shakespeare agecroft1

shakespeare agecroft1

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Shakespeare & London 2012

As a brief aside taking note of current events, it was fascinating to see and hear several references to William Shakespeare and his works during the Opening Ceremonies of the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

His portrait, or more specifically Martin Droeshout's engraving from the First Folio of 1623, was among the very first images television viewers here in the US saw as Great Britain trumpeted its stunning cultural contributions to the world. Later, in the Olympic Stadium, actor Kenneth Branagh read lines from Shakespeare's The Tempest that were very well-suited for the occasion.

In addition, the British Museum, in cooperation with the Royal Shakespeare Company, is hosting as its centerpiece exhibition Shakespeare: Staging the World, displaying a variety of artifacts from Shakespeare's time with direct references or allusions to the playwright's works. Performances of Shakespeare's plays at the recreated Globe Theatre are also a highlight of the London 2012 effort.

Pretty impressive for a guy with ink-stained fingers, who died nearly 400 years ago.

The undiscovered country

"No, I'll be sworn; I make as good use of it as many
a man doth of a Death's-head or a memento mori:
I never see thy face but I think upon hell-fire......"

                                                                               1 Henry IV     (III, iii)

Shakespeare's quick-witted and overfed Falstaff, ever-expansive in more ways than one, finds Bardolph's face to be useful as a memento mori  (Latin for "a reminder of death"). Since time out of mind, people have  felt a need to be reminded of their own mortality, the fleeting nature of time and the transitory pleasures that this world offers. The Elizabethans took to heart the biblical reminder that man is dust "and to dust you shall return." There was a revival of medievalism during Shakespeare's lifetime, and some of Shakespeare's characters, like Hamlet, are death-obsessed. Hamlet refers to death as "the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns" (with "bourn" meaning "boundary").

Pictured above is an English memento mori painting dating to the 16th century, in the collection of Agecroft Hall. It measures about 23 x 17 inches. Created with oil paint on a wood panel by an unknown artist, it is an allegorical painting of a young man holding a flower and an old bearded man in black costume holding a skull and prayer book. The two figures face each other on either side of a tablet with a morality verse, surmounted by a winged figure of Father Time. In the foreground is a skeleton in a coffin, with two morality verses written on its side. The overall message of this memento mori could hardly be made more clear: time passes inexorably, and we must come to bones and dust. One must live righteously while there are still days left in one's life to do so.

Besides memento mori paintings, tomb relief carvings, skull pendants, and the like, there were also the macabre transi, or cadaver tombs, that included a carved depiction of the body of the deceased in an advanced state of decomposition. Tombs of this type, many quite chilling in appearance, were carved primarily during the late Middle Ages, before Shakespeare's time.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Rue with a difference

"There's rue for you, and here's some for me:
we may call it herb of grace o' Sundays: O
you must wear your rue with a difference.
There's a daisy: I would give you some violets,
but they withered all when my father died....."

                                                             Hamlet      (IV, v)

Ophelia, in her madness at the sudden loss of her father, hands out flowers as she descends into a whirling world of her own making. Contemporary audiences might watch the play without realizing that during the Elizabethan age and long after, specific flowers had specific symbolic meaning that can lend insight into Ophelia's thoughts and feelings toward the characters that join her in the scene: her tempestuous  brother Laertes, the perfidious usurper King Claudius, the weak-willed Queen Gertrude.

To complicate matters a bit, Shakespeare leaves no specific stage directions as to which characters receive which flowers, so there's been a great deal of conjecture in that regard. What is more certain is that Elizabethan playgoers would have been less likely to overlook the significance of Ophelia's floral gift-giving.

Predictably, scholars are not in unanimous agreement as to the meaning of each flower or to their most likely recipients in Hamlet. But there is a reasonable consensus of opinion that Ophelia's rue symbolized repentance and sorrow, and that she shared it with her brother Laertes. Violets symbolized faithfulness; which Ophelia found withered in the people around her. She also handed out fennel, symbolizing marital infidelity, most probably to Gertrude or Claudius. Daisies were known to stand for forsaken love, which Ophelia had in abundance. Her columbines stood for insincerity; there was plenty of that to go around, driving Ophelia to her flower-strewn, watery end.

The rue pictured above was photographed in Agecroft Hall's herb garden, where a great variety of plants well known during the Elizabethan and Stuart periods can be found.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Shakespeare: poacher, player, playwright?

One of the most persistent, though apocryphal, stories about William Shakespeare's youth is that he was once caught poaching deer on the estate of Sir Thomas Lucy at Charlecote near Stratford. The tale often begins with the pedantic observation that young William had fallen in with bad company, out to make mischief at the expense of the puritanical Lucy, who was active in local affairs and regarded as a bit of a prig.

As the story goes, Shakespeare was caught stealing deer, and Lucy supposedly had him beaten for the deed. Shakespeare is said to have later retaliated by writing a ribald ballad about Lucy before hitting the road to London and fame:

                   If lowsie is Lucy, as some volke miscalle it,
                  Then Lucy is lowsie whatever befall it:
                  He thinks himself greate,
                  Yet an asse in his state,
                  We allowe by his ears but with asses to mate....."

Literary tradition also holds that the ridiculous Justice Shallow in The Merry Wives of Windsor (now being performed at The Richmond Shakespeare Festival at Agecroft Hall through July 29th) is a caricature of Sir Thomas Lucy. The irony is that were it not for the deer-stealing tale, Lucy's name might have long since been swept into the ash bin of history.

Pictured above is one of the many deer that frequent the woods and often explore the grounds of Agecroft Hall, where they usually find forage aplenty. In the hours before dawn and on misty, drizzly days, as many as a dozen or more are sometimes seen together.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Greed by any other name

"Think what you will, we take into our hands
His plate, his goods, his money and his lands."

                                                                      Richard II      (II, i)

Shakespeare's King Richard II, always cash-strapped and looking for ways to increase his royal revenues, can't resist the opportunity to seize the inheritance of Henry Bolingbroke, the Duke of Hereford and son of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. By the time of his death in 1399 Gaunt had accumulated enormous wealth. Rather than see that wealth pass to Bolingbroke, King Richard has him banished for an internecine dustup with a fellow noble, and tries to grab the goods for himself.

A big mistake: it leads to the king's downfall.

Wealth in late medieval England was measured first and foremost by the ownership of land; the age preceded the ascension of a grasping mercantile class that would eventually demand its place among the higher rungs of the social order. Other trappings of wealth were not to be despised, however. Along with money and various household goods, fine silver "plate" stood in considerable esteem: it was both valuable and easy to show off during meals.

Agecroft Hall's collection includes a mid-seventeenth century English silver salver, its rim decorated with embossed heads of Roman emperors and their wives, interspersed with a stylized mask design. A coat of arms in its center suggests that it was owned by a member of the Anglo-Irish gentry living in Galway. The salver is about 15 inches in diameter, and is raised on a short, flared foot. It also has decoration on its underside.

The royal confiscation of this kind of eye-catching wealth was exactly what Bolingbroke was not willing to put up with. So he took it all back from King Richard, along with the throne itself. As King Henry IV, he'd have his own seditious subjects to deal with, and a prodigal son to add to his woes.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Don't forget to duck

"My birthplace hate I, and my love's upon
this enemy town. I'll enter: if he slay me,
He does fair justice; if he give me way,
I'll do his country service."

                                             Coriolanus     IV, iv

Earlier this year, a film adaptation of Shakespeare's last tragedy, Coriolanus, was released to great critical acclaim, with Ralph Fiennes directing and acting the title role, and Gerard Butler as Aufidius, his sworn enemy in blood. In Coriolanus' words, Aufidius is "a lion I am proud to hunt."

But the film does not recreate Shakespeare's imagined Rome but rather a strife-torn Balkanized state, much like the crumbling Yugoslavia that so dominated headlines a while back (the film was shot in and around Belgrade). In this setting, the relevance of Shakespeare's work to the world we live in today becomes all the more obvious.

A remarkably tense scene comes when Coriolanus, banished from his home city despite his martial honors, breaks into the stronghold of his foe Aufidius. Security has been breached; Aufidius demands to know the identity of the intruder, and comes to find it's his deadliest enemy, offering to turn against the city that had once honored him.

What might be called a rather low-tech security arrangement, quite common in Shakespeare's day, can be seen in Agecroft Hall's wicket gate. It is centuries old and can be seen in nineteenth-century photographs of Agecroft when the building stood in Lancashire, England.

The basic idea was simple: a small, awkward-to-step-through gate was cut into a larger gate.
The larger gate could be swung open to allow entrance to a rider on horseback. But if there was any question as to the visitor's intentions, that person had to dismount and step through the wicket gate, so small that it necessitated an awkward attempt at both stooping over and stepping up at the same time, to come through the opening.

That is an extremely vulnerable position in which to make an entrance; a man defending the premises could club an intruder over the head if need be. At least that was the idea. Perhaps a wicket gate would have stopped the intruding Coriolanus, but then Shakespeare would have had to change his ending.