English and Drama blog

On literature and theatre collections from the 16th century to the present day

21 posts categorized "Shakespeare"

15 March 2018

The “rich pageant” of historical playbills

By Christian Algar, Curator Printed Heritage Collections

If you will see a pageant truly play’d … like that of Shakespeare’s shepherds in the Forest of Arden, his setting for As You Like It, you can now also see a literal procession of hundreds of thousands of performances advertised on printed historic playbills held at the British Library. Nearly 100,000 intriguing and eye-catching bills have been digitised and are freely available to view online via Explore the British Library

Besides recording a great variety of entertainments (ventriloquism, acrobatics, conjuring and all kinds of performing animals)playbills provide as near an entire historical survey of the performance of British and Irish drama in the 18th and 19th centuries we could hope for. As can be expected, there are a great many examples of Shakespeare’s plays advertised on these playbills. Browsing through a period from the 1780s to the 1860s, we get an impression of the most frequently performed and popular Shakespeare plays such as Macbeth; Hamlet; and Romeo and Juliet. It’s fun to see these famous titles appear in a range of type and font sizes that are characteristic of historical playbills.

Playbills 1

 A collage of 19th century playbills for Shakespeare’s big plays

But to find any level of detail, you have to get your noses in and browse through the playbills because there’s never been the resource to catalogue them; that’s why the British Library has a crowdsourcing project called In the Spotlight to capture core details – like performance titles, genres and dates. This provides opportunity to uncover all kinds of interesting events and details associated with past performances.

Appearing in this procession of playbills is a performance of King Henry IV with a bonus celebration: a pageant to conclude a drama called, Shakespeare’s Jubilee: or, Stratford upon Avon.

PLaybills 2

Playbill for ‘Shakesperare’s Jubilee’ performed 20 February 1834. British Library Playbills 263

This pageant at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth was, “nearly a fac-simile of the Procession” at a festival held in Stratford in 1830. This festival, helpfully described in the exposition on the playbill, was founded on the three-day “Jubilee” of September 1769 in Stratford which was organised by the great actor David Garrick Despite being well attended by dignitaries from across the country, Garrick’s ‘Folly’ as it became known, was actually a bit of a farce. After opening to the salute of cannon and ending with fireworks, heavy rain and flooding postponed the planned grand procession. The idea was to stage a fully-costumed procession of the principal characters from Shakespeare’s plays carrying banners with dramatic quotes, and with recitals of famous lines for those looking on.

PLaybills 3

How it might have been: impression of the procession from 1769. British Library C.61.e.2

Garrick made up for the damp-squib in Stratford by staging further face-saving shows in London, but it was not the best start for the history of Shakespeare parades. The next big Stratford celebration in 1827 was met with apathy and after a further Pageant in 1830, the planned ‘triennial’ celebration did not take place again until 1847. But browse through these digitised playbills and you will find evidence that there were other Pageants for Shakespeare being held in regional theatres. Details on the verso of a Bristol playbill from 1821, list the plays and characters in an, “Order of the Pageant”.

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Order of the Bristol Shakespeare pageant. British Library Playbills 204

The local press seemed not to have made much of the show, Shakespeare quotes being predictably used to dub the pageant as “insubstantial” and “faded” (with no apologies to The Tempest).

The Bristol Pageant was held on Shakespeare’s birthday, April 23rd. But, the motive for the Plymouth show, held at the end of February, seems less apparent. Details from the playbill can help explain

A common feature on playbills tells us that the evening’s entertainment was, “For the Benefit of Mr. Henry, Artist, & Mrs. Henry”. Mr Henry’s, “annual appeal to the supporters of the Drama” at the top of the bill is aimed at selling tickets for the performance, the proceeds of which will go to Mr and Mrs Henry. This is a key feature of the economics of theatre history – an annual share of the night’s takings was a major contribution to those labouring to produce theatre.

Checking the local press helps try and trace how performances fared and further details fall into place. There are conflicting reviews of Mr Henry’s first ever performance as Falstaff, “he supported the Great Knight very cleverly and elicited much applause” says the Plymouth, Devonport and Stonehouse Herald, but other local press reports tell us, “it was a bold attempt – a fearful one – his success was certainly not proportionate to the boldness of the venture.” It seems that though Mr Henry was “fat enough” to pull off Falstaff, he did not know at moments what to say and that his part would have benefited from a more attentive reading, “without which Mr Henry can never expect to completely succeed”!

It would seem the reporter in The Devonport Telegraph is suggesting Mr Henry should not give up the day job and it is in yet another newspaper where we find a detail that explains the true meaning of Mr Henry the ‘Artist’ making reference to his capability for – DRAWING! So it would seem that Mr Henry likely worked on producing illustrated sets to decorate the stage. This is a good illustration in itself of how general theatre workers – not just actors – were given the opportunity to act in plays or performances they concocted for their own Benefit Night performance. Mr Henry, hoped to, “escape the charge of egotism” but clearly wished to associate himself with the works of the supreme English dramatist.

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Review in the ‘Plymouth & Devon Weekly Journal’, Feb 20, 1834 revealing the type of ‘artist’ Mr. Henry is. British Library NEWS6323

Playbills very often provide us with great descriptions and information. Close examination of the order or programme of the procession stimulates thought about the choice of plays, characters, quotations used in the procession. Is there significance in the order?

Playbills provide us with details of the musical elements of entertainment. The playbill tells us that The Mulberry Tree (written for the 1769 Jubilee by Charles Dibdin) was performed after Mr Henry’s pageant.

These advertisements provide a great source for studying dramatic literature and its interpretation on different stages – we are often treated to plot synopses, guides to the ‘action’, and signposts for moral lessons to be drawn by the audience. These can be used to estimate contemporary understandings of historical drama across the regions (all the playbills on In the Spotlight are currently from regional theatres.)

Shakespeare pageants are of historical importance – they are an expression of the Romantic conception of Shakespeare as supreme creator of character. The pairing and prominence of St George also links the identities of Shakespeare’s drama with an English national expression.

Playbills, like historical newspapers are full of potential rabbit holes. Looking for performances of the Tempest? Do try not to get distracted by this Bristol playbill from 1820 announcing that “a celebrated pedestrian’ will arrive on stage after walking 92 miles in 24 hours” - between pubs in Cheltenham and Bristol. All for a considerable sum, it seems.

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From British Library Playbills 204

All these performances recorded on playbills really do form what we all know as, “Life’s rich pageant” (which, disappointingly for armchair Shakespeare aficionados, is not a quote from the great poet, but simply an old English idiom.)

You can get your nose into more historical playbills and play a part in capturing the details by checking out https://www.libcrowds.com/collection/playbills

  Playbills 7

Further reading: https://community.libcrowds.com/d/14-playbills-background-reading-and-reference-sources  

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.

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.

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.


04 August 2016

Kemp’s Nine Days Wonder: Curator’s Choice

Tanya Kirk, Lead Curator, Printed Heritage Collections 1601-1900 and Co-Curator, Shakespeare in Ten Acts

For the last month of the Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition run, the other curators and I will be telling you a bit about some of our favourite exhibits.

One of my absolute favourites is a little book called Kemp’s Nine Days Wonder, published in 1600 and surviving in only a single copy (owned by the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, and kindly on loan to us from there).

The book was written by Will Kemp, an actor who had been the clown (or comedian) in Shakespeare’s company the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. He was famous for roles such as Falstaff in Henry IV Part 1, Dogberry in Much Ado about Nothing, and Peter in Romeo and Juliet. In 1599 there was some kind of disagreement within the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and Will Kemp resigned his shares in the company and left. In an unusual next move, he went on to perform a Morris dance from London to Norwich over the course of nine days, as a sort of publicity stunt and a way of raising money by betting on himself. Although it may seem to us a little odd, the Nine Days Wonder was fitting – Kemp was very famous for performing jigs, physical comedy afterpieces incorporating dance, which were performed after plays. Several dramatists of the period had complained that these ruined the mood at the end of a tragic play, and it’s been conjectured that this might have been an artistic difference between Kemp and the rest of Shakespeare’s company, which could have caused him to split from them.


In this pamphlet, Kemp describes the 110-mile journey, including the towns he visited, the people he met, and the various daring deeds he executed – such as jumping over a churchyard wall in Norwich, a leap so outstandingly high that to commemorate it, the shoes he’d been wearing were nailed to the wall of the Guildhall. With him were his tabor-player Thomas Slye, his servant William Bee and a man called George Sprat, who was there purely as an overseer of the task, to be sure Kemp didn’t cheat.

My favourite part of the account is Kemp’s description of what happens in the town of Sudbury. A strong, tall butcher offers to keep him company by dancing alongside him as far as Bury. Kemp accepts, but before they’ve travelled half a mile, the butcher gives up, protesting that he couldn’t keep pace with Kemp even for £100. As the butcher leaves, a ‘lusty country lass’ shouts that he’s a ‘faint hearted lout’ and says she could keep going for a mile even if it costs her her life. The crowd laugh at her, but she replies that if Kemp will lend her some bells, she’ll dance for a mile. Kemp writes,

I looked upon her, saw mirth in her eyes, heard boldness in her words, and beheld her ready to tuck up her russet petticoat, I fitted her with bells, which [s]he merrily taking, garnished her thick short legs, and with a smooth brow bid the taborer begin.

She does indeed keep pace with Kemp for a mile. Afterwards he gives her a crown piece to buy a drink, and calls her ‘my merry Maid Marian’. As a morris dancer myself (I’m a member of Cuckoo’s Nest Morris) I feel a great kinship with this unnamed woman – I hope she enjoyed her post-dance beer.

You can see Kemp’s Nine Days Wonder in Shakespeare in Ten Acts until 6 September.

28 July 2016

Richard Burbage and The Dead Man's Fortune

Over the next three weeks the curators of Shakespeare in Ten Acts will be picking their favourite items from the exhibition. First up is Zoë Wilcox.

Having curated Shakespeare in Ten Acts, I must admit somewhat sheepishly that my favourite item in the exhibition is actually not one that’s directly related to the man himself. It’s a document that hung backstage in an Elizabethan playhouse, the one last trace of a lost Elizabethan play called The Dead Man’s Fortune in which Shakespeare’s friend Richard Burbage appeared.

  Dead Mans Fortune

Stage plot for The Dead Man's Fortune, Add MS 10449.

This type of document is called a ‘stage plot’ and it would have helped the cast to know when to make their entrances since they were only given their own parts and cue lines rather than the entire script of a play. There are only six of these stage plots still in existence: five here at the British Library and another (for the second part of The Seven Deadly Sins) at Dulwich College. The example on display in Shakespeare in Ten Acts dates from the 1590s and is especially significant because it records that the theatrical star Richard Burbage was part of the cast, though what part he played remains the subject of argument.

Everything we know about The Dead Man’s Fortune comes from this one document and although we can’t be certain who wrote the play or where it was performed, it’s surprising just how much can be gleaned from one piece of paper. Back in the 1930s the scholar W. W. Greg tried to piece together the story of the play, the main points of which I will summarise here:

There are two girls who are in love with two boys, but the girls have wicked fathers who would prefer them to marry suitors of their own choosing. The fathers throw the girls in prison for refusing to marry the beaux they have selected and then plot to drug their daughters (with poisoned meat) to make them do their bidding. Enter a magician called Urganda who helps to release the girls. The fathers and the evil suitors are condemned to death. Cue magic show, dancing fairies and a happy ending in which all are reconciled and the wicked men are pardoned. Oh, and a ‘chest or truncke’ is brought on stage, presumably containing the dead man’s fortune - but no one has quite been able to explain how that fits with the rest of the plot.

While the precise details of the story remain a matter of conjecture, it’s clear that this is a play with many elements that are familiar to us from Shakespeare’s comedies. For a start there are disguises (‘validore passeth ore the stage disguisde’), which we tend to associate with Shakespeare though they were really the trademark of the dramatist John Lyly. There’s a comic sub-plot with familiar commedia dell’arte characters. And there is also a foreshadowing of The Tempest (written c. 1610-11) in the magic tricks that Urganda uses to punish the evil-doers before all is forgiven at the end of the play.

The plot is written on two sheets of paper pasted onto each side of a pulp board measuring 16 x 12 inches. If you look closely you can see the trace of a rectangular hole in the centre gutter which would have enabled the paper to be hung up backstage, but this was filled in by the British Museum at some point prior to 1930. Though written in secretary hand, you can easily pick out the word ‘Enter’ which denotes the beginning of each new scene, apart from at the end of the play where the system appears to have gone slightly haywire. Props are mentioned - such as a looking glass, a hangman’s block and a ‘flasket’ of clothes - to remind the actors not to forget these. Interestingly, the mention of the ‘tyre man’ in the right hand margin has been interpreted as a sign that the wardrobe master was required to stand in as the company was short of an actor. The other noteworthy annotations are the music cues which appear in the margins and indicated by lines of crosses. These interludes divide the play into a five act structure, but they are later additions in a different hand, suggesting that the play was originally performed straight through without intervals as was customary in the outdoor playhouses.

While most of the cast are referred to by their character names, some actors’ names are also used and that’s how we know that ‘Burbage’ appeared in The Dead Man’s Fortune (Richard was the only member of his family who is known to have acted). His name is visible just after the third music cue followed by the words ‘a messenger’. Could the great Burbage who later played Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear and Othello really have been a mere messenger in this play? It’s not clear. W. W. Greg thought it unlikely and suggested that Burbage, who would have been in his twenties at the time, may have played Urganda the magician but others disagree.

Burbage portrait Dulwich College

Only known portrait of Richard Burbage, British School, early 17th century, currently on display in Shakespeare in Ten Acts on loan from Dulwich Picture Gallery. Image by Permission of the Trustees of Dulwich Picture Gallery, London.

Ultimately this is my favourite item in the show because it immediately transports me into the world of the playhouse and not just that, but behind the frons scaenae into the private world of the actors. If documents could talk, what stories would this one have to tell? What backstage arguments, gossip or pranks might have taken place beneath this plot as it hung on its humble peg? We’ll never know but we can imagine. Come and see for yourself in Shakespeare in Ten Acts which runs until 6 September.

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