shakespeare agecroft1

shakespeare agecroft1

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Pick a rose. Any rose.

"Prick not your finger as you pluck it off,
Lest bleeding you do paint the white rose red,
And fall on my side so, against your will."

                                                            1 Henry VI, (II, iv)

Gardens tend to play metaphoric roles in a number of Shakespeare's plays: the playwright clearly liked the image of an unweeded garden as symbolic of human corruption, of the natural order of things thrown into disarray, of chaos run amok. By the same token, a well-kept garden was like a well-kept state: everything was where it belonged, and no weeds abounded to threaten the established order, the rule of law, the beatific peace of an undisturbed home.

In Shakespeare's lines quoted above, the Earl of Somerset, backing the House of Lancaster in its deadly struggles with the House of York, has chosen a red rose in London's Temple Garden as a symbol of the Lancastrian cause, and challenges Vernon, a Yorkist, to weigh the consequences of choosing to fight for the other side. Vernon has in turn plucked a white rose, signifying his continued allegiance to Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York. At stake in the conflict: the English throne.

Thus begins the Wars of the Roses: decades of bloodshed between the two factions that King Henry VI, weak when he wasn't insane, couldn't stop. It finally took Henry Tudor to do that. He reigned as Henry VII and had a royal son who grew up to prove himself a great juggler of wives.

Agecroft Hall's Sunken Garden was designed by the noted landscape architect Charles Gillette (1886-1968), whose garden layout pays tribute to the Pond Garden at Hampton Court Palace near London. The ill-tempered Henry VIII took the palace from his Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, in 1529 after Wolsey proved ineffective at obtaining a papal annulment of Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon. It's probably safe to assume that Henry's new flame, Anne Boleyn, liked the gardens as well as the massive palace.

She had evidently persuaded Henry that Wolsey was reluctant to fall out of favor with the pope, didn't really approve of Henry's marital rearrangement, and was trying to slow down the course of events to a snail's pace. Wolsey, accused of treason, would have probably lost his head if he had not fallen ill and died, probably from justifiable anxiety.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

I know a hawk from a handsaw

"..............O, for a falconer's voice,
to lure this tassel-gentle back again!"

                                                     Romeo & Juliet      (II,ii)

Shakespeare's Juliet anxiously awaits the reappearance of Romeo, and slips into the parlance of falconry or hawking, that sport of kings and courtiers. A "tassel-gentle" or "tercel-gentle" is a male goshawk, one of a number of different types of birds of prey trained (by no means easily) to return to the falconer's familiar voice. Given the class-consciousness of Tudor and Jacobean society, it should hardly be surprising that there was even a perceived hierarchy of nobility among hawking birds that paralleled the existing social hierarchy.

In other words, a king could hawk with a gyrfalcon or perhaps even an eagle, but a tinker or tailor could not. He'd be lucky to be allowed to use a kestrel, regarded as a much less distinguished type of bird. An earl in Tudor England might use a peregrine falcon, of the breed depicted on the oil-on-panel portrait painted c.1593 and now in the collection of Agecroft Hall.

George Poulett was the son of Sir Amias Poulett, best remembered for being the keeper of Mary, Queen of Scots from 1576 until she met her date with the axe in 1587. The elder Poulett had also served as ambassador to France, and second son George became his heir when an older brother died young. George wears a large, three-layered cartwheel ruff around his neck, quite fashionable in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

Practitioners of falconry often had more than just open-air sport in mind: the small birds, rabbits, and other game that fell under the hawks' talons could bring additional meat to the dinner table, never a slight consideration. Largely for that reason, the best hunting hawks were held in the highest esteem.

It's interesting to note that the clergyman John Frith, who performed the wedding ceremony for William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway at the small village of Temple Grafton near Stratford, had a local reputation as a great healer of sick hawks. Some of his detractors claimed that Frith, whom they regarded as a clandestine Roman Catholic priest, knew far more about the birds than he knew about Holy Scripture.

In the above painting, the peregrine falcon that George Poulett holds fills the bill as a bird of sufficient status: the type hunted well and was responsive to proper training, yet was not so gaudy or regally-plumed a bird as to incite jealousy in the highest social stratum. Kind of like a Volvo.

Hamlet's line, "I know a hawk from a handsaw" actually does not make reference to a bird, but rather to a craftsman's tool: a "hawk" was one of the principal tools of the plasterer's trade, used to smooth and shape a plastered surface. But the phrase does have a nice ring to it.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A city of young people

An earlier posting mentioned the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games in London; we'd be remiss not to add a note of Shakespeareana at the conclusion of the Games, since the opportunity was all but handed to us, gratis.

It was difficult not to notice that the catwalk-like stage at the closing ceremony was covered with numerous large newspaper-style headlines, large enough to be read by television viewers as performers danced back and forth over them during the course of the evening. But rather than news headlines, they all seemed to be quotes and phrases that have become iconic in English literary culture. Two of the most prominently displayed were both lines from Shakespeare's Hamlet: "To Be or Not To Be" and the Dane's dying words, "The Rest is Silence."

But more importantly, the youthful vigor that characterized London's Olympics, if we let it, might give us the opportunity to imagine for a moment the London of four centuries ago, the London of Shakespeare.

So many of London's people at that time were young. Visceral. Quick to laugh, quicker to drink, quickest to fight if honor or enough alcohol were thrown into the mix. Men weren't wearing swords to clean their fingernails. Shakespeare's great young rival Christopher Marlowe was stabbed and killed in a quarrel, supposedly over a tavern bill, in 1593. The playwright Ben Jonson had killed an actor, Gabriel Spencer.

It was a world where you either looked out for yourself or oftentimes suffered the consequences.

The population of London in 1600 has been estimated to have been about two hundred thousand or so, making it Europe's most burgeoning city. Young people, many flocking to London from the countryside or from smaller towns, came to the city to try and make their way in life: scholars believe that by the early 17th century roughly half of London's population was below the age of 20. Like Shakespeare, many came to the city at least in part because they wanted to have a go at a life less tedious, with success or failure lying just down the next alley. Perhaps this was all a reflection of  events in the world at large: an enormous New World was being explored. How could that not have a stimulating effect on the national psyche?

A short life expectancy greatly contributed to London's youthful demographic profile. Men in the city on average died in their early 40's, while the average woman in the city didn't make it past 35 or 36. There was plague and a host of other diseases that might befall a Londoner; violent crime killed off more than a few. Women often died in childbirth, and infant mortality rates, even for the upper classes, were horrendous. A series of bad harvests in the mid-1590's drove up the price of bread; riots over food and labor issues became commonplace.

For many young people, that type of dangerous yet vibrant atmosphere must have given life an urgency and an immediacy that would be hard to match in our more sedentary age. There were plenty of ways to die young in Shakespeare's London, but also plenty of ways to live life on the edge and let the tavern bill fall where it may.

Pictured above is a copy of an engraving of London by Claes Janz. Visscher of Amsterdam, c.1616, which is also the year of Shakespeare's death.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Glovers and broggers

'A sentence is but a cheveril glove to a good wit:
how quickly the wrong side might be turned outward!"

                                                                                Twelfth Night      (III, i)

One of the more well-established details of William Shakespeare's early years in Stratford-upon-Avon involves his father: John Shakespeare was, among other things, a glover. Fine gloves were highly
regarded among the more affluent and status-conscious denizens of Tudor England, and sumptuary
laws even forbade the common knuckle-draggers of the lower classes from wearing anything so lavish. How's that for class consciousness?

In a roundabout way, that law actually proved beneficial to the theatre of Shakespeare's day: when a member of the nobility died, that person sometimes left articles of clothing to servants and various "go-fers" of the household. Since the recipients generally couldn't wear the clothes themselves, they would on occasion sell the upper-crust duds to theatre companies like Shakespeare's Chamberlain's Men, who became the King's Men at the ascension of James I to the English throne.

But back to Shakespeare's father. Historical research in recent years involving previously overlooked court records has made it apparent that John Shakespeare had income from more than just glove-making. He was a brogger, that is, an illegal wool dealer in a land where the wool industry was of paramount importance and in the best of times quite lucrative. Evidently, the income from the two sources helped propel the elder Shakespeare to a position of prominence in Stratford, where he eventually became a member of the town council and held a post equivalent to what we would call a mayor.

Shortly thereafter, a gradual but noticeable decline in John Shakespeare's fortunes began, for reasons not entirely understood. Historical speculation points to the possibility of brogging deals gone bad or perhaps his apparent crypto-Catholic leanings catching up with him in the Protestant realm of Elizabeth. Debts accumulated, he lost his council seat due to non-attendance, perhaps to avoid creditors. In any event, he fell from prominence in the little town.

Another point of speculation is whether William Shakespeare, as a boy, helped his father in his glover's workshop. It is evident that Shakespeare did, at the very least, become familiar with many of the terms of the glover's trade. A "cheveril glove" is made from the soft, supple skin of a young goat, and can be stretched easily. Readers of Shakespeare might as well laugh if they happen to notice the playwright's (suspicious?) knowledge of terms used in sheepshearing.

Pictured above, from the collection of Agecroft Hall, is a pair of 17th century gloves; whether they were made on the European continent or in England is uncertain. Prior to about 1580, the English were importing gloves from France and Spain; their own glove-making reputation was becoming more firmly established at about that time. These gloves of leather have two bands of silver lace applied to the cuff, along with a rose-colored silk lining. Gloves of this style were worn by both men and women.