Shakespeare, England and me: a blog for Shakespeare’s birthday

To mark the 2012 anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, I have written a post exploring my  interest in Shakespeare and trying to define what I am looking for when writing about him. It is necessarily more personal, in parts, than my other posts; forgive me if it seems indulgently so.

One of the great 20th Shakespearean scholars, Samuel Schoenbaum, relates an observation of Desmond McCarthy’s about Shakespearean biography. Trying to discern Shakespeare’s personality, McCarthy said, is like looking at a portrait set behind darkened glass in a gallery. At first the portrait seems flat and lifeless. But the more intently you regard it, the more the sitter’s features seem to come to life: eyes at first dull now spark and gleam; the solid brushstrokes around the jaw soften, melt to flesh; the mouth parts, as if exhaling a long-held breath. Only then do you realise that it is, in fact, your own face you are admiring, reflected in the glass.

McCarthy’s insight is one that frequently comes to mind when thinking – or reading – about  Shakespeare. What, if anything, are we looking for besides a reflection of our own concerns or preoccupations? With Shakespeare, in particular, it is a problem made more pressing by the reticence of the biographical record – there are more blank spaces on the canvas for portraitists to fill with conjectures or inventions of their own – as much as by the impossibility of finding a definitive Shakesperean identity in the work as it survives. Shakespeare is too busy being everyone to project a sense of self. As the 20th-century American poet John Berryman wrote, while in the midst of researching a critical biography of Shakespeare that he would never complete: ‘Oh my God! Shakespeare. That multiform & encyclopedic bastard.’

Shakespeare haunts our culture. But I find myself increasingly drawn to exploring those things that haunted him: the ghosts of the cultural and ritual worlds that were already dying when he was young, and that he would help kill; the ghosts of English history, of old ballads and tales, of folk memory and folk lore, as he might himself have found them, haunting the English landscape.

We have long known about his readings in and borrowings from the chronicles of Holinshed and Hall, among much else; but increasingly I want to push further than that, to go beyond what Philip Sidney called the ‘bare Was’ of history towards a greater sense of how his reading and accumulation of story might have been informed by personal experience. That is, what images and associations might have been conjured up by, say, his reading about the siege of Rochester in Holinshed’s Chronicles when researching King John; or the Cotswolds when he wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor; or Bury St Edmonds when he wrote Henry VI, part 2; and so on.

Some, perhaps most, of this is unanswerable, and many points of coincidence will always be tangential to any discussion of the work; but they would, I like to think, illuminate something about his life and the world he inhabited.

I knew – or thought I knew – that in times of plague or political disruption, the players toured quite extensively, and that therefore a considerable part of Shakespeare’s professional life would have been spent travelling the highways of England. It is not new information: as long ago as 1930, EK Chambers, unarguably one of the greatest scholars of the Elizabethan theatre, established in his two-volume William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems that the Lord Chamberlain’s men had certainly been on the road in 1595 and 1597, and that the King’s Men, as the troupe became on the accession of James I in 1603, travelled every year until 1613, by which time Shakespeare was probably no longer active. We don’t know where he was in the ‘lost years’ of the late 1580s, after he disappears from the Stratford record in 1585, but the idea that Shakespeare moved straight from Stratford to London, where he stayed until he became established, visits back home aside, is untenable, to say the least.

If Shakespeare was an actor – and we know that he was by the time that we pick up his tracks again in the London of the early 1590s – then he would have had considerable experience of life on tour. Similarly, the identity of Shakespeare’s troupe prior to the formation of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in 1594 is much disputed. However, whatever the name of the troupe, there is absolute certainty that it, too, would have performed extensively outside London, and the young Shakespeare with them.

Yet, if you pick up any biography of Shakespeare, you would be hard pressed to find  much recognition of these facts: a line here, perhaps, or a paragraph there. I find it extraordinary, and exciting, that little of this information, or what it might mean, has seeped through.

It is true that the evidence for the travels of Elizabethan and Jacobean troupes, as gathered by the editors of the magnificent multi-volume Records of Early English Drama (REED), will always be patchy. No doubt what we now have is only a modest residue of what once existed. Some towns have no records at all; others are misleadingly thin. There are a mere six records of payments to travelling entertainers in the surviving Chester accounts, for example; but the civic authorities made at least two attempts to prohibit plays in Shakespeare’s professional lifetime, due to the ‘great inconvenences’ they caused ‘by daylie experience’. Clearly, whatever the authorities thought, the players still came.

But it is apparent from REED that, as you might expect, most theatrical troupes had fairly regular patterns of travel, sticking to known routes and prosperous towns and cities with tried-and-tested venues. It would be peculiar if they didn’t: they had livings to earn, after all.

REED has, then, been full of surprises. One misconception to go is mine that companies such as Shakespeare’s only toured in extremis, when forced out of their London homes by plague or political displeasure. Another is that is was an unprofitable and necessarily unpleasant activity.

More significant, however,  is the extent to which REED is transforming our conception of theatre – or, more generally, the culture of entertainment – outside London prior to and during Shakespeare’s professional life. Indeed, it is hard to exaggerate the extent of that vanished world, and a key part of the picture emerging from REED is the sheer volume of entertainment on offer: players competing with minstrels, jugglers, jesters, drummers, tumblers, trumpeters, bearwards, and many others.

We might recoil at the idea that at least one of the London theatres doubled as a bear-baiting arena, or find baffling the fact that Shakespeare’s tragedies, as with all his plays, would have been followed on stage by a vigorous jig. Both points become more explicable, however, when you realise that players had been sharing spaces – literally and figuratively – with these and other facets of English performing culture for well over a century.

I suspect the shape and rhythms of this world, and its pre-literate status, also help explain the survival on the late Elizabethan stage, and in the works of Shakespeare in particular, the many elements of folklore and myth that comprise the England of Herne the hunter, of Robin Goodfellow, and of Arthur’s bosom.

Slowly forming, then, in the wake of REED’s discoveries, is a coherent picture, an England of strong regional polities bound together at least in part by the possibilities of travel – that is, by trade and commerce along an extensive network of roads and navigable rivers, by the mobility of goods and services. This picture confounds preconceptions of intense parochialism and the assumption that every location outside London must have been a provincial backwater, hungry for scraps of culture from the feast in the capital.

But it is a world that the Elizabethan government explicitly set out to dismantle, centralising religion and politics in London in order to better impose the protestant Elizabethan settlement, and, with the lessons of the 100-odd years from the accession of Richard II to the death of Richard III behind them, continuing the slow erosion of the old feudal power bases in the regions that characterises 16th century England. It had good cause to do so.

The story of Elizabethan and Stuart theatre, then, is surprisingly analogous to the wider political narrative. It was only during Elizabeth’s reign that players and their natural peers began to viewed with suspicion. There was of course the considerable puritan distaste for their profession: in Histriomastix, William Prynne’s massive 1,000-page 1633 assault on the theatre, begins by listing everything Prynne hates:

Stage-Playes… Drunkennesse, effeminacy, lascivious songs, fantastique costly apparel, pagan customes… effeminate mixed Dancing, Dicing… lascivious Pictures, wanton Fashions, Face-painting, Health-drinking, Long haire, Love-lockes, Periwigs, womens curling, pouldring and cutting of their haire, Bone-fires, lascivious effeminate Musicke, excessive laughter, luxurious disorderly Christmas-keeping, Mummeries

Clearly what Prynne hates most of all is sensual pleasure. But, in part, he hates play-going because he associates it with the pre-Reformation ritual culture, the ‘pagan customs’ of bonfires and ‘mummeries’ and so on, an awareness of which has recently been awakened by the ground-breaking work of historians such as Eamon Duffy and Ronald Hutton.  To puritans such as Prynne, the players were in themselves agents of pagan, that is catholic, immorality; but they were also a visible reminder of an older kind of mobility, late survivors, consciously or otherwise, of a lost catholic England.

The aim of Elizabeth’s government was to limit, centralise, co-opt and control the players, an aim apparent in everything from the 1572 Act for the Punishment of Vagabonds, expressly designed to suppress most itinerant performers and, indeed, all unauthorised travel, to the June 1600 Privy Council order banning plays from the London inns.

Reviewing all of this information, there is, I believe, something fresh to be said about Shakespeare. It is a story about how a young man, an actor and playwright, emerged at a very particular point in English social and cultural history, on the last wave of a much longer and more significant tradition than has generally been recognised, with a unique kind of liberty, if not license, to explore England. It is about Shakespeare as a member of the last great generation of travelling player and the personal journey his career represents, its long arc, following older footsteps than his own, already fading fast into the dirt.

The kind of project I have in mind would also about exploring the profound continuities of the English landscape in its widest sense: the resilience of the histories embedded in its roads and ridges; the way in which our identities, even at a local, personal level, have been shaped by our experiences of that landscape; and the lovely changes small England wrings from its bare palate of valleys, hills and plains, rivers, lakes and woodland.

After all, Shakespeare’s travels coincided with the point at which England became self-conscious of its own identity. The nation was articulating itself; projects such as Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577), Harrison’s Historicall Description of the Island of Britain (originally published as a preface to Holinshed), Camden’s Britannia (1586), Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations, Voiages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589), Stow’s Survey of London (1598) – even Gerard’s Herball (1597) – were all explicit essays in national self-discovery.

This new-found assertiveness naturally also found expression in poetry – most obviously in the work of men such as Edmund Spenser and Michael Drayton. But even in Arthur Golding’s 1567 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a clear influence on Shakespeare throughout his career, from Titus Andronicus and A Midsummer Night’s Dream to The Tempest, Golding can be seen doing something more than translating. According to Mary Innes’ 20th-century Penguin translation, Ovid describes the first men as living by gathering ‘arbute berries and mountain strawberries, wild cherries and blackberries that cling to thorny bramble bushes.’ Golding chose not to translate this accurately, but rather to naturalise it, to give it Englishness; his men ‘Did live by raspis, hips and haws, by cornels, plums and cherries,/ By sloes and apples, nuts and pears and loathsome brambleberries’. Later, he interpolates very English fairies into the hills of Arcady.  It’s the Ovidian dream of change and transformation self-consciously refracted by an emerging cultural sensibility. To me, it seems wholly Shakespearean.

Inevitably, this will always also be a personal exploration for me on a number of levels. Which brings us back to the Desmond McCarthy insight I began with, and its implicit challenge: what am I looking for in Shakespeare? One answer might be found in my earliest memories of him. In Required Writing, Larkin’s first collection of essays and journalism, there is a piece in which he fantasises

Had the history of technology meshed a little differently with the history of literature I might now be able to lay reverently on my turntable a thick black 78rpm with a Globe label reading Will Shaxsper: Sundrie Sonnets… and, after a vertiginous crackling pause, hear in almost incomprehensible Elizabethan, ‘From fairest creatures we desire increase,/That thereby beauty’s rose might never die…’

The comment instantly recalled for me listening to recordings of Olivier which formed a small part of my father’s collection of 78s. I would have been, say, six or seven. Most of these records were big-band era jazz and swing recordings by artists whose names had a rarified and exotic thrill which far exceeded that of Shakespeare – or for that matter Laurence Olivier: Duke Ellington, Sidney Bechet, Muggsy Spanier, Fats Waller, Meade Lux Lewis. I was inordinately fond of these as a child: not just the bounce and lift of the music – although certainly that, too – but the solid, reassuring heft of the records themselves as you held them in your hand, the sweet, dry smell of the record cases and the thick sea-green papers which sat between each disc.

Later, I remember thinking how eerily, coincidentally complete life seemed, coming home from hospital late at night the day our own first child, our son, was born, and hearing the limpid clarity, the grace and langour of Johnny Hodges, Ellington’s alto sax player – an instantly recognisable tone which I forever associate with my father’s love for it – floating from a neighbour’s open window. It still feels a kind of benediction.

But amidst his collection of jazz 10-inchers, my father had a couple of 12-inch 78s, too. They were of Olivier reading speeches from Hamlet. They stood out simply by virtue of their size and I remember my disinterest in them – they weren’t music, after all – eventually losing out to sheer curiosity: I learned the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy for a primary school show-and-tell.

The sound of 78s is an acquired taste, of course, unlike anything else: the scratch and hiss, the compression; the sound of an intense joyous music played in a small, far-away room, a sunlit window at the end of long, dark corridor. But these were different, unnerving: the harsh rustle of the needle as it sped through the course grooves sounded as if, along with the strange music of the words, something else was leaking from the shellac, like air whistling from a sealed tomb. They seemed to belong to an irredeemably archaic past. I might have been listening to Shakespeare himself, speaking in a voice as distant, cold and unknowable as the moon.

But then, as a child, everything that predates your own birth seems both unreal and impossibly distant. Everything past earns a kind of equality, endlessly collapsing in on itself, concatina-ing into a single vast, amorphous yesterday that could be as close as midnight or as remote as Cain or Caesar. It’s all equally lost; but it is also all achingly close, almost but not quite in reach.

But for me there was also the pull of the work my mother did when young in the studios of Angus McBean and John Vickers, both celebrated theatrical photographers of their day. It is McBean’s reputation than has survived, not least for the absurd, surreal glamour of his portrait work; his photographs of the 30s and 40s are theatrical in every sense. But my mother – who died in 2009 – was working for Vickers when he shot the celebrated Old Vic seasons in the mid-1940s with Olivier, Richardson, Thorndike and Guinness, et al, and it is that work which I remember most intensely.

She had a book – red, cloth-bound– called The Old Vic in Photographs, which is what it says it is: a record of those glorious productions, portraits of actors and actresses in costume, sometimes apparently in performance too, accompanied by the appropriate quotes from the texts. I grew up gorging myself with a child’s greedy, undiscerning eye, on its strange semi-formal, monochrome stills.

The portraits were not exclusively Shakespearean. But even now,  decades on, I can remember a few of them: Richardson as Falstaff; Olivier as Hotspur, as Lear, Oedipus with stage blood – black as ink on the page – streaming from his closed eyes; Guinness as the Fool. On some level, the period costumes, like Olivier’s diction on those 78s, seemed to enforce a childish sense of immemorial distance, conflating in my mind the plays’ settings with my parents’ own younger selves. Looking back, I can see that searching these extraordinary faces for clues to some puzzle I couldn’t articulate was also, I think, a search for fresh things to think and know about my parents, for identity and a further sense of belonging.

My mother also had a separate set of portraits, which entranced all of us, a portfolio of work demonstrating her skills. She was a retoucher. I’ve always thought it a beautiful term, capturing the delicacy of the work – the deft correction of reality – but hinting too at the way in which great photography can catch and hold a moment, confer the illusion of immortality in tricks of light and shadow. These portraits were again black-and-white; and they were before-and-after shots. I marvelled at the magic of it: how my mother’s cool hands could have eased the clouds from once-clear complexions, or smoothed away the sorrows from wearied eyes, or straightened errant folds in evening gowns.

When I think of the stage – or performance generally – somewhere at the back of my head I still carry the impress of those grey-silver portraits of actors and actresses to me unknown and perhaps now largely forgotten. There is the glamour, of course; but more than that the sense of possibility and change, a kind of redemption. They, together with the Old Vic book, gave me an idea of the theatre as a space of love and transformation, an ageless space with silver-grey human moonlight all of its own. When, later, I saw Powell and Pressburger’s 1946 film A Matter of Life and Death, which slips between a technicolor earth and monochrome heaven, their design decision made perfect sense to me: of course heaven should be an unblemished, well-lit place, just as earth should be almost painful in the richness of its colour.

I wrote earlier that as a child the past seemed irredeemable to me, wholly lost. But now I can see that the questions I ask myself in Shakespeare’s mirror hover uncertainly over ideas of identity and England, over the faintly perceived outlines of a culture buried beneath the Reformation. Almost unconsciously, then, I come to a vain desire to redeem a little more of that brief flicker of time from the stripping of the altars, to use Eamon Duffy’s evocative phrase, and the closing of the theatres in 1642, to give it just enough air to burn more freely.

Because ultimately what I seek to write about is what England was doing while it waited for Shakespeare to be born, and what England was like as Shakespeare rose up to meet it.
For all that, though, my aims are modest enough: to loosen a little the hold that Stratford and London have on our vision of Shakespeare’s England, and to let in a little air and light and share its rediscovery.

Nothing I write is intended as a last word; it is merely a first step down a new, old road.


NOTE: Please click here for my other Shakespeare-related posts. My thanks go to Claudia Funder, who suggested on Twitter I write a blog for Shakespeare’s birthday.

5 thoughts on “Shakespeare, England and me: a blog for Shakespeare’s birthday

Add yours

  1. windshield crack repair is an interesting contrast to your other commentators!

    Anyway, since we were discussing Shakespeare, I read your other posts, and liked this very much. With a 14 year old son seemingly addicted to his computer, I often wonder how we become interested in things, and when. Maybe I should have taken my son to more plays, museums, gardens, concerts…..

  2. Hi Mat,
    Thoughtful, engaging and lyrical – thank you. Very much took me back to my own childhood. My mother still has the very same Old Vic book & I have very early memories of my parents playing Larry’s St Crispin Day Henry V on their Radiogram…deep sigh. Loving the debt to past and memory and the responses they engender. Beautiful stuff Matt!
    Be in their flowing cups freshly remembered
    This story shall the good man teach his son

  3. Hi Mathew.
    As I said last night your post really resonated with me on so many levels. What struck me right from the outset was what a blessing it is that we know so little about arguably the world’s most famous man. So often our knowledge of a writer/ historical personage colours our view of their work and closes off so many avenues of enquiry. I think that you are on to something potentially wonderful in your exploration of the pre-Shakespearean moment and I do hope that you will pursue it.

    Like many people I don’t think I really came across Shakespeare’s works until I was in secondary school. I particularly remember studying King Lear and being drawn to poor Tom as a character and being one of three daughters gave me something to think about too! It was when I met my partner, Tom, however, that I really found myself surrounded by Shakespeare on all sides both literally and figuratively. Tom’s upbringing was steeped in Shakespeare (and Tom Lehrer!) as his father was a English professor (he wrote Bradley, David, ‘From Text To Performance in the Elizabethan Theatre: Preparing the Play for the Stage’, CUP, 1992) and when I first met him Tom was an actor so running lines for Romeo & Juliet or Macbeth was part of my job description! We now share our house with 100s and 100s of books both on and by Shakespeare and his contemporaries (including the full set of Ardens and the cloth-bound Marlowe Society reprints of plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries published in the 1950s) and two small children who have more than a passing knowledge of Shakespeare’s world!

    Which brings me to the second half of your post and your wonderfully elegant evocation of how your parents’ lives and interests helped to shape you. It is so true that for children, ‘everything that predates your own birth seems both unreal and impossibly distant’. My parents had a very small record collection which included Frank Sinatra, Neil Diamond and Rod Stewart (Mum) and The Irish Rovers; The Seekers; Peter, Paul and Mary; The Beatles and soundtracks for ‘My Fair Lady’ and ‘Evita’ (Dad). Such a ragbag of tastes when you look at it but I knew the words to each and every one of the tracks on those albums and I really don’t think I ever thought about when they were made.

    I was also interested in your reflections on your mother’s work as a retoucher. I work in a museum where we have many Angus McBeans (and probably Vickers) including photographs publicising the 1948 Old Vic Tour of Australia which had such a profound impact not only the local theatre community but on the wider public who lived vicariously through the very glamour photos you mentioned. At that time Australia was still firmly in the thrall of England, particularly London, and there is certainly a story to be told there about the ghosts that haunted Australians!

    Sorry if I’ve rabbited on a bit but just wanted you to know that I really enjoyed your birthday essay.

    PS: I was thrilled with your use of the word ‘concatenate’ – not used nearly enough in day-to-day conversation!

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