Saturday 3 June 2017

WS ABC: WS & King James I

                         (and VII of SCOTLAND)

Shakespeare was very lucky that he was born and lived during the reigns of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) and James I (1603-1625). Both of these monarchs were keen supporters of the new-style theatre, i.e. a secular theatre and not one dominated by the Church and its somewhat restrictive and religious influence.

In this blog, I will talk about King James. He was born in Scotland and was Mary, Queen of Scots' only child. His father was Henry Darnley, a nasty aristocrat who departed this life somewhat violently by being blown up one night. It is thought that the Earl of Bothwell, Mary's next husband and another nasty piece of work had something to do with Darnley's untimely demise.

James received a good education and in 1589 married, Anne, the daughter of Frederick II of Denmark. Even then the Scottish king (as James VI) enjoyed drama and the theatre and asked his cousin, Elizabeth I for the loan of 'for Her Majesties players for to repayer into Scotland.' When Elizabeth died at the ripe old age (for then) aged 70 in March 1603, James was invited by the English parliament to come south to London to become the new king as the (allegedly) Virgin Queen had not left any descendants.
                 King James' wife - Queen Anne of Denmark

One of the first things he did was to turn WS's acting company into the royal one, calling them the King's Men. Even though he'd taken them under his regal wing, he did not interfere in any way with their everyday management. However, his parliament did pass the 1606 Act of  Abuses which imposed a stricter censorship of plays and also aimed to prevent the speaking of oaths on the stage.

King James was probably the most intellectual and academic of all of the English monarchy and regularly wrote treatises including one against witches and another against the evils of tobacco and smoking, a new fad that had started at the time. However, not everyone was impressed by this opinionated monarch and a French official called him 'the wisest fool in Christendom.'
James I tended to wear heavy padded clothing as a protection against being stabbed! - an act that had threatened his life several times while he was King of Scotland.

Physically, he was small and clumsy, tended to lean on people as his bandy legs didn't seem to support him and if he wasn't a homo, then he was known to have preferred young men and boys to women. One of his favourites was George Villiers, whom he made the Earl of Buckingham. In a letter to the newly created earl, James called him 'sweet child and wife.' It was said that his tongue was too large for his mouth and it tended to loll about and made his speech indistinct. 

The Catholic community of England was pleased when he ascended the throne as they thought that as the Catholic son of the 'martyred' Mary, Queen of Scots, he would relax Queen Elizabeth's anti-Catholic laws. He did no such thing. When a group of Catholic aristocrats and others tried to kill him in the famous Gunpowder Plot (Nov 1605), he had them brought to trial and hanged the eight survivors after severely torturing their gunpowder 'technician,' Guy Fawkes.

The Gunpowder Plot: Guy Fawkes, third from right, above.

(Right) Guy Fawkes about to set light to 36 barrels of gunpowder secretly stored in the cellars under the Parliament building.

Shakespeare, who may possibly have been a secret Catholic (a Catholic tract was later found in the attic of his parents' house in Stratford-upon-Avon) hinted about the Gunpowder Plot in the Porter's speech in Macbeth, but here, as in all of his plays, the Bard never expressed any political opinions. He didn't want to pay a long visit to the Tower of London's dungeons and he also wished to keep his head firmly fixed on his shoulders.

Two acts that James I carried out that annoyed many people included believing in the "Divine Right of Kings." This meant that his authority came directly from God and that he couldn't be questioned by mere men. This attitude was to get him into much trouble with his more democratic, power-seeking Parliament. Unfortunately, his son and successor, Charles I also inherited this idea and took it too far. In the end it cost him his life. At the end of the Civil War he was executed for war crimes against the nation in January 1649 - the only king to be put to death by Parliament.

James also annoyed Parliament and the people by the selling of baronetcies, a new rank he invented, for one thousand pounds at a time (about half a million pounds in today's money). He did so because as he ruled for long periods without Parliament and had to resort to this trick in order to raise money without imposing any more taxation.

He died in 1625 and there were rumours that he was poisoned. Although he was never popular, he probably died of kidney failure due to an unhealthy diet of too much food and wine. His legacy was two-fold.  He turned the strong monarchy of Elizabeth I into a weakened institution which ultimately gave Parliament more power and he also supported our William's drama company. It was during James' reign that WS wrote:
King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Pericles, The Tempest, Henry VIII and more.

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Nest time: WS's rival - Ben Jonson

Tuesday 30 May 2017

WS ABC Shakespeare and Henry Folger

I have just finished reading a fascinating book about our William and Henry Folger. It is called The Millionaire and the Bard:Henry Folger's Obsessive Hunt for the First Folio. It was written by Andrea Mays. Who is Henry Folger? you may ask.
Well, Henry Clay Folger, to give this gentleman his full name was born in New York in 1857 and became the greatest collector of Shakespeariana and copies of the First Folio. Actually, and as the subtitle above states, not only did he become a major collector of this material, he became an obsessive collector.

At the age of 24, after having received a good education at Amherst College, he went to work for the Standard Oil Trust of John D. Rockefeller.  He worked very hard and in 1889 was promoted to become the chairman of the manufacturing committee. Seventeen years later in 1908, he was elected assistant treasurer of Jersey Standard and from there he continued climbing up the corporate ladder until he became the chairman of Standard Oil in 1923. He kept this post for five years and retired in 1928. He died two years later in June 1930.
          Henry Folger and his supportive wife, Emily Clara

While he was at Amherst, he began to become interested in WS and bought his first copy of the First Folio (actually, the 1685 Fourth Folio) at an auction in Manhattan for $107.50 in 1889. At this point in his career he was not obsessive, but just wanted to be the proud owner of such a worthy tome. (It should also be noted that $107.50 was worth a lot more then than today.)  He bought his first copy of the First Folio four years later in 1893.

As time went on, so his Foliomania increased and in the end, up to the time of his death, he had bought 79 copies of the First Folio. Some of these were in good condition, others had pages missing, were badly bound or were soiled in one way or another. Fortunately for Folger, he was rich. This hobby was to prove expensive. While some copies of this classic work would cost him a mere few hundred dollars, other copies, such as the Vincent/Sibthorpe one which he bought in 1903 cost him $48,732.50. (Again, think of this sum in today's value.) His most epensive purchase was in 1928 when he bought one which contained 'some imperfections' for $68,750!

Above: The Folger Library in Washington, USA.
Below: copies of the "First Folio" stored in the Library.

Today, the First Folio is the most expensive book you can buy. In October 2001, Christies sold a copy for more than SIX MILLION DOLLARS! It should also be remembered that no more than 750 copies were ever printed and about two-thirds of this number have disappeared over the passing of time. Of the approx 250 that survive, most of them are in poor condition or incomplete, and of those, Henry Clay Folger managed to buy about 30% during his lifetime. The Folger Library he founded in Washington DC continues to buy up even more copies up to today.

Engravings of  "The Merchant of Venice," "Romeo and Juliet" and "Julius Caesar" on the outer walls of the Folger Library.

Folger's collecting may sound a laudable activity, especially as they are now being preserved in a special vault in the Folger Library, Washington DC. But I have a problem with this. First of all I find it very difficult to accept that this quantity of this valuable book is concentrated in one place, however well they are stored. Secondly, they are kept hidden away from the public. You cannot just stroll into the Folger library and just ask to see a copy of the world's second most important book (after the Bible) just like that. This I believe is preventing many people from actually seeing and 'experiencing' one of the most significant contributions to our national and international culture.

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Saturday 20 May 2017

WS ABC Shakespeare and the Jews

One of the questions often asked about Shakespeare, and especially in connection with his play, The Merchant of Venice is, was WS anti-Semitic or not? According to Michael Macrone in Naughty Shakespeare, apart from the Bard's references to Shylock, he makes six other references to Jews in his plays.

"If I am a villain; if I do not love here, I am a Jew." 
(Benedick in "Much Ado About Nothing," II.iii)

"...go to the alehouse; if not, thou art an Hebrew, a Jew, and not worth the name of a Christian.   
(Launce the Clown in "2GoV," II.v)

"[Even] a (hard-hearted) Jew would have wept to see our parting." (Crab in "2GoV," II.ii)

"What a Herod of Jewry is this!" (MWW II.i) {Falstaff: Jews as Christs killers)

"Liver of Blaspheming Jew" (Macbeth IV.i) {Witches in "Double, double toil and trouble...}

"You rogue, they were bound, every one of them, or I am a Jew, an Ebrew Jew." (Falstaff in 1H4 II.iv).
Anti-Semitic picture: "Fly from the Jews Lest They Circumcise Thee" by Thomas Coryate, 1611.

I think it is quite clear here that in none of the above, do the Jews appear in a positive light. This attitude is reinforced when one reads and sees Shylock in The Merchant of Venice." Here, Shylock is depicted as a money-grabbing Jew and as an exploiter of honest Christians, especially Antonio, the wealthy merchant of Venice. This negative portrait of Shylock is painted so graphically that even today, 'Shylock' is synonymous with evil grasping businessmen, if they are Jewish or not.

In contrast to the above quotations, those who say that WS is not anti-Semitic usually invoke two speeches made by the same Shylock calling on the audience to have pity on the poor man who is a social inferior in Medieval Venice. In Act I,sc.iii Shylock addresses Antonio thus:

Signior Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usuances:
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,
For sufferance is the badge of all of our tribe.
You call me a misbeliever, a cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.

And further on in Act III, sc.i

Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimesnsions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.
Medieval picture of evil Jew poisoning a well. Note the Jew's ragged clothes, the Devil urinating and the figure on the Cross.

In this passionate speech, Shylock uses the word 'same' to emphasise the point that he, the despised Jew, is the same sort of person as the Christian in terms of their mental and physical faculties. It is a very sensitive speech and it should be borne in mind that this was written in about 1594 when Roderigo Lopez, Queen Elizabeth I's personal physician, and the most famous Jew in England at the time, had been publicly hanged in London in front of a jeering mob on a trumped-up charge of treason. And it is these speeches that those who claim that despite what we think about Shylock, Shakespeare was definitely not an anti-Semite.
Contemporary anti-Semitic picture of Lopez plotting to poison 
Queen Elizabth I.

It may be correct to speculate that Shakespeare himself didn't know any Jews personally, or if he did, he knew very few. Officially, between 1290, when Edward I threw the Jews out of England until 1656 when Cromwell allowed them to return, there were no Jews living in England. However, it is known that there were at least two small Jewish communities living in London and Bristol. These few hundred Jews made sure they kept a low profile as Jews were considered as Christ-killers and grasping userers. 

Therefore when WS described Jews in unflattering terms, he was only using the sentiments that were prevalent during his time. If he wanted people to come and see his plays, then there was no way, if he did have to mention Jews, that they would be seen in a positive light. Christopher Marlowe did the same in The Rich Jew of Malta. Although this despicable character, Barnabas, does sometimes beat the Christians, in the end he pays for this and suffers a very grim end by being boiled to death in a cauldron he had prepared for his enemies.
Al Pacino (Shylock) and Jeremy Irons (Antonio) in the 2004 film version of "The Merchant of Venice." 

Some modern critics see The Merchant of Venice not as an anti-Semitic play, but a work in which WS pleas for tolerance. They claim that the trial at the end is a mockery of justice and that Portia was not a real judge. It is Shylock who is honest and straightforward here, not Portia. 

To sum up, my own personal opinion is that WS was not particularly or deliberately anti-Semitic. He was writing during the late Elizabethan period when to write or speak out against the prevalent way of thinking was extremely dangerous and could land you either in the Tower or at the scaffold - or both! The recent trial and hanging of Dr. Lopez was proof that public tolerance for Jews as in books and plays was not acceptable by the authorities and public opinion. The fact that WS could write two speeches as those above which could be interpreted in at least two different ways show that he was much more of a sensitive writer than an anti-Semitic bigot.

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Monday 15 May 2017

WS ABC Juliet (2) A Personal View

Over the past few years, I have visited three Italian towns and one island that feature in WS's plays. The island was Sicily (The Winter's Tale) and the cities included Padua (The Taming of the Strew), Rome (Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar and Coriolanus) and Verona (The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Romeo and Juliet.) Unfortunately, I didn't have enough time to visit Messina (Much Ado About Nothing) and Venice (The Merchant of Venice and (Othello).

In this blog, I want to tell you about 'fair Verona' and its most famous female citizen, Juliet Capulet.
Note: Apart from the above photo, all of the other photos in this blog were taken by the writer.

The two 'star-cross'd lovers belonged to two rival families: Romeo, to the Montagues, who supported the Pope, and Juliet, to the Capulets, who supported the Emperor. Juliet's famous Gothic style house - Casa di Giulietta) can be found at 23, Via Capello. To visit this modern-day tourist trap you have to enter through an archway/tunnel which contains a wall on which hundreds, if not thousands of lovers have written their names and then continue through to the famous courtyard and balcony.
The graffiti covered wall in the entrance arch to Juliet's courtyard.

As soon as you emerge from the long archway/short tunnel, you will find yourself in the courtyard surrounded by tens of happy tourists all armed with their copies of the play, cameras and smartphones. You will also probably hear more than one person (mis)quote, "Romeo, Romeo, where are you Romeo?"

Without trying to sound snooty, this is a dumb question and a misquotation. It is obvious where Romeo is. Juliet can easily see him from her balcony. What she is saying is, "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?" 'Wherefore' means 'why,' and Juliet is really asking, why is Romeo a Montague? i.e. a member of the rival family who she must have nothing to do with. (Think of the modern equivalent of the Jets and the Sharks in West Side Story.)

From here I moved on to Juliet's tomb but was disappointed to learn that what I saw was not the original but a later substitute. The original was destroyed many years ago and the present tomb may be found in the cloisters of the Church of San Francesco al Corsontiere at 35 Via del Pontiere - the church where Romeo and Juliet had their secret and rushed wedding ceremony.
                        Romeo and Juliet's modern-day tomb.

                         Notice and quotation outside the tomb.

        Japanese statue of Romeo and Juliet outside their tomb.

           Statue of Shakespeare in the garden outside the tomb.

From here I continued to wander around this beautiful city looking for more evidence of the world's two most famous lovers. Here are some photos of some of the kitchy stuff I saw. I was not annoyed to see this as I hadn't expected otherwise. Also, it is kitch like this (also to be seen in spades in Stratford-upon-Avon) that keep these towns going. To expect to see Verona, Stratford et al as they were four hundred years ago is to be sorely disappointed as your expectations are not going to be met.

Another more modern example of Juliet's name is on this Alfa-Romeo Guilietta.

After several hours I left the city centre, but not before taking note of its ancient walls, complete with their decorative swallow-tail battlements.

And finally, I could not resist having the the classic tourist photo taken of me with the heroine in her courtyard - Signorina Juliet Capulet.

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Nest time: Shakespeare & the Jews. 

Saturday 13 May 2017

WS ABC Juliet (1)

One fact that often surprises people when they start studying Romeo and Juliet (originally known as The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet) is that Juliet is only almost fourteen years old. This we learn in I,ii.9 when her father, the head of the Capulet family, says, "she has not seen the change of fourteen years."
(Top) Olivia Hussey in Zefferelli's 1968 film.
(Below) Claire Danes in Baz Luhrmann's 1996 film.

By the way, Juliet becomes a nearly eighteen year-old in Dr. Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825), the (in)famous The Family Shakespeare. The physician, who together with his sister, Henrietta Maria, edited and censored WS's plays so that could be read out to the whole family, including the young children. In this edition he adds four more years onto her age so that it does not appear that she is rushing to lose her virginal status. 

The other time factor that must be taken into account is that the whole play takes place within five days. Apart from this very short period which adds to the intensity of the plot, it also means that the sweet, young and innocent Juliet, who has "affections and warm youthful blood" has to grow up and mature very quickly!

As a character, she is vivacious, lively and witty. When she first meets Romeo, she tells him that he kisses her "by the book" in contrast to the passion he feels. She is also more down to earth than Romeo and when he claims he loves her with a poetic speech, she interrupts him and says:

Well do not swear. Although I joy in thee;
I have no joy of this contract tonight,
It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden,
Too like lightening, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say, it lightens. (II.ii).

Even though she may seem to appear timid due to her young age, she is headstrong and intelligent in contrast to the more impulsive Romeo. She is the one who tells him when he can kiss her and she is the one who pledges herself to him first and she is the one who suggests that they get married.

In addition to this, she goes against her family's wishes when she agrees to secretly marry Romeo instead of her parents' planned marriage for her to Paris and all in all, despite the innocent impression we first have of her, she is the more devious of this pair of lovers.

Anthony Burgess wrote that this play 'of all works of literature eternises the ardour of young love and youth's aggressive spirit.' This aspect of passionate love can easily be seen in Juliet's language.'  

As I noted earlier, despite her young age, Juliet is witty and her speeches contain several double-entendres as when she sighs,"Come night, come Romeo" (III.ii), i.e. she not only wants to see Romeo; she also wants to feel him. In the same scrne she says, "...learn me how to lose a winning match" i.e. by losing her virginity, she will win Romeo for herself. For a very young teenager, the depth of her language and passion are truly precocious!   

(Top-bottom) the 13+ yr old Juliet by
Frank Dicksee, George Dawe and Philip H. Calderon.

In addition, in III.ii she aches for Romeo, saying,

Give me my Romeo, and when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.

When reading the above, it should be taken into account, that for Shakespeare's audiences, the night she is wishing for is associated with death and sex. To 'die' was an Elizabethan euphemism for an orgasm and so this speech may be seen as a precursor of their future sexual activities and death.

            The end, according to Zepherelli's lush 1968 film.

Next time: A personal view of Juliet.
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Thursday 11 May 2017

WS ABC Julius Caesar

WS ABC Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar has been probably the most (and first) studied Shakespearean play by millions of students throughout the world. Why? According to Norrie Epstein in The Friendly Shakespeare, this play - one of the Bard's 'most austere and static' - was regularly foisted upon students when Latin was part of the curriculum and it was thought to have been useful in helping the poor students with their Latin studies. Even though few students learn Latin today, it remains 'embedded in the curriculum like a fly in amber.' 

In addition, Julius Caesar is a short play (only Macbeth and The Comedy of Errors are shorter) and it's easy for teachers to teach. The plot is easy to follow and it doesn't contain a single nudge-'nudge-wink-wink' sexy pun or allusion. 
Marlon Brando as Marc Antony giving his "Friends, Romans and countrymen speech in the 1953 film.

However, despite the above, it has remained one of the most popular of WS's plays and George Bernard Shaw has described it as 'the most splendidly written political melodramas we possess.'

Another fan of this play was Adolf Hitler. He drew many sketches for its stage setting and his pet architect, Albert Speer, based his grandstand of the Zeppelinfeld on these sketches. It was from this grandstand that Hitler made his infamous Nuremburg speeches before the Second World War. Perhaps this staging also influenced Orson Welles. In 1937 in New York, he opened his production of Julius Caesar in a style that strongly reflected both Nazi Germany and Mussolini's Italy.

In connection with its popularity, according to Eddie Salmon'sShakespeare: A Hundred years on Filmup to the year 2000, WS's plays have been filmed and adapted, either loosely or closely, 479 times! Julius Caesar comes in sixth, with 24 films and is preceded by Romeo & Juliet (77), Hamlet (75), Othello (43) The Taming of the Shrew (42) and Macbeth (32). Note: this list doesn't contain any of the Histories.

As for the silver stage, according to the Royal Shakespeare Company (, Julius Caesar has been performed 54 times as opposed to Hamlet (82), Twelfth Night (81), As You Like it (80), The Merchant of Venice (75), Macbeth (64) andRomeo and Juliet (61).
                  Statue of Julius Caesar in the Capitol in Rome.

The play was probably written in 1599 (Why, O why didn't WS date his manuscripts? It would have made life a lot easier for me and the other million Bardolators.)  and was based on Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives. The play appears in theFirst Folio, (1623) and its first performance at the Globe Theatre was recorded on 21 September 1599. It has been regularly performed since then in both Roman and Elizabethan style as well as in modern dress. 
                     Portia, Brutus' 'true and honourable wife.'

As for Caesar himself, WS paints him as an ambiguous figure. On the one hand we see him as a demi-god, a tyrant and as Marc Antony says, "the noblest man that ever lived." But on the other hand, Shakespeare also depicts him as an infirm old man who suffers from deafness, epilepsy and who is a poor swimmer. 

It should also be noted, that much of what we learn about this Roman ruler is influenced not by the man himself (after all, he is physically removed from the stage half-way through the play) but by the conspirators responsible for his assassination. What motivates them of course is their jealousy of his ruling position and their ambition which drives them to kill him.

Even Cassius who derides Caesar for being a weakling, 'a man of feeble temper' and not fit to rule admits that:

...he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs, and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves (i.ii)
James Mason as Brutus in the 1953 film which also starred Marlon Brando, John Gielgud, Edmund O'Brian and Deborah Kerr.

Finally, one of the characters who is studied as deeply as Caesar himself is Brutus. This unwilling conspirator emerges as the play's most complex character and tragic hero. He is a powerful public figure, a military leader and a loving husband. On the other hand, he is an assassin. As Cork Milner says in The Everything Shakespeare Book, 'His rigid idealism becomes both his greatest virtue and his tragic flaw.'

Next time: Juliet of "Romeo and..."
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