shakespeare agecroft1

shakespeare agecroft1

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Burning it at both ends

"And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle!"
                                                             Macbeth      (V, v )

Far more often than not, Shakespeare's Macbeth is regarded as his darkest play, both figuratively and literally. Almost all of the scenes are nighttime scenes, when "Good things of day begin to droop and drowse;/While night's black agents to their prey do rouse" (III, ii).

Try for a moment to imagine the sealing darkness of a world not yet illuminated by electric light. As peculiar as it might sound, we've become so accustomed to the benefits of the bulb that we've generally forgotten just how dark darkness can be. The real and imagined perils of the night become a lot easier to understand once we see them in the context of not being able to see them. When we cannot see our hands in front of our faces, should we be surprised when the imagination takes over?

In Shakespeare's day, even candles were not an inexpensive trifle. Whether the wax came from the honeycomb of bees or tallow from sheep or other livestock was used, only the wealthy could afford to be profligate in their use: the typical Elizabethan house was not ablaze with light, but was for the most part dark to a degree we'd find startling.

Pictured above is a rush light, burning at both ends in a holder, in the Tudor Kitchen at Agecroft Hall. As the name suggests, the material used for burning generally consisted of a river rush, similar to the stem of a cattail, with its hollow center filled with perhaps lamb's fat or the tallow of some other farm animal. It would burn fairly slowly, but one of the drawbacks of using animal fat was its frequently less-than-pleasant odor as it burned. Yet it was an age of smells that we've grown less accustomed to: the smell of wood smoke, of farm animals and what they leave behind, of fish and meat in an open-air market, of the buzzard's breath of a town drunk, slumped in the corner of a tavern.

Being an important and versatile material, beeswax had at times throughout European history even been a target of taxation, making it all the more expensive and prompting the use of alternatives like the rush light.

It's simply another example of using home-spun ingenuity to avoid any unnecessary "rendering unto Caesar."

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Richard III: an aside

Regarding Shakespeare's King Richard III, it's worth watching Al Pacino's sneering, oily take on the king in Looking for Richard, an innovative film about how a group of first-rate actors would hash out their own interpretation of Shakespeare's play. It's an attempt to get inside the thought processes of the actors, and at the same time perform the most essential scenes of the play for the viewer.

And Winona Ryder was great as Lady Anne.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

And if you don't like the vintage, well, tough

Since an archaeological discovery in recent days has put King Richard III in the news (see posting below), we'll take a look at another disreputable deed attributed to this malignant monarch as he stalks haltingly through the pages of Shakespeare:

"Take that, and that: if all this will not do,
{stabs him}
I'll drown you in the malmsey-butt within."

                                                          Richard III        (I, iv)

Eliminating the people that stand between Richard and the throne proves to be a messy business: he pays two murderers to kill his brother George, Duke of Clarence, in the Tower of London. The murderers get a bit sloppy with the job and end up drowning George in a cask of wine. That made all the blood less of an eyesore, no doubt. The whole scenario did not just spring fully-formed from Shakespeare's imagination: the detail of the wine cask had already become a part of English lore regarding the crime.

Malmsey was a sweet wine with ancient Greek origins. Evidently it was well-loved by the English, whose own damp climate made a lost cause of viniculture.

Pictured above are 17th-century stoneware Bellarmine jugs from the collection of Agecroft Hall, of the type often used to hold wine. At that time, the English were said to have an intense loathing for a  Roman Catholic theologian, Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino, who had stood out among the most vociferous opponents of Protestantism. Evidently, although this caricatured style of jug had already been in existence for a long period, the English came to associate the jugs with Bellarmino, perhaps because the churchman  was bearded and fat.

Jugs with a more stern countenance were sometimes associated with the Spanish Duke of Alva, who as governor of the Netherlands was known for his harsh, draconian judicial decrees. Clearly, both styles of jugs helped the English give vent to their fondness for both humor and xenophobia.

The jugs were also referred to as "graybeards" and "longbeards," and were fairly common in Elizabethan taverns and households. They came in several sizes: a gallonier, a "pottle pot" which held two quarts, and a "little pot" held just a pint.

Whether the historical Richard celebrated his brother's wine-soaked demise with a glass of Malmsey is anyone's guess.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Speak of the devil

Coincidentally, yesterday morning, just one day after the last posting (see below), a story from the Associated Press in London reported that an archaeological team from England's University of Leicester may have found the bones of King Richard III.

To read more details, click link below:

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

"My kingdom for a pork pie" just didn't sound dramatic enough

"A horse! A horse! my kingdom for a horse!"
                                                             King Richard III       (V, iv)

Separated from his horse at the Battle of Bosworth Field, Shakespeare's Richard III stands as one of the poet's most ambiguous characters: a man of action, yet introspective; in character Machiavellian yet not without a sense of guilt that haunts his sleep. A man physically lame yet of considerable prowess with sword in hand, horse or no horse.

But above all, the quintessence of evil, at least until Shakespeare penned the lines that created Iago in Othello and Edmund in King Lear.

The actual battle of Bosworth took place in 1485, a definitive clash between Yorkist and Lancastrian, with the Earl of Richmond emerging victorious from the scrape to marry a daughter of the House of York. The marriage brought peace to England under the symbol of the Tudor Rose. Richard bit the dust but lived on in the pages of Shakespeare, making Richmond look like a tedious goody-goody.

Pictured above are a pair of rowel spurs, c1650, from the collection of Agecroft Hall. Made of steel and German in origin, they measure about six inches in length. Rowel spurs, which began to predominate in northern Europe beginning in the fourteenth century, were an improvement over the older "prick spur" design: the small spiked wheel of a rowel spur was more humane as far as the horse was concerned. The older spur design simply stabbed into the sides of the animal and probably drew blood far more often than not.

The use of spurs in Europe dates back at least as far as the Celts of the sixth century BC; they were also used by the Greeks and Romans further south. It's interesting to note that the appearance of stirrups on war horses in Europe during the early medieval period had an enormous impact, making riders far more effective in battle because they were more stable on their mounts. It became less difficult to swing a sword and manuever without falling off one's mount, which would cause shame and embarrassment if nothing else.

As far as the real, historical Richard III is concerned, there's been an enormous amount of debate, still ongoing, as to whether he was really all that bad, or whether his reputation suffered simply because he ended up on the losing side of the struggle for lasting possession of the English throne. It was in the best interests of the ascendant Tudors to make the origins of their rule look as attractive as possible; besmirching Richard III could have been just part of the propaganda campaign. Did Richard really have the two young sons of his brother Edward IV murdered in the Tower of London, clearing his way to the throne? There is, among other organizations, a Richard III Society that stoutly maintains his innocence.

Quite probably, we'll never know for certain.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

So why did you marry that sleazeball?

"Look here, upon this picture, and on this,
the counterfeit presentment of two brothers."

                                                           Hamlet       (III, iv)

Hamlet's problem isn't madness. Among other things, he's just plain mad. Mad at his mother for her hasty remarriage to her dead husband's brother, Claudius. Debatable questions of incestuousness aside, Claudius bears the mark of Cain: he murdered the elder Hamlet to get his hands on both the crown and Queen Gertrude,  not necessarily in that order. Evidently, he didn't regard the younger Hamlet as formidable enough to worry too much about.

In a scene that's been interpreted and reinterpreted for centuries (the same could be said for the entire play), Hamlet confronts his mother about her "o'erhasty marriage" just moments after stabbing Polonius, Claudius' chief courtier. Polonius had chosen a hiding place that wasn't sufficiently sword-proof. Clearly, Gertrude's behavior has set Hamlet on an angry roar.

Dispose of Polonius' body? He'll get to that in a minute. What Hamlet wants to know right now is, "Mum, how could you so quickly transfer your affection from this superman to this slob?"

Scholars point out that there's a bit of room for speculation as to whether Shakespeare, when writing this scene, imagined Hamlet showing his mother two small, locket-framed portraits of the two kings, past and present. An alternative possibility would be larger paintings, perhaps on a wall or elsewhere. But modern productions of Hamlet often opt for lockets worn around the neck as tokens of affection: comparing the miniatures brings the two characters in the scene (three, if you count the dead one) very close to one another, making the psychological tension all the more unsettling.

Pictured above, from the collection of Agecroft Hall, is a miniature embroidered portrait of England's King Charles I. It is made of silk, satin, and silver and gold thread and is displayed in a silver-colored metal mount, measuring about four and three-quarter inches in height. The portrait dates to the mid-17th century, when Charles I became a martyr in the eyes of English Royalists while remaining anathema to Parliamentarians.

Unfortunately for Charles, the Parliamentarians had the sharper axe, and they didn't mind using it.

Needlework portraits of the executed king reportedly became so popular and finely done that some were said to contain strands of his hair. Evidently the expression, "Any way to make a buck" has a distinguished ancestry.