shakespeare agecroft1

shakespeare agecroft1

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Up the down staircase

"Run, master, run; for God's sake, take a house!
This is some priory. In, or we are spoil'd!"

                                                         The Comedy of Errors        (V, i)

Dromio of Syracuse is frantic to get himself and his master Antipholus out of the clutches of their pursuers, and any port of refuge will do in Shakespeare's madcap farce. So they slip into a priory, a religious house of the sort that since medieval times provided comfort and protection (at least in theory) to the lost and the desperate. The confines of a cathedral supposedly offered the same kind of sanctuary, although Thomas Becket would roll his eyes and spill his own blood over that notion.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries prompted by Queen Elizabeth's tyrannical father, King Henry VIII, was a land grab, pure and simple. After many years of wasteful wars and extravagant spending, Henry needed money. He knew his country's greater nobility had long had its eye on the enormous landholdings of the church, holdings that made royal lands look meager in comparison.
Henry realized he could swell his coffers to overflowing if, with the administrative help of his lord chancellor Thomas Wolsey, he forcibly closed the monasteries, confiscated their lands, buildings, and other properties, and sold it to the covetous nobles.

Take it all. Sell it all. Pocket the cash. Better bring huge pockets.

So Henry did just that, and in so doing he made his country's landed nobility all the more resistant to the idea of ever returning to the status quo that preceded Henry's earth-shaking Act of Supremacy, which had made the King himself the head of the English church.

Give back the land, the buildings, the finery? Fat chance. Even Henry's Catholic daughter Mary, when she unexpectedly came to the throne in 1553, could see that would never happen. She didn't press the issue.

Pictured above, in Agecroft Hall, is a portion of an ornately carved oak staircase that originally was found in Warwick Priory, a religious house in the shire of Shakespeare's birth that met the same fate as so many others under the crushing thumb of Henry VIII. Like Agecroft Hall, portions of Warwick Priory would eventually, in the mid-1920's, be dismantled and moved to the banks of the James River in Richmond, where it was carefully reconstructed on property adjacent to Agecroft. That priory building is now called Virginia House (pictured below).

The staircase has newel posts and panels that are each carved from one piece of oak, no mean feat given the elaborate designs involved. The origin of the design is uncertain; it may derive from antique motifs distorted for expressive purposes by Italian Renaissance artists. Such designs became popular in northern Europe and particularly in the Netherlands, home to a considerable number of excellent wood-working craftsmen.

Warwick Priory, founded in the 12th century, was suppressed in 1536 at the Dissolution, evidently among the earliest of the religious houses to be shut down. Henry's minister Wolsey had carefully planned to close the smaller ones first, at least in part to get some experience in how to go about such a messy business. Then came the closings of the greater monasteries, and a way of life that had endured for centuries in England ceased to be.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Curb appeal, minus the curb

"...............write to the king
that which I durst not speak: his present gift
Shall furnish me to those Italian fields,
where noble fellows strike: war is no strife
To the dark house and the detested wife."

                                             All's Well That Ends Well     (II, iii)

Shakespeare's Bertram, Count of Rousillon, doesn't mince his words: he toes the line that warriors drew long before Achilles stood outside the walls of Troy, waiting for Hector.

Honor is won on the field of battle, not within the confines of the home. Bertram makes a comic allusion to domestic arguments ferocious enough to make war a mere holiday picnic in comparison. No doubt he wins the nodding approval of his follower Parolles, who refers to stay-at-homes as "wearing their honor in a box unseen."

Shakespeare's reference to "the dark house" would not have been lost on the average Elizabethan playgoer: most Tudor homes were pretty dark. Leaded glass windows of any size were a luxury that few could afford. Glass was expensive, and to make matters worse, windows were at times also taxed, as were the hearths in a dwelling. Windows also made it harder to keep rooms warm, and made a building less secure, always a consideration when times turned violent. And in a turbulent city like London, street violence was all too often just around the corner and on the move.

Despite these drawbacks, there were noblemen with deep pockets in both town and country who regarded glass windows as a luxury well worth having. A landowner like Agecroft Hall's William Dauntesey could afford to have sizable windows in his manor house. Clearly, Dauntesey had attained some sense of security by the time he had his portrait painted in 1566, when William Shakespeare was two years old. That portrait of Dauntesey still hangs at Agecroft Hall.

The relatively large windows not only added light to the rooms of the house but served as an unambiguous symbol of wealth and status. In the second of two views of Agecroft Hall posted above, it is evident that the more ornate and extensive oak timbering and large lower-level windows visible in the wing on the left reflect a time during Agecroft's construction in Lancashire when its owners felt most prosperous, and most willing to spend money to impress.

When times got tighter financially (and deforestation made good English oak harder to come by), the oak half-timbering became less elaborate as newer wings were added to the manor house during the Jacobean era and thereafter. At least the Elizabethans didn't have to worry about whether their houses had curb appeal: there were no curbs to speak of.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

I drink, therefore I am?

"Thou art so fat-witted, with drinking of old sack
and unbuttoning thee after supper and sleeping
upon benches after noon, that thou hast forgotten
to demand that truly which thou wouldst truly
know. What a devil hast thou to do with the time of
the day?"

                                                                 Henry IV, Part 1       (I, ii)

To amuse himself, Shakespeare's Prince Hal gives that old drunken fatso, Sir John Falstaff, a hard time about his gourmandizing ways. Falstaff loves to drink, to eat, to chase tavern wenches, to put coinage in his pocket with as little physical effort as possible. Yet he soars to the Icarian heights of Shakespeare's imagination and becomes, aside from Hamlet, the playwright's most memorable character.

He is refreshingly unapologetic about who he is, what little (if anything) he's willing to fight and kill for, or what he's willing to lie, booze, or snooze through in order to make his life more comfortable. He'll take on the world with a cup of wine in his hand, or not at all.

Pictured above, in the collection of Agecroft Hall, is a coconut shell goblet, made with English silver around 1640. It is not nearly as finely crafted or as ornate as an essentially similar goblet that Queen Elizabeth had arranged to be made from a coconut shell given to her by her favorite seafaring rogue, Sir Francis Drake, after Drake returned to England following a circumnavigation of the globe. That was in 1580, when William Shakespeare was sixteen.

Drake and his crew had done more than circle the earth: they had harassed Spanish shipping and silver mining operations, particularly along the Pacific coasts of South and Central America, making off across the Pacific with an enormous load of loot that would leave the English back home in a state of open-mouthed astonishment. Queen Elizabeth had winked at Drake's privateering, since she herself had a financial interest in his activities. Elizabeth wasn't stupid: she realized that Spain's loss was essentially her own nation's gain. Looking the other way while Drake enjoyed a round of high-seas pilfering seemed easy enough, so that's exactly what she did.

Elizabeth made her admiration of Drake quite clear when she had him knighted on the deck of his ship, the Golden Hind, for his exploits. It was said by many, including Sir Francis Drake himself, that no man knew more about sailing a ship, and his world-circling and piratical saga had proven it was indeed so.

Agecroft Hall's coconut cup helps provide us with an idea of how enamored the English and Europeans on the continent had become with exotic objects from the faraway places that were coming to light in this new age of exploration. One might think of coconut shells from the Pacific or similarly exotic flora and fauna as a bit like the moon rocks of our own day: so many of these things were totally new to the eyes of the English, and their curiosity would only grow.

By the time Shakespeare was writing The Tempest (probably 1611), his last known play without collaboration, he was using the imagery of an alluring new world filled with unfamiliar sights and sounds to craft scenes that have enchanted playgoers for four centuries.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Play it again, Ham

"......and there is much music, excellent voice
in this little organ; yet cannot you make it speak..."

                                                                 Hamlet        (III, ii)

Hamlet is steamed that his fair-weather friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are trying to manipulate him, spy on him, "play upon" him like one might play upon a pipe. Over the centuries, the scene has been frequently acted with Hamlet getting violently hot under the collar, even using the pipe to momentarily choke Guildenstern, who has proven himself no friend but a mere lapdog to the usurping King Claudius.

Shakespeare makes this scene a bit unusual in that he uses music as a metaphor not in its more commonplace associations with harmony, pleasure and peace but rather with conflict and betrayal. There are numerous instances in his works - in The Tempest, Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night's Dream, to name only several, where the playwright uses the sounds and imagery of music to convey a comforting sense of tranquility.

Pictured above, in the collection of Agecroft Hall, is a bellows-driven portable table organ, made in the early 17th century in Italy, that wondrous land of all things refined in the eyes of the Elizabethan English. Although the instrument retains its late Renaissance Italianate exterior, its inner workings were restored  during the Victorian era.

Presently placed in Agecroft's Great Parlor, it serves as a reminder that Shakespeare's age was well acquainted with the pleasures of what we've come to call chamber music. It was de rigueur for the accomplished Renaissance courtier to possess at least a modicum of musical skill.

Perhaps not surprising in an age when people had to do more to amuse themselves than simply turn on the telly.

From his day until ours, it's astonishing how much music has been inspired by the works of William Shakespeare, either directly or indirectly. Grove's Dictionary of Music lists about 800 musical works based on the playwright's plays, poems, and sonnets. Any list of the most highly regarded compositions would have to include Felix Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Giuseppe Verdi's operatic works Macbetto, Otello, and Falstaff  (with a libretto that combines the fat knight's best moments in The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV); Beethoven's Coriolan overture. It has been said that it would be easier to list the few great composers who didn't write any works based on Shakespeare than to try to list all those who did.

In music, passion is the coinage of the realm. Who better to turn to than Shakespeare?