shakespeare agecroft1

shakespeare agecroft1

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Iron-clad security

"Fetch hither all my boxes in my closet."

                                                      Pericles      (III, ii)

Shakespeare's character Cerimon, a well-regarded physician, believes that with the help of his stored-away medical paraphernalia, he can revive Pericles' wife Thaisa, who has apparently died in childbirth while at sea. He succeeds, but Pericles still believes she's dead.

Pictured above, from the collection of Agecroft Hall,  is an iron strongbox, made on the European continent, probably in southern Germany, c1640. It is a good example of the type of box that would have been used in the seventeenth century to lock up and store away valuables. Fourteen and one-half inches in length, just over seven inches in height, and eight inches in depth, it might have routinely been chained to another larger, heavier object to make it harder to steal.

The box is decorated with engraved designs: on top is a representation of a bearded gentleman; one side has an engraving of a hunter with horn, dogs and a bird. The opposite side has a Creation scene depicting God and Adam. The hinges and locks are engraved with acanthus leaves, and the heavy iron ring on top of the box was evidently handy when chaining the box to a wall or some other object. Such an elaborately engraved piece would probably have been owned by a fairly well-to-do individual.

Somewhat less ornate strongboxes were common in many homes in Elizabethan England, where they were frequently kept in a closet in the most secure part of the house. Quite often, they were used in shops and other business establishments to safeguard the profits of the day's trade, or even to protect merchandise regarded as too valuable to leave out in plain view, within easy reach of the larcenous.

The strongbox is perhaps a bit of a reminder that there's nothing new about acquisitive market-prowlers looking for that "five finger discount."

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Looking for wisdom

In light of the recent tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, the words of an African-American street person in New York spring to mind. In the aforementioned Shakespeare-related 1996 documentary film by Al Pacino, Looking for Richard, Pacino is speaking with people on the streets of New York City about Shakespeare, and about the playwright's relevance to the world we live in today. This one man-on-the-street response was perhaps the most thought-provoking moment of the entire film:

"Intelligence is hooked in with language. When we speak with no feeling we get nothing out of our society........We don't feel for each other,  that's why it's easy to get a gun and shoot each other. If we were taught to feel, we wouldn't be so violent......Shakespeare did more than help us. He instructed us."

The expression of feeling through language is one of humanity's most precious assets: it is not to be trivialized, not to be wasted, not to be scorned.

"My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.
Words without thoughts never to heaven go."

                                                               Hamlet       (III, iii)

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

We band of brothers

"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today who sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother......"

                                                Henry V      (IV, iii)

The Shakespearean lines quoted above are among the most memorable ever written on the visceral emotions of human conflict: they've been used to hearten troops in wars as recent as our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. During World War II, Winston Churchill asked Laurence Olivier for a film version of Henry V as a means of bucking up the spirits of the English people and its soldiery in the face of Nazism. In more recent years, film director Steven Spielberg used "Band of Brothers" as the title of a series depicting an American fighting unit making its torturous way from the beaches of Normandy into the heart of Hitler's Europe.

Pictured above is some of the armor, primarily from the 16th and 17th centuries, in the collection of Agecroft Hall. Earlier versions of essentially the same sort of breastplates and backplates would have protected some of the English warriors and their French counterparts at the battle of Agincourt, where Henry V made himself legendary in 1415. The English had already proven victorious against the French at Crecy and Poitiers; Agincourt produced more icing for a very sweet cake.

The fact that the French, led for a time by Joan of Arc, later drove the English out of France would have to be related in a messier tale: the sad reign of Henry VI, years that saw England lose continental territory and tear itself asunder under a pious but weak king. Shakespeare found enough of a mess to make up a three-parter.

Shakespeare's Henry V has almost always been regarded as a patriotic play, extolling the virtues of England's fighting spirit. But one very talented critic begged to differ. Harold C. Goddard, who headed the English department at Swarthmore College from 1909 until 1946, wrote a book on the works of Shakespeare but died before giving his book a title. His publishers called it The Meaning of Shakespeare. An admiring and perceptive commentator, the late Joseph Sobran, wrote that a better title would have been The Spirit of Shakespeare, since each reader of the playwright would and should create a personal interpretation of the meaning of the poet's works.

Goddard maintained that Shakespeare, in writing Henry V, was adhering to personal convictions that emerge repeatedly in his histories and tragedies: that the use of force ultimately does not prevail and in fact drags human souls into darkness. As Goddard points out, a Romeo swept up in ancestral feuding ultimately did not help himself or his Juliet; Hamlet left enormous carnage in his wake (including his beloved Ophelia) after heeding the ghost of his father. The territorial gains of Henry V were wisps in the wind.

Shakespeare, Goddard believed, was convinced that giving in to the aggressive, violent side of man's nature, often urged on by atavistic sources, only led down a winding road to catastrophe. Goddard's take on Shakespeare is both surprising and magnificent, and gives Shakespeare's works a unity and coherence that so many literary critics fail to grasp.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Home is the soldier

".......Well said, courageous Feeble! Thou wilt be as valiant
as the wrathful dove or most magnanimous mouse."

                                                    Henry IV, Part II            (III, ii)

Despite his rotund self-absorption, Shakespeare's Falstaff has been given the responsibility of recruiting soldiers for an army, to help the ailing King Henry IV fight another outbreak of rebelliousness. True to his overinflated form, Falstaff sees his chance for personal gain: he'll pocket the bribes of the fit and able and recruit instead the weak, the ragged, the hopelessly pathetic. He'll make out like a bandit, figuring no one will be the wiser: he recruits the bedraggled Feeble, Shadow, and Wart.

More dependable soldierly types are depicted in the top row of the carved oak panel above, which adorns a wall in Agecroft Hall's Great Hall. The panel is believed to have been carved in the first half of the sixteenth century, perhaps during the lifetime of Agecroft's owner Robert Langley. The carving style may point to either Italian or German workmanship. It's worth remembering that even in sixteenth-century Tudor England, owning goods that were obtained from abroad translated into status. Such possessions gave owners a chance to sneer at domestic craftsmanship, regardless of its quality. Some things never change.

And oak, as a wood choice, appealed to the English: it was durable as a rock, and carving it well involved considerable skill. On the Sceptered Isle, they seemed to like virtually all of their furnishings done in oak.

Agecroft's carvings include (on the bottom row) what has been called the romayne style, a Renaissance decorative motif featuring heads in medallion-like profile, often carved into furniture and paneling. It's a style first introduced into England from Italy during the reign of Henry VIII; the word "romayne" was current in England at the time as applying to anything Roman or Italian. Whether these four particular figures were meant to have specific identities is uncertain.

Regarding the military types depicted in the top row (even the piper at far right has weaponry), research done at Agecroft Hall suggests the possibility that they represent retainers of a noble house "chosen to serve as defenders should occasion require it." If so, it is a reminder of the inherent violence of the Tudor age, when there was little sense of ease or safekeeping without some form of armed protection.

No doubt Falstaff would have let these men avoid their warlike duties in return for a few clinks of coinage.