English and Drama blog

9 posts from August 2016

31 August 2016

Visual Verses: Thomas Watson’s Hekatompathia, or Passionate Century of Love, 1582.

by Christian Algar, Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

Poetry which attains popularity or critical acclaim often does so because it is perceived as beautiful or as something that makes some kind of meaningful impact on the senses, whether it be read privately or aloud. But what about poetry that actually looks beautiful or striking?

Historically, pattern poems or shape poems have generally struggled to be taken seriously as a literary form. To modern minds and senses this can perhaps be hard to understand – concrete poetry in art books for the coffee table, for example, are very collectible. There is also often an additional reverence for texts and illustrations contained in antiquarian works, especially when looking at Renaissance or early modern efforts in books from the hand-pressed print period.

The English poet, Thomas Watson (1555/6-1592), is the pioneer of English play with pattern poems. His Sonnet LXXXI, ‘A Pasquine Piller erected in the despite of Love’, published in Hekatompathia, or Passionate Century of Love, 1582, is probably the earliest printed pattern poem in English:


 Thomas Watson’s ‘A Pasquine Piller erected in the despite of Love’, 1582, British Library C.14.a.1

 We can wonder at the faces pulled by readers paging through a copy of Watson’s work upon seeing this.

The form of the pattern is that of a lozenge on a stem, it is a shape well founded in the pattern poems from the classical traditions of Greek and Latin literature. Typical Hellenic patterns which filtered down into English representations are axes, altars, eggs, wings syrinxes and these lozenges; all of which are now thought of as being quite ‘conservative’ or unadventurous. Whilst these and more extravagant shaped pattern poems were keenly revived on the continent, the enthusiasm was not matched in British literature. But Watson was well placed to exercise the continental fashion for pattern poems, he had spent time travelling in France and Italy, composing all his work in Latin; this collection of one hundred (“a century” of) songs was his first work in English. Watson was anxious about offering verse in English and his opening piece in Hekatompathia, “to the Friendly Reader” asks them to go easy on his poems. If Watson was worried about his use of the English idiom, he didn’t seem so concerned about using the form of pattern poetry which he had been exposed to as a vogue from his time on the continent.

Whilst A pasquine piller …, is without doubt beautiful and striking to look at in the first instance, it is also something much more than a pretty looking poem. It is also a puzzle, a ‘trick’ that draws on playful arithmetic. It cleverly produces an acrostic motto or ‘posy’, “amare est insanire”. Watson must have been mindful about the possible reception of the foreign and cosmopolitan influences of the verse in Hekatompathia, each poem is annotated with a short introduction. Written in the third person they introduce named poets, themes or styles to the English audience. They can be seen as attempts to popularise his erudite and novel material. The introduction to Sonnet LXXXI, says, “all such as are of indifferent capacitie, and have some skille in Arithmetike, by viewing this Sonnet following compiled by rule and number into the forme of a piller, may soon judge how much art and study the Author has bestowed in the same.” It explains the “antitheticall or Antisillabicall” structure and explains that the pillar is “Orchematicall”, meaning that it is founded by the skipping of number by rule and order.

If this sounds complicated, Watson was kind enough to provide an acrostic for the next Sonnet which goes some way to further illustrating his art and study:


 Watson’s acrostic Sonnet LXXXII, 1582, British Library C.14.a.1

If this still looks complicated, you can follow the guide to make sense of the trick using a later printed facsimile on pp 116-118 of Poems. Viz.:-The Ἐκατομπαθια or Passionate Centurie of Love. 1582, edited by Edward Arber (1870), which is freely available online in digital facsimile, courtesy of the partnership between the British Library and Google Books https://goo.gl/rmj6xF

So what of its success? Astonishingly, Hekatompathia appeared in one edition only prior to Arber’s series of English Reprints in mid Victorian times. It may require some understanding why critical opinion, the Popes, the Addisons and the Butlers denigrated pattern poems as idle fancies. But, this opinion amongst British Literature seems to have persisted as the critic and poet Francis Turner Palgrave, writing about Watson and his Pasquine Pillar in 1872, says that the ingenuities, the tricks and conceits (in the literary sense), “happily, recur nowhere else in the Hecatompathia.”.

Still, killjoys aside, some contemporaries were evidently impressed, just several decades following Watson’s sole edition containing this wonderful visual text, someone cared to transcribe some of his work by hand:


‘Thomas Watson. Looking Glasse for lovers’. British Library, Harley MS 3277, f.37

It is rewarding for us to compare the print and the script – one a typographical feat, the other no less impressively executed by hand. Visual texts have an immense aesthetic, but there is often more art and work going on than simply imposing a model on some verse. The poet is still capable of reflecting and conveying ‘profound’ or meaningful thoughts. Though so often dismissed, it should be worth looking at more representations of visual verse or texts in early printed works …


Some further reading:

Thomas Watson, Hekatompathia, or Passionate Century of Love, 1582C.14.a.1

[Unknown hand] ‘Thomas Watson. Looking Glasse for lovers. Transcribed 1633’. Harley MS 3277.

Dick Higgins. Pattern Poetry: Guide to an unknown literature. State University of New York Press, New York, 1987.

Margaret Church, The Pattern Poem. PhD Dissertation. Harvard, Cambridge, MA, 1944.

Francis T. Palgrave, Review of Poems. Viz.:-The Ἐκατομπαθια or Passionate Centurie of Love. 1582. The North American Review, Vol. 114, No. 234 (Jan., 1872).

Edward Arber, English Reprints. (No. 21) Thomas Watson. Poems … London, 1870.

26 August 2016

From Shakespeare to rock music: the history of the word ‘punk’

In light of the Library’s summer exhibition programme we thought we’d take a look at the links between punk and Shakespeare by exploring the evolution of the word since Elizabethan times. If this whets your appetite for Shakespearean verse then you can catch our Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition until 6 September. Punk 1976-78 is a free exhibition in our Entrance Hall running until 2 October.

Shakespeare was an early user of the word 'punk', which originally meant ‘female prostitute’. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the first recorded usage of the word is in a ballad called ‘Simon The Old Kinge’ composed some time before 1575. It warns men that drinking is a sin akin to keeping prostitutes: ‘Soe fellowes, if you be drunke, of ffrailtye itt is a sinne, as itt is to keepe a puncke’.

Not too long after that, Shakespeare used the word in Measure for Measure (written around 1603-04) where Lucio tries to explain Mariana’s cryptic denial that she is ‘neither maid, widow, nor wife’ by declaring ‘She may be a Puncke’ (5.1.178). It’s not surprising that the word crops up in this play given its preoccupation with sexual morality and its setting in a debauched Vienna where whoring is big business.

Over time the word has taken on different meanings. In the late 17th century the word began to be used to describe a boy or young man being kept by an older man for sex. A 1698 manuscript in the Bodleian Library contains the lyrics to a bawdy song, 'Women’s Complaint to Venus', containing the alarming line ‘The Beaus ... at night make a punk of him that's first drunk’.

Punk has subsequently been used as a derogatory insult of various kinds, from US prison slang for men being used for sex to a term for the young male companions of tramps, and then as general description of contemptible or worthless people, petty criminals, cowards, weaklings, amateurs, apprentices and inexperienced youths in general.

The popular use of the word to describe a type of rock music dates from 1971, when US rock journalist Dave Marsh used it to describe - retrospectively - 1960s garage band ? and the Mysterians. Stylistically similar groups would include the Seeds and the Standells.

Less well-known is the use of the term 'Punk Music' to advertise early shows by the New York minimalist electronics-and-vocals duo Suicide. This was slightly earlier, in late 1970.

Ramones in Park Lane - Copyright Danny Fields

Punk style: The Ramones in London, 1976. Photo © Danny Fields. My Ramones by Danny Fields is published by First Third Books.  

Later in the decade punk became the catch-all term for the type of music pioneered by the Ramones in New York and the Sex Pistols in London. The Ramones debut album contained a song '53rd & 3rd' told from the point-of-view of a male prostitute, and another titled 'Judy is a Punk', but it was probably Punk magazine, first published in January 1976 in New York, that had most to do with reviving the word.  

John Holmstrom, Ged Dunn and Legs McNeil created the magazine to cover the local music scene that centred around the club CBGB. Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain tells the whole story, and the British Library holds a complete run of the original journals.

In the UK, the term was not favoured by the leading lights of the new movement, and it took a while to stick. For example, in October 1976 a major article by Jonh Ingham in the music weekly Sounds was titled 'Welcome to the (?) Rock Special', suggesting that at that point nobody quite knew what to call it.

A month later however, the Sex Pistols swore on live TV. The next day, the word 'punk' was all over the newspapers, and - for better or worse - was here to stay.

by Zoë Wilcox, co-curator of Shakespeare in Ten Acts , Andy Linehan and Stephen Cleary, co-curators of Punk 1976-1978

23 August 2016

Last chance to see Shakespeare in Ten Acts

There are just two weeks left to see our exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts which must close on the 6th of September. If you haven’t yet got round to seeing it, here’s why you don’t want to miss out on what the TLS called a ‘dazzling show of shows’.


Items on display from Peter Brook's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1970 © Richard Eaton

Many of the items on display won’t be seen again for a long time, so this could be your one chance to see the manuscript of Sir Thomas More, the only surviving play-script in Shakespeare’s hand, as well as the Library’s only Shakespeare signature. The fragile first quarto edition of Hamlet – one of only two copies in the world – is also on display giving you a rare opportunity to see this alternative version of the play, oddly different from the one we’re so familiar with. Oh, and there are a couple of First Folios on display too of course.


A rare opportunity to see the scene written by Shakespeare for the play Sir Thomas More. © Richard Eaton

The exhibition begins by telling the story of Shakespeare’s early career, with early printed books showing how he went from being regarded as an ‘upstart crow’ to ‘honey-tongued Shakespeare’ in a mere six years. The Library’s collections also give a glimpse into Shakespeare’s reputation outside of the professional sphere, with a diary from 1602 recording contemporary gossip about Shakespeare getting one over on his friend Richard Burbage by bedding an admirer of his and wittily proclaiming his triumph with the line ‘William the Conqueror came before Richard III’.

While Shakespeare’s changing reputation is a thread that runs through the whole exhibition, performance is its main theme and we lead off our Ten Acts by exploring the contexts in which Hamlet and The Tempest were first performed by Shakespeare’s company. Hamlet would have premiered in London at the recently built Globe theatre, which can be seen at the centre of Visscher’s famous two-metre-long panorama of London in the year 1600 which you really need to see in person to appreciate its scale and attention to detail (the heads of traitors mounted on spikes on the south side of London Bridge add a gruesome touch to the scene). Another favourite map from our collections sets the scene for The Tempest section by showing the site of what later became the Blackfriars Playhouse amidst some charming details of 16th century London life, from the tilt yard at Whitehall Palace to cattle paddling in the Thames.


Looking at 'A view of London about the Year 1560', London, 1737. The British Library Maps Crace Port.1.8. © Richard Eaton

Researching the history of the Blackfriars Playhouse, where we believe The Tempest was performed around about 1610-11, was one of the most interesting aspects of the exhibition preparations. What emerged from my reading was an area of London that was a melting pot of Puritans and religious refugees, aristocrats and artisans. Of all the historic performances featured, I most wanted to transport myself back in time to this one. I like to imagine myself entering the narrow streets of Blackfriars, buying a feather to adorn my best theatre-going attire and joining the crowd climbing the winding staircase of the former monastery, following the strains of lute music to reach the candlelit chamber in which some of Shakespeare’s greatest plays were performed.

While this slightly later engraving of an indoor theatre (see below) gives an idea of what the Blackfriars may have looked like, other items in this section convey a sense of the theatre’s reputation as the destination of choice for the wealthy elite (Queen Henrietta Maria even attended plays there in the 1630s). You can also see the Privy Council’s copy of a petition against the opening of the theatre, on loan from The National Archives, which astonishingly lists the names of Shakespeare’s patron and his publisher as supporters of the cause.

The Wits

Frontispiece to The Wits, 1673. The British Library C.71.h.23.

If part of what appeals about Shakespeare is the glamour and intrigue of the Jacobethan world, there are other treats in store that go beyond Shakespeare and his canon: the infamous accusations against Christopher Marlowe made by the spy Richard Baines shortly before Marlowe’s murder, theatre designs by Inigo Jones on loan from the Devonshire collection at Chatsworth, and Ben Jonson’s presentation copy of ‘The Masque of Queens’, written out in his best handwriting as a gift for James I following its performance at court in 1609.

Meanwhile, the practical business of staging plays in Shakespeare’s time is perhaps most powerfully confronted when you see a ‘stage plot’ which once hung backstage to remind Richard Burbage and his fellow cast members when to make their entrances. There are only six surviving documents like this in the world and the plot for The Dead Man’s Fortune is the best preserved example. Or you might prefer the cannonball on loan from the Museum of London which was dug up in the excavations of the Rose Theatre and may once have been used to create thunder sound effects.

The rest of the exhibition goes beyond Shakespeare’s own time to look at how his plays have been re-interpreted by subsequent generations. You can see how Shakespeare’s works have been reinvented by the likes of genius theatre director Peter Brook, cult film-maker Derek Jarman and composer of West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein. There are stunning costumes born from the imaginations of Jenny Tiramani, Oliver Messel, Sally Jacobs and London College of Fashion. The work of numerous visual artists is represented including François Boitard’s contributions to the earliest illustrated edition of Shakespeare, the enchanting engravings produced from the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery, and a video of Davy and Kristin McGuire’s Ophelia’s Ghost.


Looking at film adaptations of The Tempest by Derek Jarman and Peter Greenaway. © Richard Eaton

There’s also a strong social history aspect to the exhibition, with two ‘Acts’ that explore widening participation in Shakespeare through the years with women taking to the professional stage in 1660 and the first British performance by the black Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge in 1825. Some of my favourite items from these sections include the trinkets depicting gutsy 17th century actresses Dora Jordan and George Anne Bellamy (on loan from the Folger Shakespeare Library), the beautiful and hilarious playbills from our 200,000 strong collection, and James Northcote’s painting of Othello, identified as a portrait of Ira Aldridge in the 1980s (on loan from Manchester City Art Galleries).


Othello, the Moor of Venice by James Northcote, 1826, on loan from Manchester City Art Galleries. © Richard Eaton

There is all this to see plus film and video clips of performances and interviews with leading Shakespearean actors Simon Russell Beale, Samuel West, Harriet Walter, Maxine Peake, Hugh Quarshie and Sara Kestelman. While you’re there, look out for some of the quirky oddities we’ve planted here and there: a morris-dancing stunt, a play-writing pig, Shakespeare forgeries and the skull that Sarah Bernhardt used when she played Hamlet in 1899. Come prepared for a couple of hours packed with things to see and listen to, and be warned that it’s somewhat chilly in the gallery to protect the items so don’t forget your cardigan - or make like this Blackfriars play-goer, get yourself a new cloak, throw it closer about your shoulders and enjoy the show.


The Life of a Satirical Puppy Called Nim (1657) by Thomas May. The British Library G.1042.


Shakespeare in Ten Acts runs until the 6th of September and tickets can be booked online via the British Library Box Office.

19 August 2016

William Shakespeare and The Learned Pig

There have been many learned pigs in history but only one, to the best of my knowledge, that has claimed credit for writing the plays of William Shakespeare. Indeed by 1786, when The Story of the Learned Pig, by an officer of the Royal Navy was published, complete with its claim regarding the authorship of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and certain other plays knowledgeable animals of one kind or another were in danger of becoming somewhat passé. ‘Marocco the thinking horse’, for example, had made his appearance in the late 16th century and was able to follow the commands of his owner William Bankes with uncanny ability. Marocco could play dead, walk on his hind legs, urinate on command and even, apparently, separate and indicate the innocent maids in the audience from the disreputable harlots. Clever, certainly, but not as clever as writing The Tempest.

The first performing pig didn’t arrive on the scene for almost another 100 years later. Trained by a Scotsman, Samuel Bisset, the original learned pig used cards printed with individual letters and numbers to answer questions - indicating particular cards with its snout to respond to enquiries about the number of people in the audience, the time of day and even on occasions enquiries about what certain ladies in the audience were thinking at any given time. The show was a great success, and after Bisset’s death the pig went into new management with a Mr Nicholson who exhibited the pig in Nottingham in 1784 and then in London in 1785. Tours of provincial towns and a trip to Europe swiftly followed. The interest aroused by this trail-blazing learned pig caused considerable debate regarding how the pig had been trained and the extent of its cognitive abilities. Was the pig really answering questions, or was it simply responding to certain sounds or movements made by its owner in order to give pre-determined answers? Whatever the truth of the performance the idea of pigs as intelligent creatures took hold in the popular imagination. One only has to think of the pigs Snowball and Napoleon being the driving intellectual forces in George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) for a modern literary example.

      Downfall 02

(Above: The Downfall of Taste and Genius, or, The World as it Goes by Samuel Collings – a satirical print from 1784 lampooning the public’s taste for performing animals. Here a learned pig leads the charge against the arts with a copy of Shakespeare’s plays lying abandoned in the assault)

Further learned pigs soon followed, including William Frederick Pinchbeck’s ‘Pig of Knowledge’, which was displayed in America in 1798 and even met President John Adams. Curiously Pinchbeck’s pig inspired considerable discussion, some of which took a fairly dark tone with many believing Pinchbeck had used witchcraft to control the animal while others claimed the pig’s ability to answer questions was evidence of reincarnation – the pig being inhabited by a soul that must once have animated a human being. Later, in the early 19th century, ‘Toby the Sapient Pig’ was exhibited in London by the illusionist Nicholas Hoare. Indeed such was the interest in Toby that in around 1817 he even published his autobiography – The life and adventures of Toby, the sapient pig: with his opinions on men and manners. Written by himself – although interestingly this was not the first time a learned pig had seen his memoirs appear in print, something which takes us back to 1786, The Story of the Learned Pig, by an officer of the Royal Navy and, perhaps even more strangely (if that’s possible) to William Shakespeare.

  Learned Pig 02

(Above: The Story of the Learned Pig by an Officer of the Royal Navy. London, 1786.)

In the Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition The Story of the Learned Pig is displayed in a section exploring 'bardolatry' – the word used to describe the often uncritical fascination that accompanies all things Shakespearean, and how sometimes that fascination takes a turn towards the bizarre. In The Story of the Learned Pig a soul describes how he has successively migrated through various humans and animals before finally ending up in the body of a pig. Earlier incarnations had included Romulus, one of the mythical founders of Rome and Brutus, the murderer of Julius Caesar.  At one point the soul was reincarnated as a man called ‘Pimping Billy’, who worked as a horse-holder at a playhouse (where Shakespeare was regularly in attendance) and was the real author of the plays – the Immortal Bard having simply stolen Pimping Billy’s ideas and words. Finally the soul moves into the body of a pig, who then presents his personal reminiscences to the author. As the pig remarks Shakespeare ‘has been fathered with many spurious dramatic pieces: Hamlet, Othello, As You Like It, The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ of ‘which I confess myself to be the author’.

Although humorous, and a satire upon how our fascination with performing animals, circus tricks and the seemingly magical often exceeds our fascination with great art, the book plays profoundly upon our interest in all things relating to Shakespeare. After all, a pig that claimed to have written the works of John Fletcher or Francis Beaumont would be one thing, but a pig that claimed to have written the works of Shakespeare? Now that’s a whole different level of porcine achievement and greatness.

Shakespeare in Ten Acts runs until September 6th 2016.

16 August 2016

Celebrating poetry pamphlets: new readings online

by Ian Cooke, Head of Contemporary British Published Collections

The call for entries to the Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets 2016 is now live. Each year, the awards celebrate publishers, illustrators and authors of new poetry pamphlets. For the 2015 awards, we invited our shortlisted poets to record readings from their pamphlets at the British Library. These recordings are now available on Soundcloud. Here are more details on the poets and readings:

Gill McEvoy, our award winner for 2015, reads from her pamphlet ‘The First Telling’, published by HappenStance press. The poems relate an experience of rape, the ‘tellings’ being sessions with a counsellor. In this recording, Gill McEvoy reads, ‘The First Telling’, ‘There’s a grey parrot’, ‘I touch the cigarette’, ‘Magpie’, and ‘In the bathroom, scrub skin’. The judges for the 2015 award commented, ‘we admired the way this pamphlet deals not just with trauma and its aftermath, but with the difficulty of articulating what has happened, the challenge of finding the right words. Form and content mesh together perfectly in poems that use the power of silence as well as the power of language’.

Anja Konig, was shortlisted for her first poetry pamphlet collection, ‘Advice for an Only Child’, published by Flipped Eye press. Anja reads ‘Not the Last Chapter’, ‘Triple Negative’, ‘She’s Good with her Hands’, and ’We are the Bees of the Invisible’. In shortlisting this pamphlet, the judges commented, ‘Anja Konig’s debut pamphlet is witty and inventive. There’s a surprise on every page – her short poems look slantwise at relationships, the female body and what it means to write. We found these poems unsparing, yet lifted by a light touch’.

Peter Riley’s ‘The Ascent of Kinder Scout’ is a pamphlet-length poem that refers to the Kinder Trespass of 1932; a protest against the permanent enclosure of land for the purposes of grouse shooting. Published by Longbarrow Press, this is the eleventh section of a work provisionally entitled North. Describing this work, the 2015 judges said: ‘Evoking the Dark Peak in Derbyshire with startling clarity, we felt this pamphlet brilliantly captured what it’s like to look to landscapes for resolution, only to be humbled by the scale of them. Expansive but exact, it takes in the history of a trespass, the ghost of a lost friend and the future of a broken nation’.

Alan Jenkins reads two poems from ‘Clutag Five Poems Series No 2’, published by Clutag. The poems in this pamphlet are all linked by the Thames and places close to it in South West London, and the memories and personal associations that these places hold. In this recording, Jenkins reads ‘Beckett’s Wharf’, and ‘Upper Mall’. Our 2015 judges wrote, ‘Set against the backdrop of the Thames, these are haunting, understated elegies that often find the narrator challenging his own grief, trying to explain the source of it, trace it beyond the immediacy of loss. Assured and elegant, these poems moved us deeply’. In addition to these poets, the judges also shortlisted David Tait’s ‘Three Dragon Day’ for the 2015 award. David, who works as a teacher in China, was unable to attend the 2015 awards. The title of his collection refers to a Chinese phrase for describing heavy fog. The awards, supported by the Michael Marks Charitable Trust, celebrate the vitality, diversity and sheer talent of poets and poetry publishers in the UK. The shortlisted poets for 2015 demonstrated the range and power of contemporary poetry. As the entries start to come in for 2016, we are looking forward to an equally rich, exciting and moving collection of pamphlets.

11 August 2016

"All that glitters is not gold" - Curator's Choice

The final co-curator of Shakespeare in Ten Acts, Greg Buzwell, Curator of Contemporary Literary Archives, tells us about his favourite item in the exhibition.

One of the comments frequently uttered during curatorial meetings for the Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition was ‘You can’t go wrong with Vivien Leigh’. Hundreds of potential exhibits were discussed, considered and discarded during the planning stage but whenever something relating to Vivien Leigh cropped up – a costume, a photograph or even an idea for a display panel – it would somehow always make the final cut. After all, Vivien Leigh was cinematic and theatrical royalty – winning awards for her performances in iconic screen roles such as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939) and Blanche duBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and achieving critical acclaim on the stage, not least for her appearances in Shakespeare – Ophelia, Cleopatra, Juliet and Lady Macbeth among them. Leigh achieved that rare combination of both critical and commercial success. Whatever the indefinable nature and mix of qualities that, taken together, combine to make someone a star she possessed in abundance. When it came to finalising the poster for the exhibition there were several choices but, unsurprisingly, the design featuring Vivien Leigh was the one that ultimately came to represent the show. After all, you can’t go wrong with Vivien Leigh.


Above: The poster for Shakespeare in Ten Acts. Vivien Leigh as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Old Vic Theatre, London, 1937. Photography by J W Debenham, Mander & Mitchenson / ArenaPal

One of the sections in the Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition looks at performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in detail, focusing primarily on Peter Brook’s revolutionary production of the play at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1970 but containing a prelude in which the rich romantic history of Dream is explored. It is this section that contains my favourite item in the show, namely the headdress designed by Oliver Messel and worn by Vivien Leigh in the 1937 staging of the play at the Old Vic, the very headdress she is wearing in the photograph reproduced on the poster.

The director of this staging, Tyrone Guthrie, along with his designer, Oliver Messel, deliberately set out to recreate the romance and visual spectacle of the great Victorian productions of the play, productions that had been swathed in opulence and excess. Guthrie and Messel strived to ‘make a union between the words of Shakespeare, the music of Mendelssohn, and the architecture of the Old Vic’. Indeed Guthrie felt that the well-known music written for the play by Felix Mendelssohn was ‘redolent of crimson and gold opera houses, of operatic fairies in white muslin flying through groves of emerald canvas’. Messel’s designs, of which the headdress is a fine example, perfectly echoed Guthrie’s vision.


Above: Fit for a Fairy Queen, The dazzling headdress, currently on loan to the British Library from the V&A, made by Oliver Messel and worn by Vivien Leigh in her performance as Titania. 1937. © Victoria & Albert Museum

Messel understood that theatre is an art form which thrives on heightened realism. It doesn’t especially matter, in terms of design, what a fairy crown is made of so long as, under the lights and in performance, it looks sufficiently dazzling for the audience to believe it is what it claims to be. The headdress Messel designed for Leigh has a wire base concealed by brown paper tape painted silver. Pink flowers, again made from paper, are tied by thread to the wire base along with black, gold, green and silver leaves, made from a mixture of metallic paper, painted paper and gauze. Gold-coloured beads, rhinestones and imitation pearls are also used, along with strips of silver ribbon. Parts of the headdress are even covered in clear sellotape. The materials could hardly be more prosaic, and yet the headdress is a sublime example of the set-designer’s art. Under lights, on the stage, during the magical spell cast by a theatre performance (and, yes, worn by someone like Vivien Leigh) this fragile collection of everyday materials appeared entirely appropriate, and suitably magical to adorn a fairy queen.

The 1937 production at the Old Vic, which also starred Robert Helpmann as Oberon, Ralph Richardson as Bottom and Anthony Quayle as Demetrius brilliantly realised its intentions. As the critic Herbert Farjeon observed upon witnessing the final scene of the play ‘You can almost see our young Queen [Victoria] leaning forward in one of the boxes’, such was its success at recreating 19th-century theatrical spectacle although, in fact, it was actually the young Princess Elizabeth who was in the audience on one occasion, brought along by the Queen Mother to witness her first Shakespearean production. Genuine royalty in the audience undoubtedly, but the real romance and magic was taking place on the stage.

Shakespeare in Ten Acts runs until the 6th September 2016.

09 August 2016

What Are You Reading? #NationalBookLoversDay

Today in honour of National Book Lovers Day we asked the twittersphere what you are all reading!

If you want some inspiration for what to read next -- why not peruse the responses below? I know a few of them are going on my list...


08 August 2016

Nahum Tate’s King Lear: A Happy Tale?

by Julian Walker

I first encountered Nahum Tate’s adaptation of King Lear when studying the play for A level. The revelation that Tate had altered the text to provide a happy ending provoked laughter from the class; Tate was set aside with Bowdler as ridiculous and inconsequential. I never looked at Tate again until his version of King Lear appeared in Shakespeare in Ten Acts; and its inclusion in the schools’ workshops gives an opportunity to revisit the play itself, and to consider it from Tate’s viewpoint.

Lear front page

Title page from David Garrick’s prompt book for his 1756 production of Lear.

Tate’s version removes the Fool completely, has Cordelia and Edgar fall in love, and has Lear retire, alive and recovered in his mind, at the end of Act V. Some of the resulting text is not brilliant:


My Edgar, Oh!


My dear Cordelia, Lucky was the Minute

Of our Approach, the Gods have weigh'd our Suffrings;

W' are past the Fire, and now must shine to Ages.

But there is pathos in the story. Lear gracefully cedes power to Cordelia after a moment’s thought that he might retain his throne:

Old Lear shall be

A King again.

And there is a touching line where he recognizes that Regan and Goneril were indeed his daughters:

Ingratefull as they were, my Heart feels yet

A Pang of Nature for their wretched Fall;

with Tate nicely picking up the nature/unnatural trope. Partly Tate’s version was a restoration of an earlier form of the story, itself relating to Holinshed’s version, in which Cordelia and her husband, the Prince of Gallia, successfully restore Leir to the throne, which he retains for two years, being succeeded by Cordelia.

By the time we come to present this in workshops, we have looked at a case of translations of Shakespeare’s plays into several languages, adaptations of Shakespeare into musicals, puppet plays and ballet, as well as the range of changes both allowed and demanded by the nature of drama in four centuries of changing sensibilities, including negotiated changes of gender, disability and skin-colour. While changing the ‘story’ seems to be the most challenging alteration, we tend to forget that Shakespeare was a changer of stories (the first time his name appears in print on a playscript it is as someone who has ‘corrected and augmented’ the text); Tate’s alteration brings Shakespeare back into a context of continual adaptation.

We should therefore present Tate’s version as something more than an oddity; it was the standard performing version for decades, with Shakespeare’s text being only gradually reintroduced from 1756 - the role of the Fool was brought back only in 1838. Lucy Munro in her essay on the restoration of King Lear in Shakespeare in Ten Acts states that Restoration audiences ‘had begun to demand greater plausibility, sentiment and decorum in tragedy, and Shakespeare’s plays were regularly adapted to suit their tastes’. By 1660 the theatres had been closed for 18 years, effectively removing a generation of playgoing. The tragedies of the new playwrights, Dryden and Boyle particularly, with rhyming couplets and strong sentiments of nobility and heroism, were at odds with Shakespeare’s coincidences of plot and down-to-earth references; noble sentiments demanded noble acts. Pepys, after seeing Romeo and Juliet in 1662, described it as ‘a play of itself the worst that ever I heard in my life’; he also had mixed feelings about the Dryden/Davenant adaptation of The Tempest, which he saw in 1667. If Shakespeare was to survive it needed to be brought into the modern era; the First Quarto of Macbeth was published in 1673, followed a year later by the Second Quarto, with ‘Alterations, Amendments, Additions and New Songs, as it’s now acted at the Dukes Theatre’.


Print depicting Mrs Cibber as Cordelia in Act III of Nahum Tate's King Lear, after a painting by Peter Van Bleek, copyright V&A Museum. On display in Shakespeare in Ten Acts until 6th September.

John Dryden (1631-1700) argued that Shakespeare’s work was remarkable, but lacked polish, that his work was great despite ignoring the rules of art. For the Restoration court, returning in 1660 after being exposed in exile to French and Italian operas and dramas and Spanish comedies, nature was not enough; though Dryden in his Essay of Dramatic Poesy said of Shakespeare that he ‘needed not the Spectacle of Books to read Nature; he look'd inwards and found her there’[1], the new sophisticated audiences demanded control, art and artifice. Dryden made versions of Shakespeare’s, Antony and Cleopatra (All For Love, 1677), and Troilus and Cressida, or Truth Found Too Late (1679), in the preface to which Dryden ‘undertook to remove that heap of Rubbish, under which many excellent thoughts lay wholly bury’d’. In these he was adapting Shakespeare’s plays to the new ideas of drama proposed by French critics.

Tate himself was a prolific writer, author of two noted tragedies, and a number of comedies. He was made Poet Laureate in 1692, and he should be generously remembered as the librettist of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, with the famous line ‘Remember me, but Ah forget my fate’. Despite the ridicule usually directed at the adaptation of Lear, David Hopkins, writing in the Dictionary of National Biography, offers another view: ‘his version of King Lear is arguably an intelligent response to features of Shakespeare's original which distinguished critics such as Dr Johnson have found equally perplexing and problematic’.

Offering a truthful summary of the themes of King Lear to school students is challenging; a moment’s consideration reveals that we are dealing with madness, the dismembering of the state, old age as total failure, bullying, fatal sibling rivalry (twice), exile, despair, disinheritance, gratuitous torture, civil war, a failed attempt at suicide, and a model of survival that depends on acting mad. Shakespeare offers us a story without redemption, a devastating story, about the breaking of society, the state, individuals. As in all spectacle, we the audience are complicit, by our presence we allow it to happen. King Lear, like all great tragedy, asks us – can you bear this? But the totality of its devastation, like Oedipus, takes us to the point where a negative answer is comprehensible, and where Tate offered a sympathetic alternative to the audiences of his time.

Julian Walker leads workshops for the schools programme for the Learning Department at the British Library. His latest book The Roar of the Crowd, an anthology of sporting literature, is published by the British Library. He has recently curated Shakespeare in Redbridge, at Valentines Mansion, Ilford.