History Today column: Lost in translation

We are all familiar with the opening life of LP Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” Like all elegantly expressed truths it quickly became a cliché. And, as such, like all clichés, it obscures as much as it reveals. It is difficult not to look on the alienness of the past as indiscriminately and equally estranged from us; just as the ancient Greeks were indifferent to the infinite distinctions among those they labeled barbaros, ‘barbarians’ – which in essence means ‘those who cannot speak Greek’ – so the past can begin to seem homogeneously foreign, lost in translation. Indeed, perhaps our search for continuities is in itself a tacit acknowledgement of the voids and spaces we try so hard to ignore as we peer behind us to the vanishing horizon.

But it is easy to forget that, for all but a handful of our ancestors, most of their world was no less foreign to them than it is to us, a place of wonder, discomfort and fear where misapprehensions could quickly proliferate like flies in the heat. This, at any rate, was the thought that occurred to me as I flicked through an example of one of the least explored literary genres of the early-modern and medieval world, the pilgrims’ travel guide.
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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.
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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’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.
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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, 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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Travelling players, minstrelsy, Shakespeare and spies

Sometime in the early 1600s, the Warwickshire antiquarian Sir Simon Archer transcribed a document dated St Matthew’s Day – 21 September – 1444 and signed by John Talbot, second earl of Shrewsbury (and the hero of 1 Henry VI). In it, Talbot confirmed the rights of all Shropshire minstrels to gather in Shrewsbury each year on the feast of St Peter in Chains, held on 1 August, also known as Lammas Day.

On that day, they were to elect a king to govern them for the year to come and then march through the town beneath torches and banners to mark his inauguration. The right apparently dated back to the reign of William the Conqueror when Roger de Montgomery, then earl of Shrewsbury, was stricken with leprosy. A dream had told Montgomery to make pilgrimage to the chapel of Araske – otherwise unknown – where a drop of wax from an eternal candle, lit by the virgin Mary at the birth of her son, would heal him. Despite days of prayer and devotion, the wax refused to fall. But on the thirteenth day, the earl’s minstrel went to pray, the candle descended for him, and the wax dripped, and Roger was made whole. The minstrels’ right was Roger’s gift of thanks.

I came across the story in one of the Records of Early English Drama (REED) volumes for Shropshire. It seemed to articulate for me something compellingly strange and distant about the pre-Reformation itinerant culture of minstrelsy: its proximity to power; its capacity for solemnity as well as joy; the rituals of torchlight, of candlelight and music, of the procession or pageant, fashioned into statements of group identity; the moral seriousness of the mock court and the way that order and organisation – even of something as inherently chaotic as minstrelsy – was expressed through a pseudo-feudal hierarchy, sublimating, perhaps even resolving, what seemed to me an apparent tension between liveried servitude and the liberty of travel.
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