shakespeare agecroft1

shakespeare agecroft1

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Knot in our neighborhood

"...our sea-walled garden, the whole land
Is full of weeds; her fairest flowers choked up,
Her fruit-trees all unpruned, her hedges ruin'd,
Her knots disordered, and her wholesome herbs
Swarming with caterpillars?"

                                                                Richard II     (III, iv)

Agecroft Hall's Knot Garden is pictured above; it is one of several gardens at Agecroft based on English designs that were highly regarded among the courtly set in Shakespeare's age. And clearly, few things were more demanding of near-constant attention than this sort of elaborate, meticulously planned garden. The essence of the Elizabethan attitude toward nature seemed to revolve around the idea that with conscientious effort, the natural world could be made even more beautiful than it already was. The one caveat: without such human intervention, nature could quickly turn ugly, and often did.

Little wonder that in Shakespeare's Richard II, he has a servant despairing over national affairs run amok, like a garden with its "knots disordered." The king is about to take a fall, and this worried servant doesn't have to look far to find natural portents of disaster in the very garden that surrounds him.

One of Shakespeare's most distinguished contemporaries, Sir Francis Bacon, included among his expansive essays a number of observations about gardens and gardening:

     "God Almighty first planted a Garden. And indeed it is the purest of human pleasures.
       It is the greatest refreshment to the spirits of man, without which buildings and palaces
      are but gross handyworks, and a man shall ever see that when ages grow to civility and
      elegancy, men come to build stately sooner than to garden finely, as if gardening were
      the greater perfection."

Bacon went on to express his belief that the best gardens were planted so as to reserve some beauty for all months of the year: the drabness of the winter months would be relieved by a number of evergreens; the hottest months would not be overlooked either.  

"In July come gillyflowers of all varieties, musk roses, the lime tree in blossom, early pears and plums in fruit....In August come plums...pears, apricots, berberries, filberds, musk melons..." 

Bacon included recommendations for every other month as well. It's difficult to avoid the impression that a green thumb must have pushed his pen across the page.

Agecroft Hall's two open knot designs shown above are fairly typical of the Tudor English style. Germander, English lavender, and green santolina are among the herbs that have been used over the years to create the elaborate patterns. The aromatic qualities of the herbs were usually given due consideration: Shakespeare's world included plenty of smells that were less than pleasant, and part of the allure of a garden was the chance to escape from all that. In Elizabethan and Jacobean England, quite a few estates of the landed gentry included such gardens, some fairly modest and others large, exceedingly intricate, and designed to impress.

The four beds bordering the knots are usually planted with seasonal vegetables that would not have been uncommon in Shakespeare's England, thus combining beauty with a bit of utilitarianism that is understandable in any age. The English were nothing if not practical.


Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Hiding from darkness

"......for here have been 
Some six or seven, who did hide their faces 
Even from darkness."

                                   Julius Caesar       (II, i)

Caesar's assassins gather in the night, and Shakespeare's fertile imagination has Brutus' wife Portia expressing her bewilderment over the meaning of all this. She reminds Brutus that in the moment of their marriage she and he became one, and that he is obstinate in denying her any explanation for such ominous behavior. She's scared. Who can blame her?

The cloak of night frequently provided Shakespeare with the threatening imagery that many of his scenes (or in the case of Macbeth, almost an entire play) demanded. Shakespeare knew that once the darkness robbed a man of his sight, the demons of his own mind emerged to dance around him.

Direful images of things hidden were also useful to the playwright, and for good reason: Shakespeare lived in an age rife with religious tumult. Over much of Europe, Protestants and Catholics were at each others' throats over matters of faith and liturgy.

England's Queen Elizabeth and her successor King James I were both targets of sanguinary-minded conspiracies. It isn't surprising that Shakespeare made "Rumour, painted full of tongues" a character at the induction of one of his plays; he certainly must have become familiar with the type simply by keeping his ears open on the streets of London.

With Protestantism ascendant in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, Jesuit priests had surreptitiously entered the country with the intention of returning English hearts and minds to the Catholic fold. Pope Pius V had excommunicated Elizabeth in 1570, which turned out to be a bad move: it all the more endeared her to her people, while the persecution of Catholics escalated to a level not seen in the earliest years of Elizabeth's reign.

Pictured above, in the collection of Agecroft Hall, is an English silver communion chalice and paten that Ian Pickford, an expert on early English silver, dated to about 1560, with a provenance in Coventry in the Midlands that Shakespeare knew. Pickford visited Agecroft back in 2001, and examined this and a number of other pieces in the collection.

Jesuit priests had to go underground or face death in Shakespeare's England. They often carried their own small kits for celebrating Mass with the Catholic faithful scattered across the country. The kits would frequently include a chalice smaller than Agecroft's, with a paten for holding the eucharistic bread, along with oil for anointing, priestly vestments, and related liturgical items, all designed to be easily hidden.

A clandestine network of Catholic safehouses across England provided the Jesuits with tiny, cramped hiding places referred to as "priest holes." Many were made by Nicholas Owen, a carpenter who always worked alone and at night, making an untold number of extraordinarily well-designed hiding places that saved many priests from capture. Baddesley Clinton, a large house in Shakespeare's Warwickshire, has several such priest holes made by Owen, with possibly more still undiscovered. Centuries later, Owen would be canonized as a saint of the Roman Catholic Church.

There is a remarkable account involving a priest hole located under an upstairs fireplace in one of these Catholic safehouses in Essex. A search party was literally dismantling portions of the house in their efforts to apprehend anyone in hiding. The searchers became fatigued and, to stay warm, lit a fire in the fireplace, sending embers down on the hidden Jesuit. The priest could probably well imagine the horrible torture and death he would face at the hands of his captors, and he managed to keep quiet and remain hidden. Nicholas Owen himself died a martyr to his faith in the Tower of London in 1606.

Agecroft Hall has its own priest hole, a hiding place made just a few years ago to help serve as a reminder of an age when religious convictions could be matters of life and death.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The wisest fool

"...They have scared away two of my best sheep,
which I fear the wolf will find sooner than the master...."

                                                                       The Winter's Tale     (III, iii)

Shakespeare wrote these lines for an old shepherd, a character bewildered by a world that was changing around him. In equal measure, the world was changing for the playwright.

It isn't surprising that Ovid's classic Metamorphoses resonated with William Shakespeare. The Roman writer's narrative poem was evidently among the playwright's favorites: along with its tales of the mythological gods and subtle erotica, it reflected on the nature of change. Shakespeare's whole life was about change: some of it burdensome and harsh,  much of it unavoidable.

The sixteenth century into which Shakespeare was born had seen three changes in England's national religion over the course of a mere twelve years. The world of trade was transformed as well: the Age of Exploration brought with it new shipping trade routes that were oriented more toward the Atlantic than the Mediterranean, making England no longer a backwater at the edge of the European scene, but rather a geographically well-situated mover and shaker.

The English rural landscape was slowly changing as the steady enclosure of more and more land for sheep pasturage drove farm laborers off the land and into the cities, towns and villages, looking for work that many couldn't find. Yet it shouldn't be forgotten that so much of the nation was still essentially agricultural and rural, with inhabitants that lived their lives by the rhythms of the seasons and clung to time-honored beliefs that couldn't be easily changed by state decree.

This world of field and forest was the world of young William Shakespeare, and if his writings are any indication, that world stayed in his heart throughout his life.

Pictured above, in the collection of Agecroft Hall, is the central portion of a large English wool and silk tapestry (11 ft., 4 in. x 11 ft., 8 in.) made c1650 at Mortlake west of London, a tapestry works founded at the behest of King James I. The work is entitled, "The Wolf Hunt," and despite its hints of classicism, it reflects the abiding interest in the English landscape that persisted long after the poet Shakespeare had passed away.

In founding the tapestry works at Mortlake, and daring to compete with Flemish weavers across the English Channel, James was dubbed "the wisest fool in Europe."  Crazy like a fox: he had secretly enticed a number of Flemish weavers to cross over to England and weave for the royal venture. Although it took several decades, the Mortlake effort succeeded, producing fine tapestries that were much sought after both in England and on the continent. Pastoral scenes were hugely popular as subject matter for many of these tapestries, just as pastoral scenes had been popular in Shakespeare's plays.

As historian Michael Wood and others have pointed out, many of Shakespeare's works are sprinkled with references that have a distinct Warwickshire country flavor: he refers to the "hade land," a strip of land left unplowed in a field; to the "breese," gadflys that swarmed around livestock. He shows ample familiarity with sheep-shearing festivals as evidenced in The Winter's Tale, the local color and detail perhaps absorbed during his childhood. His father, a glover by trade, evidently did quite a bit of wool dealing on the side, and it stands to reason that young, observant William might have learned a thing or two.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Talk about getting hammered......just check out the laundry bill


"Is your Englishman so expert in his drinking?"

"Why, he drinks you with facility your Dane dead
drunk; he sweats not to overthrow your Almain; he
gives your Hollander a vomit ere the next pottle can
be filled."

                                                                     Othello       (II, iii)

The Danes, Germans, and Dutch might beg to differ with Iago's assessment of English prowess in the tournaments of the tavern. But one thing is clear, and it's not Michael Cassio's brain: he's about to get roaring drunk, against his will and better judgement. He's also about to lose his job as Othello's right-hand man.  Iago is the instigator, the Vice of the medieval morality plays, an admirer of evil for its own sake. He's referred to as "honest" numerous times during the course of the play, yet he's anything but. Iago alone can be mentioned in the same foul breath as Shakespeare's odoriferous Richard III.

Strong drink has befuddled the brain of man since time out of mind, making him all the more receptive to the allurements of absurdity. Pictured above, in the collection of Agecroft Hall, is an English tin-glazed earthenware "fuddling cup," made in the seventeenth century, several decades after the death of Shakespeare. The three drinking vessels are connected by carefully aligned channels so that the intoxicating beverage within will spill onto the drinker's clothes if he fails to drink from each of the three vessels in the proper order.

Good for guffaws, no doubt. Shakespeare has Michael Cassio admit to being a quick drunk; but sobriety would have offered no guarantees in solving this particular riddle.

One traditional anecdote about the life of William Shakespeare is the unsubstantiated tale of how he left for the hereafter: he supposedly sat down in a tavern with fellow poets Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton and proceeded to drink himself into an oblivion that he never completely recovered from, falling ill and dying not long afterward. Perhaps he, like Cassio, did "well wish courtesy would invent some other custom of entertainment."   (II, iii)

Shakespeare's tragedy Othello will be performed at Agecroft Hall as part of the Richmond Shakespeare Festival 2013, with performances slated for July 11th through August 4th, Thursday through Sunday evenings, at 8:00 PM. By all means, come and enjoy the play, but you'll have to bring your own fuddling cup.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

When failure was an option, just not a very attractive one

"Were now the general of our gracious empress,
As in good time he may, from Ireland coming,
Bringing rebellion broached on his sword,
How many would the peaceful city quit,
To welcome him!"

                                                     Henry V         (Prologue to Act V)

Shakespeare is making a direct reference to contemporary events in these lines from the prologue of the last act in his rousing history play, Henry V. The lines refer to the man of the moment in 1599: Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex and a favorite of Queen Elizabeth, the man sent to teach those endlessly quarrelsome Irish a lesson, once and for all.  Shakespeare's countrymen were aching for a hero: in Essex many thought they had found one.

The decade following the 1588 triumph over the Spanish Armada had been disappointing for the English in many respects. Along with an economic downturn, recurrences of bubonic plague, crop failures, atrocious weather, conspiracy rumors and the stubborn reemergence of threats from Catholic Spain, the English knew that their virgin queen was as mortal as any milkmaid, with no obvious heir to make for a smooth transition of power. The question of the royal succession would be finally settled only on Elizabeth's deathbed.

Rebelliousness in Ireland had also been a nagging concern, as attempts to establish an aggrandizing English Pale had met with a resistance that should have surprised no one, but evidently did. Attempts to put down the Irish rebels had proven ineffectual. The martial reputation and personal ego of Essex was such that he inadvertently found himself in command of troops charged with crossing the Irish Sea and setting things right. Shakespeare's image of "rebellion broached on his sword" would have seemed fitting at the time.

Pictured above, from the collection of Agecroft Hall, is an English backsword (sharp along one edge rather than both) made c1650, a half-century after the fiasco that saw the Earl of Essex lead his forces to Ireland, flail away ineffectually at the rebels, and return in a rush to England, petulantly storming into Queen Elizabeth's private chamber to protest against real or imagined intrigues against him at court.

He had failed. The country was shocked. Essex had made what was regarded as a humiliating truce with the Irish. Elizabeth was angry, and her anger would grow when Essex, shortly thereafter, tried to stage a coup on the streets of London that came to nothing. Essex and his followers had even persuaded Shakespeare's theatrical group, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, to dust off the play King Richard II and perform it at the Globe. That play involves the deposition of an anointed monarch, an idea that Essex wished to promote for his own ends. But Londoners didn't take to the streets, his coup attempt failed, and his head landed in a bucket on Tower Green.

The sword pictured above is referred to as a mortuary sword, so named for its depiction of a person believed martyred by those sympathetic to a particular cause. This sword dates to the English Civil War and the ensuing Commonwealth period, and the face depicted represents King Charles I, executed during the Puritan wave that swept over England in the mid-seventeenth century. That same Puritan regime would be largely responsible for the closing and destruction of theaters in London, including Shakespeare's Globe. One might say that the actors themselves had achieved a sort of martyrdom, not to be recognized until the Restoration.