shakespeare agecroft1

shakespeare agecroft1

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Back to the books

Every Tuesday for the past year and a half, we've added a new posting to Shakespeare: The Age and Agecroft Hall in hopes that the historical artifacts, the English gardens, and the remarkable Agecroft building itself might lend a modicum of insight into the late sixteenth and early seventeenth-century world that William Shakespeare lived in, wrote in, dreamed in.

Since his works have proven to be essentially timeless, we hope that the observations recorded in the postings below (there are more than 100) won't become irrelevant any time soon. In addition, the reader might also enjoy visiting the Agecroft Hall blog , which offers a look at some of the graphic art, paintings, and book illustrations that have depicted Shakespeare's works over the centuries. We've also produced a video about Agecroft Hall, to be viewed by connecting with this link: .

Shakespeare's was an age of exploration of a New World and of new ways of thinking, an age when one's religious convictions could be matters of life and death. War, that great red arbitrator, held sway over so much that transpired during the playwright's lifetime, and its ravages remind us that in many ways, little has changed since then.

And then, as now, a bit of laughter could ease the pain.

Taken as a whole, it was a world that deserves attention for having fired the imagination of the greatest writer in the English language. In "this other Eden, demi-paradise,"  William Shakespeare will go on tending his garden.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Don't forget to duck, Part II

It isn't surprising that William Shakespeare, having immersed himself in London's theatrical world and its need for lively yet insightful writing, should come to see parallels between life and the stage. The stage had become his life before he had reached the age of thirty. It had helped him put clothes on his back and bread on his table. He was not one to overlook such a sublime metaphor, or much else, for that matter.

Even the most casual perusal of his plays brings to light his fascination with the subject. Shakespeare returns to it again and again, in stage situations ranging from the tragic to the comic. Perhaps he was revealing a bit of defensiveness about his chosen profession: if his art didn't imitate life, then what was it good for? Would not theatrical writing then deserve the sneering disapprobation it received from so many of the literati of his age?

A few of Shakespeare's striking allusions to the stage and its probing of the human condition are included below, along with a photograph from a rehearsal at Agecroft Hall of Henry V, with its myriad sword-flashing battle scenes on "the vasty fields of France."

"I have heard that guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been so struck to the soul that presently
They have proclaimed their malefactions.
.......The play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King."

                                                        Hamlet   (II, ii)

"When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools.

                                                        King Lear   (IV, v)

"Tut, I can counterfeit the deep tragedian,
Tremble and start at wagging of a straw,
Speak, and look back, and pry on every side,
Intending deep suspicion; ghastly looks
Are at my service, like enforced smiles."

                                                        Richard III   (III,v)

"Like a dull actor now
I have forgot my part, and I am out
Even to a full disgrace.

                                                        Coriolanus  (V, iii)

"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts."

                                                        As You Like It    (II, vii)

"Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle.
Life's but a walking shadow; a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale 
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury;
Signifying nothing."

                                                        Macbeth    (V, v)

"O, for a muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention:
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene."

                                                        Henry V    (Prologue) 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A plague on so many houses

"All the contagion of the south light on you,
You shames of Rome! you herd of - Boils and plagues
Plaster you o'er; that you may be abhorr'd
Farther than seen, and one infect another
Against the wind a mile!"

                                                         Coriolanus   (I, iv) 

Shakespeare's hotheaded Caius Marcius is a warrior, and has nothing but scorn for men who aren't. He doles out contempt for anyone who flinches in battle, on either side of the line. Curses are never far from his lips. He wishes cowards the worst: he wishes them plague.

A more nightmarish curse would be hard to imagine. As Barbara Tuchman's masterful A Distant Mirror (1978) makes abundantly clear, the waves of bubonic plague that swept over Europe in the fourteenth century, returning periodically for centuries thereafter, were devastating almost beyond imagining. 

In 1347, there arrived in the port of Messina in Sicily several Genoese trading vessels with large numbers of dead and dying men slumped at the oars.  This was among the earliest indications that a descent of the peoples of Europe into an earthly hell had begun: the rat and flea-borne Black Death would claim roughly a third of the European population, with some areas being even more tragically affected.

Whole towns and villages were wiped out; priests were afraid to administer last rites to the dying for fear of catching the pestilence; healthy family members fearfully abandoned infected brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers. Some villages were left with not enough people living to bury the dead. Tuchman mentions cases in which physicians (whose healing practices were primitive and often ill-conceived) would contract the disease from their patients and die more quickly than did those same patients.

And perhaps surprisingly, the young seemed to be even more susceptible to plague than the old. The recurrence of plague, coupled with high infant mortality rates that were the norm in Shakespeare's age, must have made for precarious childhoods. It all must have made children seem all the more precious, all the more fragile.

Pictured above and presently displayed in the South Bedchamber at Agecroft Hall is a child's highchair, made of oak in England c1640 and displaying carved motifs in a style clearly influenced by the Italian Renaissance. The English in Shakespeare's time seemed to find all things Italian to be touchstones of taste. If such decorative touches could be made to grace the back of a child's chair, so much the better. Evidently some kind of belt or sash was used to make sure the child didn't fall from the chair. Surely, the child already faced enough in the way of danger.

According to archival records, children's chairs of the seventeenth century were frequently much like miniature versions of the panel-back chair used by adults, and often made to match a set used for dining. The chair is well-made and durable, reflecting the English preference for three types of wood in the building of furniture: oak, oak, and oak.

As has been well documented, Shakespeare and other members of London's theatrical profession had their lives periodically disrupted by recurring outbreaks of plague, which prompted lengthy and repeated closings of public theaters for fear that they were among the epicenters of contagion. The pestilence even affected Shakespeare's literary output: scholars generally believe that he wrote much if not most of his non-theatrical poetry, including Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, and perhaps his sonnets as well, at times when the theaters were closed and he felt compelled to exercise his talents elsewhere. 


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

So the heart be right

"Now would I give a thousand furlongs of sea for an
acre of barren ground, long health, brown furze, any
thing. The wills above be done! but I would fain die
a dry death."

                                                               The Tempest     (I, i)

Shakespeare's wise old codger Gonzalo would just as soon die on dry land, and who can blame him? It takes the heart of an adventurer to relish the challenge of crossing the open seas, particularly when those seas turn malignant, and come roaring up and over the gunwales and into a man's teeth.

Such an adventurer was Sir Walter Ralegh (he never spelled his name with an "i" so we won't either). Born in South Devon c1552-1554, a region of southwest England that cranked out great sailors by the score, Ralegh apparently never got all of the salt out from between his molars. Whether he was raiding Spanish shipping and coastal towns or pushing another plan at colonization in Virginia, he spent much of his time as one of Queen Elizabeth's favorites, although the tale of Ralegh tossing his expensive cloak down over a puddle to keep the queen's feet dry is, wishful thinking aside, merely apocryphal. It is a testament to the man's charismatic style that such a story even exists.

Ralegh did succeed in messing up his own life when he secretly married one of the queen's maids of honor, Elizabeth Throckmorton. The queen's fondness for Ralegh turned to fury, and she had him thrown in prison for a brief period in 1592. He managed to work his way, at least somewhat, back into Queen Elizabeth's good graces with a daring and successful raid of Cadiz on the Spanish coast in 1597. Since Ralegh and the prima donna Earl of Essex were rivals at court, Ralegh's standing with the queen certainly didn't suffer in the aftermath of the failed Essex Rebellion.

But when Queen Elizabeth died, Ralegh's fortunes all but died as well.

Once James VI of Scotland ascended England's throne as King James I after the death of Elizabeth in 1603, swashbucklers like Ralegh must have looked around and wondered where their world had gone. James I brought the posture of a modern-day "peacenik" to his relations with Spain, leaving a trouble-maker like Ralegh in the lists, decidedly persona non grata.

Ralegh was incarcerated in the Tower of London on essentially trumped-up charges of treason shortly after James I came to the throne. Reprieved the day before his scheduled execution, he remained in the Tower from 1603 until January 1617 (the royal warrant for his release is in the Folger Shakespeare Library).

As a prisoner of high status Ralegh was accorded a number of creature comforts (at least by prison standards) that allowed him to write his History of the World, which he left unfinished upon the death of his young pupil, James I's son Henry, Prince of Wales. Ralegh's work is pictured above: dated 1614 and bound in brown calfskin, it is in the collection of Agecroft Hall. It contains a fine portrait of Ralegh and contains a history that extends from the world's creation up to the Roman conquest of Macedonia in 133 BC.

One of the maps, shown above, shows the Holy Land, with the top of the map facing east, as was customary at the time. Jerusalem can be seen in the lower portion of the map, a bit left of center; Sodom and Gomorra appear to smolder beneath the waves of the Dead Sea.

Ralegh's own future wasn't much brighter: James did release him from the Tower upon Ralegh's promise that he'd bring back a huge load of gold ore from Guiana in South America. Storms, sickness, ill luck, and a propensity to harass the Spanish led to Ralegh being re-imprisoned upon his return to England, and executed in 1618. Yet he had returned to England because his sense of honor had bade him do so: he deserves enormous respect for that.

When he lay his head on the block, it was reported that someone complained that he was facing the wrong direction, to which he responded: "What matter how the head lies, so the heart be right?"

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Seeing apparitions

"Horatio says 'tis but our fantasy
And twice will not let belief take hold of him
Touching this dreaded sight, twice seen of us:
Therefore I have entreated him along
With us to watch the minutes of this night,
That if again this apparition come,
He may approve our eyes and speak to it."

                                                              Hamlet    (I, i)

Horatio is a skeptic. He's listened to the claims of Marcellus and Bernardo that they've seen some kind of apparition on the battlements of Elsinore Castle, but he's been hard to convince. So they've brought him along to see for himself, as they'll do for Hamlet shortly thereafter. The appearances of the ghost of Hamlet's father make for some of the most illustrated scenes in all of Shakespeare.

Pictured above is a scene from a production of Hamlet at Agecroft Hall during a Richmond Shakespeare Festival of several years past, featuring one of the reappearances of the ghost to exhort Hamlet on to revenge. It's a scene that artists (and photographers) can't seem to resist; at least three hundred years of illustration of Shakespeare's plays attest to the hold that Hamlet and his ghostly father have on the imagination.

Above is a nineteenth-century engraving of the same scene from Hamlet, with the armor-clad ghost on the right, standing before a clearly astonished Prince of Denmark. "Engraved by Hollis from an Original Painting by Reid in the possession of the Publishers," identified as The London Printing and Publishing Company. Perhaps not so surprisingly, book publishers of the time liked to identify figures in their engravings with specific actors and actresses that were popular at the moment: under this particular illustration, it is noted that Hamlet is played by William Charles Macready (1793-1873), a very highly regarded actor of the period. Evidently that helped sell books.

Apparitions also loom large in Shakespeare's Macbeth: there can be little doubt that the scenes that involve Macbeth and the three Weird Sisters (or witches) are among the most memorable in that remarkably memorable play. Like the ghost in Hamlet, book illustrators have long found the witches in Macbeth to be irresistible. Below is an engraving from another nineteenth-century volume of Shakespeare's works that features Macbeth's reaction to being shown by the three witches that a line of Banquo's sons, and not Macbeth's, will reign in a dynasty stretching out to "the crack of doom."

There are quite a few other scenes from the plays of Shakespeare that illustrators keep coming back to, again and again. Hamlet's contemplation of Yorick's skull; Ophelia in her madness bestrewn with flowers and weeds, or perched on a precarious limb above a gurgling brook; Lady Macbeth walking in her sleep; Nick Bottom wearing the head of an ass in A Midsummer Night's Dream; Othello creeping up on Desdemona as she sleeps; King Lear and his fool on the blasted heath, with the old man raging at the tempestuous sky; certainly the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. Book illustrators have always loved to illustrate scenes of emotional intensity, and for centuries they have found a great abundance in the works of Shakespeare.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

And no snoring during the sermon

"Come, sermon me no further....."

                                         Timon of Athens       (II, ii)

Shakespeare's Timon, a noble Athenian, is impatient with advice. He's finding out the hard way that once his means are no longer keeping up with his boundless generosity, the praise that he's become accustomed to falls away. Timon's steward Flavius hits the mark: he describes such shallow, fickle adulation as "feast-won, fast-lost." But his "sermon" of insight is cut short by Timon, who is evidently not one to be preached to.

Timon probably couldn't have endured the likes of Launcelot Andrewes (1555-1626), the most learned English churchman of Shakespeare's day, who fueled his lengthy sermons with remarkable biblical erudition. Andrewes is best known for overseeing the various translation committees that worked together to produce the 1611 King James Version of the Bible (called the Authorized Version at the time). Andrewes and a number of his colleagues in that effort shared an immense appreciation for the beauty of the spoken English language. A portrait of Andrewes, painted from life, hangs in the Great Parlor at Agecroft Hall and is pictured below.

The portrait of Andrewes, painted in 1615 by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (1561-1635), shows Andrewes at age 59, when his position in the highest reaches of the Church of England had become well established. He served in the bishoprics of Ely, Winchester, and Chichester in the reign of King James I, after having been a chaplain to James' predecessor, Queen Elizabeth I, among other ecclesiastical roles. The painter of Andrewes' portrait, Gheeraerts the Younger, was also the painter of Elizabeth's last official portrait in 1592, and later was a favorite of Queen Anne of Denmark, wife of King James.

To his enormous credit, Andrewes was no shrinking violet when it came to preaching words that his reigning monarch did not like to hear. He was against any royal diversion of church revenues, a position that did not sit well with the increasingly cash-strapped Queen Elizabeth. Her efforts to stand in the way of Spanish hegemony were proving expensive, and she wanted to leave no stone unturned in her search for funds.

James Shapiro, in his insightful book A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare:1599  (published in 2005), maintains that Shakespeare might have been influenced by one or more of Andrewes' powerful sermons on the theological justification for an offensive war. The author points to lines written when Shakespeare was crafting his Henry V. 

Shapiro observes that when the disguised King Henry is arguing with his men on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt that "every subject's soul is his own" and that every soldier should "wash every mote out of his conscience" and renounce sin in combating sin, Shakespeare was echoing at least one of Andrewes' well-documented sermons.

After the death of Elizabeth, Andrewes assisted in the coronation of James I, and his stature as a scholar of the church continued to rise in the years that followed. He was said to have mastered fifteen languages. As a prelate, he was regarded as just and relatively tolerant, and unwavering in his high principles. His sermons frequently used word-play to convey the fundamental truths that he wished to impress on his listeners. Evidently, his was the kind of brilliance that kept snoring in the pews to a minimum.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

When concussions were part of the job description

"Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments........"

                                                            King Richard III       (I, i)

Richard, Duke of Gloucester and not yet on the throne he's perfectly willing to murder for, is more than a bit wistful. The Wars of the Roses appear to be over, and his Yorkist side appears to have won. So what does Richard, so good at warring yet too "rudely stamp'd" to woo the ladies, do to pass these tedious times of peace?

He decides to treat villainy as a job opportunity.

Richard did indeed have a problem in the romance department: the recent discovery in the UK of Richard's skeletal remains confirms that he had a pronounced curvature of the spine that could not have been helpful to his ambitions in war or in the bedroom. Yet surprisingly, Richard's historical reputation as a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield was evidently well-earned: by virtually all accounts he led from the front, not while safely ensconced in a palace well behind the lines.

Archaeologists at the University of Leicester have reportedly found indications of ten wounds on the remains of Richard III, eight of which were in the area of the head and neck. The wounds were evidently caused by blades, which corroborates historical accounts that he was hacked to death in the thick of the fighting. Clearly, Richard paid the price of violent ambition. And to this day, he's the last English monarch to have been killed in a war.

Pictured above, in the collection of Agecroft Hall, is an English steel helmet, c1650, of the type used in the English Civil War, decades after the death of Shakespeare. The helmet is of polished steel with a crest and inflexible neck guard; a broad brim with an attached nose guard pivots on the helmet; ear flaps are pierced and on leather straps. This helmet is in such good condition that it is doubtful that it was ever used in the thick of a battle between Parliamentarians and Royalists.

Along with a cuirass consisting of front and back plates for the warrior's upper body, such protection was essentially standard equipment for an English cavalry officer after the abandonment of the complete suits of armor that characterized the well-fitted-out medieval knight. The development of firearms had rendered most such armor obsolete; it made no sense to continue to go to the considerable expense, not to mention discomfort, of wearing sheets of metal that covered the entire body and head yet couldn't stop a projectile from a gunpowder weapon.
By the time of the Battle of Bosworth in Leicestershire, which saw the violent demise of Richard III in 1485, the fully-armored medieval knight and the whole chivalric tradition, for that matter, were receding into the mists of the past. The technology of warfare had moved on.