Shakespeare’s England: Stratford Journeys #2

The Doom, above the chancel arch in the Guild Chapel, Stratford

Coming out of the birthplace I looked across the street, trying to imagine stepping across the threshold to see a row of late medieval or Tudor houses and workshops. It’s not too difficult: England is full of such survivals, after all. But of course it’s futile to try to dredge much meaning from the attempt, and we can never recapture a moment when such buildings were fresh-made.

Two shepherds, John Cox and John Davies, lived opposite the Shakespeares. Cox was close enough to the Hathaway family to remember a widow and two children in his will; the site of his house approximates to that of a shop dedicated to Christmas decorations. Most of Shakespeare’s neighbours were artisans or tradesmen: a tinker, a  blacksmith, a baker, a mercer, another glover like John Shakespeare himself, a tailor, a wool dealer, and so on.

Three, at least, were Catholic; one, George Badger, Shakespeare’s neighbour to the west went to prison for his faith. To the east, lived the tailor and bigamist William Wedgewood. Having been banished from Warwick by the Earl of Warwick, Wedgewood left his wife there, settled in Henley Street and remarried. He was, it was said, ‘very contencious prowde & slaunderous oft busieng himself with noughty matters & quarelling with his honest neighbours’,  the Shakespeares no doubt among them. However, Wedgewood was eventually forced out of Stratford. Shakespeare probably remembered him: next door to Wedgewood was Thomas Hornby’s blacksmith’s forge. Fripp suggests that the two are recalled in King John:

I saw a smith stand with his hammer, thus,
The whilst his iron did on the anvil cool,
With open mouth swallowing a tailor’s news;
Who, with his shears and measure in his hand,
Standing on slippers, — which his nimble haste
Had falsely thrust upon contrary feet

No doubt tailors and blacksmiths might have lived in close proximity in London, too, but the coincidence is a striking one. Hornby’s house is now the birthplace shop.
Continue reading

My post on The Jungle Book for Normblog

I was hugely flattered to be asked by Norman Geras to contribute a piece on a favoured book to his Writer’s Choice series. After much indecision – which may well end up reflected in another post here at some point – I finally chose Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, and you can read the resulting blog here.

In fact, I became so absorbed in the subject that Norm has kindly agreed to post a second contribution on Kipling – or more accurately, the second half of my original submission – next week, which looks more widely at Kipling’s reputation and the problems he inspires among readers and critics alike.

UPDATE: The article is now up on my blog here.

Elsewhere on the internet #2

Two fascinating perspectives on dialogue and authenticity in historical fiction, from Hilary Mantel and Lynn Shepherd.

Two brilliant posts (here and here) on the lost genius of Max Linder, the French silent comedian who Chaplin called ‘The Professor’. Linder’s story is ultimately tragic, and much of his work no longer survives, but what we do have shows him to be a clown of supreme deftness and wit.

The process of publishing reduced to a flow chart. Sadly very adjacent to the truth, although the dismal processes of remaindering and pulping seem to have been excluded.

The virtues of coffee.

An interesting post on the lessons for prose writers in the dialogue of Hamlet.

An excellent piece from Daniel Knowles in the Daily Telegraph on how today’s mantras about equality of opportunity serve to obscure the real problem of income inequality.

Douglas Dunn’s 1985 collection Elegies, about the death of his wife, Lesley Wallace, remains his best work to date. This, for me, is the most affecting and powerful of those poems: Kaleidoscope.

The Financial Times’ Christopher Cook demolishes the idea that grammar schools are better for social mobility than comprehensives.

An excellent and important post from Regina Jeffers on the problem publishing has with establishing value in its products – particularly where e-books are concerned.

Remembering the alarmingly fabulous nightclubs of fin-de-siècle Paris.

The nine circles of hell from Dante’s Inferno. Imagined in Lego. Because…

Beautiful time-lapse photography of the recent solar eclipse.

Mark Twain’s magnificent response to the banning of Huck Finn from New York libraries.

A lovely series of posts from Sharon Hunt on her father’s love for French cuisine in small-town Canada.

The Economist on the decline of the public company.

A wonderful post on Sarah Levene’s blog suggesting a correlation between the visions of Hildegard von Bingen and contemporary migraine art.

How Icelandic sagas represented Greenland and the worlds to its west.

I read Daisy Hickman’s powerful post remembering the life of her son some months ago, and it has haunted me ever since. Everyone will respond in their own way to what is an intensely personal and emotive subject; but for me this is one of the most profound and illuminating reflections on the nature of memory and loss – and how those two human senses inform and transform each other over time – I have read.

The manuscript of the wonderful Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is back on display in London.

The fabulous Mae West.

The brutal persecution of the gay and lesbian community in Iran – from the Guardian, which sounds somewhat surprised by the news.

A history class that sets out to fabricate history. A fascinating case study on fact and research in the digital age.

I have always loved the music of the Thirties and Forties, ever since I first heard it on my father’s old 78s when I was a child. But even for those who don’t like it, the story of Charlie and his Orchestra – the Nazi attempt to create a German hot jazz band to compete with the American imports – is by any measure an extraordinary one, and it is superbly told here.

Another great post from Nancy Bilyeau on the exceptional use of torture in Elizabeth’s England. (And congratulations to Nancy on being shortlisted for the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Dagger award.)

I have a weakness for alternative realities and futures – or more specifically for things that might have been and for futures that never were. (In some senses, it is that interest which lies behind my book Impossible Journeys.) So I found this post on London skyscrapers that were never built fascinating.

Dear old Google receives 1.2 million copyright complaints a month. Not that there is anything immoral about its business model, of course…

How does the new Penguin English Library compare to its predecessor?

A lost kingdom is discovered under volcanic ash in Indonesia.

The New York Times reports the death of Paul Fussell, author of the brilliant The Great War and Modern Memory.

A fascinating research project into acoustics in early history.

A wonderful resource: Irish medieval documents online.

The Onion is always alarmingly astute in its satire. Here is its take on the evolution of Obama’s attitude to gay marriage.

A Moveable Feast was the first Hemingway book I read and I was immediately seduced by his style – and also by the romance of Paris in the Twenties.

With the Leveson inquiry still in the news, this was an insightful piece on memory, forgetting and performance in Shakespeare.

Renaissance approaches to censorship – some brutal, some beautiful.

A superb piece from Vernon Bogdanor on the perils of coalition for the Lib Dems.

I’ve lived in London almost all of my life. It’s a city you never stop learning about. I have never heard, for instance, of the Abbey, a forgotten architectural curiosity in West London.

Bronze Age footprints are found on a beach in Wales – including those of a four year old child.

I love this. Jane Austen’s tarragon eggs – and other recipes from the writers.

Arnold Wesker describes how one of his plays killed by political opposition within the RSC: a somewhat depressing piece about censorship and ideology within the arts world. It relates to the 1970s, but I do wonder sometimes at the homogeneity of political perspectives in the creative community and what it says about intellectual openness.

A former fundamentalist Christian writes about how and why she became an atheist – and what it has meant for her life.

I’m not a particular fan of Star Wars, but this is very funny: a Jedi training film for Anakin Skywalker.

Reflections on Shakespeare’s birthplace, Tudor aesthetics of scent and the invention of identity

Shakespeare’s birthplace

Shakespeare’s birthplace is a wonderful Tudor survival and we are, of course, lucky to have it. But I can’t help but wonder if the emphasis on Shakespeare’s birth itself is taken a little too far in Henley Street – at the expense of other aspects of his life here.

Clearly it’s significant and interesting that he was born in this house, although the precise location of the birth-room is no more than tradition. But what is almost erased from the building as it currently presents itself is that Henley Street was Shakespeare’s Stratford home until a month after his 33rd birthday: much of his life happened here, and certainly much more than is conveyed by those first few choking cries of breath in April 1564. William brought Anne Hathaway back here in the last weeks of 1582 after their marriage; Anne was already three months pregnant with their first child Susanna. All three of his own children were born here; his only son, Hamnet, died here, aged 11 years and six months, in August 1596.

The Stratford antequarian Edgar Fripp – in his other life a vicar who roared through the sleepy Warwickshire lanes of the 1920s and ’30s on a motorbike, vestments flapping – had, in his 1928 Shakespeare’s Stratford, a plausible answer to the question – largely ignored by the birthplace – of where in the property the young married couple lived: the back of the house. ‘To this day [the back] makes an independent little residence. It has its separate kitchen, its separate staircase, and its private entrance; and from its upper story winds a small supplementary stairway into the ‘solar’ of the front house, affording space there for a additional bed-chamber.’ Fripp’s is a conjecture; Pevsner dismisses this part of the building with a single word: ‘over-restored’.

But then, today’s birth-room is a conjecture too.

In any event, with two families in the house, it must have been – well – lively. William’s youngest brother Edmond, later an actor himself, was only a few days past his third birthday when he became uncle to Susanna. With Shakespeare’s twins Hamnet and Judith being born in February 1585, there would have been four children aged under five in the house, plus a ten-year-old and two teenagers. Whatever else it was, it was a house full of life; Shakespeare would never have known it without pre-teen children, and almost always with at least two under-tens. There were two exceptions: the thirteen months between the death of his youngest sister Anne and the birth of Edmund, and again after the death of Hamnet.

Perhaps it is coincidence, but the family moved within a year of the latter.

Shuffling through the birthplace myself, then, what strikes me most is what’s absent. This is the home of a modestly prosperous family some 450 years past; unike the excellent exhibition next door, it seems disconnected from its subject. It is not like the great houses – the Blenheims, the Penshursts, the Wiltons, et al –  which were always public spaces as much as private ones, places of community, social authority and display. The intimidation and awe you often feel when you visit those is wholly fitting: that is what you were meant to feel.
Continue reading

Street theatre and survivals of the ritual year in Shakespeare’s Stratford

The Guild Hall was the principal venue in Stratford for visiting troupes of players, who would perform beneath the room where Shakespeare and his fellow schoolboys laboured. But at many Elizabethan schools, performing plays formed part of the curriculum. It was true of prestigious schools such as Westminster, where Ben Jonson studied, Merchant Taylors in London, which Thomas Kyd attended, and King’s School in Canterbury where Christopher Marlowe was a pupil, but it was also true of many others, among them, more locally, Shrewsbury and Ludlow. Elizabeth herself was known to attend performances at Westminster.

Latin dramas were typical, although at Westminster at least, there were English dramas too. If the same were true of the school at Stratford, Shakespeare may well have also got his own first taste for acting in the Guild Hall. And even if there were no such school performances in Stratford, or Shakespeare played no part, it is hard to believe that he would not have seen any theatre in this space. There is no evidence, of course; but it certainly seems implausible that a man who would be part of the professional theatre for over 25 years might have contrived to miss all of the travelling players who came to Stratford during his years here.

Theatre, of one kind or another, was hard to miss, in fact. Outside the confines of the Guild Hall there were other players, too, some very much closer to home. Playing in early modern England was as much about participation as performance; it was only in Shakespeare’s lifetime that it became primarily a passive spectacle. The growth of professional companies such as those that Shakespeare would join was in part fueled by the forced decline of other dramas, which had formed part of the entertainments of the ritual year. ‘Of late time, in place of those stage plays, hath been used comedies, tragedies, interludes and histories, both true and feigned; for the acting whereof certain public places have been erected,’ writes Stow of London’s playhouses in 1598.

But that was later. Now, a few days before Susanna was born in late May 1583, Davy Jones, husband to Anne’s cousin Frances Hathaway, was paid 13s 4d, for staging, together with his company of players, a’pastyme at whitsontyde’, Whitsunday falling on the 20th that year, five days before Susanna, Shakespeare’s first child, was baptised. Traditionally, most villages and towns did not stage elaborate Whit Monday pageants. Most concentrated instead on Rogation week, which culminated in Ascension Day, ten days before the Pentecost – the feast which Whitsun marks – and on Corpus Christi, which was ten day later. However, the period was important in Stratford, since a three-day fair began in the town the following Sunday, Holy Trinity Eve.

Perhaps that explains the expense: thirteen shillings was not a small sum of money to be paid, and more than many touring companies could expect. It suggests, among other things, that the entertainment Jones offered was fairly elaborate. No doubt it was not on the scale of the pageants at Chester, which involved 24 different biblical themes and lasted for three days. But it would almost certainly have been staged around pageant wagons – ‘at Pentecost/… all our pageants of delight were played’, recalls Julia in Two Gentlemen of Verona – which would have started from either Holy Trinity or the Guild Chapel, weaving their way around the borough, a long procession behind them. Drummers probably led the way, alongside minstrels and other musicians; women followed after, strewing flowers of the season, the clove-scented pinks and oxlips, and other green things; ‘take your flowers’, laughs Perdita to Florizel in The Winter’s Tale, ‘I play as I have seen them do/ In Whitsun pastorals’.

The wagons bore representations of biblical characters – images, statues or impersonating players, probably masked; dramas were enacted, both wordless and scripted. Typical play subjects were, if not biblical then certainly Christian: those at Shrewsbury, for example, included the passion of Christ; the martyrdoms of Saints Feliciana and Sabina; St Catherine; and St Julian the Apostate. The story Julia remembers, however, is of Theseus and Ariadne – perhaps from Ovid’s Metamorphoses – and although there is no specific record of such a performance at Whitsun, it seems an implausible detail for Shakespeare to invent.

‘Whitsun ales’, meanwhile, were proverbial, which tells us much about the tone of the celebrations, and then there was the dancing, often wild and riotous, and seemingly unending. All England might be ‘busied with a Whitsun morris-dance’, said Henry V; these were not small, or indeed brief, affairs. Dances could last long into the evening; some lasted for days. Records of one such, at Ludlow in Whitsun week 1619, survive because its participants took the communion cloth from a nearby church to use as a morris flag on their two-day dance.

There is no reason to suppose that Shakespeare found such pleasures innately laughable.


NOTE: If you enjoyed this post, you might also be interested in my other posts on Shakespeare and the Elizabethan theatre.

Elsewhere on the internet…

I have been meaning for sometime to start collating articles and posts I link to on Twitter each week – not least with the excellent weekly breakfast round-ups provided on the wonderful Two Nerdy History Girls‘ website in mind as an inspiration. But time and tide being what they are, it has taken until now for me to act on the idea. And even now, I should confess, the task being rather more onerous than I expected, what follows is really a sample of the last three weeks’ links rather than a compendium of one. 

Still, no matter: there are lots of great pieces here, some less serious than others, and I will do my best in future to make these posts more regular. They are presented, I should add, in no order whatsoever.

Middlemarch retold as a Facebook wall. And why not?

An unbeatably beautiful and fascinating scroll drawing of Elizabeth I’s funeral procession.

An insightful and thought-provoking post on faith and family among the late-Tudor West Country gentry – and the difficulties inherent in trying to make clear, unclouded judgements about such long-dead subtle passions.

A marvellous post on the favourite foods at Samuel Pepy‘s house.

I was brought up on Bob Dylan – my parents had both Bringing It All Back Home and Blood On The Tracks and a handful of singles – and, no doubt as a consequence, I’ve always had a romantic fascination for the Greenwich Village scene of the late Fifties and early Sixties. Last year I read Dave Van Ronk’s wonderful memoir – co-written with Elijah Wald – The Mayor of MacDougal Street, since which I have become a firm fan of the man. I will probably blog about him sometime, but in the meantime here are the superb lyrics to his wonderful song, The Last Call.

Charles Moore continues his interesting and surprising political journey towards some kind of progressive, democratic end.

The smallest statue in London. It’s very small. And very cute.

I’m a great admirer of The Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates – his memoir The Beautiful Struggle, about growing up in the Baltimore projects, is a wonderful, profound and illuminating book – and his blog is always worth reading. This post delicately unpicks the complex, subtle realities behind notions of white – and class – privilege.

Can Google be trusted? No.

A great letter from Bill Hicks to a priest who complained to Channel Four about the blasphemous content of his act.

An absorbing interview with wonderful travel writer Trish Nicholson.

Stephen King in splenetic form demanding that the rich, such as himself, should have to pay more tax.

The very first appearances of some truly great comic strips.

Alex Massie, discussing the coalition government’s policies for growth, channels Waiting For Godot to brilliant effect. It’s worthy of Alan Coren, which is extremely high praise in my book.

Sarah Levene’s blog devoted the intersection of faith, insanity and terrorism in a historical context is a brilliant read.

A lovely post from Graeme Archer on sleep, sleeplessness, depression and contentment.

Are e-books fated to go the way of the CD-ROM?

A wonderful, moving piece about how Tori Amos inspired WCW wrestler Mick Foley to champion the cause of victims of domestic violence.

A delightful post from the always fascinating @daintyballerina on May Day customs in Tudor England. It contains one of my favourite quotes from John Stow, which will shortly be appearing in a post of my own.

The profound and moving story of a Methodist pastor who now finds herself an atheist – and the impact of that change on her family, friends and neighbours.

The Chadwyck-Healey catalogue getting testy.

Lynne Truss on journalism and the monstrous virtues of the sub-editor. (I have been, and sometimes still am, a sub-editor.)

Hopi Sen on why Ken Livingstone lost the London mayoral election. Sen writes about politics from the inside and he is always worth reading for his insight into political strategy as much as his grasp of policy. He’s also rather witty. I tend to think he downplays Livingstone’s personal flaws in this post – most obviously the anti-Jewish racism and the hypocritical tax arrangements – but his analysis is otherwise matchless.

The Economist reviews the argument against PhDs.

Artist Laurie Rosenwald charmingly chews over her decision to live in Sweden.

How did parents get children to sit still in long-exposure Victorian photographs? Turn themselves into furniture, that’s how.

Nick Cohen on the future of the free press – and the most disgraceful abuse of media power yet to be revealed.

The great WC Fields juggling – taken from The Old Fashioned Way. It’s a reminder that, as well as being a brilliant verbal comedian, Fields’ command of physical comedy was – and remains – matchless. And this is a great piece from Emma Simmonds on Fields’ compellingly strange masterpiece Never Give A Sucker An Even Break.

I post links to a lot of political articles and comment on Twitter, some of which stales quickly once the immediate moment is past. But Matthew Norman’s blistering dissection of David Cameron’s character is certainly an exception.

There are always plenty of intriguing and interesting posts on the Two Nerdy History Girls website. I particularly enjoyed this one featuring a gloriously outsized soup turreen.

Feminism, anti-racism and Islam: how the left is censoring radical critiques of reactionary practices.

Paracelsus, otherwise known as Philippus Theophrastus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim. Or not, as the case may be.

Jonny Geller’s agent’s manifesto, arguing that too often author’s are treated as little more than an irrelevant nuisance by publishers.

A delightful demolition of self-appointed language vigilante, Simon Heffer.

Nancy Bilyeau, author of The Crown, on the excessive use of torture in Tudor England.

How bookshops should fight back against the tax-dodging Amazon.

The forthcoming exhibition dedicated to Prince Henry, the eldest son of James I, whose young death from typhoid aged 18, surely changed the course of English history – and not for the better.

The sublime Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman is duly and rightly praised.

A brilliant, must-read article from Kenan Malik on immigration, assimilation and multiculturalism.

A wonderful analysis of Hemingway’s astonishingly artful uses of simplicity and repetition.

A depressing but important piece from Norman Geras on anti-semitism and the left.

A superb piece by Susan Bordo in The Chronicle of Higher Education on the complex relationship both readers and writers of historical fiction have to develop with the underlying history.

Thoughtful review of Nick Cohen’s You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom by Michael Weiss in The New Criterion.

Stephen Brown reviews David Schiff’s The Ellington Century in the TLS. I’m a great Ellington fan and this sounds a fascinating book; but also – perhaps – something of a missed opportunity.

Fantasy writer Jim Chines practical exploration of the plausibility of both male and female genre cover-art poses.

The ongoing debate in the scientific and economic faculties about viable social model for vampire economies. That’s not a metaphor. Actual vampires. Proof, if it were needed, that scientists like their humour bone dry.

Kirsty Rolfe’s brilliant flowchart for her students on the citation of Shakespearean criticism.

Hilary Mantel’s top five Tudor reads. A fascinating list, which has added a couple more books to my to-read pile. It’s not something I had thought about before, but following an exchange on Twitter with Paul Lay of History Today, I may be compelled to compile my own list sometime too. Here, too, is Mantel discussing her extraordinary reinvention of Thomas Cromwell.

An instructive and insightful piece from Jane Rusbridge, author of The Devil’s Music and the forthcoming Rook, describing the work of a fiction editor from an author’s perspective.

A close study of one of John White’s maps of the eastern seaboard of the United States may reveal what happened to Ralegh’s famous “lost colony” in Roanoke. I will blog about this properly at some point, but this is a fantastic story which could help solve one of the great mysteries of European colonisation.

Jonathan Freedland on the strategic incoherence of Labour attacks on the coalition government.

Molly McArdle on Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I don’t know the book at all, but Molly’s description of her reaction to it is deeply touching.

A superbly detailed history of The Jerusalem Tavern in Clerkenwell, one of the best pubs in London – and not uncoincidentally, one of the smallest.

Really interesting post from artist John Coulthart on the inspirations of Maurice Sendak, who died this week. It is largely based on Sendak’s own words. Relatedly, I also linked to this delightfully illustrated letter from Sendak and a wonderful review of Sendak’s book of essays, Caldecott and Co.

One of the great lost videos of the eighties, surely. Scots pop singer and ardent nationalist, Jesse Rae – that’s him dressed in his stage gear as a medieval Scots clan warrior – who, if I remember correctly, hated the English so much he refused to travel south of the border.

David Hasselhoff raps with Pingu over a Eurodisco beat. Hard to improve on, I know. And impossible to follow.

Shakespeare’s England: Stratford journeys #1

Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Stratford upon Avon

I’m outside the As You Like It café on Henley Street in Stratford, two doors up from the entrance to Shakespeare’s birthplace, sitting with a cup of hot pale tea in my hands, its steam drifting listlessly upwards, fading into nowhere. Before me, uneaten, sits a slice of white half-warm toast buttered just too late to melt. The town is for the moment quiet; shops are opening or just open.

Down the street are the restored 19th-century gables, dark oak frame and plaster frontage, the colour of baked cream, of the buildings where, somewhere, Shakespeare was born a day or two before his baptism at Holy Trinity church on 26 April 1564. Soon the tourists will be gathering, some massed together in whorls and clusters, others strung unsteadily along the street. I’m not one of them, I tell myself.

But, of course, I am. I’ve unfolded a crisp new Ordnance Survey map; all roads seem to raise points of interest.

Henley Street is the epicentre of Shakespeare’s England; paths – unknown and known – radiate out from here through Stratford and then off beyond the town’s once elm-marked limits. In the late 16th century Henley Street itself rolled north-west past Bishopton towards the Saxon church of St Peter on bare risen land at Wootton Wawen. A pre-Christian burial mound lay in the churchyard behind; across the road to the south was Puck’s Dyke, the medieval name for the old earthworks by the ford on the river Alne. The village had not brought luck to its recent owners: the second and third Dukes of Buckingham were both executed for treason, in 1483 and 1521 respectively. Shakespeare would dramatise both: the former in Richard III and the latter in Henry VIII. (Another owner, Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk, met an identical fate in 1554.)

The road north west from Stratford

Beyond Wootton Wawen, the road, treacherous in winter, snagged north to Henley-in-Arden, its long, wide high street sheltered to the east by a steep and tree-lined ridge on which once stood the de Montfort castle of Beaudesert, already abandoned and decayed to nearly nothing by the late 16th century. The de Montfort’s great deer chases, which swept in a wide arc around the north of the town,  shaped from the old oak forest of Arden, had lately been disparked, its pales dismantled.
Continue reading