shakespeare agecroft1

shakespeare agecroft1

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Another brief aside

The American actor Ethan Hawke, recently appearing in a PBS - BBC Four program dealing with his efforts to get a handle on the title role of Shakespeare's Macbeth, summed up the value of Shakespeare very well in his last several sentences of the program. Hawke had pointed out that NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg borrowed words from Shakespeare's Macbeth when offering consolation at the World Trade Center Memorial on the tenth anniversary of the tragedy. Citing the poet, Bloomberg said of the WTC victims, "Let us not measure our sorrow by their worth, for then it will have no end."

Hawke added this observation:
"Somebody said once that current events are always the same. There will always be wars, there will always be people desperate. If you really want to change any or all that you have to begin in your heart. That's where poetry can come in. That's where Shakespeare is most valuable."

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Settling in, out of the cold

"We both have fed as well, and we can both
Endure the winter's cold as well as he...."

                                               Julius Caesar      (I, ii)

Cassius is trying to convince Brutus that Caesar is no better a man than they; why should he rule over them? Cassius is driven by motives baser than those of his more idealistic co-conspirator, but nevertheless both men, along with others, made sure that Caesar ended up very cold indeed.

In the Great Parlor of Agecroft Hall, near the fireplace, is an English oak "draught chair" or "settle chair" made circa 1600. Many Shakespearean scholars date his play Julius Caesar to 1599 or thereabouts. Some believe the play might have been the first performed at the newly-opened Globe, after Shakespeare and the Lord Chamberlain's Men had moved their theater, lock, stock, and timber, to Southwark on the south side of the Thames where it was outside the jurisdiction of sour, prudish, meddling city authorities.

The chair is about 62 inches tall and quite hefty. The top and base are covered with a half-moon design with molded edges; the arms are carved in an acanthus leaf motif and scroll outward at the hand rests. Archival records mention traces of paint that have been found, indicating that perhaps at one time some or all of the chair had been painted.

The settle was designed to retain as much heat as possible from a fireplace as well as from the person seated in the chair; heat was always at a premium in the typical drafty Tudor dwelling. Evidently, this type of chair was particularly meant to be used by the elderly and the infirm, for whom surviving English winters was no mean feat. 

A settle can sometimes be seen in engravings of the period that show domestic scenes. One woodcut from the middle of the seventeenth century includes a description of the piece as  "....a settle chaire, being so weighty that it cannot be moved from place to place....haveing a kind of box or cubburt in the seate of it."

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Move over, Mr. Hoi Polloi

".................................. the wide sea
Hath drops too few to wash her clean again,
And salt too little which may season give...."

                                        Much Ado About Nothing (IV, i)

Shakespeare's character Leonato is convinced that his daughter, a bride-to-be, has been unfaithful to her betrothed. He's none too happy about it: his family's reputation has been shamed, so he calls his daughter's death "the fairest cover for her shame / That may be wished for." That certainly sounds severe by the moral standards of our day, less so by the standards of his.

Leonato's metaphor, imagining all the salt in the sea as insufficient to give his daughter's moral character the redemptive seasoning it needs, befits an Elizabethan age that found salt indispensable. It was used in the preservation of fish and meat and in making a variety of foods more palatable. It was an enormously important item of trade for that reason alone, with the best salt generally coming from Spain and other countries hugging the Mediterranean.

We've gotten used to a salty taste in so many of our fast foods, to the point where we're often misled into believing that taste to be perfectly natural. It isn't.

Pictured above, from the collection of Agecroft Hall, is an English silver bell salt cellar made in London and dating to 1591, right around the time Shakespeare began to make a name for himself in that city's theatrical world. A silversmith's mark "I M" might refer to the smith John Morley, although this is by no means certain. The piece stands about ten inches tall, with a diameter at the base of four and one-quarter inches. It is decorated with floral designs and three roundels, two with Tudor roses and one with a shield.

This is a "double salt," consisting of two tapered sections, each with a salt bowl, capped with a hollow cover that was pierced to dispense pepper as well. The arrangement allowed the host to use his covered container while his guests, or some of them, used the lower, uncovered section. This sheds a bit of light on the stratified nature of Elizabethan society: for the nobility, it simply wouldn't do to be seated at table "below the salt," that is, at one of the lower tables for less highly-regarded guests, or furthest  from the presumably esteemed, wealthy and gracious host.

Macbeth makes reference to the protocols of such a rigid social hierarchy when he welcomes his supper guests, minus Banquo, with "You know your own degrees; sit down: at first / and last the hearty welcome"   (III, iv).

In our own more egalitarian times, we'd hardly dare think, even to ourselves, that our guests could be arranged on any descending ladder of social importance. But in Shakespeare's time, order was everything, disorder unthinkable.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Lionheart has long since left the building

"The weird sisters, hand in hand,
Posters of the sea and land,,
Thus do go about, about:
Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine,
And thrice again, to make up nine.
Peace! The charm's wound up."

                                        Macbeth         (I, iii)

It's hardly surprising that our twenty-first century looks askance on the very idea of witches, of sorcery: we're better educated, we've grown up, and those beasts beneath the bed have long since scattered. But anyone trying to better understand the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras has to grapple with a startling fact: the belief in apparitions, ghosts, demons, and supernatural phenomena was all but pervasive in England.

To her credit, Queen Elizabeth seems to have been somewhat more level-headed about such matters than her successor, King James I. James was timid, sniveling, superstitious, and such a wimp that he reportedly wore extra-thick royal robes in hopes of staving off the blade of any potential murderer. Whether he might have used the new Shakespearean word "assassination" after first hearing it in Macbeth is mere conjecture.

Pictured above, from the collection of Agecroft Hall, is a copy of The Workes of the Most High and Mighty, Prince Iames. This particular copy was printed within several years after Shakespeare's death in 1616. The book is turned to the title page of James' essay on demonology, which he had written prior to his ascension to the English throne upon the death of Elizabeth in 1603. His fascination with witchcraft was well-known by then. There is a general consensus among Shakespearean scholars that the playwright wrote Macbeth with an eye and an ear toward appealing to the new monarch with a play that both flatters his Scottish royal ancestors and indulges the fears and superstitions that haunted the king's dark side.

Other works by James included in the folio-sized volume are his "A Counter Blaste to Tobacco"  in which he excoriates the new Virginia-born habit of smoking tobacco in pipes; his "A Discourse of the Powder Treason" in which he attributes his survival of the Gunpowder Plot to divine intervention; his "A Defense of the Right of Kings" which his son and successor Charles I would take much too seriously and lose his head over. King James had a pronounced literary bent; Shakespeare probably regarded that as not altogether a bad thing in a king.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Buddy, can ya spare a groat?

"I never robbed the soldiers of their pay,
nor ever had one penny bribe from France
.............any groat I hoarded to my use,
Be brought against me at my trial-day!"

                                                Henry VI, Part 2       (III, i)

Shakespeare's Duke of Gloucester is vehemently denying any accusations of graft or corruption, in an era filled with it. It was a simple matter of the mice playing while the cat was away: King Henry VI was drifting into a severe state of mental illness, and he wasn't too sharp even when he was sane. Henry had the bad habit of trusting the wrong people, when he would have been much better off trusting no one.

Pictured above is a silver English groat once in the collection of Agecroft Hall, bearing the likeness of a king used to represent both Henry VI and Henry VII, in this case probably the latter. Earlier kings had also been represented similarly. At that time, facial images and profiles on coins tended to be more idealized, with less emphasis on accurate resemblance than we're used to today.

Henry VI came to the throne as an infant in 1422 and remained there until 1461, when his crown was usurped by Edward IV during the Wars of the Roses. He briefly regained the throne from 1470-71 before the Yorkist Edward was again returned to power. Chaotic and confusing, isn't it? Welcome to England in the 15th century.

The inscription around the edge of the coin reads in abbreviated Latin:  HENRIC DI GRA REX ANGL Z FRANC, which translates as "Henry by the Grace of God King of England and France."

Worth the equivalent of four English pence, the groat for that reason also came to be referred to as a "fuppence." This particular groat coin, like so many, may have been clipped about the edges. That was a common practice, since silver has always been a precious metal and by snipping small pieces off the edges of enough coins, the pieces could then be melted down in a lump and made into some other object. Gold coins were frequently treated in the same manner, and entire coins were sometimes melted down.

Merchants were widely known to use small measuring scales, simple balance devices, to determine whether a particular coin had a weight that was within the limits of what that particular coin should weigh. Too much edge clipping eventually led to too light a coin, and the Crown made ineffectual efforts to stamp out the practice, which was rampant throughout Europe.

Interestingly, there has been conjecture that the source of the gold and silver in the Staffordshire Hoard, discovered in 2009, may have been Roman coinage that was melted down to create the many items of Anglo-Saxon military-related hardware found in the hoard. This magnificent treasure had been buried in a field near Hammerwich, for reasons that at present can only be guessed at. The metalwork is tentatively dated to the 7th or 8th centuries; the area of discovery was then a part of the powerful kingdom of Mercia.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

It's your move, cheat all you want

"Yes, for a score of kingdoms you should wrangle,
And I would call it fair play."

                                                                      The Tempest      (V, i)

Having completely befuddled his shipwrecked adversaries with his magic, Prospero discovers his newly love-struck daughter Miranda playing chess with Ferdinand, the son of Alonso, the king of Naples. She's been playfully teasing Ferdinand, claiming his moves are illegal, but by her loving good graces acceptable.

A joyful reunion between father and son is at hand: Alonso had feared his son drowned in the storm that had engulfed their ship. Shakespeare is said to have possibly conceived The Tempest after having read contemporary accounts of the wreck of an English ship by storm in the Bermudas. The vessel, named the Sea Venture, was on its way to Virginia in 1609 when it ran into the kind of dicey weather that the Bermuda Triangle has since become famous for.

Pictured above, in the Great Parlor of Agecroft Hall, is a gaming board that dates to 1558; the chess pieces on the board are of a much later date. The chessboard can be opened up to reveal a backgammon board, another game popular in Shakespeare's day. Immediately behind the chessboard is an English oak chair that was made a bit more than a decade after the playwright's death in 1616. The room itself is aptly named: meant as a place in which family members might converse and entertain guests or each other, the word "parlor" comes from the French verb "parler," to speak.

In Shakespeare's time, it was not uncommon to see small rugs from Turkey or the eastern regions of the Mediterranean, often called "Turkye work," covering tables; the rugs were often regarded as too precious to walk on. As for the table-top game of chess itself, historians have traced its antecedents back through the mists of time to both Persia and Northern India.

If the young couple in The Tempest tired of chess or backgammon, there were card games to be played. Queen Elizabeth I is said to have favored the card game "Primero," which in time evolved into what we know as poker. Shakespeare uses an expression from Primero, "set up his rest," in Romeo & Juliet to describe someone staking everything on a certain outcome. The playwright found that even games played as idle pastimes could be mined for metaphor.