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.
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Review: A Visitor’s Companion to Tudor England by Suzannah Lipscomb

It was with a certain amount of trepidation that I approached Suzannah Lipscomb’s latest book. Was it really necessary? Did the world need another guide book to the historic buildings of England? Would she not be forced into tiresome iterations of ‘We can imagine…’ or ‘If one closes one’s eyes one can almost hear…’ and so on.

Well, so much for my judgement: I stand corrected. A Visitor’s Companion to Tudor England is not only a first-class and fascinating guide to the most important of what survives of Tudor England, it also doubles as a deceptively thorough history of the period – and indeed a fine introduction to the complexities of life in sixteenth-century England.

Readers expecting a comprehensive guide to the buildings of Tudor England should look elsewhere: Lipscomb offers something else. Although on paper this may look a more limited work of reference, Lipscomb has used that limitation to create something far deeper and more worthwhile than any mere gazetteer could ever hope to provide.

In essence, A Visitor’s Companion to Tudor England takes the reader on a journey through fifty English locations with strong associations to Tudor history. Most of course are buildings – churches, castles, houses and so on – but Lipscomb’s survey also encompasses, among other things, a ship, a park, a battlefield and a solitary tree. These entries are organised geographically by region and are interspersed here and there with sections on other more elusive aspects of Tudor life, covering everything from food and clothing to the purpose of royal progesses and the development of the theatre.

In her introduction, Lipscomb sets out the criteria governing her selection: that there must be something that is actually still worth seeing; that each site should have a story to tell about a significant person or event in Tudor history; that as wide an area of England should be covered as possible; and that the entries should taken together offer a balanced overview of Tudor history as a whole.

Written out like that, I think the difficulty of the task Lipscomb has undertaken becomes apparent. I’m not wholly sure it ought to be possible to tick all those boxes, never mind do it with such elegance and wit. Lipscomb is now an academic historian and a writer – her previous book, the excellent 1536: The Year That Changed Henry VIII, was published in 2009 – but she also worked as a curator at Hampton Court Palace for three years. That experience shines through in the text, since she has a superb eye for telling architectural detail and a subtle, evocative sensitivity to place: the cold winds at Ludlow, say, or the desolation of Pontefract Castle.

The book is aimed at the general reader, but Lipscomb is a clear and insightful writer and there is much for everyone to enjoy, from the judiciously chosen stories she recounts – the public triumphs and private tragedies of an extraordinary period of English history – to the vivid and revealing portraits she draws of the lead actors. Moreover, although of course all the figures one would expect to be here are covered, from Sir Thomas More to William Shakespeare, there are many less well known men and women with fascinating lives. I knew next to nothing of poor Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister, for example, and certainly not of her year of five weddings; I loved the workmen at Hampton Court suddenly having to replace Anne Boleyn’s heraldic falcon with the panther of Jane Seymour, working under such pressure that they missed a few up in the roof.

Lipscomb is empathetic in her portrayals – the account of Mary I’s marriage to Philip of Spain at Winchester Cathedral, for instance, is gently moving. But her judgements are no less sharp for all that. I particularly liked Jane Seymour’s “cheerful, bovine tractability”, for instance.

Caveats? The only criticism I can really think of relates to my point about the book being an excellent introduction to the history of the period. There is a timeline of important dates tucked away in the introduction, but it is fairly cursory. A fuller timeline, cross-referenced as appropriate to the relevant buildings and chapters would, I think, be helpful to readers trying to piece 16th century England back together in their minds. But it is a minor quibble, perhaps even a graceless one given how much else here there is to enjoy.

To return to my initial question. Is this book necessary? Emphatically, yes. It is hard to think of a book that offers such a rich, pleasurable and illuminating guide to Tudor England. It should surely be essential reading for anyone traveling to any of the sites it covers, but it would be no less valuable as a companion for anyone simply setting out to explore the history of the period.

NOTE: This review first appeared last month on the excellent London Historian’s blog.

Review: The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau

The Crown is the début novel by American journalist and writer Nancy Bilyeau. Set in the aftermath of the Pilgrimage of Grace – and in particular the reprisals that followed its suppression – and against the backdrop of the dissolution of monasteries, its central character is Joanna Stafford, a young novice at Dartford Priory in Kent.

Stafford comes from a noble family whose extensive connections include both those active in the 1536 northern uprising against Henry VIII’s assault on the established church and those who helped crush it. Her decision to enter the priory stems from her deeply private sense of faith, but also from a sense of emotional kinship with Henry’s discarded first wife, Catherine of Aragon.

Stafford is an interesting and complex lead character, highly intelligent and independent-minded but also to some extent surprisingly reticent – almost passive in her emotional and spiritual inner life; the explanation for her coolness and sense of detachment comes late in the book and is certainly psychologically satisfying, but still leaves much to be explored in future books.

Bilyeau deftly draws on the tensions and stresses inherent in the highly charged and lethally dangerous scenario to develop a page-turning plot that involves everything from torture in the Tower of London to the search for the mystical Anglo-Saxon object which gives the book its title – by way of rival claims to the throne at a time when Henry VIII was still without a son.

The England of the late 1530s is sharply, if sparingly evoked – for a book about a young woman in a closed religious institution Bilyeau has managed to conjure an impressively nimble and wide-ranging narrative – and she handles her large cast with enviable ease. Moreover, she reaches deep into English history in ways which illuminate vividly and inventively the crises of the period of which she writes and which also open up a sense of how Tudor England saw its place in history which is rarely explored.

Overall, then, The Crown is an exciting historical thriller, sure in its sense of time and place, which delivers both a cracking fast-paced story and a perceptive insight into the perilous, poisonously inter-penetrated world of politics and religion in late Henrician England.

Shakespeare, the lost years and the London stage

Johannes De Witt’s 1596 sketch of The Swan

It is usually said that Shakespeare re-emerges from ‘the lost years’ with Robert Greene’s flighted asides in Groatsworth of Wit, published in 1592 (and possibly the work of its editor, Henry Chettle), and which I quoted in an earlier post. Although it has sometimes been argued that Greene may not be having at Shakespeare here, for my part I find such thinking a little tenuous: while the allusion industry can overstrain itself, finding echoes and implying causalities of dubious merit, Shakespeare is clearly better suited than anyone else to be the butt of Greene’s jokes.

Allowing Greene, however, does not automatically imply – as it seems to – that Shakespeare was now a London man.

It is implausible to suggest that, as a man of the theatre, Shakespeare would not have come to London by 1591; the likelihood is that his first visit would have been much earlier, given that all the significant troupes played in the city regularly, as they did at most major English cities, together with many lesser troupes and bands of players besides.

The principal venues are well known: the Theatre and the Curtain, and the Place at Newington Butts. But there were other venues, too, most notably the inns: among them the Belle Sauvage and the Cross-Keys. It has been said, in fact, that even when in London the players remained on tour, rarely settling for long runs at specific venues, but continuing to play, less exclusively, at a range of venues across the city.
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Shakespeare: the lost years

Most biographies of Shakespeare have traditionally wafted the young man directly from Stratford to London, presuming that the capital’s dominance of the English theatre which Shakespeare would help establish in the 1590s – and which lasts to this day – also held true for the 1580s. But that is not necessarily so.

The truth is, we cannot know where, when or how Shakespeare entered the theatre, or whether it occurred by chance or circumstance or force of ambition; we cannot know whether it was a long-planned or a spur-of-the-moment decision, or merely something that he edged towards unwittingly. Such information, if it was documented at all, is almost certainly irrecoverable.

That should not surprise us much: I’m not persuaded that any information of that sort was likely to have been recorded, even for the most famous Elizabethan actors, Alleyn, Burbage, Tarlton, Kemp, et al, among whom Shakespeare certainly does not figure. However famous these men became – and Tarlton in particular is as close to a celebrity as an age before celebrity can get – it is only their brief years on England’s stages that left its mark on the historical record, and that but barely. All were born in obscurity, and most died so too.

Where anecdotes do exist about other Elizabethan actors’ early careers, they take a similar shape: the young man plucked from obscurity; a talent stumbled on with surprise. I have quoted elsewhere the 17th-century antiquarian Thomas Fuller’s claim that the great Tarlton was discovered by a servant of Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, while tending swine in his father’s field.

What the form of such stories tells us is, I think, a discomfort with the idea of an individual with ability being their own agent for change. Performing, the meme insists, is an essentially servile function – after all players, as social inferiors, were expected to step into the gutter, rather than ‘taking the wall’, when they met their betters in the street – and therefore talent cannot simply assert itself, it must be discovered, nurtured, patronised.
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