English and Drama blog

21 posts categorized "Shakespeare"

09 July 2016

Shakespeare: Gentleman or Player?

Last week the New York Times revealed a host of new discoveries relating to Shakespeare’s coat of arms. Heather Wolfe, Curator of Manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. has found nearly a dozen previously unknown documents that confirm that Shakespeare was an ambitious social climber. Four of the newly discovered documents are from the British Library and two others can currently be seen in our Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition. These exhibits relate to a dispute over whether Shakespeare deserved to be made a gentleman, proving that entry into the upper classes was far from straightforward even in the upwardly mobile Elizabethan era.

Shakespeare coat of arms

Coat of arms belonging to William Shakespeare. Harold Bowditch Collection, Mss 1180, R. Stanton Avery Special Collections, page 66 (detail).

Shakespeare’s father John, a glover, first applied for a coat of arms in 1575 but it was not awarded until a second application was made in 1596. Given John’s age (he was well into his sixties), it’s always been assumed that William re-applied on his father’s behalf and the new discoveries seem to bear out that theory. Half of the newly discovered documents associate the Shakespeare arms with William rather than John, suggesting that it was William who was particularly keen to boost his own social standing.

Shakespeare’s friend Ben Jonson had a dig at his fellow playwright’s new status as a gentleman in 1598 in his play Every Man Out of His Humour. A peasant is advised to purchase arms with the motto ‘Not without mustard’ – an illusion to the gold-coloured Shakespeare arms and their motto ‘Not without right’. But Shakespeare didn’t only have to put up with ribbing from his friends. A couple of years later the arms came under attack again, this time from the College of Arms, the very body which had granted them.

William Dethick (1543-1612) was the Garter King of Arms responsible for approving the Shakespeare grant and by all accounts he was a pretty unsavoury fellow. Arrogant and violent, he was known to have beaten his own father and wounded his brother. In 1576 he attacked another herald’s wife by pushing her head into the fireplace, tipping hot ashes, alcohol and the contents of a chamber pot over her and was only just prevented from killing her. Matters were hardly improved when he stabbed two people with a dagger during the funeral of the Countess of Sussex at Westminster Abbey. Needless to say he wasn’t too popular with his fellow heralds due to his habit of beating and slandering them, and he came in for a good deal of criticism for his professional judgement too.

College of Arms officials compiled records of grants which they believed Dethick should not have made and Shakespeare is included in the examples given. These manuscripts are full of snide allusions to the sort of ‘mean persons’ who’d been undeservedly elevated to the gentry, such as one Molesworth, a ‘seller of stockings’. Two drawings of Shakespeare’s arms are annotated with the words ‘Shakespeare the player’, denoting that William’s occupation was clearly a point of contention for the heralds who opposed Dethick. Acting, after all, was not an upper class profession and was considered somewhat on the seedy side (all that cross-dressing and travelling the country, sleeping who knew where!), even if you were patronised by aristocrats or royalty. The other reason for criticising the Shakespeare grant was due to the similarity of the black and gold arms with those of Lard Mauley. Dethick defended the grant on both grounds and emphasised the good standing of John Shakespeare who had been a Justice of the Peace and had married into the prestigious Arden family. While we don’t know for sure whether Shakespeare was aware of the controversy, the existence of angry letters from other individuals whose arms were questioned suggests that it’s likely he would have known and complained about the situation.


Ralph Brooke's complaint against coats and crests granted by William Dethick including the arms granted to 'Shakespeare the player', Folger Shakespeare Library V.a.350.  Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

You can see the complaint against Shakespeare (on loan from the Folger Shakespeare Library) and Dethick’s response (on loan from the College of Arms) on display in Shakespeare in Ten Acts until the 6th of September. To see more manuscripts relating to Heather Wolfe’s discoveries, including those held in the British Library, go to the Shakespeare Documented website.

30 June 2016

In Defence of Shakespeare: Tolstoy and Orwell

by David Fitzpatrick, Content Specialist, Archivist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Shakespeare is almost universally respected among those writers who have followed him into the literary canon. However, as a recent European Studies blog post reminded readers, Tolstoy was one notable exception.

Towards the end of his life Tolstoy wrote an extremely harsh essay on Shakespeare entitled Shakespeare and the Drama, which was first published in English in 1907, in Tolstoy on Shakespeare, a small volume which, in addition to Tolstoy’s essay, includes Shakespeare and the Working Classes, an essay by Ernest Howard Crosby, author, fellow Georgist and friend of Tolstoy, as well as a letter from George Bernard Shaw to Tolstoy’s translator, which is somewhat more subdued in its criticism of the Bard.


Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy shoeless, 1901 by Ilya Repin (1844-1940)

In Shakespeare and the Drama, Tolstoy writes that his various attempts to read Shakespeare’s plays – in Russian, English and German – invariably produced feelings of ‘repulsion, weariness and bewilderment’. Using King Lear as his example (the main body of the essay is a scene-by-scene criticism of the tragedy), Tolstoy argues that ‘[i]n Shakespeare everything is exaggerated: the actions are exaggerated, so are their consequences, the speeches of the characters are exaggerated, and therefore at every step the possibility of artistic impression is interfered with.’

At this stage of his life Tolstoy was a committed Christian anarchist, and many of his objections to Shakespeare’s universal popularity appear to derive from perceived moral shortcomings, both in Shakespeare’s works and in the works of those who admired him. In his essay Tolstoy suggests that the fundamental reason for Shakespeare’s fame, both in Shakespeare’s time and in Tolstoy’s, was that Shakespeare’s dramas ‘corresponded to the irreligious and immoral frame of mind of the upper classes of his time and ours’. In Tolstoy’s view, over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, the exaggerated praise of Shakespeare’s dramas, sustained by an ‘unreasoning state of hypnotism’, allowed for the development of ‘a low, trivial understanding of the drama’, which resulted in the dramas of Tolstoy’s time (his own included, Tolstoy adds) being devoid of any spiritual substance.


George Orwell, 1933

Some forty years later, an essay by George Orwell entitled Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool examined Shakespeare and the Drama and discussed the possible reasons behind Tolstoy’s hatred of Shakespeare. In his essay Orwell highlights the weaknesses in Tolstoy’s arguments (for instance, he refutes Tolstoy’s claim that no motive is given for King Lear’s abdication), and suggests that Tolstoy may have attacked King Lear in particular because its plot bore some resemblance to his own life (Tolstoy, like Lear, renounced his title and estate in old age). As Orwell points out, although Tolstoy could not have foreseen it, even the ending of his own life (he died in a small village railway station, after fleeing his family home in the middle of the night) can be seen as a kind of ‘phantom reminiscence’ of Lear.


The family circle at Yasnaya Polyana, circa 1905

In Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool, Orwell regards Shakespeare’s works as having a predominantly humanist attitude, and suggests that this may be the main reason why the deeply religious Tolstoy could not appreciate them, nor understand why anyone else could. Moreover, Orwell argues that Tolstoy’s essay hardly deals with Shakespeare as a poet, and so fails to grasp the real reason for his enduring popularity (‘[h]is main hold on us is through language’).

In defence of Shakespeare, Orwell concludes that Tolstoy’s arguments are ultimately unanswerable since ‘[t]here is no argument by which one can defend a poem… [i]t defends itself by surviving, or it is indefensible.’ By this measure of literary merit Orwell finds Shakespeare, in answer to Tolstoy’s charges, to be ‘not guilty’.

A first edition of Tolstoy on Shakespeare is on display in the British Library’s exhibition, Shakespeare in Ten Acts, which runs until 6 September 2016.


22 June 2016

Delving into the Laurence Olivier Archive: fan letters and Macbeth

by Zoë Stansell, Reference Specialist

Laurence Olivier was one of the great Shakespearean actors of the 20th century, who enthralled theatre audiences with his magnificent performances of Shakespeare’s leading men. He brought Shakespeare to the screen with his films of Hamlet, Richard III and Henry V, which he wrote, directed and starred in. These films can still be enjoyed by those who never had a chance to see him on stage. We can discover fascinating insights into Olivier’s Shakespeare productions by examining his own annotated scripts. We can also view correspondence, photos, and even fan mail, relating to his Shakespeare plays.

These can be found in the Olivier Archive, which the BL purchased from the Olivier family in 1999. It is a vast archive, containing nearly 1000 files. The BL reference numbers for the whole archive are Add MS 79766-80750.

Anyone with a valid BL reader pass can view items from the archive in the BL Manuscripts Reading Room. Please see this link for the BL Archives & Manuscripts Catalogue, if you want to search it yourself: http://searcharchives.bl.uk/ .

Olivier was involved in so many Shakespeare plays it was necessary to pick one as an example. Macbeth seems a good choice because Olivier’s enthusiasm for the role, in which he excelled, means there are plenty of Macbeth-related items in the archive. Also, it’s familiar to many of us who studied it at school! Olivier appeared in the title role at the Old Vic in 1937. Macbeth is traditionally associated with bad luck and this production was no exception. According to the Old Vic website, manager Lilian Baylis died on the day of the dress rehearsal; Olivier narrowly avoided a falling stage weight; and the director and lead actress were in a car accident. To cap it all Lilian’s portrait fell off the wall!

There was an early TV broadcast by the BBC of scenes from this adaptation. It is described on this website: http://bufvc.ac.uk/shakespeare/index.php/title/av71012 . A file in the archive, Add MS 79975, contains ‘correspondence, mostly fan mail sent to Olivier, for his Old Vic performances of Henry V, Hamlet, and Macbeth: 1936-1938’.

Having spent an entertaining hour searching the file for a memorable fan letter about his Macbeth performance, I was thrilled (and appalled at the same time) to read an eight page critical analysis from, “a much older man who has followed your career with interest & sometimes enthusiasm”. According to the writer of the letter, Shakespeare himself would not have performed the role in this manner!

Apparently, Olivier’s reading fluctuates “between Richard III, Shylock (especially in make-up) & Lear”, his dagger scene “kills the ascending tension stone dead”, he shouts after the murder, and ruins the “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech by his stage movements.

More comments follow about Olivier’s “fatal” makeup and “raucous” voice and the letter concludes “that these criticisms are offered in the genuine, though possibly presumptuous, desire to serve”.

Who wouldn’t wish to be a fly on the wall when Olivier finished reading this letter? I wonder if he took on board these pointers and improved his subsequent performances! Alas, there is no evidence that he replied.

The file contains letters from other fans expressing more traditional admiration. There is also a letter from Lilian Baylis, dated 19/9/36, thanking him for his gift of “cyclorama”. If anyone is unfamiliar with the word “cyclorama” (I was), the OED entry says it is:  “Theatr. A large backcloth or wall, freq. curved, at the back of a stage, used esp. to represent the sky”.

Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh performed together as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford, in 1955.


BL Add MS 80731. Photos of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, in the 1955 Stratford production of Macbeth.

Vivien Leigh’s costume from this production is displayed in the Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition at the British Library, which runs until 6th September 2016. Here is the link for details of the exhibition: http://www.bl.uk/events/shakespeare-in-ten-acts

Critics such as Kenneth Tynan raved about Olivier’s Macbeth but were less impressed with Vivien Leigh’s Lady Macbeth. Tynan didn’t think much of any of her performances at this time, but apparently changed his mind in later life. The following files relate to this particular production: Add MS 80299 Correspondence and papers relating to Titus Andronicus, Macbeth, and Twelfth Night. Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon; 1954-1958; Add MS 80682 Cuttings relating to Plays at Stratford, and elsewhere; 1954-1957: Macbeth; Twelfth Night; Titus Andronicus; The Deep Blue Sea; The Entertainer; Add MS 80731 Photograph Album of Olivier and Vivien Leigh in the Stratford productions of Titus Andronicus and Macbeth. Some of these photos are currently on loan to the Library of Birmingham for their Shakespeare exhibition, which runs until 3rd September 2016. Here are details of the exhibition: http://www.libraryofbirmingham.com/event/Events/ourshakespeare.

Imagine how fabulous a film, with Laurence Olivier as Macbeth and Vivien Leigh as Lady Macbeth, would have been! Olivier put a huge effort into planning a film version of Macbeth but, unfortunately, lack of funding prevented it. The archive holds nine folders (Add MS 80508-80516) of papers relating to Olivier’s unsuccessful attempt to make the film, including set designs, photographs of potential locations and production budgets. There are also 13 drafts of screenplays (Add MS 80534-80546).


BL Add MS 80537. Unbound sheets from one of the 13 draft screenplays of Macbeth, with extensive annotations in ballpoint pen by Olivier. These pages show the scene where Macbeth and Banquo encounter the witches.

The BL holds the archives of many other 20th century theatre greats, who were contemporaries, friends and colleagues of Laurence Olivier. These include: John Gielgud (Add MS 81306-81590) Alec Guinness (Add MS 89015) Kenneth Tynan (Add MS 87715-88472) All of the above were involved in various Shakespeare productions, including Macbeth, whether it be as actor, director or writer. I’ll save their archives for next time! 

If you’re planning to visit the BL Shakespeare exhibition, you might like to enhance your experience with a talk from a reference expert about Shakespeare-related items in the BL’s vast collections (not all of which could be included in the exhibition). See this link for details: http://www.bl.uk/events/shakespeare-revealed-into-the-collections



09 June 2016

Peter Brook and A Midsummer Night’s Dream

by Greg Buzwell, Curator of Shakespeare in Ten Acts

William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream lends itself to spectacular visual excess. After all, if you can’t go over the top with a comedy set in a magical moonlit-woodland and populated by mischievous fairies then when can you? Many Victorian productions of the play concentrated almost exclusively on spectacle, cutting Shakespeare’s text and adding hosts of Amazons and allegorical processions celebrating the triumphs of Theseus, including his victory over the Minotaur. Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s production of the play in 1900 even went so far in its efforts to heighten the air of woodland magic as to include live rabbits hopping across the stage.


An extract from an 1847 playbill for A Midsummer Night’s Dream Playbills Vol 262, item 261

Later, in the 20th century, film adaptations of the play appeared. A 1935 Hollywood film of Dream directed by Max Reinhardt and starring James Cagney as Bottom included dozens of extra fairies and a Satanic-looking Oberon on horseback accompanied by a troop of bat-winged henchmen. The set included sixty-seven truckloads of trees and shrubs (including a transplanted redwood tree) and covered over sixty-six thousand square feet. Blending in with this jungle-like excess Mickey Rooney, according to one observer at least, played Puck as though he were ‘the son of Tarzan’. The spectacular dance scenes featuring Titania’s attendants were choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska, formerly of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. For Hollywood, if A Midsummer Night’s Dream was worth doing, it was worth overdoing.


A play not noted for its restraint: a scene from the spectacular 1935 Hollywood adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Warner Bros / The Kobal Collection

In 1914, attempting something different, the theatre director Harley Granville Barker staged the play at the Savoy Theatre in a fashion that eschewed extravagance in favour of suggestion and symbolism. When the production came to Manhattan in 1915 Barker explained his challenge to realism and visual excess by observing: ‘What is really needed is a great white box. That’s what our theatre really is’. The world may not have been ready for such an interpretation in 1915, but in 1970 ‘a great white box’ is exactly what it got.


Poster for the RSC’s 1970 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, featuring Sally Jacobs’s famous white-box set design. Courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The director Peter Brook probably knew nothing of Barker’s comment, but Brook effectively restated Barker’s challenge to illusionistic theatre a half century later. Brook, along with his designer Sally Jacobs, devised a white box setting for their 1970 production of the play in Stratford-upon-Avon. Large metal coils represented the woodland; a spinning plate on an acrylic rod became the flower containing the magic potion Puck fetches for Oberon; Puck entered the stage on stilts while Oberon descended to the stage on a trapeze. Circus tricks replaced the fairy magic. The intention was to move the play away from realism altogether and into the heightened realm of metaphor. Originally black drapes had hung behind the white box stage design but during the Paris leg of the world tour Brook removed them. Suddenly everything could be seen, including the tower-like structures from which the cables supporting the trapezes were fixed. The actors playing the fairies could be observed on the catwalk that ran around the top of the set, watching the action during the scenes in which they were not required. The creation of artifice and illusion was no longer of paramount importance.

The small cast was also at odds with traditional productions. Brook liked the dream-like associations of doubling given by many of the actors playing dual roles, recognizing that a small ensemble of performers would not only enhance the quality of actor involvement but also heighten the sense of dream-like theatrical metaphor. The costumes were far removed from the usual elaborate designs, rich fabrics and gossamer threads. Puck, played by John Kane, wore a yellow jump suit and a blue skull cap inspired by the costumes Brook and Jacobs had seen Chinese acrobats wearing in Paris. The young lovers meanwhile, the men in their tie-dyed shirts and the women in long white dresses, brought a touch of the ‘here and now’ to the production. The first staging of the play in Stratford took place in August 1970, not long after the 1967 summer of love and the student riots in Paris the following year. A Midsummer Night’s Dream can be seen as many things, but on one level it is a drama about youthful rebellion - perfect for the late-1960s zeitgeist of sexual freedom and the desire to escape stale orthodoxy.


Alan Howard as Oberon, Sara Kestelman as Titania and John Kane as Puck in Peter Brook’s 1970 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo by Reg Wilson © RSC.

Reviews of Brook’s Dream, as it became known, were largely positive. The reviewer in the Sunday Times wrote: ‘more than refreshing, magnificent, the sort of thing one sees only once in a lifetime, and then only from a man of genius’. Inevitably there were a few dissenting voices – the New Statesman commented that Brook had ‘remoulded’ the play ‘with the help of Billy Smart, Walt Disney, J. G. Ballard and … his own sleeping, hallucinating self’ (although that in itself sounds utterly amazing). Perhaps above all else the production showed that it was possible to put a completely new spin on Shakespeare, transforming a play with a tradition of performance stretching back over 350 years into something new, strange, challenging, inventive and wonderful.

Peter Brook’s 1970 staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of the productions explored in detail in Shakespeare in Ten Acts. Peter Brook will be giving a talk entitled The Esoteric and the Profane in Shakespeare’ at the British Library on the afternoon of Wednesday 15th June and there will be a panel discussion about the 1970 production of Dream, featuring Peter Brook, Sir Ben Kingsley (who played Demetrius) and Frances de la Tour (who played Helena) later that evening.

07 May 2016

Who was the first Shakespearean actress?

5. 2302_b_14_vol5_othello_frontispiece
Othello and Desdemona in The Works of Mr William Shakespear (1709)


‘I Come, unknown to any of the rest

To tell you news, I saw the Lady drest;

The Woman playes to day, mistake me not,

No Man in Gown, or page in Petty-Coat;’

These were the words that introduced the first Shakespearean performance by a professional female actor on 8 December 1660. Prior to that date all the female roles in Shakespeare’s plays had been performed by boys or men, but when Charles II was restored to the throne he broke the long-held taboo against women’s public performance and brought England in line with France and Italy who had already been appreciating women’s talents (or at least their figures) for some time. So who was the woman who took to the stage for that historic performance of Othello? Who was the first female Desdemona? Frustratingly (yet sadly not surprisingly) no one thought to record her name.

On display for the first time in our new exhibition, Shakespeare in Ten Acts, you can see the prologue speech that was delivered to the audience on that winter’s night in the hastily-converted tennis court that served as a theatre for Sir Thomas Killigrew’s company. Written by actor and playwright Thomas Jordan, the prologue pretends to profess that women can be performers and also figures of virtue, but the underlying insinuation that must have been patently obvious to the audience was that women were there as objects for the male gaze. ‘Have modest thoughts of her’ pleads Jordan, ‘pray do not run/To give her visits when the Play is done’. This line was no doubt delivered with a knowing nod and a wink, acting as an open invitation to the gentlemen in the audience to flock backstage after the play. And indeed, this was the beginning of a hard-to-shake tradition whereby men could pay four shillings to go behind the scenes and see the actresses dressing. The diarist Samuel Pepys records availing himself of this opportunity and being taken into Nell Gwyn’s dressing room where he found her ‘all unready’ and ‘very pretty, prettier than I thought’. This unseemly tradition was commented on disparagingly by the 18th century gossip columnist ‘Mrs Crackenthorpe’ and you can also see her article from The Female Tatler on display in the exhibition.

Whilst the introduction of women was billed as an attempt to ‘civilize the Stage’ in response to disquiet about men cross-dressing as women (tantamount to homosexuality in some eyes), the real truth was that women were encouraged to perform because they were good for business. Their presence on stage opened the way for new interpretations of Shakespeare’s heroines and for the creation of new roles in adaptations of Shakespeare, but they were also at the mercy of their male managers who exploited them for profit. Pleasingly, many of them fought back and negotiated hard for their rights and we’ll be blogging more about their stories next week.

And who was the first woman to perform Shakespeare? You can see from the photograph below that Jordan’s prologue speech has been annotated by someone who mistakenly guessed her identity as one Mrs Norris – mother of the comic actor Henry ‘Jubilee Dicky’ Norris - though in actual fact Norris was a member of the rival theatre company run by Sir William Davenant. Margaret ‘Peg’ Hughes has often been identified as the woman in question but in Elizabeth Howe's excellent book on The First English Actresses (CUP, 1992) she suggests that it is more likely to have been a young actor by the name of Anne Marshall, a talented leading lady who excelled in both comic and tragic roles. Samuel Pepys saw both Hughes and Marshall perform and commented on them in his diary. He described Hughes as ‘a mighty pretty woman, and seems, but is not, modest’. Anne Marshall, according to Pepys, ‘played most excellently well as ever I heard woman in my life’ when he saw her in Dryden and Howard’s The Indian Queen in 1664. She often performed alongside her sister Rebecca, but the details of her life are sketchy and her marriage to the actor Peter Quin has led to much confusion due to the similarity between her married name and that of Nell Gwyn who performed alongside her in the same company. In the course of our research for the exhibition, portraits in which Marshall had previously been identified as the subject turned out to be misattributions when we looked closer, until it seemed as if the harder we looked, the more the supposed facts dissolved leaving us with very little to go on. Nevertheless, this is a story that deserves to be told and you can find out more about the lives of the first Shakespearean actresses in Shakespeare in Ten Acts which continues at the British Library until 6 September (book here for tickets).

The difficult thing about displaying books in an exhibition is that we can only show you a couple of pages at a time, so below is the prologue speech from Thomas Jordan's A Royal Arbor of Loyal Poesie (London, 1664) in its full glory, together with the epilogue spoken at the end of the play. You can also hear me being interviewed on the subject in this Woman’s Hour podcast. The book to accompany Shakespeare in Ten Acts features Hannah Manktelow’s essay ‘The Legacy of the First Female Desdemona’ and is available now from the British Library Shop, or you can read more about Shakespeare and gender on our Discovering Literature website. Many thanks to Hannah for conducting the research which underpins this part of the exhibition.

C_38_a_24_p21 C_38_a_24_p22 C_38_a_24_p23

23 April 2016

“the apparel oft proclaims the man”

Hamlet (1.3.73)

If Shakespeare had taken up the same trade as his father, Shakespeare in Ten Acts could well have been called ‘Shakespeare in Ten Catwalks’ for he may have had a successful career in the fashion industry…  so to speak. John Shakespeare by trade was a‘’whittawer’’ [someone who turned hide into leather], glover and also a "brogger” [an unlicensed wool dealer]. Records show he was found guilty for illegally dealing in wool and eventually lost the family inheritance. 

Early modern England marked a period of extreme style, when apparel made a transition into ‘fashion’. Dress, hair and cosmetics were employed to contort the body, creating dramatic silhouettes demonstrated par excellence by Queen Elizabeth. There is no doubt that dress held substantial power within society during this time, and this did not go unrecognised by the bard. In 1864, the London tailor E Moses noted:

“Shakespeare too well appreciated the importance of all external things and outward appearances, as emblematic of the unseen spirit, to deem it a profanation of the poet’s art to embody allusions to the subject of clothes in his majestic and immortal verse.”


The "Hardwick Hall" portrait of Elizabeth 1 of England, circa 1599, courtesy of Wikicommons.

Shakespeare’s extraordinary observations of the society of his age are communicated through the plays. It is no surprise then that these works are drenched in references to fashion and dress.  The survival of substantial evidence regarding early productions is meagre. However, the lines of dialogue are the very references which call into reflection the importance of costume.  Moreover, given the stringent hierarchy of style during the society of that age, audiences would have understood the role of garments to a character’s role. Changes in costume could construct a character, progress action, reflect society and manipulate perceived values.

Queen Elizabeth I

During the Elizabethan era, dress was a powerful element in the social structure. The famous portrait of Queen Elizabeth by Nicholas Hilliard shows her as the faerie queen, wearing veil gauze edged with lace pointed at the hairline and wired to wings at the back of the head. Consider this theatrical display by the queen, in comparison with the headdress worn by Vivien Leigh featured in the exhibition. While this piece was made using inexpensive materials, it is reminiscent of fashionable Elizabethan headdresses, resembling the original faerie queen Elizabeth herself.

Detail QEVL headress

Detail of: The Rainbow Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, circa 1600-1602, attributed to Issac Oliver (1556-1617) and Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (1561-1636), in the collection of the Marquess of Salisbury, on display at Hatfield House, courtesy of Wikicommons.

Detail of: Vivien Leigh (as Titania) from A Midsummer Night's Dream at The Old Vic Theatre, 1937, photograph by J W Debenham, courtesy of the Mander and Mitchenson collection at the University of Bristol and ARENApal www.arenapal.com

“Clothes maketh the man” [except when he’s a woman]

Theatre allowed actors to dress outside of their rank and gender. As such the stage was a transgressive space. Legally men could wear women’s clothes, but not vice versa. This is acknowledged in the section of the exhibition ‘the First Women to act Shakespeare’, which features early female actresses; Sarah Siddons, Charlotte Cushman, Dora Jordan and Mary Frith, the latter of which  was arrested for wearing male clothing on stage! Contemporary audiences are familiar with seeing actresses play male roles, for example Maxine Peak playing Hamlet, Fiona Shaw playing Richard II, but it was these early actresses who began forging the space for them.


Engraving of Charlotte and Susan Cushman in Romeo and Juliet, presumably 1846. Courtesy of Theatrical Portrait Prints (Visual Works) of Women (TCS 45). Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

The exhibition also highlights Peter Brook’s audacious production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1970. This production stripped back elaborate set design, while costume was pared down to unisex minimalist dress which visually neutralised all connotations of gender.

A Midsummer Night_s Dream_ 1970_Photo by Reg Wilson _c_ RSC_RSC_WILSON_MND_1970_002

Photo by Reg Wilson © Royal Shakespeare Company. Re-produced with kind permission of the Royal Shakespeare Company

Costume, dialogue and the sex of the actor operate as elements of the plays which can often be overlooked. In Much ado About Nothing, Beatrice dismisses beardless males for looking like women:  “what should I do with? Dress him in my apparel and make him my waiting gentle lady?”(2.1. 29-30). The lack of facial hair is also mentioned in Hamlet, when he doubts his courage against a beardless face [signifying a woman] and calling into question his masculinity.


A 'beardless' Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, circa 1885-1900, courtesy of Wikicommons.

Hamlet’s inner turmoil then is within the dialogue and directly linked to how he looks. As early as 1776 prints exist showing Hamlet dressed in fashionable attire. In the most recent production of Hamlet, staged by the Barbican, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Prince Hamlet sports a Ziggy Stardust T-shirt. For a play about loss of belief, a man whose internalized sense of self is in flux, a play about ghosts, a character not of this world, how perfect that David Bowie made an appearance to modernize the role of costume and interpretation.

We now live in a time without Bowie & Shakespeare, but what remains are the enduring works and their relevance to the world. The semiotics of fashion and costuming choices are not inconsequential to these works or interpretations. The plays themselves are in fact littered with references to fashion and dress. Costume functions on many levels within the dramatic space, functioning not least as an agitator of authority, as Bowie and Shakespeare knew all too well.  

by Rachel Brett, Reference Specialist

The British Library's current exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts is a landmark exhibition on the performances that made an icon, charting Shakespeare’s constant reinvention across the centuries and is open until Tuesday 6th September 2016. Whether you’re a student, teacher, researcher, or simply a lover of literature, our new online learning resource Discovering Literature: Shakespeare will encourage critical thinking and independent learning to enrich your understanding of all-things Shakespeare.



Fashion in the time of William Shakespeare Downing, Sarah Jane, Oxford : Shire Publications, 2014 YC.2015.a.13081

Costuming the Shakespearean stage : visual codes of representation in early modern theatre and culture / Robert I. Lublin. Farnham : Ashgate, c2011.  YC.2011.a.13726

The Norton Shakespeare : based on the Oxford edition / Stephen Greenblatt. New York ; London : W. W. Norton, c2008. YC.2009.a.9148

Costumes and scripts in the Elizabethan theatres.   Jean MacIntyre, Edmonton : University of Alberta Press, 1992. Shelfmark(s):   Document Supply 92/23467

Playgoing in Shakespeare's London / Andrew Gurr. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1987. Shelfmark(s):   Document Supply 87/18040 General Reference Collection YH.1987.b.337

Shakespeare after theory / David Scott Kasten. New York : Routledge, 1999. Shelfmark(s):   Document Supply m00/25609

Costume in the Theatre. [With plates and illustrations.]James Laver, 1899-1975 London : George G. Harrap, 1964. Shelfmark(s): General Reference Collection 07812.ggg.70. Document Supply W13/1725

Shakespeare in art. Paintings, drawings and engravings devoted to Shakespearean subjects. [London]: Arts Council, 1964. Shelfmark(s): General Reference Collection W.P.12368/620

Shakespeare and the Artist. William Moelwyn MERCHANT London : Oxford University Press, 1959. Shelfmark(s): General Reference Collection 011768.pp.2. Document Supply Wq1/941

The Tercentenary; or the three hundredth birthday of William Shakespeare. Author: E. Moses & Son. London, 1864. Shelfmark(s): General Reference Collection 11765.c.39.

The diary of Philip Henslowe, from 1591 to 1609 ... / edited by J. Payne Collier.Author: Philip Henslowe, -1616. [London] : Shakespeare Society, 1845. Series: Shakespeare society. Publications, no. 28 Shelfmark(s): Document Supply 8254.586300


31 March 2016

‘Is this a forgery I see before me?’

Vortigern and Rowena: A Shakespearean April Fools’ Day farce?

The plays of William Shakespeare are full of star-crossed lovers. Romeo and Juliet, Anthony and Cleopatra, Ferdinand and Miranda, Vortigern and Rowena…

Well, maybe not that last pair, although there was a time when many people cherished high hopes for Vortigern and Rowena being a valuable addition to the list of Shakespeare’s known plays; hopes that unfortunately ended in catcalls, derision and farce at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, on April 2nd 1796 (the performance thus avoiding going down in history as arguably the most lamentable April Fools’ Day event ever by a handful of hours). The play, although it only enjoyed the one shambolic performance, did achieve a certain enduring notoriety and the story behind it is of considerable interest in terms of the light it sheds upon our enduring fascination with Shakespeare and his work.


Above: A handbill defending the authenticity of Vortigern, commissioned by Samuel Ireland and distributed outside the theatre before the performance on 2nd April 1796. Folger Shakespeare Library

Vortigern, although presented to the world in 1796 as a lost play by William Shakespeare was in fact the product of William Henry Ireland, a poet and playwright of immeasurably more modest talents. William Henry Ireland was the son of Samuel Ireland, an antiquarian and devoted admirer of William Shakespeare. Samuel Ireland was continually hoping to turn up documents and papers that shed a greater light on Shakespeare. Following the 1769 Shakespeare Jubilee, a celebration of Shakespeare’s genius masterminded by the actor David Garrick, interest in Shakespeare and his life had become intense. More the pity then that Shakespeare the man remained essentially unknowable. The plays survived, as did a few legal documents containing his signature, but the thoughts of Shakespeare himself were seemingly lost. What did he think of his fellow actors and playwrights? What did he make of London, or of his native Warwickshire? What were his religious beliefs? Alas, with no surviving letters or personal papers it appeared the answers would remain forever hidden in the darkness of time. William Henry Ireland, seeing at first hand his father’s frustration at being unable to unearth any genuine letters or documents by Shakespeare, sought to remedy the situation by filling the numerous gaps in our knowledge with forgeries.

Ireland began by forging legal documents, using paper he had access to via his work as a clerk in a lawyer’s office. To present them first to his father, and then to the world, he had to come up with a story about where he had found them. Enter the mysterious ‘Mr H’. Ireland claimed that an acquaintance of his, Mr H, had in his possession a large oak chest that contained a number of old documents. Emboldened by the success of his first forgeries William Henry Ireland returned to his father’s house with an increasingly varied array of documents, all supposedly from the capacious trunk of Mr H. There were letters from Shakespeare to his wife, Anne Hathaway, often complete with locks of hair; there were documents in which Shakespeare outlined his religious beliefs (Protestant, of course); there were fragments of plays and then finally complete plays, including one called Vortigern and Rowena, based upon figures from 5th-century British history.


Above: ‘The Oaken Chest, or the Gold Mines of Ireland, a Farce’, a print by John Nixon satirising the ‘discovery’ of what turned out to be forged Shakespeare manuscripts, 1796. William Ireland is on the far left. His father, Samuel, is kneeling at the chest, a lock of Shakespeare’s hair at least a yard long in his hand. British Museum, London.

As the procession of documents emerging from the oak chest of Mr H increased then so did the amount of interest, and suspicion, surrounding them. The Irelands began charging admission for people wishing to visit their house in order to view the papers. Many believed the documents to be genuine. The writer James Boswell was so overcome during his visit that he fell to his knees, kissed the edge of the papers and announced that having seen them he could die in peace, which he duly did some three months later. Others, however, were less convinced. Newspapers, noticing the somewhat comic attempts at Elizabethan spelling attempted to outdo each other in the publication of ludicrous Mock-Elizabethan letters: one supposed to be from Shakespeare to Ben Jonson ran: ‘To Missteeree Beenjaammiinnee Joohnssonn: Wille youe doee meee theee favvourree too dinnee wytthee meee onnn Friddaye nextee attt two of thee clocke too eatee somme muttone chopps and some pottaattooesse?’

The charade could not continue, and as more knowledgeable individuals began to study the papers, including the critic Edmond Malone, the more obvious it became that the documents were forgeries. The final nail was hammered into the Ireland coffin of shame on April 2nd 1796 when Vortigern was performed on the London stage. The actor John Philip Kemble, who was clearly aware that the play was not the product of Shakespeare’s considerable genius but rather that of a less-accomplished talent, originally pushed for the play to be staged on April 1st (April Fools’ Day) but that was seen as perhaps a mockery too far. All the same, the production on April 2nd rapidly descended into farce. Kemble delivered his lines shamelessly for laughs and with his particularly pointed delivery of the line ‘and when this solemn mockery is o’er’ the play was revealed for what it was, a shambles. The performance staggered to a conclusion, at which point scuffles broke out in the pit bringing the evening’s events to a fittingly farcical end.


Above: Playbill for the only performance of Vortigern at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, 2 April 1796. Although the play was widely touted as a newly discovered work by Shakespeare, the theatre manager, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, refused to print Shakespeare’s name on the bill. British Library 937.c.14

William Henry Ireland was never really forgiven for the Shakespeare forgeries. When Ireland bumped into the eminent man of letters James Boaden in Bond Street some twenty-five years later Boaden exclaimed: ‘You must be aware, Sir, of the enormous crime you committed against the divinity of Shakespeare. Why the act, Sir, was nothing short of sacrilege; it was precisely the same thing as taking the holy Chalice from the altar and pissing therein’. William Henry Ireland died in poverty, as did his father, but, ‘crime against the divinity of Shakespeare’ or not, Vortigern undoubtedly retains its fascination as a curious chapter in the story of our enduring love for all things relating to Shakespeare.

Examples of William Henry Ireland’s Shakespeare forgeries, and a wealth of material relating to Vortigern, will be on display in Shakespeare in Ten Acts, which opens at The British Library on the 15th April and runs to 6th September 2016.

by Greg Buzwell, Curator of Shakespeare in Ten Acts

12 November 2015

The various incarnations of Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser

by Joanna Norledge, Curator of Contemporary Performance and Creative Archives

Recently the library hosted an event, as part of the 8th International Screenwriting Conference, which featured an in conversation with Sir Ronald Harwood, the Oscar-winning playwright and screenwriter. It was an exciting opportunity to highlight the wealth of material in the British Library relating to screenwriting and specifically to explore the archive of Ronald Harwood. Sir Ronald regaled the audience at the event with entertaining stories from his experience working as a screenwriter. His career spans a long period and The Dresser was one of his successes inspired by his own early career in the theatre.    


Image of the 1983 second draft screenplay for The Dresser, from The Ronald Harwood Archive, produced with permission of Sir Ronald Harwood, image copyright @ British Library Board.


Originally written as a stage play based on Sir Ronald’s experience of working as Sir Donald Wolfit’s dresser, The Dresser  was first performed in 1980 at the Royal Exchange Theatre with Freddie Jones as "Sir" and Tom Courtenay as Norman. The play was nominated for Best Play at the Laurence Olivier Awards in 1980. The Dresser was first made in to a film in 1983 starring Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay.


Image of the 1983 second draft screenplay for The Dresser, from The Ronald Harwood Archive, produced with permission of Sir Ronald Harwood, image copyright @ British Library Board.


On the 31st October a new television film of The Dresser aired on BBC2, starring Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen. Sir Ronald discussed, at the event, how the BBC’s single television plays provided many of the writers of the 60’s and 70’s the chance to earn money and practise their craft. In recent years the small screen has received more attention as a medium of filmic story telling than the big screen. Productions such as The Dresser (2015) look back to the BBC’s roots in theatrical and film narrative. It pays homage to the single television play form in which so many great writers and entertainers began their careers.

The DresserBBC

Image of Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins in The Dresser (2015) produced with permission of the BBC. Copyright @ BBC.

The Dresser (2015) is a theatrical story and dramatization which captures a vanished world. This world is brought to life in the screenplay and dramatic performances from the actors, both veterans of the theatrical world represented. The archives at the British Library are filled with such examples of great engaging plays and television plays and it is wonderful to see some of these being used a source for modern programming.

You can still catch The Dresser on BBC iPlayer. The Ronald Harwood Archive is available in the British Library reading rooms.


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