shakespeare agecroft1

shakespeare agecroft1

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

No place to hide

"O, what a rash and bloody deed is this!"

                                                            Hamlet      III, iv

Shakespeare's Queen Gertrude is mortified, as well she should be: her son Hamlet has just stabbed her chief advisor Polonius while the old man was eavesdropping from behind an arras (a tapestry or wall hanging). And as if that weren't enough: the hole in the arras might
make the room quite a bit more drafty, always a problem in icy northern climes like Denmark.

Many of the finest tapestries of Shakespeare's day came from the Flemish town of Arras, now in northern France, making the town's name synonymous in England with the wall hangings produced there. There was considerable English envy of the thriving Flemish tapestry-making industry, which did use much English wool for its raw material. During the latter years of the reign of James I and into his son's reign as Charles I, considerable effort was made to establish a tapestry-producing concern on the Thames west of London at Mortlake.

Pictured above, on the far wall of Agecroft's Great Hall, is a seventeenth-century tapestry from Mortlake, depicting a hunting scene. Such wall hangings were valued in the Elizabethan and Jacobean period not only for their beauty but as well for keeping rooms warm in a time without central heating.

While their wool was regarded as the best, the English did find, perhaps to their reluctance and consternation, that Flemish weavers were indeed the most adept at tapestry-making, and so more than a few were lured over to Mortlake to help the fledgling enterprise. The scenes depicted in many of the tapestries produced in both Flanders and England were from classical mythology and legend, subject matter for which the English and their continental brethren did not seem to tire.

It is also worth noting that before, during and after Shakespeare's lifetime, Flemish immigration in general was a sore subject with many of the English, who felt that jobs were being taken and their livelihoods threatened by the influx from across the Channel. Many took to rioting in the streets on occasion, sometimes with deadly consequences.

The divisive issue of immigration did not arise just yesterday, and it won't be leaving the world's stage first thing in the morning.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Play it again, if you will

"If music be the food of love, play on...."

                                                         Twelfth Night     I, i, 1

Those first words of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, spoken by the lovesick Duke Orsino of Illyria, is indicative of the lofty esteem in which music was held during the Renaissance. Having most of its roots in the devotional liturgies of church and abbey, music in Shakespeare's age was expanding and developing along increasingly secular lines. Its use as an accompaniment to poetry was in keeping with the conception of music's function in ancient Greece and Rome, those touchstones of all things civilized in the Renaissance mind.

One of the more striking musical instruments in Agecroft Hall's collection is this clavicytherium (pictured), dating to the first quarter of the seventeenth century and Italian in origin. About 59 inches high, it's suggestive of an upright harpsichord, and that's essentially what it is. Like the harpsichord, its strings are designed to be plucked, rather than struck with a hammer like the later piano. The result is a delicate sound, soothing to the ear of the lovelorn, no doubt. Apparently the upright alignment of the instrument, while taking up less space in a room, did make for more complications in maintenance and proper tuning. The clavicytherium came to be regarded as more problem-prone than the horizontally-aligned harpsichord, and far fewer were made.

Agecroft's clavicytherium has a keyboard with 38 white and 20 black keys. Its strings are of brass. The instrument was acquired from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Making life uncomfortable

"What stronger breastplate than a heart untainted!
Thrice is he arm'd that hath his quarrel just,
And he but naked, though locked up in steel,
Whose conscience with injustice is corrupted."

                                                                2 Henry VI    III, ii

With arrows darkening the sky, with lances, swords, and axes clashing in the shrieking rage of battle, most noble knights in England's Wars of the Roses did opt for armour. Evidently, as far as they were concerned, an untainted heart alone just wouldn't do.

But a memorable sentiment from the pen of Shakespeare, nevertheless.

Agecroft Hall's small Armour Gallery (shown here) includes English and European armour from both the 16th and 17th centuries. As time passed and types of armour were proven effective or ineffective in battle, armourers began to see the advantages that strongly curved surfaces could achieve, deflecting a striking arrow or sword more effectively. The German example in the foreground, of polished steel and dating to the 17th century, reflects this emphasis on curvature; the 16th-century English armor in the background at far left exhibits less curvature.

The high-crested helmet with peaked brim was similarly designed to deflect the blows of a sword. Archaeologists at numerous English and European battle sites have noted, when examing the skeletal remains of combatants evidently killed in battle, that many died of head and neck wounds inflicted with a downward motion from above. Armourers became aware of the frequency of this type of wound and many tried to develop their armour accordingly.

The gradual increase in the use of firearms in the 17th century made armour obsolete, mere romantic accoutrements for knights in the pages of history. Come to think of it, maybe that "heart untainted" still has its place, after all.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

This little world

In Act II, Scene I of his history play Richard II, Shakespeare put immortal words in the mouth of a dying John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. These words England took to heart, perhaps like no other:

"This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise;
This fortress built by nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war;
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England...."

A memorable tribute to one's homeland, if ever there was one.

John of Gaunt (the name refers to his birthplace in Ghent in present-day Belgium) led an illustrious life as the third surviving son of King Edward III. By the time of his death in 1399, he had become the largest private landowner in northern England, and had distinguished himself as a general in the Hundred Years War, fighting in France.

Agecroft Hall once stood in Lancashire, before being dismantled and brought across the Atlantic to the banks of the James in Richmond in 1926. Among the finest of Agecroft Hall's artifacts is the John of Gaunt window, a work in stained glass created after Gaunt's death by the Langley family, owners of Agecroft in the early 15th century. Gaunt had been a benefactor of the Langleys while he lived, and the window was created with Gaunt's coat of arms as a tribute to the man, who evidently cut a figure larger than life. His son, Henry Bolingbroke, would become England's King Henry IV, usurping the throne from Gaunt's nephew, Richard II.

Pictured here (top) is John of Gaunt's coat of arms, along with a detail shot. The fleur-de-lis is indicative of the English monarchy's long-time claims to the French throne. The stained glass window had not originally been sold with the Agecroft manor house, but was reacquired for the building in 1979. It did not fare well in the trans-Atlantic trip to Richmond, and considerable restorative conservation work was completed in 2009.

A generous grant from the Garland and Agnes Taylor Gray Foundation, a supporting organization of the Community Foundation, serving Richmond and Central Virginia, went toward conservation and installation of the glass.


Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The unkindest cut

"What, drawn, and talk of peace! I hate the word
as I hate Hell, all Montagues, and thee: "

                                                             Romeo and Juliet, I, i

Tybalt, that Hotspur of the Capulets, quick to anger and quick to settle arguments with a sword, sneers those lines at the benign Benvolio, of all people. Reaching for his sword, he might have grabbed a late 16th-century Italian rapier (this is Verona, after all). 

Agecroft Hall's collection includes just such a rapier (shown here), with the kind of gracefully curved guard that one might expect from the decoratively-inclined Renaissance Italians. A compelling argument might be made that if you're going to be run through with a sharp blade, why not insist on one that looks classy?

The rapier, a two-edged, pointed sword (hence ideal for thrusting, as opposed to simply hacking away like an uncivilized drudge), was finding its way into England by the mid-16th century. It caught on quickly, at least in part because it could be effectively used not only in a duel of honor, but in a graceful demonstration of swordfighting skill in an age that was not quite ready to give itself over to the gun. Who could deny that an extended thrust with a rapier not only kept an opponent further at bay but, more importantly, looked positively heroic? And with the Italians, wasn't style everything?

The art of fencing looms large at the end of Hamlet, with Shakespeare portraying the resourceful Dane as quite handy with a sword and not to be trifled with. Typically, swords were "bated," that is, blunted, during a fencing duel meant as sport. But Laertes' sword, "unbated and envenom'd," carved out treachery at its worst.

Shakespeare includes a bit of fencing jargon in The Merry Wives of Windsor:

"To see thee fight, to see thee foin, to see thee traverse; to see thee here, to see thee there; to see thee pass thy punto, thy stock, thy reverse, thy distance, thy montant."     (II, iii)

Shakespeare felt confident that the fencing terms would be familiar, at least to those who handled a rapier with one eye on the demands of style.