shakespeare agecroft1

shakespeare agecroft1

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Back to the books

Every Tuesday for the past year and a half, we've added a new posting to Shakespeare: The Age and Agecroft Hall in hopes that the historical artifacts, the English gardens, and the remarkable Agecroft building itself might lend a modicum of insight into the late sixteenth and early seventeenth-century world that William Shakespeare lived in, wrote in, dreamed in.

Since his works have proven to be essentially timeless, we hope that the observations recorded in the postings below (there are more than 100) won't become irrelevant any time soon. In addition, the reader might also enjoy visiting the Agecroft Hall blog , which offers a look at some of the graphic art, paintings, and book illustrations that have depicted Shakespeare's works over the centuries. We've also produced a video about Agecroft Hall, to be viewed by connecting with this link: .

Shakespeare's was an age of exploration of a New World and of new ways of thinking, an age when one's religious convictions could be matters of life and death. War, that great red arbitrator, held sway over so much that transpired during the playwright's lifetime, and its ravages remind us that in many ways, little has changed since then.

And then, as now, a bit of laughter could ease the pain.

Taken as a whole, it was a world that deserves attention for having fired the imagination of the greatest writer in the English language. In "this other Eden, demi-paradise,"  William Shakespeare will go on tending his garden.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Don't forget to duck, Part II

It isn't surprising that William Shakespeare, having immersed himself in London's theatrical world and its need for lively yet insightful writing, should come to see parallels between life and the stage. The stage had become his life before he had reached the age of thirty. It had helped him put clothes on his back and bread on his table. He was not one to overlook such a sublime metaphor, or much else, for that matter.

Even the most casual perusal of his plays brings to light his fascination with the subject. Shakespeare returns to it again and again, in stage situations ranging from the tragic to the comic. Perhaps he was revealing a bit of defensiveness about his chosen profession: if his art didn't imitate life, then what was it good for? Would not theatrical writing then deserve the sneering disapprobation it received from so many of the literati of his age?

A few of Shakespeare's striking allusions to the stage and its probing of the human condition are included below, along with a photograph from a rehearsal at Agecroft Hall of Henry V, with its myriad sword-flashing battle scenes on "the vasty fields of France."

"I have heard that guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been so struck to the soul that presently
They have proclaimed their malefactions.
.......The play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King."

                                                        Hamlet   (II, ii)

"When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools.

                                                        King Lear   (IV, v)

"Tut, I can counterfeit the deep tragedian,
Tremble and start at wagging of a straw,
Speak, and look back, and pry on every side,
Intending deep suspicion; ghastly looks
Are at my service, like enforced smiles."

                                                        Richard III   (III,v)

"Like a dull actor now
I have forgot my part, and I am out
Even to a full disgrace.

                                                        Coriolanus  (V, iii)

"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts."

                                                        As You Like It    (II, vii)

"Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle.
Life's but a walking shadow; a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale 
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury;
Signifying nothing."

                                                        Macbeth    (V, v)

"O, for a muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention:
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene."

                                                        Henry V    (Prologue) 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A plague on so many houses

"All the contagion of the south light on you,
You shames of Rome! you herd of - Boils and plagues
Plaster you o'er; that you may be abhorr'd
Farther than seen, and one infect another
Against the wind a mile!"

                                                         Coriolanus   (I, iv) 

Shakespeare's hotheaded Caius Marcius is a warrior, and has nothing but scorn for men who aren't. He doles out contempt for anyone who flinches in battle, on either side of the line. Curses are never far from his lips. He wishes cowards the worst: he wishes them plague.

A more nightmarish curse would be hard to imagine. As Barbara Tuchman's masterful A Distant Mirror (1978) makes abundantly clear, the waves of bubonic plague that swept over Europe in the fourteenth century, returning periodically for centuries thereafter, were devastating almost beyond imagining. 

In 1347, there arrived in the port of Messina in Sicily several Genoese trading vessels with large numbers of dead and dying men slumped at the oars.  This was among the earliest indications that a descent of the peoples of Europe into an earthly hell had begun: the rat and flea-borne Black Death would claim roughly a third of the European population, with some areas being even more tragically affected.

Whole towns and villages were wiped out; priests were afraid to administer last rites to the dying for fear of catching the pestilence; healthy family members fearfully abandoned infected brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers. Some villages were left with not enough people living to bury the dead. Tuchman mentions cases in which physicians (whose healing practices were primitive and often ill-conceived) would contract the disease from their patients and die more quickly than did those same patients.

And perhaps surprisingly, the young seemed to be even more susceptible to plague than the old. The recurrence of plague, coupled with high infant mortality rates that were the norm in Shakespeare's age, must have made for precarious childhoods. It all must have made children seem all the more precious, all the more fragile.

Pictured above and presently displayed in the South Bedchamber at Agecroft Hall is a child's highchair, made of oak in England c1640 and displaying carved motifs in a style clearly influenced by the Italian Renaissance. The English in Shakespeare's time seemed to find all things Italian to be touchstones of taste. If such decorative touches could be made to grace the back of a child's chair, so much the better. Evidently some kind of belt or sash was used to make sure the child didn't fall from the chair. Surely, the child already faced enough in the way of danger.

According to archival records, children's chairs of the seventeenth century were frequently much like miniature versions of the panel-back chair used by adults, and often made to match a set used for dining. The chair is well-made and durable, reflecting the English preference for three types of wood in the building of furniture: oak, oak, and oak.

As has been well documented, Shakespeare and other members of London's theatrical profession had their lives periodically disrupted by recurring outbreaks of plague, which prompted lengthy and repeated closings of public theaters for fear that they were among the epicenters of contagion. The pestilence even affected Shakespeare's literary output: scholars generally believe that he wrote much if not most of his non-theatrical poetry, including Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, and perhaps his sonnets as well, at times when the theaters were closed and he felt compelled to exercise his talents elsewhere.