the English.

So to develop the character of Shylock, Shakespeare drew on his knowledge of London’s Jews: small, illegal communities of Jewish conversos or marranos who made London a vibrant place for trade and cultural exchange. Out of these scraps of impressions, Shakespeare created Shylock – not as a stranger in a foreign land, but at home in the Venetian ghetto, surrounded by his daughter, servants, friends. In this way, he transformed a stereotypical villain into a believable human being and makes him the focus of  a debate about the nature of justice. Without minimising Shylock’s vengeful  nature, Shakespeare requires us to decide what is fair and what is not, and whether the greater guilt belongs to the one who does wrong or the one who takes revenge on a wrong.

Jewish Venice is represented by a scroll of the Book of Esther in Hebrew, dated 1573, and a balance and coin weights with a collection of gold ducats, of which there just happen to be 30 pieces.  Nearby, on a video screen,  Antony Sher recites Shylock’s poignant appeal for common humanity across the ethnic divide: ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ This is one of several superb videos made by the Royal Shakespeare Company that embellish the exhibition, including Ian McKellan performing Prospero’s soliloquy.

The final exhibit is an edition of Shakespeare, covered in Hindu iconography as a disguise.  It is the Robben Island Bible, smuggled into the jail by one of the imprisoned ANC leaders Sonny Venkatrathnam as his ‘bible’ since inmates weren’t allowed any books apart from religious texts. He circulated it amongst his fellow prisoners, inviting them to select a favourite passage and autograph it.  Several marked their favourite passages, and the book is open at a speech from Julius Caesar with the following lines marked:

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.

A date and a signature is added.  The date is 16.12.77. The signature ‘NRD Mandela’.

In this video, the exhibition’s curators speaking to a slideshow of the objects on display:

See also

The Man from Stratford

“Nobody of importance noticed his death…”

Leaving the theatre last night after Simon Callow’s remarkable performance in Shakespeare – The Man from Stratford,  the question being asked was: how does he, unprompted, remember it all? Callow was on stage for 100 minutes, with minimal props (a toy dog, some toy soldiers, a pair of shoes), telling the story of Shakespeare’s life illustrated with performances of key passages from his drama and poetry.

This one-man show was written by Jonathan Bate, and based closely on the structural device of his book The Soul of the Age, following the seven ages of man to take us through Shakespeare’s life.  Simon Callow’s performance combined the role of narrator, taking us through Shakespeare’s life journey from Stratford to London and back, with excerpts that featured some 40 different characters. As in the book, Bate relates Shakespeare’s writing to his life:  his grammar school education (Latin translations and the art of rhetoric), early marriage and fatherhood, the success and then disgrace of his father, and the tragic death of his only son Hamnet.

It was a  delight seeing Simon Callow in a vast range of roles within a single performance – from the boy prince Mamillius in A Winter’s Tale to the rambunctious Falstaff; from Macbeth to the whole cast of Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Plus a superb rendition of the closing speech from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus:

Now hast thou but one bare hour to live,
And then thou must be damn’d perpetually!
Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of Heaven,
That time may cease, and midnight never come;
Fair Nature’s eye, rise, rise again and make
Perpetual day; or let this hour be but
A year, a month, a week, a natural day,
That Faustus may repent and save his soul!
O lente, lente, curite noctis equi.
The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The Devil will come, and Faustus must be damn’d.
O, I’ll leap up to my God! Who pulls me down?
See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!
One drop would save my soul—half a drop: ah, my Christ!

And Callow’s recital of Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day, which closed the first half, was breathtaking.

Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And Summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And oft’ is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d:
But thy eternal Summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

In total contrast, Callow later gave us Launce’s monologue from Two Gentleman of Verona in which he berates his dog Crab for his heartlessness:

I think Crab, my dog, be the sourest-natured dog that lives. My mother weeping, my father wailing, my sister crying, our maid howling, our cat wringing her hands, and all our house in a great perplexity, yet did not this cruel-hearted cur shed one tear. He is a stone, a very pebblestone, and has no more pity in him than a dog. A Jew would have wept to have seen our parting. Why, my grandam, having no eyes, look you, wept herself blind at my parting. Nay, I’ll show you the manner of it. This shoe is my father. No, this left shoe is my father. No, no, this left shoe is my mother. Nay, that cannot be so neither. Yes, it is so, it is so – it hath the worser sole. This shoe with the hole in it is my mother, and this my father. A vengeance on’t! There ’tis. Now, sir, this staff is my sister, for, look you, she is as white as a lily and as small as a wand. This hat is Nan, our maid. I am the dog. No, the dog is himself, and I am the dog -O, the dog is me, and I am myself. Ay, so, so. Now come I to my father: ‘Father, your blessing.’ Now should not the shoe speak a word for weeping. Now should I kiss my father -well, he weeps on. Now come I to my mother. O, that she could speak now like a wood woman! Well, I kiss her – why, there ’tis: here’s my mother’s breath up and down. Now come I to my sister; mark the moan she makes. Now the dog all this while sheds not a tear nor speaks a word!

Another unfamiliar extract powerfully presented by Callow was from the play Sir Thomas More, three pages of which are now credited to Shakespeare, including this speech where More is attempting to quell a  riot against aliens in London:

Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding tooth ports and costs for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another.

This was an excellent evening at the theatre: both highly enjoyable and instructive. There’s a lot of debate about the content of the National Curriculum at the moment.  I thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea for every teenager to see this play (though, even better would be the chance to see vibrant Shakespeare productions like the recent Comedy of Errors at the Royal Exchange, Manchester).

Simon Callow and Jonathan Bate talk about The Man from Stratford:

Who is Shakespeare? asks Jonathan Bate in the programme notes:

So who was William Shakespeare? He was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564. He went to London, became an actor and wrote about 40 plays, two long poems and 154 sonnets. He returned to Stratford and died in 1616, on or around his 52nd birthday. Is that all? How could a mere grammar schoolboy from rural Warwickshire have known enough about courts and kings to write Hamlet and Lear, about Italy to have written The Merchant of Venice, about war to have written Henry V? Where did he get his vast vocabulary and his knowledge of the law? Aren’t the surviving documents about his life mysteriously silent about his plays?

It happens every time a Shakespeare scholar reveals his profession in a taxi cab: ”Shakespeare expert, are you, guv? Tell me something now-  did he write all those plays himself?”

The doubting began two and a half centuries after Shakespeare’s death, with an American lady called Delia Bacon. She proposed that the plays were really written by … the philosopher and lawyer Sir Francis Bacon, a proper scholar and courtier. But the unfortunate Delia couldn’t find any evidence, so she attempted to dig up Shakespeare’s grave in the hope of finding a secret message from Sir Francis. Not long after, her family reported with regret that she had been ”removed to an excellent private asylum at Henley-in-Arden – in the forest of Arden” – eight miles from Stratford, as it happens.

Then along came an Edwardian schoolmaster with a new theory: Shakespeare’s plays were really written by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. That the Earl was an enthusiastic and sometimes violent pederast is not necessarily an impediment to his candidacy. A little local difficulty comes with his death in 1604, befor half the plays were written. He would also have had some difficulty collaborating with the actors during the long period when he was in exile abroad for having committed the unpardonable offence of farting in front of Queen Elizabeth. The schoolmaster’s name? J Thomas Looney.

But there’s no shortage of other candidates: 8th Lord Mountjoy, 7th Earl of Shrewsbury, 6th Earl of Derby, 5th Earl of Rutland, 2nd Earl of Essex, Sir Walter Raleigh, the Countess of Pembroke, Queen Elizabeth I and King James I. These names seem to have something in common. It all boils down to snobbery, the conviction that such high genius could not have come from a Iowly place. Americans, including Mark Twain of all people, have often taken this line, which is curious in a country where it’s supposed to be possible to go from a log cabin to the White House.

Conspiracy theorists dismiss the man from Stratford as an imposter. They suppose that he was an illiterate actor mouthing some greater man’s words. But they cannot explain away the facts. In his will, Master William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon left legacies to his fellow-actors John Hemmings and Henry Condell. They in turn edited the First Folio of his collected works, referring there to his writing techniques and their close friendship with him. The First Folio also includes poems by Ben Jonson attesting to the authentic likeness of the engraving of Shakespeare on the title-page, to Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays and to his coming from Stratford (”Sweet swan of Avon”, Jonson calls him). Shakespeare acted in Jonson’s plays, which often quote from his work. In both his notebook and his conversations with the Scottish poet Drummond of Hawthornden, Jonson also spoke about Shakespeare as a writer
(sometimes critically). Many other contemporaries also referred to Shakespeare as a poet and playwright. They range from Sir George Buc, Master of the Revels at court, to other dramatists such as Francis Beaumont and Thomas Heywood, to Leonard Digges, a family friend of Shakespeare’s who was also a writer himself. Shakespeare’s monument in Holy Trinity Church refers to his literary greatness. It was seen by a visiting poet soon after his death, negating the claim of some conspiracy theorists that it was altered at a later date.

How did a man who did not go to university write such ‘learned’ plays? They are actually much less learned than the plays of his contemporaries George Chapman and Ben Jonson, neither of whom went to university. The simple fact is that the education in Latin language and literature that Shakespeare got at the Stratford grammar school puts our modern curriculum to shame.

How did he know about courts, how to see into the minds of dukes and kings? Through his reading and through witnessing the court by acting there. Payments to him for writing plays for court performance survive in the chamber accounts of the royal household. Better questions would be: how could anyone but a glover’s son have put in his plays so much accurate technical detail about leather manufacture and the process of glove-making? And how could anyone but a professional actor have filled his plays with inside information about the nitty-gritty of making theatre?

Plays are not autobiographical confessions. Shakespeare did not fill his works with portraits of his acquaintances (though he occasionally makes joking references to members of his own acting company and to friends such as his schoolmate Richard Field, who became the publisher of his first printed work). What we can unearth in the plays is better described as the experiential DNA of the author. A life split between country and city, Stratford and London; a grammar school education (the bright but cheeky schoolboy called William in The Merry Wives of Windsor might just be a witty self-portrait); a precocious and varied love life; the direct experience of witnessing recruiting officers mustering for the militia in rural Warwickshire and Gloucestershire; some basic legal language learned from a life of litigation; above all, a constant awareness that all the world’s a stage, all the men and women merely players. The seven ages of man are at one and the same time the seven ages of Everyman and of that unique genius named William Shakespeare.

Disappointing as it is to acknowledge, the mighty dramatist was provincial and middle-class, and his life was distinctly uneventful. His rival Christopher Marlowe moved in a world of espionage, thuggery, buggery and skullduggery. His collaborator George Wilkins had a second career as a brothel-keeper with a history of beating up the girls who worked for him. And as for Ben Jonson, who was both a friend and a rival: he fought in the Dutch wars, killed a fellow actor in a street brawl and was thrown into prison for writing subversive plays.

Will Shakespeare was neither a fabulous aristocrat nor a flamboyant gay double agent. He was a grammar schoolboy from an obscure town in middle England, whose main concern was to keep out of trouble and to better himself and his family. He came from a perfectly unremarkable background. That’s the most remarkable thing of all.

Maybe it was because Shakespeare was a nobody that he could become everybody. He speaks to every nation in every age because he understood what it is to be human. He didn’t lead the life of the pampered aristocracy. He was a working craftsman who had to make his daily living and to face the problems that we all face every day. His life was ordinary – it was his mind that was extraordinary. His imagination leapt to every corner of the earth and every age of history, through fantasy and dream, yet it was always rooted in the real. He shows us what it is to be human. But what was it like being Shakespeare? That is the question we ask in our play.

John Clare: ‘I found the poems in the fields’

John Clare: ‘I found the poems in the fields’

I found the poems in the fields
And only wrote them down

– John Clare, ‘Sighing for Retirement’

Jonathan Bate’s biography of John Clare, which I have just finished reading, is a magnificent account of the life and work of the ‘peasant poet’ (an appellation he hated) that brings you as close to Clare as is conceivable at the distance of some 150 years. Continue reading “John Clare: ‘I found the poems in the fields’”

The Song of the Earth

I’ve been reading The Song of the Earth by Jonathan Bate, first published in 2000 when he was King Alfred Professor of English Literature at the University of Liverpool. It’s a book that has been described as ‘the first ecological reading of English Literature’. As Bate explains in the preface:

This is a book about why poetry continues to matter as we enter a new millennium that will be ruled by technology. It is a book about modern Western man’s alienation from nature. It is about the capacity of the writer to restore us to the earth which is our home.

In a book that’s about both writing and philosophy, the English Romantic tradition is the essential thread, with readings to Wordsworth, Keats,  John Clare, Edward Thomas, and Ted Hughes, set alongside philosophical ideas from Rousseau and Martin Heidegger,to develop the idea of ‘ecopoetics’. Bate also draws in the work of 20th century poets  from other places, such as Gary Snyder, Elizabeth Bishop, and Les Murray, calling the latter ‘the major ecological poet currently writing in the English language’. Poetry, Bate concludes, can be ‘the place where we save the earth’.

In Chapter One, ‘Going, Going, Gone’, Bate discusses the divide between nature and culture that opens up with the Enlightenment, illustrating his argument with reference to the novels of  Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy. These ideas are developed further in the second chapter, ‘State of Nature’, where Bate sets out how, from Oliver Goldsmith to Cobbett to Austen and Hardy and up to Philip Larkin, the rural idyll, the state of  nature, is always just behind us. But this myth of rural nostalgia is important :

Myths are necessary imaginings, exemplary stories which help our species make sense of its place in the world. Myths endure so long as they perform helpful work. The myth of the natural life which exposes the ills of our own condition is as old as Eden and Arcadia, as new as Larkin’s ‘Going, Going’ and the latest Hollywood adaptation of Austen or Hardy. Its endurance is a sign of its importance. Perhaps we need to remember what is “going, going” as a survival mechanism, as a check upon our instinct for self-advancement.

I thought it would last my time –
The sense that, beyond the town,
There would always be fields and farms,
Where the village louts could climb
Such trees as were not cut down;
I knew there’d be false alarms

In the papers about old streets
And split level shopping, but some
Have always been left so far;
And when the old part retreats
As the bleak high-risers come
We can always escape in the car.

Things are tougher than we are, just
As earth will always respond
However we mess it about;
Chuck filth in the sea, if you must:
The tides will be clean beyond.
– But what do I feel now? Doubt?

Or age, simply? The crowd
Is young in the M1 cafe;
Their kids are screaming for more –
More houses, more parking allowed,
More caravan sites, more pay.
On the Business Page, a score

Of spectacled grins approve
Some takeover bid that entails
Five per cent profit (and ten
Per cent more in the estuaries): move
Your works to the unspoilt dales
(Grey area grants)! And when

You try to get near the sea
In summer . . .
It seems, just now,
To be happening so very fast;
Despite all the land left free
For the first time I feel somehow
That it isn’t going to last,

That before I snuff it, the whole
Boiling will be bricked in
Except for the tourist parts –
First slum of Europe: a role
It won’t be hard to win,
With a cast of crooks and tarts.

And that will be England gone,
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
The guildhalls, the carved choirs.
There’ll be books; it will linger on
In galleries; but all that remains
For us will be concrete and tyres.

Most things are never meant.
This won’t be, most likely; but greeds
And garbage are too thick-strewn
To be swept up now, or invent
Excuses that make them all needs.
I just think it will happen, soon.

– Going, Going by Philip Larkin (1972)

Bate’s principal argument is that writers in the Romantic tradition, beginnning in the late eighteenth century, have been especially concerned with the progressive severance of humanity from nature that has licensed the ravaging of the earth’s finite resources. Romanticism, Bate asserts,  declares allegiance to what Wordsworth called ‘the beautiful and permanent forms of nature’. It proposes that when we commune with those forms we live with a peculiar intensity, and conversely that our lives are diminished when technology and industrialization alienate us from those forms. Bate regards poetic language as ‘a special kind of expression which may effect an imaginative reunification of mind and nature, though it also has a melancholy awareness of the illusoriness of its own utopian vision’. He labels  this broad  reinterpretation of  Romanticism as an ‘ecopoetic’, from the Greek poiesis (‘making’) of the oikos (‘home’ or ‘dwelling-place’). He says:

The freedom of birds – Keats’s nightingale, Shelley’s skylark – is a necessary imagining. I stand in the field behind my house, watching and listening as the skylark rises. My heart leaps up. But my mind has fallen into knowledge: a biologist will be able to explain to me why the lark rises. Freedom has nothing to do with it. The freedom ofthe lark is only in my imagination, just as the state of nature – Arcadia, Ariel’s island – is but a necessary dream. Maybe the true poets are those who hold fast to the dream even as they rccognize it as a dream. We have [been] thinking back to the island of the Shakespearean imagination which forces the European mind to re-examine itself. To end …let us hear a voice from a real island where Western man has again and again been forced to confront the strangeness, the beauty and the violence of a nature that is Other. The voice is that of Les Murray, Australia’s truest poet, meditating on a bird’s flight, then coming down to earth with knowledge of the food chain:

ARIEL
Upward, cheeping, on huddling wings,
these small brown mynas have gained
a keener height than their kind ever sustained
but whichever of them fails first
falls to the hawk circling under
who drove them up.
Nothing’s free when it is explained.

Not free when explained. But that does not stop us gaining the keen height each time we read the poem.

Bate compares Gary Snyder’s ‘Mother Earth: Her Whales’ with Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Moose‘, which, he argues, exemplifies the ecopoetic:

Worthy as [Snyder’s] sentiments may be, they do not in any sense grow from the poetry. The poem has been written as an expression of a set of opinions, not as an attempt to transform into language an experience of dwelling upon the earth. In this respect, it is not what I call an ‘ecopoem’; it is not a thinking of the question of the making of the oikos [ie, earthly dwelling place]’. By contrast, Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Moose’ celebrates the non-human without making a paraphrasable pronouncement.

Bate quotes Mariane Moore on Bishop: ‘At last we have someone who knows, who is not didactic. Bate argues that ‘The Moose’ is ‘a poem which knows why we need wild animals’. He goes on:

Bishop knows that we can only know nature by way of culture. The wood [described there] is “impenetrable”. The moose is encountered on the road, a road being a piece of land that has been transformed by the demands of culture, from city to city. The moose comes to the bus, rather than vice-versa. This is a poem not about getting back to nature, but about how nature comes back to us. It is a poem of wonder in the face of the sheer physicality of the moose: its smell, its size.

As a demonstration of what this approach to poetry might involve Bate analyses the poetry of John Clare: ‘the record of his search for a home in the world’ and, in Bates view,a form of early ecological protest. Here, Bate reflects on Clare’s ‘The Pettichap’s Nest’:

A human being can do everything except build a bird’s nest. [Bate is quoting an old French proverb.] What we can do is build an analogue of a bird’s nest in a poem. We can make a verbal nest by gathering and cherishing odd scraps of language, the words which stand in for the bits and pieces of hay, rotten leaf and feather that are the pettichap’s material. We spend our time as well in gathering words as in working over things. Even if you have never found a bird’s nest and wondered at it, you may by means of Clare’s poem begin to find a sense of why bird’s nests matter… For Clare, to be drawn to a nest, to stoop towards it but still to let it live, is to be gathered into the fabric of the earth and in being so gathered to secure the identity of the self.

Well! In my many walks I’ve rarely found
A place less likely for a bird to form
Its nest – close by the rut-gulled wagon-trod road,
And on the almost barefoot trodden ground,
With scarce a clump of grass to keep it warm!
Where not a thistle spreads its spears abroad
Or prickly bush, to shield it from harm’s way;

And yet so snugly made, that none may spy
It out, save peradventure. You and I
Had surely passed it in our walk today,
Had chance not led us by it! – Nay, e’en now,
Had not the old bird heard us trampling by
And fluttered out, we had not seen it lie,
Brown as the roadway side.
Small bits of hay
Plucked from the old propt haystack’s pleachy brow,
And withered leaves, make up its outward wall,
Which from the gnarled oak –dotterel yearly fall,
And in the old hedge-bottom rot away.

Built like an oven, through a little hole,
Scarecely admitting e’en two fingers in,
Hard to decern, the birds snug entrance win.
’tis lined with feathers warm as silken stole,
Softer than seat of down for painless ease,
And full of eggs scarce bigger even than peas!
Here’s one most delicate, with spots as small
As dust and of a faint and pinky red.

We’ll let them be, and safely guard them well;
For fear’s rude paths around are thickly spread,
And they are left to many dangerous ways.
A green grasshopper’s jump might break the shells,
Yet lowing oxen pass them morn and night,
And restless sheep around them hourly stray;
And no grass springs but hungry horses bite,
That trample past them twenty times a day.
Yet, like a miracle, in safety’s lap
They still abide unhurt, and out of sight.

Stop! here’s the bird – that woodman at the gap
Frightened him from the hedge: ’tis olive-green.
Well! I declare it is the pettichap!
Not bigger than the wren, and seldom seen.
I’ve often found her nest in chance’s way,
When I in pathless woods did idly roam;
But never did I dream until today
A spot like this would be her chosen home.

The Pettichap’s Nest by John Clare

There’s a poem by Les Murray (not quoted in the book) that I think contains the essence of its argument:

Everything except language
knows the meaning of existence.
Trees, planets, rivers, time
know nothing else. They express it
moment by moment as the universe.

Even this fool of a body
lives it in part, and would
have full dignity within it
but for the ignorant freedom
of my talking mind.

– The Meaning of Existence, Les Murray

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