Tuesday, March 26, 2013
"Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about my ears; and sometimes voices,
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me; that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again."
The Tempest (III, ii)
Man, fish, or whatever he is, Caliban seems to have quite the ear for music and poetry. So much so that the above lines were used, four hundred years after Shakespeare wrote them, at the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Oddly enough, the last few lines were used at the closing ceremonies as well. Whether there was any grumbling in the pantheon of English poets over that little slight to their literary output is anyone's guess.
Scholars have pointed to several hundred passages in the works of Shakespeare that reflect the playwright's familiarity with the music of his day. He includes a great number of popular ballads in his works, knowing his audience would be receptive to the songs. Almost all of his musical references involve secular rather than sacred music, hardly surprising in an English nation violently torn by religious differences during the previous century. That violence was far from over.
It is quite probable that, in his early youth, the poet became familiar with the mystery and morality plays, rooted in the mists of England's medieval past. These were usually performed by local tradesmen and other amateurs on holy feast days, prior to the advent of a more austere Protestantism. Music was also at times performed, and so much of that music had its antecedents in the liturgy of the church.
The above photograph shows calligraphic details of a psalter in the collection of Agecroft Hall that dates to c1600. A psalter is a collection of Psalms arranged for devotional use, for singing and/or musical accompaniment. Shakespeare was in all likelihood not unfamiliar with this type of work, and would no doubt have recognized the Latin word "fatigari" in the above view as meaning labored or fatigued and the fancifully illuminated "Erat" (he was, she was, it was). That is, unless Ben Jonson's claim that Shakespeare knew "small Latin and less Greek" was much closer to the mark than we tend to think.
As for secular musical accompaniment in Elizabethan England, there were a variety of instruments: the plaintive viols, somewhat similar to modern-day violins but played with the instrument resting on the knees; lutes, flutes, and citterns, among other instruments. Invented shortly before the birth of Shakespeare was the bandora, an instrument much like a large guitar.
There are many instances of characters suddenly breaking into song in Shakespeare's plays, even in his tragedies. He has Desdemona, shortly to be murdered, singing the mournful, long-familiar "Willow Song" in Othello and Edgar chanting "Child Rowland to the dark tower came" in King Lear. At the other end of the emotional scale, the playwright has his character Feste in the masterful comedy Twelfth Night end the play booming out "When that I was and a little tiny boy" with its peculiarly compelling repetition of "With hey, ho, the wind and the rain." One has to wonder whether audiences ever sang along.
Tuesday, March 19, 2013
"Give me the map there. Know we have divided
In three our kingdom: and 'tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age..."
King Lear (I, i)
Shakespeare's King Lear doesn't get high marks for thinking things through. He is old and tired of the cares of his kingdom, so he seeks to retain his lofty status while sloughing off those cares on younger hearts. Fat chance: there's at least one big problem. Two of his three daughters are heartless.
Pictured above, from the collection of Agecroft Hall, is an original 1577 copperplate engraved map of Lancashire (where Agecroft once stood) made by Christopher Saxton, a young surveyor from Yorkshire. Saxton was commissioned in 1574 to make maps of all the counties in England. At the time, William Shakespeare was a boy of ten.
By 1579, the industrious Saxton had completed an atlas containing 34 county maps, along with a map of England in its entirety. Despite Saxton's considerable reputation as a surveyor and mapmaker, there is a frustrating dearth of information about exactly how he went about his task in each shire. He did reportedly have an open letter from Queen Elizabeth I that instructed local authorities in no uncertain terms to assist and guide Saxton "to any towre, castle, or hill to view that countrey." Clearly, the mapmaker's work was regarded as a monumental undertaking, and carelessness was not an option.
When it came to mapping newly-discovered regions of the world, English efforts generally lagged behind those of the Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese. But their cartographic efforts in their own country were superlative. Doubtless Elizabeth shared with William the Conqueror the awareness that accurate information leads to accurate knowledge, and that leads to accurately assessed taxation of the realm. Money, money, money.
Without question, there was nationalistic pride involved in the effort as well: since the English realm stood at the top of the pyramid of nations (the Elizabethan English wouldn't have hesitated to tell you so), it only stood to reason that its cities, towns and shires be set in their proper places like gems in a crown. But as Shakespeare's Lear was to discover, an earthly crown can be misleading on any map of the human heart.
Saxton's maps of the various shires varied in size and scale. As if the wildly variable spelling of words was not enough, the English also varied their measurement of a mile. Archival material indicates that whenever possible, Saxton based his measurements on the old English mile of 2240 yards. All roads were omitted from Saxton's maps for some reason peculiar to the time. Rivers were carefully delineated. Villages were represented by a single church tower, and larger towns were indicated on the map by two or more towers.
Locations of important manors are designated, including the original site of Agecroft Hall, shown on the map as "Edgecroft" and situated slightly northwest of Manchester, an area overwhelmed these days by that city's subsequent sprawl. The map was hand colored shortly after it was printed.
Tuesday, March 12, 2013
"Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous,
There shall be no more cakes and ale?"
Twelfth Night (II, iii)
Sir Toby Belch is giving the irredeemably pompous Malvolio a piece of his mind: how dare he spoil all the fun, day after day and night after night? So what if Malvolio is Olivia's steward of the household, in charge of keeping everyone in line? Sir Toby believes the wee hours of the morning were meant for bibulous riot and window-rattling odes to John Barleycorn; there will be plenty of time to sleep in the graveyard.
His words might have looked appropriate carved over the door of every pub in England.
The mid-17th century English pewter flagon pictured above is one among several drinking vessels in the collection of Agecroft Hall, virtually all of a type that would not have been unfamiliar to Shakespeare, although the playwright passed away in the second decade of that century. This one is fairly hefty, standing a bit over eleven inches tall, with a domed cover and vertical thumbpiece. The cover kept foreign matter, from dirt and bugs to the additives of practical jokers or Machiavellian plotters, out of the brew. Theories abounded as to what carried plague: laws were enacted in Germany requiring drinking vessels to have covers to hinder the spread of disease.
It also helped prevent excessive flattening of the ale's taste. Wine was also drunk from such flagons, and some of these vessels had spouts. We have to bear in mind that our modern-day association of certain styles of glassware with particular types of liquid spirits didn't apply back then. Glassware on the meal table was far less common in Shakespeare's day, and generally regarded as a luxury. Many an honest yeoman was perfectly content drinking out of a leather flagon if that's what held his refreshment. Agecroft Hall has one of those, too (see the posting of May 10, 2012).
Archival material at Agecroft Hall indicates that the earliest uses of flagons might well have been ecclesiastical. A pewter flagon, called a cruet, is mentioned in English church records that date to the year 812. Such cruets often had a shape like an hourglass and were of liturgical use.
It's a reasonably safe bet that Sir Toby Belch was rarely concerned with the shape of a pewter flagon, but rather with its contents.
Tuesday, March 5, 2013
"Free me so far in your most generous thoughts
That I have shot my arrow o'er the house
And hurt my brother."
Hamlet is trying to convince a justifiably hotheaded Laertes that he didn't mean to kill his father Polonius; it was all a mistake. Hamlet neglects to add, for obvious reasons, that he thought it was the king hiding behind that big tapestry. What followed was a moment of impulsiveness on Hamlet's part, and the wrong man lay dead on the floor.
Hamlet did indeed have some explaining to do. The "arrow o'er the house" metaphor touches on Shakespeare's mastery of language: the imagery is natural, even childlike in its simplicity. But Laertes was in no mood for metaphors: he preferred to do his thinking with the poisoned tip of his blade.
Pictured above, in the collection of Agecroft Hall, is a crossbow made in continental Europe and dating to the latter half of the seventeenth century. Yew was one of the preferred woods for making such bows: it was strong and resilient, just what was needed for shooting arrows with a power that could pierce some types of armor at a close enough range in battle. Agecroft's crossbow was most likely made for hunting rather than for fighting: it has decorative inlay that is usually indicative of a purpose other than use in war. By the time of this crossbow's construction, c1675, such weapons were being eclipsed in war by the use of gunpowder.
The English had distinguished themselves as nonpareil in the use of the longbow at the medieval battles of Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt in France. While the crossbow never seemed as close to the patriotic English heart, it did have its advantages: it could be effectively used with less practice than the longbow required, not a small consideration when a yeoman who spent most of his time behind a plow was called upon to help fight a war.
The stirrup-like metal appendage visible at the top of the crossbow was used to help prepare the weapon for shooting: a crossbowman would put his foot in the stirrup and use his leg power to help draw back the bow, not always easy for a sleepless man dead-tired after miles of walking to reach the battlefield. On the other hand, at least the crossbow was easier to span (draw back) than the longbow. The arrows, called "bolts," that were used with the crossbow were almost invariably shorter than those of the longbow, and were usually cheaper to produce.
Some crossbows had hand cranks on their stocks to facilitate reloading, although it's difficult to imagine that these were not unwieldy in the heat of a fight. In an open-field battle, crossbowmen were known to do their reloading, whenever possible, from behind a large shield often made specifically for the purpose. As a general rule, a longbow could be reloaded more quickly than a crossbow, at the same time having a sort of graceful elegance that the crossbow lacked.
Of course, any appreciation of "graceful elegance" surely falls by the wayside when an arrow shot in anger hits its mark.