Anthony Sher dazzles in the RSC’s King Lear

Anthony Sher dazzles in the RSC’s <em>King Lear</em>

For the first time, we overcame scepticism and joined a packed house at FACT, our local Picturehouse to watch the RSC production of King Lear streamed live from Stratford. It was a revelation; we were completely blown away by the experience, which was not at all like watching TV but instead felt totally immersive, like being there in the audience and on stage at the same time. I particularly appreciated being able to hear every word spoken and see details of costumes and facial expressions of the actors.

All of which is merely a preamble to praise for the production itself: Anthony Sher was outstanding as Lear, while the entire cast burned just as bright. Directed by Gregory Doran, the staging and costumes were magnificent, making this a truly memorable production of the Shakespeare play I have seen more times than any other. Continue reading “Anthony Sher dazzles in the RSC’s King Lear


The Two Gentlemen of Verona: steal and attempt to rape my girl, but what the hell, we can still be friends

<em>The Two Gentlemen of Verona</em>: steal and attempt to rape my girl, but what the hell, we can still be friends

The Two Gentlemen of Verona, written between 1589 and 1593, is believed to have been Shakespeare’s first play – and, boy, does it show. It didn’t make much of an impression when first performed, and rare revivals in recent times have generally not been very well-received.

Last week we saw the Liverpool Everyman and Shakespeare’s Globe co-production which did a decent job of creating an entertaining and thought-provoking evening’s entertainment – but only by setting the action in 1966, hacking the text, and subverting Shakespeare’s happy-ever-after ending which leaves a modern audience feeling decidedly nauseous. It’s certainly the first time that I have come away from a Shakespeare production feeling that my main criticism of the play would be the text! Continue reading The Two Gentlemen of Verona: steal and attempt to rape my girl, but what the hell, we can still be friends”

As You Like It in Chester’s Grosvenor Park: magical despite the rain

<em>As You Like It</em> in Chester’s Grosvenor Park: magical despite the rain

And this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything. I would not change it.

There are reasons, I guess, why I am so bewitched by Shakespeare’s pastoral dramas, notably the great good fortune of an untrammelled fifties childhood in rural Cheshire, and then coming of age amidst the swirl of hippie values in the sixties – waving the flag for peace and love, rejecting materialism, and yearning to get back to nature.

The pastoral vision of a lost world of innocence and the simpler life of the countryside, with its potential for love and renewal, flowered in this year’s production of As You Like It at Chester’s open air Grosvenor Park Theatre. In the last few years it’s become a summer Shakespeare ritual for me and my daughter to chance the English weather and take our seats in the terraces (some covered, others not) of this theatre in the round. Continue reading As You Like It in Chester’s Grosvenor Park: magical despite the rain”

Filter Theatre’s riotous Twelfth Night

Filter Theatre’s riotous <em>Twelfth Night</em>

Filter Theatre’s Twelfth Night, seen on Saturday at Theatre Clwyd, is like no other production of Shakespeare’s much-loved comedy you have ever seen. Purists might hate it, but Filter’s radically-cut, fast-paced version of the play is hugely enjoyable, and every word is the Bard’s. At little more than 90 minutes this is a distilled essence of Twelfth Night. The audience in Mold loved it. Continue reading “Filter Theatre’s riotous Twelfth Night

A stripped-back Winter’s Tale from Northern Broadsides

A stripped-back Winter’s Tale from Northern Broadsides

Conrad Nelson’s production of The Winter’s Tale for Northern Broadsides is the most stripped-back production I’ve seen. We saw it performed in the round at the New Victoria Theatre in Stoke where the stage was bare, but for an occasional  bench or something similar.

The result is to focus attention on Shakespeare’s words and symbolism – and on the quality of the acting which, as always with Northern Broadsides, was very high indeed with notable performances by Conrad Nelson himself in the role of Leontes, Ruth Alexander as Paulina, Mike Hugo as Autolycus, and Jessica Dyas and Lauryn Redding as the sparring peasant girls Mopsa and Dorcas. Continue reading “A stripped-back Winter’s Tale from Northern Broadsides”

Henry IV in two parts on Salford Quays

Henry IV in two parts on Salford Quays

Antony Sher as Falstaff

Antony Sher as Falstaff

Youth and age, the passing of time, are among the themes in explored by Shakespeare in Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and watching Gregory Doran’s production for the RSC at the Lowry last week the decades slid away and I was a youth again, turning the pages of the play we studied for A-level, never imagining I could ever be as old as Falstaff or Justice Shallow.

Now freed from the chains of toil at desk or workbench, we can join the silver-haired throngs and spend an afternoon watching Part 1, and then see Part 2 in the evening. Seeing the plays back to back like this showed how much Shakespeare was on a roll: having kicked off his series about the rise of the House of Lancaster with Richard II in 1595, a year or so later, in Henry IV Part 1, he produced one of his most popular plays, introducing comic characters who reappeared in the equally successful sequels that followed in quick succession – Henry IV, Part 2 (1598) and Henry V (1599).

Both of the Henry IV plays mix  serious history and politics with riotous comedy in a way that has probably never been done so seamlessly and so successfully.  In fact, for most of us what lingers  after seeing these plays is the memory of the comedy scenes – and of the character of Falstaff in particular. Ever since their first performance, it has been the boisterous rowdiness of the tavern scenes presided over by that ‘ squire of the night’, that ‘sweet creature of bombast’ Falstaff that have won the hearts of audiences.

In this production Falstaff is played by Antony Sher – not a man of great stature – who is bulked up and padded out in a fat suit and enormous wig of white flowing locks. Sher’s movements are not only those of a fat man (there’s an hilarious moment on the battlefield when, legs waving in the air like a beetle, he struggles to get off his back), but also those of a gouty, arthritic old man.  Sher’s Falstaff enunciates his words with an educated precision and a throatiness that often sounded as if he was gargling. Sher delivers Falstaff’s lines in a manner that eliminates any sense that the fat man is at all lovable. Quite the opposite: Sher’s performance makes it abundantly clear that he is a schemer and a rapacious deceiver, every riposte and criticism answered with a sharp and deliberative wiliness. Not so ‘fat-witted’, then, but the ‘villainous abominable misleader of youth’ and ‘old white-bearded Satan’ that Prince Henry calls him.  This means that any sympathy you might feel for Falstaff when he delivers this speech is eliminated:

But to say I know more harm in him than in myself,
were to say more than I know. That he is old, the
more the pity, his white hairs do witness it; but
that he is, saving your reverence, a whoremaster,
that I utterly deny. If sack and sugar be a fault,
God help the wicked! if to be old and merry be a
sin, then many an old host that I know is damned: if
to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh’s lean kine
are to be loved. No, my good lord; banish Peto,
banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack
Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff,
valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant,
being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him
thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s
company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.

Falstaff is also quite clearly an alcoholic.  While there’s obviously a great deal of sack quaffed in Shakespeare’s text, Antony Sher gives us a Falstaff whose hand shakes with delirium tremens as he pours yet another glass. One of the highlights of Sher’s performance is his delivery of Falstaff’s celebration of good sherry, and assertion that if he had sons the first humane principle he would teach them should be ‘to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack’:

A good sherris sack hath a two-fold
operation in it. It ascends me into the brain;
dries me there all the foolish and dull and curdy
vapours which environ it; makes it apprehensive,
quick, forgetive, full of nimble fiery and
delectable shapes, which, delivered o’er to the
voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes
excellent wit. The second property of your
excellent sherris is, the warming of the blood;
which, before cold and settled, left the liver
white and pale, which is the badge of pusillanimity
and cowardice; but the sherris warms it and makes
it course from the inwards to the parts extreme:
it illumineth the face, which as a beacon gives
warning to all the rest of this little kingdom,
man, to arm; and then the vital commoners and
inland petty spirits muster me all to their captain,
the heart, who, great and puffed up with this
retinue, doth any deed of courage; and this valour
comes of sherris. So that skill in the weapon is
nothing without sack, for that sets it a-work; and
learning a mere hoard of gold kept by a devil, till
sack commences it and sets it in act and use.
Hereof comes it that Prince Harry is valiant; for
the cold blood he did naturally inherit of his
father, he hath, like lean, sterile and bare land,
manured, husbanded and tilled with excellent
endeavour of drinking good and good store of fertile
sherris, that he is become very hot and valiant. If
I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I
would teach them should be, to forswear thin
potations and to addict themselves to sack.

As always, the Falstaff scenes are great entertainment.  But I also particularly enjoyed the long scene in Part Two between Silence and Justice Shallow (a soulful Oliver Ford Davies) in which they reminisce about the days that used to be. Shallow is wonderfully eloquent about the loss of youth and the rewards of friendship:

By the mass, I was called any thing; and I would
have done any thing indeed too, and roundly too.
There was I, and little John Doit of Staffordshire,
and black George Barnes, and Francis Pickbone, and
Will Squele, a Cotswold man; you had not four such
swinge-bucklers in all the inns o’ court again: and
I may say to you, we knew where the bona-robas were
and had the best of them all at commandment.

(‘Bona-robas’, by the way, were prostitutes.) At times I thought their exchanges sounded almost as if they might have been written by Beckett:

Jesu, Jesu, the mad days that I
have spent! and to see how many of my old
acquaintance are dead!
We shall all follow, cousin.
Certain, ’tis certain; very sure, very sure: death,
as the Psalmist saith, is certain to all; all shall
die. How a good yoke of bullocks at Stamford fair?
By my troth, I was not there.
Death is certain. Is old Double of your town living
Dead, sir.

Another scene of dissoluteness and debauchery in Part Two that caught my attention was the one in which Mistress Quickly – in a stream of consciousness torrent of words that might have come from the pen of James Joyce – rages about all Falstaff’s unpaid bills:

I am undone by his going; I warrant you, he’s an
infinitive thing upon my score. Good Master Fang,
hold him sure: good Master Snare, let him not
‘scape. A’ comes continuantly to Pie-corner – saving
your manhoods–to buy a saddle; and he is indited to
dinner to the Lubber’s-head in Lumbert street, to
Master Smooth’s the silkman: I pray ye, since my
exion is entered and my case so openly known to the
world, let him be brought in to his answer. A
hundred mark is a long one for a poor lone woman to
bear: and I have borne, and borne, and borne, and
have been fubbed off, and fubbed off, and fubbed
off, from this day to that day, that it is a shame
to be thought on. There is no honesty in such
dealing; unless a woman should be made an ass and a
beast, to bear every knave’s wrong. Yonder he
comes; and that errant malmsey-nose knave, Bardolph,
with him. Do your offices, do your offices: Master
Fang and Master Snare, do me, do me, do me your offices.

Time passing, and old age creeping on. With maturity comes responsibility, atheme explored by Shakespeare in his depiction of the central relationship between Falstaff and Prince Hal (Alex Hassell) as he frequents the taverns of Eastcheap.  In some productions, Hal is portrayed as a dissolute youth Lacking any sense of his future kingly role, but here Gregory Doran has JHassell play Hal as much more self-aware: a young man who knows he’s not being particularly princely, but fully intends to change his behaviour when the moment comes.

The most surprising feature of Doran’s production of Part One is the treatment of Hotspur. Though Henry IV rebukes his son for haunting taverns and playing truant from honour while Hotspur is valiant and battle-hardened, Trevor White’s unusual performance presents him as a near-autistic hothead, impatient to the point of derangement, who continually prances around in anger, unable to listen to other people. He is far from being the dutiful son King Henry wishes Hal would be: rather than embodiment of chivalry and valour, he is more like a violent overgrown child.

RSC Henry IV part I

Henry IV part I: tavern scene

What is so remarkable about these plays is the way in which Shakespeare weaves together low-life scenes with serious themes of politics and kingship. What makes a ruler legitimate? Which qualities are desirable in a ruler? When it is acceptable to usurp a ruler’s authority?  In the programme, there’s an interesting essay in which the historian Ian Mortimer notes how Shakespeare had to be very careful in how he approached that last question. Henry’s seizure of the throne from Richard II might have removed a tyrannous ruler, but he had been the rightful king of England:

Henry had saved England from tyranny by removing Richard from the throne but such a strategy was anathema to ElizabethI, who locked up one historian in the Tower of London simply for writing a book about Henry IV. To portray such usurpation as not only succesful but blessed by God was far too dangerous. So Shakespeare downplayed the role of Henry IV.  He focussed on the people around the king. There was no danger in celebrating the king’s son, Henry V, the hero who led the English to victory at Agincourt.

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. We might add that Shakespeare’s portrayal of Henry IV (played here by Jasper Britton) is of a man wracked by guilt, determined – as soon as the rebel alliance of Percy, Mortimer, Glendower and Douglas has been put down – to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (he only gets as far as the Jerusalem chamber in the palace of Westminster).  In the dramatically-staged opening scene, with a candlelit background of chanting monks, Henry IV is a tormented usurper, seen beneath the figure of Christ prostrate  in self-abasing prayer. Stephen Brimson Lewis’s set design was sombre throughout, the stage lined on all sides with wooden slats, like unplastered lath walls, though perhaps not best suited to bringing out the rambunctiousness of the tavern scenes.

With recent political events in Scotland and the growing restiveness in places far-flung from London fresh in mind, I found myself tuning into Shakespeare’s portrayal of a kingdom not only disunited but also one of great diversity. The presentation of the accents, culture and traditions of the North, and of Wales and Scotland forms a key element of Part One. Shakespeare incorporates into the play many different languages, dialects and manners of expression, from Welsh and Scots dialect to the rough language Hal encounters in the taverns of Eastcheap.  Gregory Doran emphasises this beautifully in the scene from Part One in which the Welsh leader Owen Glendower is present with Lord Mortimer and his Welsh wife, Glendower’s daughter. She can speak only Welsh, her husband only English. Shakespeare’s stage directions read: ‘Glendower speaks to her in Welsh, and she answers him in the same’. Doran treats us to an extended interchange between the the three characters, with Glendower’s daughter speaking expansively in Welsh.  This was a captioned performance and it was lovely to be able to see, as well as hear, the Welsh words.

Shakespeare was obviously fascinated with the accents, traditions, and legends of the various nations of the British Isle, though his portrayal of the Welsh Glendower and the Scottish Douglas does also obtain laughs from what would have been for his audience recognisable stereotypes – Glendower the magician (looking like Ian McKellen’s Gandalf complete with staff) and Douglas as the hotheaded warrior:

I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
Why, so can I, or so can any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?

Nevertheless, the range of language and forms of expression in these plays is astonishing: in addition to high speech and low speech, there is poetry and prose, as well as various regional accents.

In the first play there is a running debate about the nature of honour. For the quick-tempered Hotspur, honour means glory on the battlefield and the defence of his reputation and good name against perceived insults:

By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap,
To pluck bright honour from the pale-faced moon,
Or dive into the bottom of the deep,
Where fathom-line could never touch the ground,
And pluck up drowned honour by the locks;

For the troubled king, on the other hand, honour is bound up with the well-being of the nation and his legitimacy as ruler. It lies at the root of his anxiety about how usurpation of Richard II, which won him the crown, might be seen as be a dishonourable act:

And is not this an honourable spoil?
A gallant prize?

Then there is the matter of a son bringing honour to his father, when the king speaks of ‘Hotspur, Mars in swathling clothes’ :

My Lord Northumberland
Should be the father to so blest a son,
A son who is the theme of honour’s tongue;
Amongst a grove, the very straightest plant;
Who is sweet Fortune’s minion and her pride:
Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him,
See riot and dishonour stain the brow
Of my young Harry.

The Prince attempts to calm his father’s fears in a speech that reveals his certainty that he can regain his honour at will:

In the closing of some glorious day
Be bold to tell you that I am your son;
When I will wear a garment all of blood
And stain my favours in a bloody mask,
Which, wash’d away, shall scour my shame with it:
And that shall be the day, whene’er it lights,
That this same child of honour and renown,
This gallant Hotspur, this all-praised knight,
And your unthought-of Harry chance to meet.
For every honour sitting on his helm,
Would they were multitudes, and on my head
My shames redoubled! for the time will come,
That I shall make this northern youth exchange
His glorious deeds for my indignities.

The best speech on the subject is given to the man who has no honour, the amoral rogue Falstaff, for whom the idea is nothing but hot air:

Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks
me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I
come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or
an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no.
Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is
honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what
is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?
he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no.
Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea,
to the dead. But will it not live with the living?
no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore
I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so
ends my catechism.

RSC Henry IV part II

Alex Hassell as Prince Hal, trying on the crown in Henry IV part two

In the afternoon, in Part One, we saw the king preparing for war against the insurrectionists and Prince Hal coming to terms with his responsibilities as heir to the throne.  In the evening, in Part Two, the King’s health is fading and Hal finally chooses between duty to his country and loyalty to an old friend: ‘I know you not, old man’.  While Henry IV Part II lacks the power of Part One, this production contained some wonderful moments and was as entertaining as the earlier play, especially in the comic scenes featuring Falstaff as well as the red-nosed Bardolph (Joshua Richards), Mistress Quickly (younger than I had imagined her to be, energetically played by a spikyPaola Dionisotti), the wild, anarchic, incomprehensible Pistol (Antony Byrne), and Justice Shallow.

Another scene that played well was when the dying king wakes to find Hal has taken the crown. Angry at first, he is reconciled with his son before he dies. A new, mature Hal accepts the crown as King Henry V and turns his attention to war with France, having been urged by his father ‘to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels’. It’s a line that never seems to lose its pertinence.

The moment when Prince Hal, in procession to his coronation, finally denies Falstaff is quite shocking in the severity of Alex Hassell’s delivery of the line ‘I know you not, old man’ and the cursoriness of his manner. Doran dispenses with Shakespeare’s ending – an ‘epilogue spoken by a dancer’ – which reveals that the sequel was already planned:

One word more, I beseech you. If you be not too
much cloyed with fat meat, our humble author will
continue the story, with Sir John in it, and make
you merry with fair Katharine of France: where, for
any thing I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat,
unless already a’ be killed with your hard

Instead, after Prince John has uttered the promise of foreign wars –

I will lay odds that, ere this year expire,
We bear our civil swords and native fire
As far as France: I beard a bird so sing,
Whose music, to my thinking, pleased the king.
Come, will you hence?

– Doran has the stage darken, a single shaft of light illuminating the figure of a small boy.

After nearly six hours of drama we emerged into the unusual warmth of a Salford October night well satisfied with a production that had brought out the richness of Shakespeare’s plays and his remarkable ability to present audiences with the full range of human experience.

Hamlet at the RSC: an antic disposition

Jonathan Slinger as Hamlet
Jonathan Slinger as Hamlet

Over the weekend we stayed with our friends in Uttoxeter who drove us over to Stratford to see the current RSC production of Hamlet that has Jonathan Slinger in the title role.  It’s an unusual, even rather strange envisioning, with Slinger presenting Hamlet in a quite idiosyncratic manner in places – for example, entering the stage before the ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy singing Ken Dodd’s ‘Happiness’.

David Farr’s direction came in for a lot of criticism when the play opened; for example, in the Telegraph, Charles Spencer wrote:

His production is annoying, too. Farr is the kind of director who has 20 bright ideas before breakfast and bungs them all on stage to prove how clever he is. Sometimes it works but a show-offy approach to Hamlet strikes me as verging on the obscene.

I certainly wouldn’t go that far – overall the production was an enjoyable one, with interesting staging in certain scenes and some fine acting. But there was an oddness about it. The first thing that discomfited me was Hamlet’s appearance in the opening scenes: balding, glasses, suit, he seemed too old. As Charles Spencer observed:

With his piscine features, thinning hair and ill-fitting suit he looks more like an embittered low-rank civil servant than a prince.

Jonathan Slinger as Hamlet in suit and glasses
Jonathan Slinger as Hamlet in suit and glasses

Or a recent student one might add (though, following the encounter with the ghost, Slinger removed the glasses he had worn in the opening scenes, and began to look – and behave – more like a freshly-minted graduate).

This production (and two essays in the worst RSC programme I’ve ever seen) focusses on depression – for most of western history, as Erin Sullivan notes in her essay, known to doctors and sufferers as melancholy.

How strange or odd soe’er I bear myself,
As I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on

Hamlet is presented as mad from the start, and whereas most productions more or less go along with his claim that his madness is feigned, this one doesn’t. Even before he claims that he will ‘put an antic disposition on, he looks haunted and is prone to hide in a corner and howl.

The play has been set in some indeterminate modern period (some critics thought the sixties, and it is true that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern share a spliff with Hamlet).  The set places us in a large hall, with a stage at one end – perhaps a community centre or school assembly hall.  It’s somewhere that probably doubles as a gym: there are wallbars and racks along the side for fencing foils (fencing is this production’s other big theme: swords line the hall, the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears in full fencing gear, his face covered by a fencing mask, and the duel between Hamlet and Laertes takes place as part of a fencing contest).

It’s all a bit muddled, with lots of ideas thrown into the pot.  So, since we’re in Denmark, Ophelia wears a Sarah Lund jumper, and – as if also referencing The Killing – powerful electric torches are used to probe the shadows, while fluorescent strip lights coldly illuminate palace rooms.

Above the stage at the far end of the hall are written the Latin words mens sana in corpore sano, ‘a sound mind in a healthy body’, seeming to suggest that if Hamlet would only buck up and get over it, he’d be fine. The big bonus of this stage comes with the play-within-a-play scene: both the dumb-show and the play itself were done brilliantly.

Other than these elements, the set is simple: later in the play the wooden flooring is lifted to reveal earth, from which skulls are disinterred and into which Ophelia is laid to rest. In another example of the magpie references, Ophelia lies there looking every inch like the Millais painting.  Curiously, Pippa Nixon is left lying in this pose at the front of the stage for the rest of the play.

Pippa Nixon as Ophelia
Pippa Nixon as Ophelia

The scenes in which Ophelia appears seemed to reflect the confusion at the heart of this production: she is presented as a shy schoolmistress hefting a pile of exercise books to mark, while Jonathan Slinger’s portrayal of Hamlet’s relationship with her is odd.  In the ‘get thee to a nunnery’ scene his Hamlet attacks Opelia with great violence, stripping off her clothes and holding a knife to her throat as he screams,  ‘Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow … Get thee to a nunnery…’

It’s shocking – but not just because of the violence; it’s a shock because the force of the violence seems to come out of nowhere.  There were other ways in which motivation was hard to comprehend in this production. Greg Hicks played Claudius with swaggering arrogance, but with to suggest why he might have been motivated to murder in order to bed the decidedly frumpy-looking Gertrude (played by Charlotte Cornwall). I never believed, either, in the idea that she was sufficiently driven by sexual desire to have gone along with the plan.

Maybe because this summer an old friend of ours took her life, I found myself attuned to the way in which Shakespeare probes the morality of suicide in this play, allowing the attitudes of his day to be expressed in differing voices –  that of Hamlet, the intellectual, and the grave diggers, representing the down-to-earth (sorry!) views of the common man.

Our friend was Catholic, but while Catholic teaching still regards suicide as a grave sin, one of the most moving aspects of the day of her funeral for me (an atheist) was the non-judgemental and compassionate response of the priest and deacon in celebrating Mass for her at the church she had attended.

Things were very different, of course, in Elizabethan society, which dealt harshly with suicide. The extreme reaction against suicide is described in Michael MacDonald and Terence R. Murphy’s book, Sleepless Souls (I’m indebted to the website Hamlet Conundrums for the following quotation):

Suicide was a terrible crime in Tudor and early Stuart England. Self-killing was a species of murder, a felony in criminal law and a desperate sin in the eyes of the church. ‘For the heinousness thereof’, observed Michael Dalton, ‘it is an offense against God, against the king, and against Nature.’ Suicides were tried posthumously by a coroner’s jury, and if they were convicted as self-murderers, they and their heirs were savagely punished. Their moveable goods, including tools, household items, money, debts owed to them, and even leases on the land that they had worked were forfeited to the crown or to the holder of a royal patent who possessed the right to such windfalls in a particular place. Self-murderers were denied Christian burials; their bodies were interred profanely, with a macabre ceremony prescribed by popular custom. The night following the inquest, officials of the parish, the churchwardens and their helpers, carried the corpse to a crossroads and threw it naked into a pit. A wooden stake was hammered through the body, pinioning it in the grave, and the hole was filled in. No prayers for the dead were repeated; the minister did not attend.

Bearing all this in mind, we can see how Shakespeare would have challenged audiences in his time (it also set me wondering whether something had happened in Shakespeare’s circle that caused him to introduce this theme into a revenge tragedy).

Hamlet’s thoughts about suicide are contained, of course, in the famous soliloquy that begins:

To be, or not to be–that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep –
No more – and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to.

Hamlet contemplates suicide, but thinks about the question in the broader context of humanity as a whole. He speculates that a many people would kill themselves ‘but that the dread of something after death’ dissuades them from performing an act that anyone can do – ‘with a bare bodkin’. Death may seem like an easy way to escape problems that beset us, except that nobody can know beforehand what death might mean: it is ‘the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns’:

‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep –
To sleep – perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns …

The gravediggers preparing for Ophelia’s burial contemplate the legal issues at stake. Since suicide is a mortal sin, she should not receive a Christian burial. Were it not for her royal status, Ophelia would have been buried in unsanctified ground. But the coroner has ruled for a Christian burial, and the gravediggers chew over the fevidence of one law for the rich and another for the poor:

Is she to be buried in Christian burial that
wilfully seeks her own salvation?

I tell thee she is: and therefore make her grave
straight: the crowner hath sat on her, and finds it
Christian burial.

But is this law?

Ay, marry, is’t; crowner’s quest law.

Will you ha’ the truth on’t? If this had not been
a gentlewoman, she should have been buried out o’
Christian burial.

Why, there thou say’st: and the more pity that
great folk should have countenance in this world to
drown or hang themselves

Turning to lighter matters: there was a fine attention to comedy in this production, and this was seen at its best in the grave-digging scene, with great performances by David Fielder and Rosie Hilal.  They gave comic sparkle to the lines concerning Hamlet – ‘he that is mad’ – being sent to England.

Ay, marry, why was he sent into England?

Why, because he was mad: he shall recover his wits there; or, if he do not, it’s no great matter there.


‘Twill, a not be seen in him there; there the men are as mad as he.

How came he mad?

Very strangely, they say.

That scene closes with one grave-digger asking the other how long a man must lie in the earth before he rots.

I’ faith, if he be not rotten before he die – as we have many pocky corses now-a-days, that will scarce hold the laying in–he will last you some eight year or nine year: a tanner will last you nine year. … his hide is so tanned with his trade, that he will keep out water a great while; and your water is a sore decayer of your whoreson dead body.

Thinking about it now, I see that the line about water being a ‘sore decayer’ of a dead body may be a clue to understanding one of the real oddities of this production: ending with a fire alarm sounding as sprinklers soaked the stage.

Jonathan Slinger performs Act 1, Scene 2 of Hamlet


Two more Hamlet productions:

King Lear on a summer evening in Calderstones park

King Lear on a summer evening in Calderstones park
Joseph-Marcell as King Lear
Joseph Marcell as King Lear in the Globe Theatre touring production

The Globe Theatre came to Calderstones Park last night, bringing their touring production of King Lear. On a warm evening, with the rain holding off, five hundred of us saw eight actors and two musicians, perform one of Shakespeare’s best-known stories.  A basic wooden stage had been erected in the garden behind Calderstones Mansion House and as the audience gathered, unfolding chairs and unpacking food and drink, the actors trolled around and chatted to the audience.

For Liverpudlians, the Globe Theatre’s visit was especially significant: for the first time in 30 years, live theatre was back at the Garden Theatre in Calderstones. This was all down to the Reader Organisation that recently took over the Mansion House to develop their International Centre for Reading and Wellbeing which will providing a home for The Reader Organisation and offer educational and literary courses, reading holidays, wellbeing breaks for carers and many more activities.

Lear Calderstones
The audience settles in to watch King Lear in Calderstones Garden Theatre

On a warm summer’s evening when the English weather is kind, what could be better than to sit under the trees and, as darkness falls, watch a great play performed by actors from a great company in a production that was full of energy and offered new insights into the play?  As in Shakespeare’s day, the players had to turn their hand, not only to a bit of acting and singing, but also take turns at performing as musicians and stagehands.  They were also required to take on two or more roles each. So before launching into the play, they gave us a song and told us about where this year’s tour had taken them – around Britain, across Europe to Romania and Turkey, and finally (lucky players!) to St Lucia.

Directed by Bill Buckhurst, this was not only an energetic rendition of the story, but also had a lighter, more comedic touch than usual (so, for example, the gore and horror of the scene where Gloucester is blinded culminated with an eye being thrown into the audience). This made for a very different reading of the play to the one we saw at the Everyman in Capital of Culture year (featuring the late Pete Postlethwaite in the lead role) which emphasised the contemporary relevance of the play’s politics of succession and division.  It was also quite different to the harrowing Donmar production we saw in 2011 at the Lowry in Salford.

Globe 2013 Lear BethanCullinane
BethanCullinane as the Fool with Dickon Tyrell as Kent

There were strong performances all round, but special mention should be made of Joseph Marcell’s fine Lear, played with growing emotional intensity and lacerating sense of loss, Bethan Cullinane who, apart from playing Cordelia, also gave us a lively and entertaining fool, the one person at court who possesses the liberty to tell Lear to his face where he has gone wrong.  Ruth Everett and Shanaya Rafaat were brilliant as the hypocritical, amoral sisters Goneril and Regan – I think, perhaps, the best portrayal of the pair who have no conscience, only appetite. Their performance dripped with villainy – the greedy ambition that leads them to crush all opposition, but especially their unrestrained sexual desire for Edmund, which destroys their alliance and leads them to destroy each other.

Lear West Sussex
The Globe perform Lear in West Sussex

A travelling production obviously needs to be a spare one, but this one showed how basic materials produce powerful effects.  This was seen especially in a spine-tingling storm scene that employed nothing more than a flapping curtain and metal thunder sheets. The doubling-up of actors, although a bit confusing at first, added to the liveliness, particularly in a scene where Edmund, played by Oliver Boot (a bit of a Ralph Fiennes lookalike) dashed around changing hats to appear simultaneously as two characters.

King Lear cast performing in Brighton
The cast of King Lear performing in Brighton

Probably because I had just been writing about Dickens’s exploration of the theme of hypocrisy in Martin Chuzzlewit, I noticed how strongly that same theme emerges in the opening scene, with Lear inviting his daughters to pile on their flattery of him in order to gain a share of his kingdom.  Goneril shows no qualms:

Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter;
Dearer than eye-sight, space, and liberty;
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare;
No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour;
As much as child e’er loved, or father found;
A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable;
Beyond all manner of so much I love you.

Off to one side, Cordelia resolves to be honest and true:

What shall Cordelia do?
Love, and be silent.

When she speaks she refuses to follow her sisters in their false flattery, saying simply:

Cordelia: Nothing, my lord.

Lear: Nothing!

Cordelia: Nothing.

Lear: Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.

Cordelia: Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth

It’s a wonderful exchange, Pinteresque in its conciseness. Later when Lear, wandering the storm-wracked heath, encounters Poor Tom the beggar my attention was caught by these lines, which also drew a ripple of cynical laughter from the audience.  We were all, no doubt, thinking of more recent behaviour by England’s politicians:

Through tatter’d clothes small vices do appear;
Robes and furr’d gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks:
Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw does pierce it.
None does offend, none, I say, none; I’ll able ’em:
Take that of me, my friend, who have the power
To seal the accuser’s lips. Get thee glass eyes;
And like a scurvy politician, seem
To see the things thou dost not.

Globe2013 Lear JosephMarcell
Joseph Marcell as Lear

In the programme, essays by Michael Dobson, Professor of Shakespeare at Birmingham University, and Neil Rodes, Professor of English Literature and Cultural History at St Andrews University, highlight the importance of the theme of homelessness and vagrancy in the play.

The country gives me proof and precedent
Of Bedlam beggars, who, with roaring voices,
Strike in their numb’d and mortified bare arms
Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary;
And with this horrible object, from low farms,
Poor pelting villages, sheep-cotes, and mills,
Sometime with lunatic bans, sometime with prayers,
Enforce their charity. Poor Turlygod! poor Tom!
That’s something yet: Edgar I nothing am.

When Edgar disguises himself as Poor Tom, an inmate of Bedlam hospital, Shakespeare was bringing into the play one of the key social and political issues at the time that Lear was written and first performed in the first decade of the 17th century. By then Bedlam (Bethlehem Hospital) was already an asylum notorious for its appalling conditions and brutal treatment of its patients, some of whom were given licenses to beg outside the hospital.

Dobson writes of the play’s ‘profound interest in vagrancy’:

Shakespeare’s version of the tale of King Lear, a story well-known to Jacobeans is the only [version] in which Lear and Cordelia lose the battle, the only one in which the King goes mad, and the only one in which the king’s moral trajectory through the action hinges on an encounter with what appears to be a mad rural beggar, Edgar in his disguise as Poor Tom. For Shakespeare, half the point of Kin gLear is the salutary, edifying experience undergone by its titular king of becoming a deranged, homeless, lost vagrant himself.

Dobson describes Lear as ‘a literally levelling play’ with ‘no gods, no heavens, no hell, just a disenchanted flat exposed plain on which human beings struggle and die’. At the very core of the play, out shelterless in the rain, Lear expresses this new, egalitarian moral vision in a prayer:

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just

For Dobson, ‘this play aspires to speak of, and to, everyone, everywhere’. He adds, interestingly, that among the play’s earliest recorded productions, soon after being performed before King James, was a rendition given illegally by a small company of former artisans who toured the moorland hamlets of Yorkshire in 1609-10.

The cast of King Lear

Introducing the programme notes, Dominic Dromgoole, the Globe’s Artistic Director, observes that touring productions represent a tradition in English theatre that goes back a long way:

Before the construction of the Rose and the Globe all our dramatic experiences were about companies trucking up to strange towns, and performing plays in inn yards, in churches, in guildhalls, in fairs and at any other number of strange venues under the canopy of the sky. Touring was in Shakespeare’s blood and in the blood of the company of actors he worked with. They had toured before they formed a company at the Globe, and they continued to do so after they were established. In part this was an emergency measure – when the theatres had to close due to plague or the opprobrium of the city fathers, then they could take a show out on the road. But there were also powerful economic reasons – touring made money, and was a good way to recycle work that had succeeded in London.

The Globe resurrected this tradition in summer 2007 after a 400-year break taking a scaled-down, touring production of Romeo and Juliet out from the Globe. They have toured ever since, and the tours have gone from strength to strength.

Brueghel Village Festival
Pieter Brueghel the Younger: Village Festival in Honour of St Hubert and St Anthony

Dromgoole’s piece is illustrated by a detail from Village Festival in Honour of St Hubert and St Anthony, by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, painted in 1632. At the centre of the village festivities, Brueghel has depicted a booth stage – the kind of temporary stage that was dominant in England in Shakespeare’s day.  It was a small rectangular stage mounted on trestles or barrels and backed by a cloth-covered booth which served as a tiring-house (short for ‘attiring house’, where the actors dressed).

Brueghel Village Festival detail

In the centre of the painting, a large crowd has gathered around the stage to watch a play in which a man dressed as a monk kisses a buxom woman, while another man spies upon them from a basket on a colleague’s back. The painting  illustrates a religious festival which would undoubtedly have come as a welcome respite from the monotonous toil of peasant existence. Effigies of Saints Anthony and Hubert are being carried in a procession through the village, but for the most part the spectators’ attention has been diverted elsewhere, gazing instead at the play performed by a group of travelling actors.

See also

The Meaning of Trees

The Meaning of Trees

Who would have thought that the dark grey shapes in a pack of dog biscuits are derived from willow ash, a product which aids digestion and reduces flatulence?  This was just one of the fascinating insights offered by Fiona Stafford, Professor of Literature at Somerville College Oxford, in a series of Radio 3 essays last week entitled ‘The Meaning of Trees’.

In her talks, Fiona Stafford explored the cultural, economic and social significance of five different trees – yew, ash, oak, willow and sycamore – outlining the symbolism and importance of each tree in the past and their changing fortunes and reputations.  She revealed how some trees are yielding significant new medical and the environmental benefits.

So, for example, in her first essay Stafford noted that the Yew has been labelled ‘the death tree’ because of its toxicity: every part of the tree is poisonous, and it bleeds a remarkably blood-red sap.  Yet today these ancient trees have the most modern of uses – as part of the fight against cancer.

Fortingall Yew

Yews are renowned for their astonishing longevity, and are most often associated with churchyards.  Yet, as Stafford pointed out, many ancient yews pre-date the churchyards where they stand.  They mark ancient, sacred sites on which Christianity, as the new religion, built. Yews continued to be planted in churchyards where their toxic leaves would not endanger grazing livestock.

The Fortingall Yew in Perthshire (above) is Europe’s oldest tree at over 3,000 years old, and was already a veteran when the Romans arrived. Stafford spoke of how the astonishing longevity of the yew and its evergreen branches have suggested comforting thoughts of everlasting life to mourners in churchyards, while the dark, dense boughs offer privacy and stillness.

A distinctive feature of yews is that they don’t conform to any standard, but evolve into many diverse shapes and forms.  They were tamed and trimmed in Renaissance mazes and parterres, and over the centuries some have grown into fantastical forms, as we saw for ourselves some years back  at Powis castle in Wales, where the terrace is bounded by a 30 foot yew hedge and huge strange shaped ‘tumps’ formed over the centuries by the annual round of clipping and shaping. (below).


But, said Fiona Stafford, the yew also gained a reputation as ‘the death tree’, due to its toxicity – every part of the tree is poisonous.  Shakespeare described the tree as ‘double fatal’ – its boughs poisonous, while arrows crafted from yew also brought death.  The yew, that bleeds red with remarkably blood-red sap if its bark is cut, has triggered deep fears: yews are there in ghost stories and gothic horror and loom through the gathering darkness of Gray’s Elegy.  In Tennyson’s In Memoriam, the yew is both resented for still being alive when his friend is dead, but also celebrated for its longevity:

Old Yew, which graspest at the stones
That name the under-lying dead,
Thy fibres net the dreamless head,
Thy roots are wrapt about the bones.
The seasons bring the flower again,
And bring the firstling to the flock;
And in the dusk of thee, the clock
Beats out the little lives of men.
O not for thee the glow, the bloom,
Who changest not in any gale,
Nor branding summer suns avail
To touch thy thousand years of gloom:

And gazing on thee, sullen tree,
Sick for thy stubborn hardihood,
I seem to fail from out my blood
And grow incorporate into thee.

With its blood-red berries and leaves resistant to winter’s trials, yews were a symbol of everlasting life, the oldest living things in Europe.  The longevity of the yew was illustrated by Fiona Stafford when she told how, at Fountains Abbey in the 12th century, the yews were already so large that the monks could live in them while the abbey was being built. Some living yews are older than Stonehenge or the pyramids.  Trees that were seedlings 3000 years ago were already vast by time Romans arrived.

The idea of the yew symbolizing everlasting life might now be reinforced, Stafford argued, by the tree’s new role in the fight against cancer.  In the 1960s, scientists discovered that taxol, derived from the bark of the yew, could be used in chemotherapy. A newer formulation is now used to treat patients with lung, ovarian, breast and other forms of cancer.

But there’s a downside for the tree: stripping bark from the trees kills them, and as a consequence the Himalayan Yew is now an endangered species.  Careful harvesting of yew needles would produce the same benefits and be more sustainable but, being slower, yield lower profits.  ‘The impulse to fell’, Stafford concluded, ‘has a humane as well as a profit dimension’.  This is not the first time that human exploitation has threatened the yew: Stafford described the medieval decimation of the European yew for arrows.

But, Stafford concluded, it is not the yew’s dark façade or poisonous needles but its very long life that is troubling: the tree will survive into a future when we’ve all been forgotten.  If all that’s left of the people who planted some of our more venerable trees are their broken beakers, she queried, what will remain of those in today’s garden centres trundling their potted yews to the checkout?  Their purchase may be their most long-lasting legacy.

Although we don’t yet know what else the yew has hidden away, one day we might. What is the meaning of the yew?  Stafford concluded: it’s much too early to say.

David Hockney- Woldgate lane to Burton Agnes, 2007

In her second essay, Fiona Stafford tackled the tree which has suddenly hit the headlines. The Ash is now threatened by the arrival in Britain of the fungus called Chalara fraxinea which causes ash dieback. But, said Stafford, the Ash has survived since the birth of humanity and has met mortal threats before.  Despite many different near fatal epidemics over the centuries, delicate ash trees have survived for millennia.

As evidence of the significance of the Ash in our culture and for the British landscape, Stafford cited David Hockney’s recent Royal Academy show in which ash trees peopled the fields of the Yorkshire Wolds (above) – a return, she said, to the great tradition of British landscape painting.  [For a discussion of the prospects for the trees painted by Hockney, see Will Ash Dieback affect Woldgate Hockney Trees?]

Stafford cited John Constable as an example of another English painter in love with the graceful form of the ash.  The tree figures in paintings such as Cornfield and Flatford Mill, and in drawings which Constable made of a favourite ash on Hampstead Heath (below).

In the summer of 1823 Constable rented a house in Hampstead. He admired trees and made many studies of them, always noting their specific shapes and varying foliage. In this drawing – Study of an ash tree – inscribed and dated ‘Hampstead June 21 1823. longest day. 9 o clock eveninghe defined the particularities of an ash tree at a given moment and at a specific location, combining intense feeling for the tree with accurate observation of the tree trunk, branches and leaves, as well as capturing the air between the leaves and the wind passing through.

John CONSTABLE Study of an ash tree

Stafford told how Constable described the tree as having died of a broken heart after a notice warning against vagrancy was nailed unceremoniously to the trunk.  ‘The tree seemed to have felt the disgrace’, he lamented, for almost at once some of its top branches withered, and within a year or so when the entire tree became paralysed, and ‘the beautiful creature was cut down to a stump’.  His friend and biographer C.R. Leslie wrote of Constable’s love of trees, and of the ash in particular:

I have seen him admire a fine tree with an ecstasy of delight like that with which he would catch up a beautiful child in his arms.  The ash was his favourite, and all who are acquainted with his pictures cannot fail to have observed how frequently it is introduced as a near object, and how beautifully its distinguishing peculiarities are marked.

It was a favourite tree, too, of Edward Thomas. In Ash Grove, written in 1916, war has concentrated his mind on a vision of England, at ‘a moment’, in Stafford’s words, ‘when the past, unwilling to die, floods the present with joyful sunlight, and an ordinary clump of trees becomes magnified into something extraordinary’.  Thomas also evokes his Welsh ancestry in the poem’s recollection of a girl singing the old Welsh folk song ‘The Ash Grove’:

Half of the grove stood dead, and those that yet lived made
Little more than the dead ones made of shade.
If they led to a house, long before they had seen its fall:
But they welcomed me; I was glad without cause and delayed.

Scarce a hundred paces under the trees was the interval –
Paces each sweeter than the sweetest miles – but nothing at all,
Not even the spirits of memory and fear with restless wing,
Could climb down in to molest me over the wall

That I passed through at either end without noticing.
And now an ash grove far from those hills can bring
The same tranquillity in which I wander a ghost
With a ghostly gladness, as if I heard a girl sing

The song of the Ash Grove soft as love uncrossed,
And then in a crowd or in distance it were lost,
But the moment unveiled something unwilling to die
And I had what I most desired, without search or desert or cost.

Stafford discussed the many cultural associations of the ash, including its health benefits.  Pliny noted that its leaves were considered an effective antidote to snake bites, while later generations valued the ash as a cure for  obesity and gout, and its bark a tonic for arthritis, while warts could be eradicated by a prick from a pin that had been inserted into the bark.

The ash was an integral part of life, giving its name to innumerable places, and wherever people lived and worked the ash tree was a constant companion.  Its reputation as a friend to man rested not only on its physical beauty or medicinal value, but also the versatility of ash wood.  Its toughness and elasticity lent itself to the manufacture of wagon wheels, skis, walking sticks, bentwood chairs, as well as cricket stumps and billiard cues.  Stafford told how, during the Second World War, when metal was scarce, ash was used in construction of the de Havilland Mosquito, a wooden bomber.  Ash was also the wood used for the Morris Traveller wood frame, and is still used today in the construction of Morgan sports cars.

Given the ubiquity of the tree, it was not surprising, Stafford suggested, that the ancient people of northern Europe thought the entire world depended on the ash.  In Nordic myth, even human beings were thought to derive from piece of ash driftwood the Norse gods found on the shore.  Ask was the first human, created by the gods from that piece of ash; in Old Norse askr means ‘ash tree’.

Our history with the ash is long. In Norse mythology, the World Tree Yggdrasil was an ash tree, with two wells feeding its roots – wisdom and destiny.  Stafford told how Norse mythology also ‘foresaw the end of the known world when Yggdrassil would shake and crack, the land would be engulfed by ocean, and the old gods overthrown. They knew that the great ash tree would not last forever.’ But, asked Stafford, can we protect the ash now that it fights off a new threat to its existence?

She pointed out that ashes not renowned for their longevity, living only a couple of hundred years at most.  But coppiced they will continue to send up shoots from the dead heartwood, and their abundant seeds – or keys – also lead to rapid propagation.  The ash is tolerant of almost any soil, and – until now – has been one of most familiar trees in Britain.  It is hard to imagine an ash-less Britain, but, with Chalara fraxinea now alarmingly set on sweeping through British Isles, Stafford concluded, ‘the future of the ash tree is far less assured than its past’.

Allerton Oak

Fiona Stafford began her essay on the Oak in that most English of locations – the bar of the Royal Oak.  Here, in a pub bearing  the third most popular pub name in England, you are likely to be surrounded by oak – the bar and tables made of oak, and the beer’s flavour and colour deepened in oak barrels. Oak, she said, is  such an integral part of our culture we scarcely notice it.

Sturdy, stalwart, stubborn: the oak is a symbol of enduring strength that has inspired poets, composers and writers for millennia. But not just in England.  The oak has been chosen as the national tree of many other countries, too, including Estonia, France, Germany, Moldova, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the United States, and Wales.

Civilisations have been built from oak, as its hard wood has been felled for houses, halls and cities, its timber turned into trading ships and navies. Other woods are as strong, but few are as long-lasting as oak.  Some oak trees, observed Stafford, served as ale houses, some were gospel oaks under which parishioners gathered to hear readings from the Bible.  She might have added that the spreading branches of others served as shelter for local council meetings – such as the Allerton Oak (above) in Liverpool’s Calderstones Park, now over a thousand years old, beneath which the sittings of the local ‘Hundred court’ were held.

When war threatened, oak proved crucial for national defence, oak wood being unique for its hardness and toughness and thus ideal for shipbuilding.  But the oak’s value also led to its decimation since a large naval vessal required some 2000 oaks, and replanting was a slow affair, with replacement trees only reaching maturity after two or three hundred years.

In one of the most fascinating parts of her talk, Fiona Stafford explained that the English are not alone in identifying the oak as a symbolic tree.  The oak is the emblem of Derry in Northern Ireland, originally known in Gaelic as Doire, meaning oak.  The Irish County Kildare derives its name from the town of Kildare which originally in Irish was Cill Dara meaning the Church of the Oak.  The oak is a national symbol for the people of the Basque Country, as well as being used as a symbol by a number of political parties, including the Conservative Party.  As Stafford observed:

The outspread arms of the oak offered a congenial symbol and make the complicated story of its political exploitation a telling example of how different notions of nationhood  can be cultivated, felled, or replanted.  If the same tree can inspire both conservative admiration for inheritance and radical enthusiasm for equal rights, as well as unionist pride in inclusiveness and separatist determination for independence, it’s difficult to be too absolute about what the oak’s real meaning might be.

Major Oak

Sacred to the Celts and the Ancient Greeks, the oak tree has been central in British culture, present in place-names and national songs; yet it is also the national tree of dozens of countries.  It was once the most common European tree, but then the huge demand for oak timber led to a steep decline. Commenting on the famous Major Oak of Sherwood Forest (above), Stafford wondered:

‘Is the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest, its collapsing branches so carefully cradled by poles and wires, a heartening image of a caring community, or does it provoke less cheering ideas of a people clinging to memories of a great, but increasingly vanishing past?’

But then, she concluded, perhaps the impulse to interpret trees as anything but trees is one to handle with care.

Cutting osiers

The poor soul sat singing by a sycamore tree.
Sing all a green willow:
Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,
Sing willow, willow, willow:
The fresh streams ran by her, and murmur’d her moans;
Sing willow, willow, willow
– Othello,
Act IV, Scene 3

Fiona Stafford began her essay on the Willow by observing that for poets and dramatists it has long been the tree of loss, abandoned lovers, and broken hearts. Shakespeare had Desdemona singing her willow song on the last night of her life and Ophelia sinking into the brook by the willow:

There is a willow grows askant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come: [….]
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook.

Something about this tree, it seems, makes everyone want to weep – but the problem, as Stafford pointed out, is that many such references to the willow in folk songs (and in Shakespeare) pre-date the arrival of the Weeping Willow in Britain in the 18th century.  It’s claimed that the Weeping Willow was first introduced by the poet Alexander Pope who received a basket of figs from Smyrna in Turkey. Noticing that one of the twigs making up the basket was still alive, he planted it in his garden in Twickenham where it grew into the willow tree from which, it’s claimed, all others have been propagated.  By early 19th century the Weeping Willow was widely recognised, not least due to the willow pattern pottery designed by ceramics artist Thomas Minton (who also invented the legend which the design illustrates).

So Shakespeare’s willow, and the willow of old folk songs, must have belonged to one of the many indigenous varieties – white willow, crack willow, bay willow, etc, etc.  The easiest of trees to propagate, the pliable branches of the quick-growing willow have been used for basket-weaving, wicker-work, cradle-making, thatching or fencing. Osiers, the shrubby willows (above), are the best for basket-making, with stems so strong and pliable that they can be woven into wickerwork without snapping.

Willow Man

A dramatic symbol of the past importance of the willow for local economies is, as Fiona Stafford noted, Serena Delahaye’s giant willow man (above), a prominent landmark beside the M5 northbound between junction 24 and 23, near Bridgwater in Somerset. The sculpture stands 40 feet high and is made of locally grown black maul willow, woven around a steel skeletal frame.  The current figure is the second on the site. The original was destroyed by fire in 2001.  We have seen it from a speeding car on our way to Cornwall: a celebration of the traditional local industry of the Somerset Levels.  Fiona Stafford offered a reminder that in Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees, Roger Deakin devoted a chapter to the willow growers of the Somerset Levels.

The willow’s fortunes have fluctuated over the centuries, according to the practical needs of the time.  In times of war its lightness and flexibility meant that it was used to make artificial limbs, while willow charcoal was used to make gunpowder. Doctors also used the charcoal for dressing wounds, and willow was used as a remedy for fever and rheumatism. Pain relief derived from the willow’s salicylic acid, which yielded aspirin.  Eventually this led to the development of salacin, an anti-inflammatory agent that is produced from willow bark and which is closely related in chemical composition to aspirin.  Willow charcoal is not only the best for sketching, but has also been used to manufacture medicinal biscuits aimed at aiding digestion – thus the grey dog biscuits mentioned at the start.

The willow’s flammability (which led to its use in making gunpowder) mean that it is now being developed for biomass.  In Scandinavia, willow wood chip is already replacing oil as a cleaner fuel for domestic heating, as well as for industrial purposes. Willows offer a reliable, carbon-neutral source of heat – they grow so fast, absorbing carbon dioxide, that they can be harvested very frequently, producing cheap and easily-renewable supplies of fuel. Willow-fuelled power stations being planned.  Willows could also form part of an effective defence against flooding, with the long roots thriving in moist soil and helping to stabilise river banks.

So, synonymous with Englishness, having furnished the raw material for cricket bats since the 1780s (when a new variety of white willow was identified in Suffolk, providing an especially resilient, wide-grained wood) the willow is now at the cutting edge of medicinal and biomass development.

Fiona Stafford finished her survey of the willow’s meaning, by noting that when Claude Monet was trying to achieve ‘the ideal of an endless whole, unlimited by shores and horizons’, he turned again and again to the lily pond at Giverny.  ‘It was’, said Stafford,  ‘as if he could paint with plants, filling the pool with water lilies, surrounding it with weeping willows.  In the paintings, planes and surfaces dissolve as the multi-petalled flowers float on reflections of trees, and the vertical fronds of the willows make waves more visible than water’.

‘Monet’s willows’, concluded Stafford, ‘are perhaps the ultimate image of the ever-shifting willow: a tree so adaptable that it can be taken for water, sky, earth or sun.  And what might the willow be saying?  So much depends on the circumstances’.

In massy foliage of a sunny green
The splendid sycamore adorns the spring,
Adding rich beauties to the varied scene,
That Nature’s breathing arts alone can bring.
Hark! how the insects hum around, and sing,
Like happy Ariels, hid from heedless view­—
And merry bees, that feed, with eager wing,
On the broad leaves, glazed o’er with honey dew.
The fairy Sunshine gently flickers through
Upon the grass, and buttercups below;
And in the foliage Winds their sports renew,
Waving a shade romantic to and fro,
That o’er the mind in sweet disorder flings
A flitting dream of Beauty’s fading things.
John Clare, ‘The Sycamore’

There’s a tall sycamore that stands in a neighbouring garden and in summer, from mid-afternoon, casts our lawn and patio into deep shade.  It has annoyed me through the thirty-odd years that we lived here, and I have longed for it to be cut down.

In her final essay, Fiona Stafford challenged the popular image of the Sycamore as an unwanted, problematic weed, the cause of ‘the wrong kind of leaves on the line’ that disrupt British railways each year; the tree with too many leaves, too much sap, and too many seedlings.

Instead, Stafford focussed on the benefits of the sycamore.  As John Clare observed in his poem, with its dense foliage and sweet sap the tree is a haven for insects and sipping bees.  Clare, said Stafford, was ahead of his time in understanding this.  The sycamore is now valued, too, as a haven for all kinds of birds.

Sycamores annoy because of their resilience.  Sycamore seeds, with their propellers, spread far and wide on the wind and take root anywhere. They are hardy trees, loved by urban councils for their resistance to salt and tolerance of the pollution and harsh environment of city streets.  Consequently, the sycamore has become the most common tree in British cities.

In Britain, as Stafford noted, attitudes to the sycamore have always been ambivalent. Already, in 1664, John Evelyn was asserting that the sycamore should be banished from gardens and avenues because of its reputation for shade, and the honeydew-coated leaves which, after their fall, ‘turn to a mucilage … and putrefie with the first moisture of the season [and so] contaminate and marr our Walks’.  Many continue to hold such views, and see it as a weed which should be eradicated. As Richard Mabey observes in his magnificent book Weeds:

The mythology stacked against it is formidable.  It’s a true weed, invasive and loutish.  Its myriad seedlings swamp the ground and out-compete native trees.  Its large and ungainly leaves litter the earth, then slowly rot to a slithery mulch.  They are ‘the wrong sort of leaves’ that famously cause trains to skid to a halt every autumn.

But as both Stafford and Mabey observe, though widely regarded as a non-native species, the sycamore was introduced to Britain in Tudor times while, ironically, more recent arrivals, such as 19th century exotic imports, have been highly prized.

Yet, for Stafford, there is ‘something inspirational about the ordinariness of the sycamore’.  Seen as an ordinary tree, the sycamore has never been valued for its rich timber, even though its wood is as strong as oak, and more easily dyed. The sycamore, she suggested, stands for extraordinary possibilities latent in the commonplace.  A familiar feature of almost every rural area, their thick foliage offers shade to sheep and cattle, shelter to solitary farmhouses, and has inspired poets as varied as John Clare and W B Yeats.  In Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth expressed his profound delight in the prospect of the Wye valley seen from beneath a ‘dark sycamore’,  referring to its sun-blocker foliage.

Stafford finished by recalling that the oldest sycamore in England is probably the Tolpuddle tree, beneath which gathered, in 1834, the Dorset agricultural labourers who became pioneers of the trade union movement.  Barred from church halls or other indoor spaces, they gathered beneath the sycamore to stand up for their rights and resist their long hours and low wages.

Tolpuddle sycamore

The Tolpuddle sycamore

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

Timon of Athens: love is money

Timon of Athens: love is money

You don’t get many chances to see Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens performed on stage. Regarded as difficult, problematic, and anyway co-written with Thomas Middleton, the play only found its way into the First Folio in 1623 by chance and is rarely performed, so we made a visit to the current National Theatre production the centrepiece of a trip to London this weekend.

This production comes trailed in garlands – for Nicholas Hytner’s direction – which gives the play a vividly contemporary setting in today’s divided London, brilliantly realised in Tim Hatley’s design – and especially Simon Russell Beale’s performance in the title role.

Hytner transfers the setting from ancient Greece to a present day capital city of wealthy financiers, a fawning cultural elite and streets where the poor and dispossessed are angry and turbulent. As the play begins, we glimpse an Occupy-style tent-city before a revolving stage whisks us to the opening of an opulent and palatial new gallery wing –  the Timon Room – where Timon the benefactor basks in sycophantic adulation. The room is dominated by the El Greco painting that depicts Christ driving the money changers from the Temple, an ironic reinforcement of the point, as Michael Billington put it in The Guardian, that:

Hytner is … at pains to remind us that Timon’s ruination is part of a larger crisis in capitalism and, utilising the play’s Athenian background, shows angry crowds occupying the squares and streets. All this gives the play a sense of contemporary urgency.

This approach – apparently strengthened by some significant editing and rewriting of the original text, even adding lines from other Shakespeare plays, undoubtedly makes the production powerfully topical.  But, though neither of us had any knowledge of the play beforehand, by the end of the play it seemed to us that the authors’ original intention was less a critique of social divisions and more a satire on hypocrisy.

Wealthy, friend to the rich and powerful, patron of the arts, munificent host, Timon showers gifts on the city’s elite. But, we very soon realise that he has vastly outspent his resources. During a lavish banquet, Timon’s steward Flavius (here transposed to Deborah Findlay’s genuinely loyal and concerned Flavia) reveals that Timon is bust:

His promises fly so beyond his state
That what he speaks is all in debt; he owes
For every word: he is so kind that he now
Pays interest for ‘t; his land’s put to their books.

When Timon realises his predicament he calls upon his fawning fair-weather friends.  But, instead of offering help, they turn their backs on him. The first half ends with Timon staging a final, vengeful banquet, at which he calls ‘each man to his stool’, presenting them with a covered dish which, when revealed, turns out to be excrement.  His rich guests flee in revulsion as Timon rails:

Live loathed and long,
Most smiling, smooth, detested parasites,
Courteous destroyers, affable wolves, meek bears,
You fools of fortune, trencher-friends, time’s flies,
Cap and knee slaves, vapours, and minute-jacks!

In a programme essay, Peter Holland notes the strangeness of the play’s title: not The Tragedy of Timon of Athens, but simply Timon of Athens.  Shakespeare’s tragedies usually end in death, often involving a goodly number of corpses.  But here, although Timon dies towards the end of the play, he dies off-stage and in unexplained circumstances, though possibly suicide.  Tragedies also require a tragic figure, one whose nobility is brought to ruin. But there is no back-story to Timon: we know nothing about him beyond what we see in these halls amidst the flatterers.

What is problematic about the play is its abrupt change of gear in the final two acts when Timon withdraws from the city to a inhabit a literal and emotional wasteland.  In the text he lives off roots; in Hytner’s production he ends up a pathetic vagrant, pushing a supermarket trolley, scavenging for food among the detritus of the city.  But more problematic than this material shift is the sudden transformation of Timon’s generosity of spirit into an absolute hatred of mankind.  As Peter Holland writes, ‘his absolute generosity metamorphoses into his absolute hatred; philanthropy becomes misanthropy with almost no pause between.  Timon departs the city for the wilds where thinks he shall find
‘the unkindest beast more kinder than mankind’, and where he expects

his hate may grow
To the whole race of mankind, high and low!

The cynic Apemantus sums up the change:

The middle of humanity thou never knewest, but the
extremity of both ends

‘Money can’t buy me love’, sang The Beatles, but Timon, in his pomp, had begged to differ, using his wealth to gather friends around him: at the play’s opening he had remarked, ‘there’s none can truly say he gives, if he receives’.  But now he rails:

Who dares, who dares,
In purity of manhood stand upright,
And say ‘This man’s a flatterer?’ if one be,
So are they all; for every grise of fortune
Is smooth’d by that below: the learned pate
Ducks to the golden fool: all is oblique;
There’s nothing level in our cursed natures,
But direct villany. Therefore, be abhorr’d
All feasts, societies, and throngs of men!

It is the brilliance of Simon Russell-Beale’s portrayal that binds together the two halves of this production and makes something credible of Timon’s psychology. In the first half he portrays Timon not as some Christ-like benefactor, but as an individual who is almost simple-minded in his failure to see through the flattery of others, whose vanity is stoked by the love which others affect to show. In The Guardian, Michael Billington spoke of:

…. the psychological acuity of Russell Beale’s performance. His beaming, bounteous, besuited Timon is always seen in a crowd, suggesting that his philanthropy is a form of vanity. He also backs neurotically away when anyone tries to kiss or touch him, as if unused to the demands of intimacy.

Friendship, in this world, is a commodity to be purchased; and it makes total sense that, when Timon is finally exposed to the ingratitude of his followers, he summons them to an anti-banquet where he offers them plates of excrement.

The cynic Apemantus is quick to observe what is going on at the start:

….. I should
ne’er flatter thee. O you gods, what a number of
men eat Timon, and he sees ’em not! It grieves me
to see so many dip their meat in one man’s blood;
and all the madness is, he cheers them up too.
I wonder men dare trust themselves with men:
Methinks they should invite them without knives;
Good for their meat, and safer for their lives.

For me, one of the highlights of this production was the Beckett-like interplay between Apemantus (played with trenchant Scots sardonicism by Hilton McRae) and Timon as he sifts through the city’s rubbish:

Apemantus: Why this spade? this place?
This slave-like habit? and these looks of care?
Thy flatterers yet wear silk, drink wine, lie soft;
Hug their diseased perfumes, and have forgot
That ever Timon was. Shame not these woods,
By putting on the cunning of a carper.
Be thou a flatterer now, and seek to thrive
By that which has undone thee: hinge thy knee,
And let his very breath, whom thou’lt observe,
Blow off thy cap; praise his most vicious strain,
And call it excellent …. Do not assume my likeness.

Timon: Were I like thee, I’d throw away myself.

The play is really a jaundiced anthem of despair at the hollow nature of society and man. But threaded through it is a political rebellion that brings to mind Coriolanus in its portrayal of the mob disturbing the equilibrium of the city.   However, the same sceptical perspective applies here, too: the rebel leader Alcibiades is bought off by the establishment’s offer of power and wealth.

Bought off: Karl Marx, writing about ‘The Power of Money’ in Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 quoted Timon’s words in the second part upon discovering gold in the rubbish he is sifting for food:

This yellow slave
Will knit and break religions, bless the accursed,
Make the hoar leprosy adored, place thieves
And give them title, knee and approbation
With senators on the bench

Shakespeare, he argues, ‘excellently depicts the real nature of money’ in capitalist society: 

It is the visible divinity – the transformation of all human and natural properties into their contraries, the universal confounding and distorting of things: impossibilities are soldered together by it.

It is the common whore, the common procurer of people and nations.

Athens was not a capitalist society, but the people in the play are either noble and wealthy or part of the servant class dependent on the rich.  As depicted by Shakespeare and Middleton, it is, as Peter Holland observes,

a society of exchange and gift, of conspicuous consumption and equally conspicuous patronage.  None of the wealthy shows any signs of work; they simply have money.  And, as Marx knew well, it is money that acts as the linkage …that brings people together.

No surprise, then, that Nicholas Hytner saw the time was timely for a revival of this overlooked play in a production whose performances and set design plant it firmly in the London of now.

In this YouTube video from the National Theatre, Simon Russell Beale and dramaturg Ben Power discuss the character of Timonand what makes him an unusual tragic protagonist.

He doesn’t understand love.  He thinks love is money.

Making of Timon: Staging the Play

See also

Trevor Nunn on The Tempest

Trevor Nunn on The Tempest

BBC 4 is putting on something of a Shakespeare extravaganza at the moment, headlined by the new adaptation of the Hollow Crown sequence of plays which I have not yet seen.  But the other night they screened a brilliant and moving  examination by Trevor Nunn of The Tempest, Shakespeare’s last complete play and, Nunn assured us, his most autobiographical. Prospero and playwright were both 50, both in their way magicians at the height of their powers, and in control of their globe.

Nunn explained why The Tempest can be regarded as Shakespeare’s most experimental play, telling how it was written specifically for an indoor theatre, its special effects not compatible with an afternoon performance at the Globe, open to the sky.  Shakespeare and his company took over another theatre – the Blackfriars – in order to present the play in candlelight and with special aerial effects. He visited rehearsals for an American production of The Tempest in a replica of the Blackfriars in Virginia that uses 17th century staging techniques and special effects.

Nunn also delved into the inspiration for the story – uniquely for a Shakespeare play, there was no existing fictional story that he drew upon.  It’s possible, Nunn suggests, that Shakespeare was influenced by a real event – the wreck and stranding of Sir Thomas Gates and 500 others from the vessel The Sea Venturer on the island of Bermuda in 1609 that had been described in several contemporary accounts.

Heathcote Williams as Prospero in Derek Jarman’s film of The Tempest

Trevor Nunn incisively explores the themes of magic, revenge and forgiveness that are expressed through the story of the magus Prospero, abandoned on an island with his daughter Miranda. One of the main questions of the play, Nunn explains, is will Prospero be capable of forgiveness?  He has used his great powers to bring his enemies ashore on the same island, and now they are at his mercy. But, as Nunn explains, the opportunity for Prospero to wreak revenge upon those who abandoned him ultimately leads to a profound exploration of love and forgiveness.

Turning to the question of Caliban, Nunn was not especially impressed with the tendency of modern criticism and productions to make European colonialism the central theme of this play.  He suggested that the play is located much more firmly in a Mediterranean context than in the New World.  Furthermore, aspects of Prospero’s character and circumstance do not sit easily with any interpretation that portrays him as ‘another white colonialist’, when he has, in fact, been cast adrift and the island has been his lifeline, while Caliban is not a native of the island. No-one is native to the island.

In the most deeply felt part of his presentation, Nunn analysed The Tempest as an intensely autobiographical piece.  So his depiction of the relationship between Miranda and her father was, Nunn suggests, informed by the imminent marriage of his own daughter to a man whose reputation was not exactly solid.  Above all, Shakespeare seems to have had a presentiment that this might be the last play he would ever write, and so felt the need to speak of his life: the decades in the theatre, and his achievement as a writer.

Nunn regards Prospero’s speech at the marriage of his daughter to Ferdinand as ‘one of the most poetic and consoling speeches Shakespeare ever wrote’.   Addressing the young couple, Prospero talks about the fragility and transience of life itself:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And—like the baseless fabric of this vision—
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. …

Nunn feels ‘100% certain’ that there is an autobiographical ingredient here, drawing attention to Shakespeare’s use of the phrase ‘the great globe itself’ – partly meaning, of course, the world, but being also the name of his theatre, the Globe.  Shakespeare is saying, ‘all of our shows, all of these things we’ve created here: they won’t be around any more’.

Something powerful is stirring in Prospero as he tries to come to terms with those who have wronged him.  Nunn analyses the scene in which Ariel describes the fear and distress of those Prospero has under his spell:

Confined together
In the same fashion as you gave in charge,
Just as you left them; all prisoners, sir,
In the line-grove which weather-fends your cell;
They cannot budge till your release. The king,
His brother and yours, abide all three distracted
And the remainder mourning over them,
Brimful of sorrow and dismay; but chiefly
Him that you term’d, sir, ‘The good old lord Gonzalo;’
His tears run down his beard, like winter’s drops
From eaves of reeds. Your charm so strongly works ’em
That if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.

To which Prospero responds, ‘Dost thou think so, spirit?’  Nunn sees Ariel’s reply as the key moment when Prospero decides to relinquish his magical powers, as his non-human spirit talks about human compassion: ‘Mine would, sir, were I human’.  Nunn sees a special poignancy in Prospero’s surrender of his powers, since he feels that Shakespeare is, in part, writing about himself.

Shakespeare, like Prospero, has spent years conjuring with his imagination.  But after The Tempest he will write no more plays.  Calling up his spirits for one last time, Prospero remembers his extraordinary accomplishments:

… I have bedimm’d
The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,
And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ’em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book

Shakespeare, too, has summoned countless visions, and brought the dead to life.  ‘The connection I see between Shakespeare and Prospero, makes this for me a particularly moving speech’, said Nunn.  Shakespeare, he suggests, is not saying ‘I’m abandoning you’, but ‘I’m leaving you with everything I have to offer… I want it to stay with you, but I have to go’.  Both Helen Mirren and Dr Rowan Williams speak eloquently of this moment in the play.  Rowan Williams:

With so many great artists, it seems, there comes a point where they seen their own work, their own utterance, as having resolved nothing.  They empty their hands … the the sense of the all-powerful, magical figure manipulating stories, suddenly saying ‘I can’t do this any loner –  I have to become human’ – I think that is something that is bound into the really great artists’ work..

Nunn also pinpoints how potent is the idea that we are call entitled to our freedom in the play.  He gives his spirit slave Ariel the freedom he yearns for:

then to the elements
Be free, and fare thou well!

Prospero forgives those who have wronged him, including his would-be murderer, Caliban.  ‘And so’, said Nunn, ‘at the end of his last play, Shakespeare tells us that the struggle to achieve forgiveness can be won.  Prospero manages to forgive, and in doing so, he frees himself.

Finally, Nunn returns to the parallels between Prospero and Shakespeare.  In the Epilogue, no longer empowered, he makes a plea of great simplicity.  He steps forward and asks us, the audience, to set him free. Prospero, who ends the play by giving up his magic just as Shakespeare gave up his own theatrical magic to return to Stratford where, only two years later, he died. Nunn, barely holding back tears, recites the epilogue, reading from the headstone in the churchyard where Shakespeare is buried:

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint …

But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

Trevor Nunn concludes:

For me The Tempest will always be exceptional, not just for its wisdom and humanity, but because more than any of his other plays, it leads us to the essence of the man who wrote them.  My feeling is that it’s in The Tempest, through the character of Prospero, that we get closest to the workings of the mind of that genius, William Shakespeare.

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