Category Archives: Shakespeare

Review Shakespeare

Much Ado About Nothing – Review

Paul Fulford reviews the latest RSC production of Much Ado About Nothing.

MANY and various are the novelty settings for Shakespeare’s plays. Many and various are the disasters as ill-advised directors contort words and action into a setting that makes about as much sense as a Hattie Jacques trying to squeeze into one of Twiggy’s frocks. Here, though, an Indian setting of Much Ado About Nothing makes perfect sense – not only illuminating the text, but creating a thoroughly entertaining experience. Which ticks the boxes that should be ticked by any Shakespeare production.

The sexual politics of the play are well served by this interpretation – the women allowed a degree of freedom and feistiness, but ultimately subject to the suffocating and brutal rules of the patriarchal society in which they live. The spellbinding Amara Karan is an unusually strong-willed Hero, full of fun, desire and a steeliness of character until she, too, bows to the pressures of the unforgiving world she inhabits. Meera Syal is a mischievous, sharp-witted and engaging (no pun meant) Beatrice who, like Hero, ultimately conforms… though not without first uttering an expletive or two. Paul Bhattacharjee is confused and torn as Benedick, uneasy in the company of his macho compatriots.

And thus amid the colour, verve, spirit and humour of this production there are distinct shades of darkness. Witness, for instance, the dismissive, at times irritated treatment of the comedic but forlorn servant girl, a poignant and lost figure amid the hubbub. Few liberties are taken with the text – there are subcontinental references, but they add to flow and understanding rather than jar. Though, on occasions, delivery is a little hesitant and indistinct. But this is a small criticism of director Iqbal Khan’s production whose three hours’ running time flies by.

The production runs from September 24 until October 27 at the Noel Coward Theatre in London. I may well hop on a train down to the smoke for a second helping.

Paul Fulford

Family Marriage Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s Grand-daughter, David Garrick, and A Mulberry Tree

Elizabeth Hall and Thomas Nash c.1626. 
 On display at Nash’s House, Stratford-On-Avon  © SBT   

Shakespeare’s last known living relative, his grand-daughter Elizabeth, is an elusive figure in Shakespeare scholarship and little is known about her. I found the following snippets in a little leaflet from Abington Park Museum in Northamptonshire, which is located on the site of Elizabeth’s former home.

In 1607, Shakespeare’s eldest daughter Susannah married Dr John Hall of Stratford-on-Avon. In 1608, Susannah gave birth to Elizabeth. Elizabeth eventually married Thomas Nash, but he died in 1647, and in 1649, she married for a second time. Her husband was Mr (later Sir) John Bernard of Abington. He was a widower; his first wife, also an Elizabeth, was the daughter of Sir Clement Edmonds.

Elizabeth Nash and John Bernard were married on 5th June 1649, near Stratford-on-Avon. They moved to Abington Manor in Northamptonshire after their wedding and lived there for twenty years. During their marriage, Elizabeth gave birth to eight children, all of whom tragically predeceased her. She died in February 1670, just a few weeks after her husband Sir John had sold their home to William Thursby of Middle Temple, London. Besides an entry in the burial register, there are few formal records of Elizabeth, and certainly little surviving recognition of her as the last living descendant of Shakespeare. No stone marks the spot where she was buried. However, since Abington Church was partially destroyed in 1823, it is possible that a monument or inscription related to her disappeared at this time.

Possible portrait of Elizabeth c.1660

Elizabeth’s husband followed her to the grave in 1674. In 1902, a member of the Bernard family had the following inscription added to his memorial:

Also to Elizabeth, second wife of Sir John Bernard, Knight (Shakespeare’s Grand-daughter and the Last of the Direct Descendants of the poet), who departed this life on 17th February, MDCLXIX, Aged 64 years. Mors set janua vitae.

It is impossible to know if any of Shakespeare’s manuscripts or personal papers went with Elizabeth to Abington Manor. Elizabeth’s mother Susannah was still alive when her daughter married John Bernard in 1649, and it would seem reasonable to suppose she visited her daughter in her new home at least once. However Susannah died in July 1649, just a month after the wedding. She was Shakespeare’s sole surviving executor, her husband having died c.1636, and as such she may have had some of Shakespeare’s papers in her possession. It is impossible to say whether Susannah passed on her father’s papers to Elizabeth. If she did, it is (tantalisingly!) and theoretically possible they still exist somewhere, but they are unlikely to be at Abington Manor, since William Thursby pulled down most of the old house when he rebuilt it in 1678.

Postcard of Abington Manor c.1901-10

Abington Manor also has another connection with Shakespeare. Anne Hanbury, wife of John Harvey Thursby, who owned the house in 1764, was a big Shakespeare enthusiast, and a close friend of the actor David Garrick. Garrick visited Abington Manor in 1778, and supposedly planted a cutting from the Mulberry tree in Shakespeare’s Stratford garden. It seems unlikely the cutting did indeed originate from Shakespeare’s tree, since Francis Gastrell, owner of New Place, famously cut down the Mulberry tree in 1756. The wood was supposedly sold to a Thomas Sharpe who, in a rather enterprising manner, is said to have carved Shakespeare mementos from it. (Some of these can be seen at Nash House in Stratford-on-Avon).
Garrick as Richard III (William Hogarth, 1745) 
However, a more recent owner of Abington wrote that Garrick had been occupied with organising Shakespeare celebrations in Stratford prior to retiring from the stage in 1776, and might have had access to a cutting or sapling of Shakespeare’s tree. In any event, the tree at Abington once sported a brass plate, now in Abington Park Museum, which bears the following inscription:

David Garrick, Esq. planted this Tree, at the request of Anne Thursby, as a growing Testimony of their Friendship, Feby, 1778.

Anne Thursby died on 22nd April 1778. She was apparently a woman of high spirits who was rumoured to gamble. Her epitaph reads:

Here lies the Daughter of William Hanbury of Kelmarsh in the country of Northampton and wife to John Harvey Thursby the Second. What sort of Woman she was the Last Day will determine.

      Woodcut of Mulberry Tree (1607)

Source: Abington Park Museum, Northamptonshire. Thanks to Paul Fraser Webb.

© 2009-2012 All Rights Reserved
Bankside Education Elizabeth Gunpowder Plot London Review Shakespeare Theatre

Staging the World: Review


The British Museum is soon to stage a major exhibition on the world of Shakespeare in collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company. The exhibition provides an insight ‘into the emerging role of London as a world city, seen through the innovative perspective of Shakespeare’s plays.’ It is part of the World Shakespeare Festival and runs from 19 July – 25 November 2012.

The British Museum Press has released several publications to compliment the exhibition, and kindly sent me review copies. A further book on Shakespeare and Food is forthcoming shortly. The titles I’m reviewing here are Shakespeare: Staging The World, Shakespeare’s Britain, and Angels and Ducats: Shakespeare’s Money and Medals,

First up is the rather splendid ShakespeareStaging The World by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton. This is a big beautiful book, which considers the early modern period through the eyes of Shakespeare; its premise being that the things he, his players, and his audience saw, ‘mattered at least as much as what they read in shaping their vision of the world.’ This is cleverly illustrated by the juxtaposition of a stunning collection of early modern objects with Shakespeare’s characters and plays.

To look at a woodcut of a Jewish household in Venice and a sixteenth-century Caribbean wood carving of a spirit imprisoned in a tree and a pack of playing cards in which Cleopatra and Queen Elizabeth appear side-by-side is to be given a new historical and intellectual perspective on the characters of Shylock, Ariel and Cleopatra.

The book not only serves as a catalogue of the objects on display at the exhibition, it features a rich and detailed commentary by the Shakespearean scholar Jonathan Bate, and the exhibition’s curator, Dora Thornton, which in and of itself enriches both existing scholarship, and our knowledge of daily life in early modern England. The book is divided into nine chapters, each of which explores a specific theme and the objects which serve to bring it to life. For example, Chapter One gives an overview of London in 1612; a World City. It provides a narrative of aspects of London life at this time, and considers the theatres as bustling commercial enterprises. One of the most compelling objects featured in this chapter is a surviving turned oak baluster excavated from the site of the Rose theatre. It may have been part of the safety rail around the upper galleries:


© The Trustees of The British Museum


Subsequent chapters explore Country, County and Custom, Kingship and the English Nation, The Legacy of Rome, Venice Viewed from London, The Noble Moor, The Scottish Play, and the Matter of Britain. Each is illustrated throughout with truly mouth-watering photographs, illustrations, maps, and woodcuts. One of my favourite objects is this Horn-book from the late 1600s, comprising a sheet of printed paper protected by a layer of horn, similar to the one from which Shakespeare himself would have learned his alphabet and Lord’s Prayer while at school:


© The Trustees of The British Museum


One of the many facts I discovered while reading Staging The World, is that in 1571, a statute was enacted enforcing the wearing of woolly caps by everyone over the age of six on Sundays and holidays. This knitted man’s cap was found in Moorfields, London and dates to the mid-sixteenth century:


 © The Trustees of The British Museum

Perhaps my favourite object is this lantern, traditionally associated with Guy Fawkes. It was given to the University of Oxford in 1641 as a memento of the Gunpowder Plot. It’s made from sheet iron and would originally have had a horn window so it could be completely closed to hide the lighted candle within:
 © The Trustees of The British Museum

Shakespeare: Staging The World is more than just a museum catalogue, it’s a stunning collection of early modern objects brought vividly to life by Jonathan Bates and Dora Thornton. I’d endorse it for anyone with an interest in Shakespeare or early modern England. For the Shakespeare scholar it’s a valuable addition to the bookshelf, for the historian it’s a smorgasbord of early modern artifacts. For the general reader it’s a beautifully illustrated and informative guide to the world of Shakespeare. Highly recommended. Shakespeare: Staging The World, Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton (The British Museum Press: London, 2012) (£25).
A smaller, shorter version of Staging The World can be found in Shakespeare’s Britain, also by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton. It contains a condensed overview of some of the objects found in Staging The World and has a specific focus on Shakespeare and Britain; a theme which preoccupied the playwright in his later years, and one which was ushered in by James I who longed for a unified kingdom. Perfect for someone who wants to get a flavour of the period, it neatly encapsulates Shakespeare’s Britain with lavish illustrations. I particularly love the cover image, which comes from a watercolour entitled ‘Going to Bankside’ painted by Michael Van Meer in 1619, and depicts some rather fancy-looking people enjoying a trip across the Thames to Bankside, perhaps to see one of Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare’s Britain, Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton (The British Museum Press: London, 2012) (£9.99)
The final book, Angels and Ducats: Shakespeare’s Money and Medals, is a fascinating catalogue of the coins on display at the exhibition. As anyone who’s been forced to admire my Elizabethan sixpence will testify, I do love sixteenth and seventeenth century coins. Not because I have any interest in numismatics, but because they give us pause to wonder just who’s pocket they’ve been in, and as such, they connect us with history in a real and immediate way.
© The Trustees of The British Museum
The above ducat dates from the office of Marino Grimani, Doge of Venice from 1595-1605. Ducats were, in origin, ‘the defining gold coin of Venice, but the term also meant any coin of the same standard and it was widely used and familiar.’
Another coin, perhaps my favourite, is a milled sixpence dated 1562, depicting the profile of Elizabeth I. It’s in much better condition than my own. Milled sixpences were machine-made coins circulated in the early 1560s at the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign. They were treasured at the time, and often used as reckoning-counters.
    © The Trustees of The British Museum

As well as using sixpences as counters, specially-made counters were available for accountants, and a bag or cylinder of counters served as an early modern calculator. The Clown, in The Winter’s Tale, talks of his need for counters before he goes shopping:

I cannot do’t without counters. Let me see, what am I to buy for our sheep-shearing feast? Three pounds of sugar, five pounds of currants, rice – what will this sister of mine do with rice?

Below is a set of silver counters depicting the Stuart royal family, dating to the 1600s. The accompanying silver box holds all twenty-nine counters.


 © The Trustees of The British Museum
Angels and Ducats fulfils a valuable role. It enables us to see for the first time exactly what the coins Shakespeare refers to in his plays actually look like. In this way this book enriches our understanding of both Shakespeare’s work and his life. Angels and Ducats is essential reading for anyone interested in the themes of money and finance on the London stage, but beyond that it is a wonderful introduction to the variety of coins in circulation in early modern England. Angels and Ducats: Shakespeare’s Money and Medals (The British Museum Press: London, 2012) (£9.99).
All three offerings from The British Museum Press are beautifully written and stunningly illustrated. If I had to recommend one, it would be Shakespeare: Staging The World, since it covers all the objects included in the exhibition. However Shakespeare’s Britain is a neat precis of some of the objects on display and Angels and Ducats is unique in its study of specific coins in England during this period. If you’re intending to visit the exhibition then any or all of the books are a great way to familiarise yourself with the history of the objects on display. If you can’t make the exhibition then each of the books serves as charming compensation. But in their own right, all three deserve a place on any bookshelf.
The books can be bought via The British Museum Bookshop online. Tickets for the exhibition Shakespeare: Staging The World can be bought here.
© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved
Books History Printing Shakespeare

Some vaine fantasticall illusion by Mackbeth and Banquho

Title page Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577)

It has long been noted that the Elizabethan historian Ralph Holinshed’s Chronicles served as a source for Shakespeare, particularly in relation to his history plays, as well as King Lear, Macbeth, and Cymbeline. Until the twentieth century, Chronicles was largely consigned to marginalised scholarly study, however today it is regarded as a ‘secular equivalent to John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, a massive and wide-ranging work of scholarship’. This post explores a little of the history of its production.

Raphael Holinshed (c.1525-1580?) was the son of Ralph Holinshed, or Hollingshead, of Sutton Downes, Cheshire. Some accounts of his life suggest he was educated at Cambridge, but more credible reports indicate he was a ‘minister of God’s word’ and a proponent of the emerging Protestant Church. During the reign of Mary Tudor, when he was in his late twenties and early thirties, he was employed in London at the printing house of the evangelical Reyer Wolfe. Wolfe had employed Holinshed to help him with his ‘universal cosmography’ – an enormous description of the history and geography of the world complete with maps.

Macbeth battle scene from the 1577 edition of Chronicles 

The first edition of Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland was printed in 1577. ‘It formed part of a deliberate movement to elevate the status of England, English letters, and English language through writing and publishing maps, histories, national epics, and theoretical works on English poetry’. In 1547, Wolfe had been issued with a royal privilege to act as the king’s printer in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. This included the exclusive right to print charts and maps which might be useful to king and country.

Wolfe died in 1573, when Chronicles was still incomplete. His wife Joan died the following year, stipulating in her will that Holinshed had permission to complete, and benefit from, the work. Unfortunately for Holinshed, Wolfe’s printing business had been inherited by his son Robert, and his son-in-law, John Hun. They joined with two other men to create a printing consortium with the intention of printing Chronicles. To publish the volumes, they turned to Henry Bynneman, who had royal privilege to print ‘all Dictionaries in all tongues, all Chronicles and histories whatsoever’.

In 1577 the huge two-volume Chronicles was finally published, with Holinshed on the title page. However, Holinshed appears to have been disappointed with the work. He considered it too limited in scope in comparison with the original ‘universal cosmology’ envisioned by Wolfe. He blamed the consortium headed by Wolfe’s son, as did other contributors, including William Harrison, the author of the ‘Historicall description of the island of Britain’, which prefaced the work. Harrison suggested that the speed with which he had been forced to write his contribution may have led to both errors and omissions.

Chronicles was a great publishing success. It was an expensive book; a copy selling in 1577 for £1.6s (c.£200) would have made it one of the most costly books in a university student’s possessions. But its success also suggests how ‘informed Elizabethans were coming to place the understanding of their own history alongside the classics as part of the education of a young gentleman preparing for government service.’

It is unclear how much Holinshead himself benefited from sales of the book. In 1578 he was living in Warwickshire, serving as steward to Thomas Burdet, and by 1580 he had died, leaving his books and papers to Burdet.

All hail Makbeth, from the 1577 edition

Chronicles went into a second reprint in 1585-7. This time it was printed by Henry Denham, at the expense of John Harrison, George Bishop, Ralph Newbury, and Thomas Woodcocke. They treated its reprint with tremendous care. While Reyer Wolfe had worked with Holinshed on the 1577 edition, the 1587 edition was placed under the supervision of Abraham Fleming. Fleming acted as general editor, and revised the book, extending the English history to 1586. The 1587 edition of Chronicles was printed in three volumes. The first comprising Harrison’s ‘Historical description’ and the ‘History of England’ up to 1066. The second is a description and history of Ireland, revised and extended by John Hooker, as well as the history and description of Scotland by Francis Thynne. The third comprises the History of England by Holinshed, revised by Fleming, with contributions from John Stow.

Title page to the second edition (dated 1586)

Both editions of Chronicles were extensively censored by the Elizabethan authorities. In 1587, for example, passages pertaining to Scottish history were removed for fear they might damage Anglo-Scottish relations, and Chronicles‘ final revision, ‘very likely dictated by political developments that followed the completion of the first and second reformations, reflects a careful attempt to cultivate good opinions both at home and abroad, and especially abroad, ahead both of English efforts to negotiate a settlement in the Low Countries and of the expected response to the execution of Mary, queen of Scots. ‘

Some extant copies escaped censorship, while others reveal varying degrees of alteration. In 1590, James VI demanded a further censoring of the text, but eventually relented, permitting the offending passages to remain. In the eighteenth century, new copies of pages previously censored from Chronicles, were published, with the intention they should be inserted into those existing copies with omissions. As a result, many of the 1587 copies include eighteenth century alterations. A third edition was published in 1807-8, which restored the censored pages and passages, but reordered the descriptions and histories.

As far as Shakespeare is concerned, my own guess is that he would have been familiar with both editions of Chronicles. The 1577 copy may have appeared in his school, perhaps in his final year. In all likelihood he owned a 1587 edition, purchased during his years in London. He may have initially borrowed a copy while composing his history plays in the early 1590s, but the cost of buying Chronicles would not have been such a stretch in the years immediately preceding the composition of King Lear in 1604-5.

Three weird sisters and Makbeth, also from the 1577 edition

All quotes are from Cyndia Susan Clegg, ‘Holinshed , Raphael (c.1525–1580?)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved
All original content on these pages is fingerprinted and certified by Digiprove

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers:

© Shakespeare's England 2009-2014