Shakespeare, the Blackfriars and the theatre of experience

It has always bemused me that there is so little formal – or, for that matter, informal – dialogue and collaboration between historians and literary scholars. Each are aware of the others’ work, certainly; but the intellectual, cultural and administrative inheritances that maintain the academic silos of schools and faculties surely seem increasingly outdated in a 21st-century, hyper-connected world.

But each discipline has much to learn from the other about the way our ancestors explained the world and their place in it to themselves, how they negotiated that place with one another, and more generally about how meaning is shaped and expressed over time through language, thought and action.

In particular, I would argue that only inter-disciplinary approaches can hope to recover the human experiences of the past, the texture of each now, the resonance of the senses for historical actors whose lives we tend otherwise reduce to mere thought.

I was thinking about this while rereading a couple of Shakespeare’s later plays recently, specifically Henry VIII and The Winter’s Tale. Both were among the plays Shakespeare’s company performed at its indoor theatre, itself created out of part of the Great Hall of the former Blackfriars priory.

But because I am researching the dissolution of the monasteries at the moment, I began to realise that Shakespeare – and John Fletcher, his co-writer on Henry VIII – had made use of the priory itself in the texts, both in terms of its then contemporary uses and its historic meanings as a site of catholic authority and worship.

So Leontes’ lovely line, “I am a feather for each wind that blows” must have had particular immediacy for its first audience thanks to the feather-makers who worked within the priory’s precincts, alongside innumerable other artisans and craftsmen. Among these were glassblowers; hence, perhaps, Buckingham’s description of failed diplomatic negotiations as being “like a glass / Did break i’ th’ wrenching”.

And Lovell’s brief speech in Henry VIII denigrating those courtiers who were seduced by French fashion is full of allusions to the life of the Blackfriars, itself a fashionable residence, with an inn named the Fool and Feather, tennis courts, gambling houses and its status as a liberty outside the City’s jurisdiction.

“They must either…
…leave those remnants
Of fool and feather that they got in France,
With all their honourable points of ignorance
Pertaining thereunto, as fights and fireworks,
Abusing better men than they can be,
Out of a foreign wisdom, renouncing clean
The faith they have in tennis, and tall stockings,
Short blistered breeches, and those types of travel,
And understand again like honest men;
Or pack to their old playfellows: there, I take it,
They may, ‘cum privilegio’, oui away
The lag end of their lewdness and be laughed at.”

And in the context of the old religious life of the buildings, for example, it is hard to avoid the thought that a play in which a statue of a woman in a chapel is seemingly brought back to life after twenty years has its meaning amplified in interesting ways by being staged in a former priory which had been stripped of its art by the Reformation.

I do not wish to argue that The Winter’s Tale is ‘about’ Catholicism, incidentally; merely that the scene as experienced by its original audience would have created additional complex and powerful emotional responses which are otherwise lost to us precisely by virtue of the building in which it was being performed.

Or, to put it another way, that Shakespeare and Fletcher are working to implicate their audience in the emotional theatre of their plays using the lived environment, generating depths of meaning from the way words and images echo or refract in different places.

The way we recover such meanings is, I think, the way we should approach much more of the past, with imagination and a breadth of reference that goes beyond the written word to a fuller and more humanly complete sense of experience, because only by bringing our narrow disciplines together can we hope to unlock the lives of the dead – and waken their memorials from sleep.

 

If you enjoyed this, my other posts on Shakespeare and his theatre are here.
My other History Today pieces are collected here.

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