shakespeare agecroft1

shakespeare agecroft1

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Perhaps Shakespeare had his own word for "duh"

"O, for a muse of fire......."

                                  Henry V     (I,i)

Be very, very careful what you wish for.

This Saturday, June 29th, will mark the 400th anniversary of the day in 1613 when Shakespeare's Globe Theatre burned to the ground. The fire had started during a performance of All is True, the play more familiar to us as King Henry VIII.

Three days later, Sir Henry Wotton, an eyewitness to the calamity, wrote in a letter to his nephew: 

                      The King's players had a new play, called All is True, representing 
                      some principal pieces of the reign of Henry VIII.......certain chambers
                      (cannon) being shot off at his entry, some of the paper, or other stuff,
                      wherewith one of them was stopped, did light on the thatch, where 
                      being thought at first an idle smoke, and their eyes more attentive to
                      the show, it kindled inwardly and ran round......consuming within less
                      than an hour the whole house to the very grounds.

Luckily, no one was killed or seriously injured, although one man reportedly realized that his breeches were on fire and put out the flames with bottled ale. Evidently, the men responsible for setting off the gunpowder-packed cannons near a thatched roof were not mobbed and roughed up for being so incredibly dense. That is somewhat surprising.

Pictured above are some of the sandstone tiles (not all are original) on the roof of Agecroft Hall, which stood in Lancashire, England at the time of the Globe fire. When the Globe was rebuilt the following year, tile was used on the roof. Before the fire, Shakespeare had owned a fourteenth part of the theater's shares and would have faced a similar proportion of the cost of its rebuilding, as Peter Ackroyd pointed out in his masterful Shakespeare: The Biography (New York, 2005). The playwright might very well have sold his shares in the Globe at about this time. 

The earlier thatched roof of the Globe had been an obvious fire hazard, but a thatched roof was relatively cheap to construct (the roof of the nearby Rose Theatre was also thatched). This reflected the financially perilous nature of the theater business itself. The London stage industry was still in its infancy: there were plenty of worries for proprietors.

The recurrence of plague could and did keep theaters closed for extended periods, particularly in the last decade of the sixteenth century but also at times thereafter. The increasingly puritanical bent of London authorities meant constant grumbling from those who regarded theaters as dens of iniquity, hotbeds of whoring, riotous behavior, even political intrigue.

As if all that weren't enough, theater owners faced the usual threats of miserably wet weather, fire and flood, theft and endless disputes over money, and a host of other dangers that could prove ruinous. Both the Globe and the Rose stood in a seedy area known as Bankside in Southwark, across the Thames from London proper. The playhouses had to compete with playhouses of a different sort: the brothels or "stews" that dotted the neighborhood, along with bear-baiting exhibitions that by today's standards were horrific in their cruelty.

It was not a business for the fainthearted. Nor was it a business for people who played with matches.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Looks a bit like the guy behind you at the 7-11

"Laertes, was your father dear to you?
Or are you like the painting of a sorrow,
A face without a heart?"

                                            Hamlet     (IV, vii)

Shakespeare's usurping King Claudius presents Laertes with a classic gut-check: is there enough fire in his blood to avenge his father, sent to his death at the hands of Hamlet?

Claudius plays on Laertes' ignorance of what's really going on: the king has a murder of his own to hide, and his fleeting pangs of conscience have not been quite burdensome enough to force him to give up the throne.

Shakespeare's metaphorical use of a painting, which can have the look but not the breathing soul (and hence the rage) of a man, is apt for more reasons than one. The comparison not only suits the playwright's immediate purpose well. It makes for entirely credible dialogue: secular paintings had become de rigueur items of courtly display during the European Renaissance, an era when ego was not to be denied.

Set aside the fact that the origins of Shakespeare's Hamlet can be traced at least as far back as the medieval writings of the twelfth-century Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus. Move the story's setting several centuries forward in time, and the words dovetail well with the spirit of Shakespeare's age.

Pictured above and below, at Agecroft Hall, is a 1566 portrait of William Dauntesey attributed to the "Master of the Countess of Warwick." Dauntesey was the son of one of Henry VIII's courtiers. He became the owner of Agecroft Hall when he married Anne Langley, who had inherited the property in 1561. Scratched onto a pane of glass at Agecroft is the name of their grandson William and a date: June 12th, 1645.

The Dauntesey portrait captures more than a hint of pride, perhaps giving way to smug arrogance in a man who evidently gained much of what he owned through the achievements of men who came before him, and through a marriage that brought considerable property with it. In his defense, it should be added that we know much less about William Dauntesey than we would like to know. The same can be said about Shakespeare. 

The portrait includes the Dauntesey family's coat of arms on the left, along with the Latin inscription attesting that William Dauntesey, as the son of Richard Dauntesey, has the right to the depicted coat of arms. Such heraldry was a great source of aristocratic pride, so much so that Shakespeare himself finally secured such an honor for his own family in 1596, on behalf of his father.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Better get it in writing

"It is not possible, it cannot be,
The king should keep his word in loving us;
He will suspect us still, and find a time
To punish this offense in other faults...."

                                                              Henry IV, Part 1     (V, ii)

A decision has to be made, in an unforgiving minute.

Thomas Percy, the Earl of Worcester, isn't stupid. He knows that a king is but a man, and can go back on his word as quickly as the lowliest pickpurse. Shakespeare has him fill the ear of his brother-in-arms, Sir Richard Vernon, with his fears that the man they had inadvertently helped to the throne as King Henry IV has already discarded any sense of gratitude for their prior service.

This king has offered them a general amnesty after distinct rumblings of rebellion. Worcester isn't buying it, and he urges that his nephew and ally Hotspur, who is itching for a fight, not even be told of the king's suspicious offer of an olive branch.

The concept of a royal pardon appears and reappears throughout much of English history. Pictured above and in detail below, on display at Agecroft Hall, is a pardon from Queen Elizabeth I bestowed upon Agecroft's owner Robert Langley and his family in 1559, just a year after Elizabeth had ascended the throne as a young woman of 25. William Shakespeare was born five years later.

The short reign of Elizabeth's predecessor and half-sister Mary had been disastrous. Mary was an ardent Catholic who had tried to forcibly turn back the tide of the Protestant Reformation in England. To a considerable degree, at least by the standards of the age, the young Elizabeth had wanted to stop the swinging pendulum of persecution that had been set in motion by her own father, the hot-headed King Henry VIII, when he decided to bolt from Roman Catholicism and take his country with him.

For Henry it was quite an undertaking, allowing him to get a divorce from Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth's mother and a woman who would see soon enough Henry's cruelty, in the form of an executioner's sword.

During the course of Elizabeth's reign, a papal excommunication and plots against her life both real and imagined made her more circumspect. Her decision to allow the execution of the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots in 1587 came only after years of fearful soul-searching. The attack of the Spanish Armada was quick to follow. 

Although there is no absolute certainty that Robert Langley of Agecroft Hall was Catholic, his wife and a number of other members of his family were known to be so; this was not the least bit unusual at the time in Lancashire. The whole north of the country, for that matter, was regarded as a stronghold of the Old Faith. Interestingly, the Langley pardon does not specifically cover any religious non-conformity in the family: written in Latin, it essentially defends the honor of the Langleys against any unmerited claims that the family was anything less than faithful to the English Crown.

There's just one little complication in all this: such pardons could, at times, be purchased. It was a way for the Crown to raise money, much like the "papist" sale of indulgences prior to the earthquakes of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Elizabeth, like her predecessors on the throne, was faced with the duty of running a country, and that costs money. Money was something that neither she nor those who came before her ever had enough of, at least in the royal estimation.

She is pictured below, quite youthful in her coronation portrait. The lines of worry would follow, in time.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Well, who's to say a dragon can't look like a dog?

"Advance our standards, set upon our foes;
Our ancient word of courage, fair Saint George,
Inspire us with the spleen of fiery dragons!"

                                                           Richard III     (V, iii)

It's petal-to-the-metal time in the Wars of the Roses.

The clash and clatter of the fifteenth century's Battle of Bosworth Field ushered in the Tudor era with the victory of the Earl of Richmond over that recent headline-grabber, King Richard III. Undoubtedly wiping a bit of blood and grime off his sleeve, Richmond ascended the throne as King Henry VII, ran the nation like a meticulous shopkeeper, and fathered the many-wived Henry VIII, who in his turn fathered that magnificence of Shakespeare's age, Queen Elizabeth I.

Perhaps surprisingly, Shakespeare's version of the battle may not be inaccurate in placing Richard himself, for the moment still a crowned king, in the very heat of the action. There has long been considerable speculation among scholars that Shakespeare exaggerated the seamier aspects of Richard's character in order to make the reigning Tudor line look so much the better in retrospect. But neither the playwright nor contemporary historical records make Richard out to be any kind of a coward on the field of battle: he was evidently anything but.

All this despite having the spinal deformity that his newly-found bones confirm he did indeed have.

In the quotation above from Shakespeare's play, Richard calls on St. George, the patron saint of England, to make veritable fire-breathers of his troops. He's already described their enemy as "...vagabonds, rascals, and runaways....base lackey peasants..."  in much the same way that a football coach tries to pump up his team's confidence by disparaging the opposition.

Hey, sometimes it works. Not this time.

Pictured above, in the collection of Agecroft Hall, is a powder horn with iron mounts, dating to about 1650, elaborately carved with a scene depicting the legend of St. George, mounted on horseback (on the left side of the carving) and with sword raised, attacking the dragon (on the right) which looks a bit like a friendly dog with wings. Trees in the background are apparently meant to give this the look of a forest encounter. The name of the carver is not known.

There are any number of medieval and Renaissance depictions of the legend that make both the fire-breathing dragon and St. George look much more exotic, fearsome, and impressive. Perhaps the difficulty of depicting such an epic scene on a piece of horn made this version look somewhat tame in comparison.

The origins of the tale have been traced back to lands of the Eastern Orthodox faith, particularly to what is now central Turkey and to Georgia in the Caucasus. There are a number of indications that Crusaders returning from the Holy Land were instrumental in spreading the tale of brave St. George and his flame-tongued adversary across Western Europe. Undoubtedly, the picturesque nature of the story enhanced its popularity: even the makers of modern cinema find it impossible to resist.

Shakespeare's Richard III would have gladly given his kingdom for a horse; it's probably safe to assume he would have gladly traded up to a fire-breathing dragon, given the opportunity.