23 April 2023
Shakespeare before Shakespeare
This year marks 400 years since the publication of one of the most influential books in the English language: Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies (1623), better known as the Shakespeare First Folio. Several plays are found in this collected edition for the very first time, including Macbeth, Twelfth Night and The Tempest. We might have remained ignorant of Prospero's books and 'Out damned spot' if this volume had never been published.
But some of the characters that are most familiar to us in Shakespeare's plays pre-date his time, and are featured in medieval manuscripts held at the British Library. Here we pick out five of our favourites.
Richard is delivered to the citizens of London: Harley MS 1319, f. 53v
King Richard II ruled England from the death of his grandfather, Edward III, in 1377, until he was deposed in 1399, and replaced on the throne by Henry IV (Part One). He is perhaps best remembered in Shakespeare's version of his life for the speech by John of Gaunt (Richard's uncle), 'This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle, this earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England'. A century after Richard's death, Jean Creton wrote La Prinse et mort du roy Richart at the request of Philip, Duke of Burgundy, one copy of which is Harley MS 1319. This manuscript contains some 16 miniatures illustrating events that culminated in the overthrow of Richard II, including one showing the king being handed over to the citizens of London.
Antony and Cleopatra (comin' at ya)
The double suicide of Antony and Cleopatra: Royal MS 14 E V, f. 339r
Shakespeare's fated lovers are illustrated in a host of medieval manuscripts. Their story is told in Giovanni Boccaccio's De casibus virorum illustrium, as translated into French as Des Cas des nobles hommes et femmes. We're particularly enamoured of this copy made in Bruges around 1480 for King Edward IV of England. Antony is poised to stab himself with his long pointed sword, while Cleopatra is shown standing next to him, two asps clasped to her naked bosom. Her headdress is very un-Egyptian, owing more to medieval fashion than that of the 1st century BC.
A page from the Chronicle of Melrose, including the entry for 1050, recording that Macbeth had visited Rome: Cotton MS Faustina B IX, f. 13r
We have blogged before about the real Macbeth. He was king of Scotland from 1040, when Duncan was killed in battle, until 1057, when Macbeth was himself killed by Malcolm at Lumphanan in Mar. The Chronicle of Melrose, dating from the 1170s, is one of the earliest narrative sources for Macbeth's reign, and reveals that he visited Rome in 1050, where he is said to have distributed alms. There is no mention in this account of daggers, witches or windswept heaths, no Banquo, Fleance or Macduff, no Lady Macbeth walking in her sleep.
Troilus and Cressida
The lovers, Troilus and Cressida: Add MS 15477, f. 35v
In 2012, at the Globe to Globe festival held in London, Troilus and Cressida was performed in the Māori language, notably including a challenge or haka at the beginning of the play. This reminds us how the story of the Trojan lovers has been re-imagined over the centuries, from Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, to William Walton's opera, and to the dramatic versions by both William Shakespeare and John Dryden. An early manuscript illustration is this copy of Guido delle Colonne's Historia destructionis Troiae, showing Troilus and Cressida in bed on the left and riding with Diomedes on the right.
The assassination of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March: Royal MS 18 E V, f. 355v
Also at Globe to Globe, an Italian company notoriously performed Shakespeare's Julius Caesar by omitting one of the central characters in the play, whose initials are JC (you didn't have to be there). One of the most famous scenes in that play, the assassination of Caesar, was recreated by the actors walking to the front of the stage, declaiming their speech, and marking a cross with chalk on a wooden chair (in place of stabbing their victim). The original scene is perhaps better understood in this illustration in the Histoire tripartite of Baudouin d'Avennes, made perhaps in Bruges in the 1470s. Et tu, Brute?
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