shakespeare agecroft1

shakespeare agecroft1

Monday, November 26, 2012

Confusion makes a modest masterpiece

"This is as strange a maze as ever men trod...."

                                                              The Tempest   (V, i)

The shipwrecked Alonso, King of Naples, is scratching his head over the strange but joyful happenings he's witnessed on Prospero's island: his son, given up for dead, is restored to him; his own crass behavior has been forgiven; his mostly disreputable retinue let off with a very mild scolding. He's justifiably baffled, as if stumbling about in a maze that has new wonders around every unexpected corner.

Pictured above is the turf maze at Agecroft Hall. It's almost invariably a highlight for visiting children, who  wend their way through its not-too-labyrinthine turns and by trial and error usually make it to the center. The maze was laid out years ago in emulation of similar designs that had become popular during the Tudor period or earlier. There were also labyrinth designs which, in the strictest use of the term, differed from mazes in that they did not involve confusing choices of direction, but were essentially meandering, one-way journeys to a (usually) central destination, which often had a fountain, sundial, or statue.

Labyrinths and mazes had historical antecedents ranging from ancient Crete with its mythological Minotaur to the floor of medieval Chartres Cathedral in France. The cathedral and its labyrinth are to this day a destination of pilgrimmage for religious penitents, medievalists, mystics and the merely curious.

In Shakespeare's age, English society's upper social strata enjoyed formal gardens, often walled in or cloistered to add to the sense of exclusiveness and privacy. A variety of types of mazes were created: one popular style involved using box hedges, sometimes allowed to grow high enough to preclude seeing over, making the correct path more of a mystery. Frustratingly, turf mazes in England and on the European continent tend to be difficult if not impossible to date because they must be periodically recut: neglect quickly leads to oblivion.

Among the finest mazes in England can be found at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire. Its maze is of yew and the hedges stand taller than a man's height, making navigation to its center quite an adventure.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Better not drink the water, either

"............Hamlet, this pearl is thine;
Here's to thy health.
                [Trumpets sound, and cannon shot off within.
         Give him the cup."

                                                             Hamlet         (V, ii)

Hamlet has just scored "a hit, a very palpable hit" in his fencing duel with Laertes. King Claudius, in league with Laertes to kill Hamlet, has put poison in the drinking cup he offers the prince. Had Lady Macbeth been Claudius' wife she might have applauded; her immortal advice to her husband was to "....look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under't...."

In the collection of Agecroft Hall is an ornate silver covered cup, German in origin and made c1600 (shown above). Most Shakespearean scholars believe that Hamlet was written at about that same time, although many also point to the possible existence of an earlier version of the play, perhaps by Shakespeare himself. In any case, the setting of Hamlet in the sumptuous court of a Danish king makes it easy to imagine such a fine cup as holding the proffered drink that would mean "the present death of Hamlet," doing what England never got its chance to do.

This silver cup is slightly over nine and one-half inches tall, with elaborate ornamentation depicting flowers and fruit. Much of the northern European continent was justifiably well-regarded for the quality of its metalwork, and German craftsmanship was no exception in the eyes of the English. German silver pieces were said to be rarely melted down for reworking due to their quality, according to archival sources.

In Hamlet, when the poisoned cup is offered the Danish prince, he politely declines it for the moment, and Queen Gertrude drinks from the cup instead. Interestingly, like so much of Hamlet, there have been contrasting interpretations of this scene in performance. The more conventional approach has the Queen quite oblivious to the fact that the cup is poisoned: by the time she realizes what has happened, it's too late.

An intriguing alternative interpretation (used by Diane Venora, for example, in the Ethan Hawke film version that was released in 2000) has the Queen, guilt-ridden and suicidal, suspecting the cup to be poisoned and using it to deliberately end her own life. That modernized take on Shakespeare's classic also has Laertes pulling out a pistol when his fencing skills prove inadequate to the task at hand.

Be all this as it may, there's one interpretation that hasn't changed in 400 years: Hamlet's a goner.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Sleep, death's counterfeit

"To note the chamber: I will write all down:
Such and such pictures; there the window; such
the adornment of her bed; the arras, figures...."

                                                                      Cymbeline     (II, ii)

In the middle of the night, as Shakespeare's heroine Imogen sleeps, sly Iachimo emerges from hiding in a large trunk that he has persuaded Imogen to have placed in her own bedchamber for safekeeping. He is already convinced of Imogen's undying loyalty and devotion to her husband; but to win a wager with that husband Iachimo needs to have some convincing proof that he's slept with her. He figures that a detailed description of her bedchamber, of a mole on her left breast, and a stolen bracelet should do the trick. And it does, for a time.

Believed to be numbered among Shakespeare's last dramatic works, his play Cymbeline is set in the misty age of British resistance to imperial Roman hegemony. It might be a bit surprising to recall that in the playwright's own day, beds were not always located in rooms we would strictly regard as "bedchambers."

Generally, it was not until later in the 17th century that many of the rooms of an English home began taking on the kind of specific, distinct functions that we've become so familiar with today. Since most lacked what we would call "hallways," walking through a house meant walking through various rooms. It's hardly surprising that their functions were more blurred at that time.

Pictured above is an ornately carved English bedstead, made around 1580, in the Great Parlor at Agecroft Hall. When it was completed, Shakespeare was about sixteen years old. Even at a glance, it's an extremely impressive piece of furniture: in Shakespeare's time, bedsteads were frequently among a home's most valuable items. Much ink has been spilled on the "second best bed" that the playwright from Stratford famously left to his wife in his will. Various explanations notwithstanding, it's worth noting that bedsteads were relatively valuable enough to merit specific, prominent mention in many wills made during the Tudor and Jacobean periods.

The oak bed in Agecroft's parlor has a headboard decorated with two arches, with recessed panels painted with tempera paint. Stylized floral arrangements and a figure of Pan, the Greek mythological god of meadows and forests, feature prominently in the bed's decoration. A bit evocative, perhaps, of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream or As You Like It.

The curtains that can be drawn around the bed helped keep out drafts, and were conducive to privacy, probably not a minor consideration in a home without hallways. On the wall to the left of the bed is an "arras," a hanging tapestry that was not only decorative but of much-needed help in keeping a room warm. The name comes from Arras, a town in the Netherlands across the English Channel (it now lies within the border of northern France), where so many of the finest tapestries were made during Shakespeare's era.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Horse, hound, and hind

"Under this thick-grown brake we'll shroud ourselves;
For through this land anon the deer will come;
And in this covert will we make our stand,
Culling the principal of all the deer."

                                                              Henry VI, Part III         (III, i)

Two gamekeepers, crossbows in hand, make these plans in one of Shakespeare's earliest plays. Little do they know that into their midst will shortly wander a royal quarry indeed: a dethroned Henry VI, pious but weak, incompetent, pitiful. Henry has stumbled over the border from exile in Scotland, longing to see his own country again. The keepers, undoubtedly surprised by this turn of events, take Henry into custody, regarding him as no longer their king.

He would later be murdered in the Tower of London at the hands of RP3 (whether that was a hip nickname for Richard Plantagenet III is merely wishful thinking). Anyway, at the time of the murder, Richard was still titled Duke of Gloucester. He'd weasel his way to the throne in a while.

Pictured above is a 17th-century decorative carving of a male deer beneath one of the east-facing upstairs windows of Agecroft Hall. It has long since been coated with a tar-like, carbon-based substance for its preservation. The imagery is not the least bit out of the ordinary in a time when hunting with horse, hound, and hawk was usually the favorite sport of English kings and nobility alike. They were well aware, even then, that the country's resources were not infinite and they made incredibly harsh laws preventing commoners from lawfully pursuing all but the most worthless types of game, even in times of dearth. A poacher caught on royal or manorial lands was lucky to avoid being hanged.

The nobility loved their sport, they enjoyed venison on their dining tables, and they were greedy. Whether the low-born went hungry was not their problem, or so they thought. The mid-to-late 1590's, by which time Shakespeare had already written his Henry VI plays, saw several consecutive years of bad weather and crop failures, making the hungry lower social classes all the more desperate, all the more willing to risk the noose for a deer stolen in the night.