Category Archives: Shakespeare

Actor Shakespeare Stage

Hadst thou not played some kingly parts

Henry Peacham’s sketch of a scene from Titus Andronicus (1594)

Today Shakespeare’s England is delighted to bring you a post from Professor Stanley Wells. Stanley is Honorary President of The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies in the University of Birmingham, Honorary Governor Emeritus of the RSC, General Editor of the Oxford and Penguin editions of Shakespeare, Trustee of the Rose Theatre, and member of the Council for Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. He has published widely on Shakespeare and his contemporaries. In other words, a Shakespeare Legend. What follows is an illuminating new piece on Shakespeare as an actor which first appeared in The Stage.

We’ve been celebrating great Shakespeare actors of the twentieth century. But who came first in the line? Could it possibly have been Shakespeare himself? It’s usually supposed to have been Richard Burbage, who seems to have created, for example, the roles of Romeo, Hamlet, Lear, and Pericles. But the possibility that it was Shakespeare himself is intriguingly implied in a new book by Katherine Duncan-Jones, Shakespeare: Upstart Crow to Swan of Avon. Pointing out that the First Folio, printed in 1623, seven years after he died, includes a list of ‘the names of the principal actors in all these plays’, she suggests that the fact that Shakespeare comes first may ‘imply that he had been a leading performer in every single play included in the Folio.’ It’s a bold claim. Does the heading to the list really have to mean that all the actors named in the list had appeared in all the Folio’s 36 plays?  Actually that is impossible. For instance, one of the actors named is Nathan Field, who was not born until 1587, and so would have been an infant when Shakespeare started writing. And another actor in the list, Laurence Fletcher, didn’t join the company until 1603.

Still, there’s no doubt that Shakespeare was an actor. He along with Richard Burbage and the great comedian William Kemp received payments for plays performed before the Queen in December 1594. This shows that he belonged to an acting company, and almost certainly that acting was part of his duty. He is named unequivocally as an actor in the printed list of ‘The principal comedians’ for Ben Jonson’s Every Man in his Humour (acted in 1598) and of ‘the principal tragedians’ in Jonson’s Sejanus (which bombed heavily when it was acted in 1603). I think ‘comedians’ and ‘tragedians’ in these lists simply mean that the actors named were playing in a comedy and a tragedy, not that they were specially known for one kind of acting rather than another. Also, in a document (known as ‘the York Herald’s Complaint’) of 1602 a sketch of his family’s arms is annotated ‘Shakespeare the player’, which may (or may not) be a bit of a slur. A poem by John Davies of Hereford published in 1610 begins ‘Some say, good Will, which I in sport do sing, / Hadst thou not played some kingly parts in sport /Thou hadst been a companion to a king ….’ This clearly refers to his acting, but it is headed ‘To Our English Terence Mr Will. Shakespeare’, where the reference to the Latin dramatist no less clearly relates to him as a playwright. So there’s documentary evidence that he acted, at least from time to time, from 1594 until the performance of Sejanus, in 1603. Davies’s poem shows that he was still thought of as an actor in 1610 though not necessarily that he went on acting till then.

There are also some early anecdotes. In 1699 an anonymous writer said he ‘was a much better poet than player.’ On the other hand John Aubrey, writing in the mid-seventeenth century, says that Shakespeare, ‘inclined naturally to poetry and acting, came to London, I guess about 18: and was an actor at one of the play-houses, and did act exceedingly well.’ A bit later, in the first attempt at a biography of Shakespeare, published in 1709, Nicholas Rowe said that after he ‘was received’ into an acting company ‘his admirable wit, and the natural turn of it to the stage, soon distinguished him, if not as an extraordinary actor, yet as an excellent writer.’

 Shakespeare as actor (Samuel Ireland)

What parts did he play? There’s no hard evidence, just a few rumours. Rowe said ‘I could never meet with any further account of him this way than that the top of his performance was the ghost in his own Hamlet.’ Somewhat later the antiquary William Oldys (1696-1761) claimed to have heard from ‘one of Shakespeare’s younger brothers, who lived to a good old age’ that he had had seen Shakespeare play a role which is clearly that of Adam in As You Like It. This anecdote is highly suspect because none of Shakespeare’s brothers lived to an old age.

Since As You Like It and Hamlet had been written by the date of Sejanus, the anecdotal evidence does nothing to extend Shakespeare’s likely acting career beyond 1603, and Jonathan Bate, in his book Soul of the Age, deduces from that that he ‘stopped acting around the time of the 1603-4 plague outbreak.’ He supports this by citing some inconclusive annotations to an early copy of the First Folio and, more significantly, with the fact that  ‘a recently discovered list of “Players of interludes” in the records of the royal household’, dated 1607, lists Burbage and other members of the King’s men but not Shakespeare. ‘If he was acting’, says Bate, ‘he would unquestionably have acted at court’(356).

Well, that’s only negative evidence. Duncan-Jones, more positively, cites an annotation not mentioned by Bate in a 1590 edition of Camden’s Britannia which refers (in Latin) to ‘William Shakespeare, manifestly our Roscius.’ The annotator was born about 1596. Roscius was the great actor of ancient Rome, so it does look here as if Shakespeare were being recalled primarily as an actor and that it could refer to late in his career. More significantly, Duncan-Jones draws attention (256) to the first line of the elegy by William Basse on the death of Shakespeare which is ‘Sleep, rare tragedian Shakespeare, sleep alone.’ The word ‘tragedian’ could mean a tragic playwright, but as Duncan-Jones says there is ample evidence that it could also mean an actor – not necessarily even a tragic actor. Shakespeare himself uses it in this sense in Hamlet and elsewhere.

To my mind then there is good presumptive evidence that Shakespeare was still thought of as an actor at the time of his death, and therefore that he continued to act after 1603, probably till close to the end of his career. But did he regularly take major roles in his plays or in those of other men?  In other words, was he a star actor? The two greatest luminaries of the tragic stage in his time were Edward Alleyn, who worked for the rival company, the Lord Admiral’s Men, and Richard Burbage. We know quite a bit about them. In the case of Alleyn, this is mainly because of the survival of Philip Henslowe’s papers. We know a number of the roles that Burbage played, partly because of an epitaph which names many. We have no such evidence for Shakespeare. Admittedly whether evidence survives is a matter of chance. But we cannot with certainty name a single role that Shakespeare played, and my guess is that he continued to act through most of his career – to that extent I agree with Duncan-Jones rather than with Jonathan Bate – but that he was not a star actor and did not necessarily take roles even in all of his own plays. So Burbage remains on his throne

Professor Wells’ latest book, Shakespeare Sex and Love is a fascinating exploration of love, sex, and romance in Shakespeare’s lifetime, providing new insight into the ways in which the discourse of sexuality and love was negotiated by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. An erudite and scholarly book, but one which is also enormously entertaining, occasionally rude, and very good fun. You can purchase a copy here.

You can read Stanley’s regular blog posts at Blogging Shakespeare and follow him on Twitter.

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved
Biography Books Conversation Italy London Monarchy Shakespeare

To talke in the darke

Today’s post is on the life of John Florio (1553-1625), Italian language teacher and contemporary of Shakespeare.

John’s father, Michael, was a former Franciscan monk, who escaped the Inquisition and fled to England during the reign of Edward VI. In 1550, Michael began preaching at a newly-formed Italian Protestant church in London, but after falling out of favour with other members of the church, he turned to teaching Italian in order to support his family. Two of his more famous students included Henry Herbert, second earl of Pembroke, and Lady Jane Grey.

In 1554, the Catholic Mary Tudor ascended the throne, and Michael, like many foreign exiles, was forced to leave England. He and his family settled in Soglio, Switzerland, near the Italian border. At the age of ten, John was sent to study under the Italian refugee Vergerio, a former bishop, but when his father died, he returned to Soglio, and by 1576 John Florio was back in England.

In London, John turned his hand to teaching Italian, and in 1578 he published his first handbook, Florio his Firste Fruites, which he dedicated to Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester. First Fruites is comprised of forty-four chapters of typical conversations and interactions, and a guide to Italian grammar.


Page from Florio’s First Fruites (1578). Right click to open a large image in a new tab.
Around the time he published his First Fruites, Florio moved to Oxford, where he taught Italian at the university and became friends with the poet Samuel Daniel. He married Daniel’s sister in 1580 and they baptized their first child, Joane, in Oxford in 1585. Their second child, Edward, was born in 1588, and another, Elizabeth, in 1589. During his time in Oxford, Florio published A shorte and briefe narration of the two navigations and discoveries to the northweast partes called Newe Fraunce (1580), an English  translation of Ramusio’s Italian version of the work by Jacques Cartier. 

In 1583 Florio and his family returned to London, and for two years he was employed by the French embassy as a tutor to the daughter of the French ambassador. During this time it is believed he also worked as a spy for Francis Walsingham, a common activity, and one undertaken by many literary men, including Christopher Marlowe. Florio was also occupied translating newsletters from Italy, which he published in one pamphlet, A letter lately written from Rome, by an Italian gentleman to a freende of his in Lyons in Fraunce (1585).

In 1591 Florio published a second language book entitled Florios Second Frutes, which contained 6000 Italian proverbs in the appended Gardine of Recreation; the largest list of proverbs to be published in the 16th century.

Second Frutes (1591)

  Proverbs from Second Frutes 

Second Frutes was aimed at the upper classes, and contains a wealth of fascinating conversations surrounding daily life, such as visiting the theatre, playing tennis, and attending dinner parties. Interest in languages and all things Italian was at its height in England at this time, and as his biographer notes, ‘Florio offered the Elizabethans a vehicle for discovering Italy, its language, and its Renaissance culture without necessarily travelling to the continent.’ 

In 1598, Florio published the first edition of a Worlde of Wordes, or Most Copius, and Exact Dictionarie in English and Italian. According to the titles he lists at the beginning of the book, he consulted seventy-two works by 16th century writers, to provide over 44,000 entries in English and Italian. But his most famous work was published in 1603; a translation of Montaigne’s Essais, entitled The Essayes, or, Morall, Politike and Militarie Discourses. By this point he had severable well-connected patrons including Lady Elizabeth Grey, Lady Penelope Rich and Lady Mary Neville. This translation of Montaigne was a source of inspiration for Walter Raleigh, Ben Jonson, John Webster and William Shakespeare.  

Florio’s star was in the ascendant, and in 1604 he was appointed groom of the privy chamber, and reader in Italian, and as private secretary to Queen Anne. He tutored the royal family in Italian and French, and revised his dictionary, which he republished in 1611 as Queen Anna’s New World of Words. This new edition included almost 70,000 entries, and covers such subjects as history, astrology, philosophy and medicine. This edition also included an engraved portrait of Florio, which can be seen above.

In 1617, Florio remarried a woman named Rose Spicer, and when the queen died in 1619, he lost his place at court. Later that year he and his wife were living in poverty in Fulham. Here he worked on a third edition of his dictionary. In October 1625, Florio died of plague, and his wife followed him to the grave a year later. Their daughter Aurelia went on to marry the surgeon James Molins and they had at least nine children.

Florio and Shakespeare were contemporaries and almost certainly knew each other. Shakespeare demonstrates familiarity with Florio’s work in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and in The Tempest, in which he includes a passage from Florio’s translation of Montaigne (2.1). At least twelve plays feature Italy or Italian names. Some theorists have speculated that Shakespeare himself was an Italian, and others that Shakespeare was indeed Florio; the theory going that John’s father Michael was born in Messina to Giovanni Florio and Guglielma Crollalanza (Shakes-pear in English). That he fled to England and assumed the identity of a dead English cousin, his son John then inheriting the real surname Shakespeare.

The Tempest, First Folio (A4r)

Like all authorship theories, there is little evidence to support such claims, and Shakespeare and Florio probably knew each other through the intimate and tight-knit world of the court and London publishers.

John Florio was the leading language teacher of the early 17th Century. His knowledge of Italian Renaissance literature and his elegant writing contributed, according to his biographer, ‘to the regeneration of English humanism in the latter part of the sixteenth century and to its consolidation at the beginning of the seventeenth.’

From a modern perspective, Florio’s work, particularly the two Frutes, provides charming and revealing evidence of every day life and interaction in 17th Century London, which makes a rich contribution to our understanding of the world of Shakespeare.

You can read some of Florio’s entertaining conversations here

Source: Desmond O Connor, DNB

  © 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved

Shakespeare Theatre

Treading in the footsteps of Shakespeare

Today I spent the day with historian and author Adrian Tinniswood at Hampton Court, one of the most astonishing historical royal palaces in England. Originally acquired by Cardinal Wolsey in 1514, the palace became home to Henry VIII, who began major building works in 1529. It has been closely connected with  English monarchs ever since. However, for me, perhaps the most interesting aspect of Hampton Court, is its connection with Shakespeare. In 1603-4, Shakespeare and his players, the King’s Men, attached to the Globe theatre on Bankside, were summoned to Hampton Court to provide entertainment during the royal Christmas celebrations. They were lodged at the palace for three weeks and performed seven plays in the Great Hall built by Henry VIII. It is likely Shakespeare would have overseen the productions of his own plays, and perhaps even have acted on stage. The Great Hall is, aside from Middle Temple, I think the the only surviving theatrical space in which Shakespeare’s plays were originally rehearsed and performed. A large room with a raised dais at one end for the King and his family, the plays were probably staged at the opposite end, above which is a musicians gallery beneath a vast window.

 The Great Hall at Hampton Court

So if you’d like to stand in the one of the only remaining theatrical spaces in which Shakespeare’s plays were performed during his lifetime, hie thee along to Hampton Court Palace.

The lovely detail above, from the Tudor Garden, was restored by historical paint expert Patrick Baty. You can see more of his work at Hampton Court here.
© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved
Shakespeare Theatre

Much Ado about Nothing

Yesterday I was lucky enough to see a new production of Much Ado at Wyndham’s theatre on Charing Cross Road. It is one of two productions of the play on stage in London (the other is currently on at The Globe). The Wyndham production pairs Dr Who star David Tennant with comic actress Catherine Tate as the bickering couple Benedick and Beatrice. Several critics have dismissed the production as populist, clearing preferring the more traditional production at The Globe which I have not yet seen.

In my view Wyndham’s theatre production offers much for a modern audience to enjoy. The setting for example, Gibraltar in the 1980s, is inspired, since it lends the play a sexy, contemporary feel which helps to locate the audience within the action itself. So many productions of Shakespeare alienate the audience by attempting to recreate the authenticity of the Elizabethan theatre. For many who already find Shakespeare hard going, this can further distance them from what is happening on stage, thus reinforcing the perceived elitist theatricality of a Shakespeare production. In contrast, the Wyndham production, directed by Josie Rourke, invites the audience to participate, to become visitors to the island, to be part of the crowd.

The set too helps to draw the audience into the drama. A plain central circular rotating stage with four classical arches, backed by white washed shutters, reinforces the beach hut simplicity of the production. As the drama progresses we see a poolside hotel, a lobby, a nightclub, a cafe, an office, and a church, all supported with cleverly interchangeable props. The costumes reinforce this relaxed inclusive environment. In the opening scene the cast flop about on sun loungers, smoking cigarettes in bikinis and dungarees. David Tennant arrives on stage in a golf buggy, handing out beers with all the nonchalance on someone who’s just arrived from the airport duty-free. Even his starched white military uniform is slightly camp and witty, reminiscent of those uniforms worn by Wham in their Club Tropicana video.

The first half of the play is laugh-out-loud knockabout comedy. Beatrice and Benedick bicker, Hero and Claudio fall in love. Everyone gets drunk at a masked ball, including David Tennant, dressed in a denim mini skirt and red patent Doc Marten boots. Beatrice hides on stage under a dust sheet, Benedick sips from a can of coke containing cigarette ends and runs about in a Superman t-shirt. Even the villain Bastard plays it for laughs. The second half sobers up. If the first half of the play is the night before, the second half is the hangover. Everyone gets serious. Hero is supposedly dead, and Benedick shifts from clown to gentleman. As the action progresses the audience is forced to confront the dark side of the island. We see a funeral, Claudio’s desperate night of remorse, Borachio’s arrest and confession, and Leonato’s anger. But the humour and light touches don’t vanish. Rourke supports flashes of comedy; in Dogberry, in Benedick’s attempts at a love song, in the declarations of love between Benedick and Beatrice. But these don’t overshadow, rather they provide gentle light relief. And as the play draws to a close, the party atmosphere returns; the action ends with a traditional jig, played for laughs by the cast as they dance and sing to a pulsing Hey Nonny Nonny.

I’m conscious of the many Shakespeare purists squirming in their seats at the idea of sequinned dresses, disco beats, and cocktails. But it works. This production really works. It relocates Shakespeare in a contemporary world we can all relate to. It drags him from the clutching arms of elitists. This is a production everyone can enjoy. Children will enjoy the slapstick physical comedy, teenagers will enjoy the disco beats and cool relaxed atmosphere, and grown ups will enjoy the sparkling dialogue and clever staging. And this, at the end of the day, is what Shakespeare should be about. Productions should be fun, engaging, entertaining. Shakespeare wasn’t writing for grave academics in the universities and Inns of Court. He was writing for everyday Londoners. A trip to the theatre was open to anyone who had a penny in their pocket. In 1598-9 when Much Ado was likely first performed, its audience would have consisted of people from all walks of life, and Shakespeare’s task was to write a play which appealed to just such a wide cross-section. Some went for the jigs, some for the lovers, some for the songs. Others went to listen to the language. But what every single audience member wanted was the same thing: to be entertained.

So ignore the stuffy critics who dismiss Rourke’s production as ‘populist’. The audience may be full of children who all want to see Dr Who, but does that really matter? Surely the fact a Shakespeare production can not only draw in children, but actually make them laugh out loud, as I witnessed yesterday, is a very good thing indeed. This production is witty, sexy, and clever. Nothing is lost in the setting. The acting on the whole is superb; David Tennant is a delighful Benedick, and Catherine Tate a wonderfully contemporary Beatrice. Rourke’s production has everything a good Shakespeare production should have, but it excels where others fail, simply because the audience are invited guests rather than unwanted observers.

To overlook this production because it appeals to the masses does a huge disservice to Shakespeare. We need more productions like this. We need to stop revering Shakespeare and start enjoying him. In my view, this production helps to place Shakespeare firmly back where he belongs: at the very heart of popular culture.

The show runs until 3rd September.

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