shakespeare agecroft1

shakespeare agecroft1

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Evidently, it can be done

There's a total of something like 62 posts below and not once, not once, in any of them, has William Shakespeare been referred to as "The Bar_."

Will wonders never cease?

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Clock? What's a clock??

                                                     [clock strikes]
Peace! Count the clock.
                             The clock hath stricken three.

                                                                  Julius Caesar     (II, i)

While Rome sleeps, conspirators plot the murder of Julius Caesar. Perhaps it's the intensity of the scene that causes so many readers to pass right over a glaring anachronism.

A clock striking? That couldn't be: there were no clocks back in 44 BC, when the conspirators stabbed Caesar at the foot of Pompey's statue in the Roman Senate. There are quite a few anachronisms in Shakespeare's plays: the chiming clock in Julius Caesar is among the most often cited. It's certainly good for a laugh, and it's a credit to the playwright that so many of his works are so masterfully written that his occasional slip-ups seem so inconsequential, so endearingly human.

A number of Shakespeare's contemporary critics scolded him for not adhering to the classical unities of time, place, and action that the ancient Greeks had so enshrined. They fumed that a play should not jump from one specific time to another, from one place to another, from one motive of action to another: all that would leave the playgoer horribly confused. Shakespeare thought otherwise.

So it is hardly surprising that a playwright more focused on dramatic effect than peripheral details should let slip the occasional anachronism, or tinker with time by making important stage characters much younger or older than their real-life, historical counterparts. In 1 Henry IV, Shakespeare slices more than twenty years off the age of his rebellious-but-noble character Hotspur so that he can serve as a foil to the king's own son, the wayward and irresolute Prince Hal. The real Hotspur was much older, and for Shakespeare that little detail just didn't work. So the poet made time suit his fancy.

In an earlier posting, Agecroft Hall's rare 1610 lantern clock of brass and steel, made in London, received some attention. Pictured above, in the Study, is another 17th century lantern clock, this one dating to about 1640. Made in England, this clock is not as large as its earlier counterpart downstairs: its face and ornamentation measures slightly more than 15 inches in height. The pierced brass crest depicts flowers and dolphins. The sides of the clock are enclosed with brass doors. And like Agecroft's 1610 lantern clock, this one also has but one hand, to mark the hour.

With its pendulum and weights, the clock chimes loud enough to be heard throughout the exhibit rooms of Agecroft Hall. Its volume and resonance is sometimes a source of either lighthearted amusement or consternation to television and film crews who are recording in the building and aren't finding the perfect silence they had imagined.

Also in the second photograph is an English oak chair that dates to c1660; a Flemish tapestry fragment that was woven c1625, and a lectern and chest against the wall that both date to the 17th century.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

England is well worth a bit of false piety

"And look you get a prayer-book in your hand,
And stand betwixt two churchmen......."

                                             Richard III         (III, vii)
England's allegedly nefarious King Richard III has been much in the news lately, thanks to the discovery and identification of his bones, through DNA testing and a close study of related evidence by an archaeological team from the University of Leicester. It looks as if they have indeed found their man. Of course, if he was half as evil as Shakespeare made him out to be, having his bones returning to dust in so inglorious a spot as beneath a parking lot might seem providential.

In lines from Shakespeare's Richard III quoted above, the Duke of Buckingham is giving the as-yet-uncrowned Richard a bit of advice on how to look properly pious before the masses. The idea Buckingham is driving at is quite time-worn: vaulting ambition needs to be disguised, lest it make people edgy, suspicious, uncomfortable. So act pious and humble, and get the crown without scaring people off by seeming to want it: not bad advice in any age.

Pictured above, from the collection of Agecroft Hall, is a 1617 copy of Thomas à Kempis' Of the Imitation of Christ, one of the most widely-read works of piety in Europe in the late Middle Ages. The work, originally in Latin, first appeared in manuscript anonymously in the early fifteenth century, before Johan Gutenberg began printing in Mainz.

The author of this devotional work, an Augustinian monk born in Germany, seemed to have a natural piety and humility that struck a chord with many throughout Europe. To us the other-worldly Thomas seems the very antithesis of Richard III, that self-absorbed, crown-bedecked apotheosis of evil. Of the Imitation of Christ was to become a classic of Western literature.

This small volume, which measures 5x3x1.25 inches, has a binding of original vellum, with wallet edges and gilt angels at the center of both the front and back covers. There are also woodcut headpieces and tailpieces. Of the Imitation of Christ  was highly regarded throughout Shakespeare's lifetime. The playwright died just a year before this volume was printed.

Shakespeare imagined Richard III winning some people over with a devotional book in his hands and priests at his side. Machiavelli would have applauded; Thomas à Kempis would have been mortified.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Hamlet gets a bit rude

"God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another....."

                                                                                  Hamlet    (III, i)

Hamlet the Dane is feigning madness, and if that means excoriating his beloved Ophelia for no good reason, so be it. He urges her to go to a nunnery where she won't be "a breeder of sinners." He reads her the riot act over things women have been doing since time out of mind. Nature? Nurture? It's no matter to Hamlet: he's acting in a play of his own, and that's the thing.

Pictured above, in the collection of Agecroft Hall, is a small English chest made c1610, of a type that might have been used in a lady's chamber to store a variety of feminine adornments. The chest was constructed probably no more than a decade after Shakespeare had written Hamlet, at a time when he was perhaps sharpening a few quills before beginning a tale set in those unexplored new lands beyond the sea: The Tempest.

This black chest, with silver and red detailing and a faux-lacquered finish, is indicative of the considerable interest shown by both the English and their Dutch sea-trading rivals with goods and furniture styles from the Far East. After all, a quicker sea route to that region of the world had been the Europeans' goal all along: the American land masses were just found to be getting in the way.

Imitative of the Oriental lacquered style, this chest illustrates a look referred to as "japanning."  European furniture-makers, including the English, had difficulty coming up with anything like a truly lacquered finish so well done in the Far East. Moreover, they often did not go so far as to include Oriental domestic scenes in their own homemade versions of this style. They frequently did use scenes they were familiar with: this chest has renderings of windmills, scrolling flowers, streams, soldiers, and hill-top beacons of the type used to spread the warning among the English of the approaching Spanish Armada back in 1588.

The chest is about 21 inches wide, 16 inches high, and a bit over 12 inches from front to back. The front doors that swing out on their hinges have painted scenes on their front and their inner sides. The handles of the chest are of brass. Whether jewelry or other items were contained in the drawers is open to conjecture (was valuable jewelry kept in a more secure or hidden place?).  But there can be no doubt that Ophelia would have found some use for such a chest, if Hamlet is to be believed.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The ABCs of the Elizabethan Age

"Yes, yes; he teaches boys the hornbook."

                                                           Love's Labour's Lost      (V, i)

In Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, his character Moth, a page, is attesting to the learning of the schoolmaster Holofernes. Shakespeare must have enjoyed his opportunity to poke fun at the pedantic tediousness of schoolmasters, teachers of the sort he most likely endured in his boyhood years at the King's New School in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Far more than anything else, the school's curriculum consisted of Latin, Latin, and more Latin.

A great deal of rote learning was also involved. It's entirely possible that such an emphasis on memorization helped Shakespeare during the years he spent on the London stage himself, learning all the nuances of his craft. He and his fellow actors would need good memories to keep up with the prolific pace of their own ever-changing repertory: it was not at all unusual for the Lord Chamberlain's Men, later the King's Men, to perform several different plays over the course of just a few days.

Pictured above is a modern, loosely-based reproduction of a 16th-century child's primer for study called a hornbook. It is so called because of the protective layer of durable transparent animal horn or mica that was used to cover both the lower and upper-case letters of the alphabet, along with the Lord's Prayer and various vowel and consonant pairings that the pupil was expected to learn while he nervously grasped the handle of the hornbook, hoping he wouldn't be called upon. Sheets of transparent horn were also a precursor to the widespread use of glass in small windows, in lanterns, and a variety of other useful objects.

As artifacts go, authentic hornbooks that were actually used in Shakespeare's day are rare. This may be in part due to the wear and tear that such objects must have received as class after class of rambunctious schoolboys used them, perhaps to beat each other over the heads with when the schoolmaster wasn't looking. If for nothing else, the handle must have been handy for that.