The Massacre At Paris: Kit Marlowe, the Rose Playhouse and me

massacreAs some friends may know, I spent last week acting in the final six performances of The Dolphin’s Back production of Christopher Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris at the Rose Playhouse on London’s South Bank. The offer to do so came out of the blue, so much so that – as much out of surprise as anything – I initially said no.

I had seen the director James Wallace’s previous, superb revival of John Lyly’s The Woman in the Moon – also at the Rose – and we had got chatting after the show about early-modern drama and such. He said that he was looking for someone to play the part of Peter Ramus (actually Pierre de la Ramée), the humanist scholar; his original choice was unavailable for health reasons and James himself was playing the part until someone else came along. For reasons that are still obscure to me, James thought that someone might be me. I think the idea of a scholar (which I suppose I am, loosely) playing a scholar – perhaps particularly one who dies a bloody and painful death – amused him.

And he may have calculated that a novice’s blind terror at performing might not appear too amiss in a character who spends most of his brief life on stage being threatened with daggers, swords and a sickle.

I have, I should make clear to you, no acting experience. I may not have made that entirely clear to James. The last time I can remember acting in anything was a school production of Toad of Toad Hall. I was twelve and I played a policeman and hated every brief and brightly lit second of the experience.

Nevertheless, overnight I reconsidered my firm no.

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History Today column: How chances it they travel?

One of the many criticisms leveled at Michael Gove’s revision of the history curriculum was that is would reduce lessons to little more than the recitation and memorializing of facts, to what Sir Philip Sidney called ‘the bare was of history. But the simpler a statement of fact is, the more it deceives us of its certainty – and particularly so when facts are strung together like prayer beads to form a providential narrative of national greatness, as Gove’s vision did.

The problem we have as historians is that such narratives – themselves almost indistinguishable from myths – have a tenacity that genuine history with its caveats and lacunae struggles to overcome. And in practice the seductiveness of their clarity only serves to provide the past with a more subtle oblivion than mere erasure. Once the glass is cloudy, it is impossible to clean.

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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.

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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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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Shakespeare, Catholicism and pre-Reformation festive culture

It is hard to overstate the volume and variety of entertainers whom one might have encountered on England’s roads in the early 1500s. But then, it’s a phenomenon that we’re viewing through the filter of what occurred later, around the turn of the century and after, when theatrical and performance culture was forcibly narrowed, shaped into a metropolitan elite itself but also reordered to cater to a more elite, ‘sophisticated’ audience.

For my part, what surprises me most, perhaps, looking at the data, is the sheer number of patrons. A quick scan through the Records of Early English Drama (REED) index of patrons for Kent, say, reveals some 83 patrons of some sort over the course of the 16th century, of whom 50 supported troupes of players and 54 minstrels or other specifically named musicians, be they drummers, trumpeters, lutenists, pipers, or harpers.

These figures are, of course, no more than illustrative – the survival of any such information is arbitrary and the way in which clerks recorded such visits was prey to whim – but they do, I think, convey something of the rich texture of itinerant entertainment in the period. Kent, in fact, was in a particularly privileged position being so close to London while also benefiting from occasional visits from continental entertainers, among them, for example, the King of Poland’s bearwards, who were in Kent in 1521-2.

Bear-baiting was the other principal entertainment receiving patrons’ support: bearwards belonging to 21 different patrons are noted in the surviving county records . One bearward, John Sackerston, had a career that can be traced through four decades, from Shrewsbury in 1553-4 to Bristol in 1579-80, by which time he was in the service of the Earl of Derby. He was, it would seem, something of a legend; Sackerson, the famous bear at Paris Garden on the Bankside, close by the Globe, was named after him. ‘I have seen/Sackerson loose twenty times, and have taken him/By the chain’, boasts Slender in Merry Wives of Windsor.
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