shakespeare agecroft1

shakespeare agecroft1

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The scarecrow as Shakespearean metaphor

"We must not make a scarecrow of the law,
Setting it up to fear the birds of prey,
And let it keep one shape, till custom make it
Their perch and not their terror."

                                                       Measure for Measure        (II, i)

Shakespeare knew that there is no worse hypocrite than a newly-empowered hypocrite. In Measure for Measure, Duke Vincentio of Vienna leaves his deputy Angelo temporarily in charge of the kingdom, and Angelo quickly turns Draconian. He has decided that if every last letter of the law was enforced with the utmost severity, then fear and respect for the law would be reimposed on a citizenry grown accustomed to leniency and rule-bending. To Angelo, the people have become like crows who lose their fear of a scarecrow that never moves. Conveniently, Angelo also finds his lust for the innocent Isabella better served by following a strict code of merciless conduct.

Pictured above is a scarecrow from Agecroft Hall's aptly-titled Scarecrow: The Challenge and Exhibit, which invited local schools and non-profit organizations to use their creativity in making scarecrows to help raise money for their organizations. Close inspection of this particular scarecrow reveals a gourd for a heart!

As a precaution before the arrival of Hurricane Sandy ("Mad as the sea and wind when both contend / which is the mightier...."   Hamlet {IV, i} ), all of the scarecrows at Agecroft were taken down and stored. Since the storm went relatively easy on Richmond, we've been able to get them back out and on display through Nov. 4th. The local crows will not rest easy tonight.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A bit of mystery, a touch of conjecture

Shakespearean scholars often make reference to the poet's "Lost Years," from the time he left grammar school in Stratford-Upon-Avon in the late 1570's until his marriage to Anne Hathaway in 1582, and then again for an extended period later in that decade and into the next, just prior to his earliest successes on the London stage and his literary vilification by a mean-spirited and envious rival,  Robert Greene, in 1592. Greene had written sneeringly of Shakespeare's presumptuousness in trying to compete with his university-trained betters. Shakespeare's education didn't extend beyond grammar school; how dare he write for the stage? At least that demeaning outburst allowed us to pinpoint Shakespeare's whereabouts.

A long-standing tradition, flavored with some traces of circumstantial evidence, holds that Shakespeare was for a while a "Schoolmaster in the Countrey," according to the late 17th-century diarist John Aubrey, who cites as his source the actor son of Christopher Beeston, who had been an actor in Shakespeare's company during the great writer's lifetime. Peter Ackroyd, in his masterfully written Shakespeare: The Biography, points out that teacher-and-student or otherwise pedantic scenes and references are unusually frequent in Shakespeare's plays, often harking back to the torturous grind of grammar school experience, with its "whining schoolboy.....creeping like snail/unwillingly to school" (As You Like It    Act II, Scene vii).

What makes this little touch of conjecture pertinent to Agecroft Hall is this: Ackroyd, Stephen Greenblatt, Michael Wood, and  numerous other Shakespeare biographers have pointed to Lancashire (where Agecroft Hall once stood) as a possible venue for Shakespeare's brief career as a tutor of children. Lancashire was a stronghold of the Old Religion, Catholicism, and there is considerable evidence that Shakespeare's family might have continued to cling to the old faith. Several of William's grammar school teachers were Catholics from Lancashire. Might one of them have recommended a bright young pupil named William Shakespeare to serve as a tutor to the children of a wealthy Lancastrian landholder? Certainly a plausible theory. And the acting out of simple morality plays and other edifying fare was regarded as both a common and effective teaching tool in Tudor England, perhaps allowing Shakespeare to show the earliest glints of his brilliance.

Specifically, these biographers point to the intriguingly ambiguous will left by Alexander Hoghton of Hoghton Tower in Lancashire. He left actors' costumes and musical instruments to his half-brother Thomas Hoghton, asking him to take into his service "ffoke Gyllome and William Shakeshafte now dwellinge with me" or to find someone who would. Given the nonexistence of spelling rules in Tudor England, and the fading memory of an aging man, might not "Shakeshafte" and Shakespeare be one and the same young man?

Hoghton Tower is but a half-day's walk, if that, from where Agecroft Hall once stood. Even some of the less professional or polished acting groups, under noble patronage, traveled about the county if not the country. A mobile form of entertainment, though slow on its tours by today's standards.

If such was the case, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Shakespeare, under the patronage of either the Hoghtons or later fellow Lancastrians Thomas Hesketh or Ferdinando Stanley (who as Lord Strange patronized the acting group The Lord Strange's Men) might conceivably have come to Lancashire's Agecroft Hall as a young actor or in some theatrical capacity, getting his feet wet in the trade.

Pictured above is Agecroft Hall as it stood in Lancashire in the latter part of the 19th century; the original portions of the structure date back to the 15th century. In 1926, having fallen into a state of significant deterioration, it was purchased by Virginia businessman Thomas C. Williams, Jr. The building was dismantled, shipped across the Atlantic, and rebuilt on the banks of the James River in Richmond, where it stands to this day. Whether a young William Shakespeare ever counted its chimneys (Agecroft once had eleven hearths) is a tickler for the imagination.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A well-rounded education

"Take you the lute, and you the set of books;
You shall go see your pupils presently."

                                                              The Taming of the Shrew      (II, i)

Renaissance Italy seemed to have a particular hold on Shakespeare's imagination: its warm southern climate and reputedly hot-blooded, passionate populace added credence to the action and soaring emotions of so many of his plays. A delightfully mercurial Mercutio strolls the streets of Verona, peppering the likes of Romeo and Tybalt with his quips. A Jewish moneylender with unflinching tribal loyalties demands his bond in Venice. Petruchio comes to Padua and determines to have his Kate.

And Kate's father Baptista, like any good Italian patrician, wants his two daughters to be tutored in a manner deemed appropriate for Italian Renaissance women. Music, poetry, and the affairs of the home were high on the list of priorities for young women; the arts of war, of political aggrandizement, of business were left largely to the Italian male.

Pictured above is an Italian chitarrone, a bass or contrabass of the lute family, in the collection of Agecroft Hall, acquired from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although the precise year of its making is uncertain, it bears characteristics of late 17th century workmanship.The sounding board has a parchment rosette surrounded by an ebony band, inlaid with ivory. Similar inlays are in the ebony neck and base of the instrument.

Baptista's daughters, Katharina and Bianca, would have used such a delicate instrument to accompany their equally delicate recitations of poetry or song, not necessarily playing and singing at once. Music was thought to soothe the more passionate impulses and in Shakespeare's Italy, there seemed to be plenty of that to go around.

One point should not be overlooked: Shakespeare might have chosen Italy as a venue for so many of his plays simply because by doing so, any political or social implications in action or speech onstage could be regarded as far removed from English contemporary political circumstances. Shakespeare was later to discover, in the aftermath of the quashed Essex Rebellion, just how precarious a playwright's life could be when his history play Richard II was exploited by the Essex faction for its supposed rabble-rousing potential. The rabble never roused, but Shakespeare and his acting fellows fell under suspicion nevertheless.

Plays set in exotic, far-away Italy must have seemed, for the most part, benign in comparison and ideal for Shakespeare.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

When mercy was out for the day

"Thou hast no hands, to wipe away thy tears:
Nor tongue, to tell me who hath martyr'd thee....."

                                                  Titus Andronicus      (III, i)

In one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, Titus Andronicus, the noble Roman title character addresses his daughter Lavinia in a scene usually regarded as Shakespeare's most shocking. Lavinia has been horribly assaulted and maimed by Demetrius and Chiron, sons of Tamora, Queen of the Goths. Their butchery leaves Lavinia with no hands or tongue, to prevent her from disclosing their identities.

The assault is so brutal that over the centuries since Shakespeare's death, some scholars have expressed doubts that the scene could possibly have been written by the same poet that gave us Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, King Lear, Othello. Another current of thought holds that it's simply the young Shakespeare writing for the groundlings, getting his dramatic legs up and moving without any sense of maturity or gentility to draw from. That refinement would come later.

We should bear in mind that most Londoners in Shakespeare's age were neither unacquainted nor particularly squeamish about brutality: they saw it at its worst in the horrific public executions of persons convicted of treason or any number of other crimes. Execution sites at Tyburn (for the commoner or less upscale), Tower Hill and Tower Green (for the most noble yet treasonous nonetheless) stayed busy enough to satiate the blood lust of most Englishmen.

They had already lived through the reign of Queen Mary, "Bloody Mary," Elizabeth's half-sister and immediate predecessor, who had ruled from 1553 - 1558. Staunchly Catholic, she had tried to forcibly return the English people to the papal fold by burning recalcitrant Protestants up and down the land in gruesome public spectacles meant to provoke fear whenever, wherever faith wouldn't budge.

Pictured above is a woodcut illustration of the burning of two Protestant martyrs during Mary's reign, from one of Agecroft Hall's 16th-century books, John Foxe's Actes and Monuments, often referred to as the Book of Martyrs. The book in Agecroft's collection is a third edition printed in 1583 by John Day of London; Foxe's first English edition had come out in 1563, the year prior to Shakespeare's birth. That first edition had 1741 folio-sized pages, with more pages added in later editions describing countless acts of violent persecution. Foxe was nothing if not thorough. His book was an enormous success and became a commonplace volume throughout the once-again Protestant England of Good Queen Bess. After the first few years and the early assassination plots of Elizabeth's reign, Catholics were the ones who had to look back over their shoulders. Violence? So what else is new?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Find out what it means to thee

"Reputation, reputation, reputation! O,
I have lost my reputation! I have lost
the immortal part of myself, and what
remains is bestial!"
                                                Othello      (II, iii)

Shakespeare's Michael Cassio, heretofore Othello's chief lieutenant, is horrified. He's allowed the devious Iago to talk him into getting drunk, into brandishing his sword in a raucous quarrel and getting demoted by the stern general. The schemer Iago is not only evil but enigmatically so: his mere suspicion of being cuckolded by Othello and his belief that he deserved a military rank that went instead to Cassio leaves him seething, ready to do bitter business indeed. Even Machiavelli might have found his behavior to be somewhat over the top.

In Shakespeare's world, more so than in our own, reputation was everything, or almost everything. If a man was known to have sworn an oath and then broken that oath, he was destined for Hell, at least in the eyes of the God-fearing faithful. Having lost the trust of others, he'd find life more difficult in an age when England had no standing army or police force and his friends, if he had any, might be the only thing standing between him and a sudden, violent demise.

Essentially, the subject matter of the stained glass pictured above is reputation. The glass is in a window at Agecroft Hall, and shows details of the coat of arms of the Dauntesey family, who came into possession of the Agecroft manor in Lancashire through the marriage of William Dauntesey and Ann Langley in about 1569, when Shakespeare was a child. In a lower portion of the window, a Latin inscription translates into English as "Virtue Alone Conquers."

Just how virtuous or conquering the Daunteseys actually were remains uncertain.

The College of Heralds in London granted these symbols of reputation, these coats of arms, to families that had illustrious histories of service to king and country, and to families that had preposterous claims to such ancestry and service but did produce copious amounts of  money to "legitimize" those claims. On those occasions, hitherto unknown "noble" ancestors could be found coming out of the woodwork, if the price was right.

Shakespeare himself managed to secure a coat of arms for his family in 1596, after he'd found great success as a playwright in London. His father in earlier years had made an effort to acquire such a mark of distinction on the basis of his role as one of Stratford's leading citizens, but his fortunes had taken a turn for the worse and the effort had come to nothing. It isn't difficult to imagine that when Shakespeare the son finally secured a coat of arms for his family, he must have felt that his father's honor had been justifiably reestablished.

Agecroft's Dauntesey stained glass is remarkable in that it and the other glass that was shipped across the Atlantic when Agecroft Hall came from Lancashire to Richmond in the mid-1920s arrived here without a single piece being broken. Don't bet on that happening too often these days.