Saturday, March 31, 2012

Angels and Ducats: Shakespeare's Money and Medals by Barrie Cook.

Even before the Euro, there were many units of currency which travelled across national borders, one of which was the ducat. The ducat was first minted in Sicily in the 1140s but would eventually spread across the continent for the next eight hundred odd years. Eurosceptics will be pleased to hear that Britain stuck with pounds, shillings and pence, but it still became one of Shakespeare’s most used currencies as a way of conveying extreme wealth. Ducat appears four times in Hamlet, most memorably in the prince's cry as he accidentally runs Polonius through as a reminder that he believes he’s killing his father-in-law.

But the ducat is just one of dozens of units of currency which crop up in Shakepeare’s plays as they span history and geography and in Angels and Ducats: Shakespeare’s Money & Medals, Barrie Cook, the curator of Medieval and Early Modern Coinage at the British Museum utilises this national collection to explain some of the history of these now obscure units of commerce and their meaning within the texts.  The book's published to coincide with a display opening in April which like the Summer exhibitions, relates the objects to the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, in theatrical economies of scale and the portrayal of royalty on the coins.

As Cook explains, for all the apparent obscurity that some of the language has now, Shakespeare was always concerned with making his stories lucid even if they were set in an earlier time and so although there was enough knowledge available to offer an accurate portrayal, he was unafraid to employ anachronisms as an aid to understanding. The Comedy of Errors, set in the ancient Mediterranean world pinions on the movement of “angels” and “ducats”. But they also provide a useful element of punning and allusion, “nobles” and “crowns” appearing in all the history plays both in plain speech and as a way of conveying satirically the authority being fought for.

But those of us perhaps slightly more interested in theatrical history will find most useful the chapter on how the business of acting was financed.  Cook has compiled a chart itemising the cost of visiting the theatre in Shakespeare’s day and production budgets. What’s surprising is that theatre goers preferred comfort over visibility, the yard nearest the action (albeit standing) far cheaper than the upper galleries some way away from the stage, the exact opposite of the charging mechanics in modern theatres and concert halls were the cheap seats are at the very back, which in some older auditoriums might as well be in the pub next door.

The well chosen illustrations demonstrate that the physical nature of the currency hasn't changed that much across the centuries and almost always feature some monarch on one side, an indication of the denomination on the other. Cook also briefly touches on medals and they too follow a similar format which explains why they’re thought of as such an important part of our history. Some of the only illustrations we have of the notable Romans are the profiles which appear in archaeological discoveries, references to which are another way that Shakespeare is able make these ancient times and peoples more tangible.

Angels and Ducats: Shakespeare's Money and Medals by Barrie Cook is published by the British Museum.  2012.  RRP:  £9.99 paperback.  ISBN: 9780714118215.  Review copy supplied.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Shakespeare's Britain by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton, with Rebecca Allen.

Perhaps sensing that some visitors to their Shakespeare: staging the world exhibition would rather have a more visual keepsake rather than a larger academic study, the British Museum have also published a much smaller, more focused distillation of the exhibition’s themes. Also authored by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton with additional work by Becky Allen the exhibition’s project co-ordinator, Shakespeare’s Britain concentrates on high quality images of the objects and shorter, punchier explanations for their relevance to Shakespeare’s story.

One of the consequences of the distillation is that focuses on the more distasteful elements of the exhibition, the engravings depicting executions, reliquaries containing disembodied eyes and torture devices for witches not to mention once of the lanterns reputedly used in the Gunpowder plot. We’re also reminded of how limited the medieval view of the world could be, with the native peoples from other parts of the world treated as curiosities, something Shakespeare himself referenced in The Tempest when Trinculo suggests he could display Caliban in London for profit.

Of the two, assuming you have the money, I’d still recommend the much larger catalogue which collects almost all the objects in the exhibition plus a few more and whose textual real estate is something which can be dipped in and out of in conjunction with a more general study of the plays. But Shakespeare’s Britain would probably the perfect gift for a curious teenager (assuming they still exist) who’s already somewhat aware of his biography but aren’t quite ready for a full blown academic study.

Shakespeare's Britain by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton, with Rebecca Allen is published by the British Museum. 2012. RRP: £9.99 paperback. ISBN: 9780714128269. Review copy supplied.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Shakespeare’s original pronunciation (2012).

Every now and then a project captures our imagination and if the number of RTs the link to the British Library’s press release on the @shakespearelogs twitter feed is anything to go by, there is much excitement about this release of extracts from the plays in what curator Ben Crystal and his advisor and father David Crystal are ninety-five percent certain is the original pronunciation as heard on the stage of the original Globe.

Even those of us who’re familiar with and love the work are sometimes desperate to hear a new interpretation of the words and since we know that sections of it have been rendered insensible through the natural evolution of our language, we can’t help tingling at the thought that we might, as the publicity suggests find new meanings, hear new jokes and enhanced poetic effects.

As Ben Crystal introduction in the accompanying booklet suggests, the accent is somewhat understandably like the West Country. But there are also find fragments of other regions, with Irish, Scottish, Cockney and Australian and yes, even Scouse surfacing between the syllables. The stress patterns are also somewhat close to American, explaining why the text has always seem so sympathetic to some of the best US actors.

 An introduction from David Crystal outlines the sources their creative decisions, which includes Ben Jonson’s English Grammar as an invaluable resource. But though he’s aware that the results are still experiment, he strikes a note of disappointment that since the work of John Barton and Helge Kokeritz in the 1950s, theatrical experiments even at the Globe reconstruction have been tentative.

Act II, Scene II: 

“My excellent good friends! How dost thou, / Guildenstern? Ah, Rosencrantz! Good lads, how do ye both?”

Hamlet: Ben Crystal
Rosencrantz: Simon Manyonda
Guildenstern: Benjamin O’Mahony

In 2011, Crystal starred in an complete production of Hamlet in this original pronunciation as part of the Nevada Repertory Company, with a cast largely populated by undergraduates and advised by Eric Rasmussen (co-editor on the RSC Complete Works and Folio detective). That explains why of all the project's contributing actors he seems most comfortable with these new (or rather old) sounds ably supposed by his fellow cast members, National Theatre regular Manyonda and O’Mahony from the Tobbaco Factory.

The first thing to notice is the speed with which the text flows, especially in Hamlet’s solo section towards the end, and the rhythm which, although certainly available in some modern productions, has in the initial banter, hints of Samuel Beckett’s too and fro in Waiting for Godot and emphasises the filthiness of the initial metaphor (“strumpet”, “private parts”). Not that some sections don’t become oddly prosaic, especially the extra-syllable in “ambition”, the “sh” sound replaced by “si”.

The biggest surprise is in having heard the text acted so often with a regal accent, something grasping towards received pronunciation, we're suddenly given a prince and friends who sound not unlike characters propping up a bar in one of the regional soap operas.  There's also a naturally familial connection that sometimes isn’t quite communicated in the so-called traditionalist performances, where the usual clipped annunciation can sometimes create an isolation between the characters.

Act III, Scene One:

“To Be, Or Not To Be”

Hamlet: Matthew Mellalieu

Crystal shows surprising restraint in programming what’s arguably Shakespeare’s most famous speech as late as track eight, but it does give the listener a chance to become somewhat use to these new sounds. This isn’t easy but admittedly more pleasurable from the female actors, Joan Walker’s Sonnet 18 sounding almost as naughty as the Cadbury’s Caramel bunny. But I’m straying from the point. Once “To Be, Or Not To Be” arrives we’re ready for it.

Matthew Mellalieu's reading chooses to emphasise sounds over performance so the differences can be heard much more clearly. When Pebbles sang “Question” in such a curious way in the bottom end of her 80s song “Girlfriend” referencing this very speech, did she know she was utilising a four hundred year old pronunciation? The fs are silent (“O’ troubles”) as are the hs (“The t’ousand”). Double Es become singulars “(To slep”).  Cowards sound like “chords”.

The only way to really know how this original pronunciation works would be across a whole performance. The effect must be somewhat like a Northern Broadsides production in which we’re constantly aware of the extra layer of interpretation beyond the usual directorial hand in terms of deciding how the vernacular is communicated.  Hopefully, thanks to the interest in this cd, we'll be hear the experiment extended across a longer duration.

Shakespeare’s original pronunciation is published by the British Library. RRP: £10.00. ISBN 978 0 978-0-7123-5119-5. Review copy supplied.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Shakespeare: staging the world by Jonathan Bate & Dora Thornton.

Pirates! What’s often forgotten about Hamlet is that amongst the psychological introspection and political intrigue, the prince’s mortality is delayed by the left of field plot device of joining a band of pirates. But what’s all the more remarkable that for all the indignation contemporary Horatio actors include in their performance when reading this ludicrous tale, it’s not there in the text. That's because for Shakespeare and so presumably his audience it was a fairly normal occurrence. In that period there was a spate of incidents in which bored or bankrupt nobles “turned Turk” and joined a Mediterranean pirate ship. We might even wonder if, since some of the most notorious cases happened over a decade after Hamlet was premiered, the play actually promoted piracy as a valid lifestyle choice.

Opening in July, the British Museum’s summer exhibition, Shakespeare: staging the world (which is their contribution to Cultural Olympiad) seeks to illuminate objects from the collection like the robes of a Mediterranean pirate through the prism of his plays, his life and his world. As with any cultural achievement, Shakespeare's work will have been understood by a specific collective memory and while most of us non-academics are able to gain a sense of the words and stories, even if we’re particularly familiar some of the plays there will still be certain specific references beyond our understanding. By presenting the visitor with the things which would have been familiar to the people of the period, the British Museum hopes we'll a greater understanding of the more curious aspects of the texts.

In this accompanying catalogue exhibition curator Dora Thornton and her Shakespearean consultant Jonathan Bate provide even greater context for the objects either because they’re specifically mentioned in the text, are directly related to Shakespeare biography in some way or as is most often the case are thematically connected to the plays. To extent this is a natural progression from the chapter in Bate’s Soul of the Age, which forensically reconstructed Shakespeare’s library based on the sources he must have read. This is a selection of objects that would or at least could have been equally inspirational, even indirectly. Some selections might initially seem tenuous but keep with it and connections fire off in all directions.

The book is packed with explanations as interesting as Hamlet’s brief naval dalliance.  When Othello mentions the kind of Spanish rapier he's utilising as his means of his suicide, Shakespeare isn’t simply providing colour, he’s still telling us something about the kind of man the moor is, as interested in fashion as the ability to defend oneself. When he says that's constructed from ‘ice-brook’s templar’ he’s indicating that a cheap dagger simply isn’t good enough to bring him down (and even in texts when it's read as “Insbrook” also a source of good quality metal). On the opposite page is a more traditional Turkish sword with its familiar banana shape, which is fine and with a simple hilt and broad, bland blade, still deadly but without the panache or sleek, smooth shape of Othello’s death bringer.

Unlike Soul of the Age, the catalogue lacks a single argument as such, preferring instead to choose single topics (witchcraft) or a geographical locations (Venice or The Tempest’s unnamed island) and provide case study which oscillates between general and specific, submerging the reader in the mountain of facts and anecdotes perhaps in an attempt to mimic the experience of travelling through the exhibition.  Ours eyes shift curiously from a bear skull to Horary quadrant the woollen cap which was compulsory for people over the age of six on Sundays and holidays in the 1570s.  The effect is bewildering and requires some effort on the part of the reader to reorientate themselves as the authors shift us back and forth through centuries at the turn of the page, from Richards II to III in an instant.

But it’s always rewarding. The book is strongest when considering those Histories in the context of what would have been for him the contemporary monarchy. A portrait of Richard II by an unknown artist is shown to be the reason for Elizabeth I’s oft repeated quote “I am Richard know yet not that?” rather than an “illegal” performance of the play as is commonly thought having been found “fastened to the backside of a door of a base room” in the Palace of Westminster and put in a more prominent position on the Queen’s orders. Its structure, the monarch bolt upright in his throne, orb and sceptre in hand, also influenced the coronation portrait of Elizabeth also included (and perhaps this shot of Ben Wishaw as Richard II in the new BBC adaptation of Shakespeare’s play).

There’s certainly an argument to be made for a more structured approach and that in some respects the text is justifying the inclusion in the exhibition of some gorgeous objects not often given the opportunity for exhibition that only have a tangential connection to Shakespeare. But in other senses it doesn’t matter given how memorable they are. Each page is filled with surprising objects and although some, like the Murano jug reputedly blown by writer Thomas Coryat on his grand tour aren’t done justice in photography, there’s still some excitement in seeing a painting of some anonymous noble and then an adjacent photo of the very tunic he’s wearing still in pristine condition.  Those of you able to see the actual exhibition when it opens will be very lucky indeed.

Shakespeare: staging the world by Jonathan Bate & Dora Thornton is published by the British Museum. 2012. £25 in paperback, ISBN 9780714128245. £40 in hardback, ISBN: 9780714128283. Review copy supplied.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall visit Elsinore

Twitter Hamlet.

The Toronto Sun reports English teacher Danika Barker is using Twitter to teach Shakespeare to her students at Central Elgin Collegiate Institute in St. Thomas:
You can make the role as big as you wanted." Barker said. "It wasn't . . . tweeting for the sake of tweeting. It was more like a strategy to get them to focus on what was really happening in the play and to become really invested in what was happening."

"Using Twitter kept every student involved in the play regardless of the size of their character's role.

"For example, students taking on a character who meets an early demise -- and there's plenty of them in Hamlet -- continued to tweet from the grave.

"Hamlet! My son! do not engage in this fight! you're falling into Claudius's trap if you fight laertes!" Hamlet's dead father tweeted before the prince was killed in a duel."
Worth visiting for the accompanying photo of Barker clutching an edition of The Shakespeare Encyclopaedia (reviewed by me here) which thanks to its weight can't have been an easy volume to hold at that angle.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Hamlet (Oxford World's Classics). Edited by G.R. Hibbard.

Who’s There?

The Oxford Shakespeare is a decades old project under the general editorship of Stanley Wells. They’re an off-shoot of the classic complete works which controversially for their time attempted to collect the plays as they were originally performed rather than taking into account their textual history (something which we’ll discuss below in relation to this text). Although the series began under the Clarendon Press imprint, over the years its become absorbed into the general Oxford World’s Classics literature imprint with cover designs to match.

The Cover.

This latest printing from 2008, features a detail from William Shakespeare Portrait by Max Jacob. A hunt around online doesn’t reveal the full image so I can’t say what facet of the full image this represents, a relatively messy and impressionistic image of Hamlet in his traditional black. The earlier 1998 printing offered Bernardio Licinio’s Portrait of a Young Man with a Skull, a much more traditionalist rendering of the prince and Yorrik.

Publication Data.

The Clarendon was in 1987 and as the copyright page suggests its simply been reprinted since which makes the introduction and version of the text twenty five years old despite the modern covers. But Wells’s has been a life long project only recently completed so this should be seen as part of a body of work rather than the organic changeable thing that the Penguin editions might considered to be.

General Introduction

Hibbard offers a good general survey of the usual play related issues, the sources, the dating, the themes. The text is new enough to encompass the contemporary hindsight that a proportion of the critical history is tainted because the scholars were utilising conflated editions of the play which bore no relation to what Shakespeare intended and that we should tread carefully when considering Hamlet’s procrastination.  Some long held beliefs still enunciated were as a result of Alexander Pope or Lewis Theobald’s well meaning tampering, though due respect is given to all of these early editors for bothering to produce scholarly editions in the first place.

Textual Introduction & Editorial Procedures

A survey of the origins of the three texts. Hibbard pays lip service to the theory that Q1 is a first draft but fall firmly on the side of it being a memorial manuscript further mangled in production which becomes relatively seductive when he notes the similarities with portions of Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (though its too early to include anything on the recent theory that Shakespeare’s hand may have been responsible for the 1602 emendations to that play). Q2 is another mangled manuscript, this time from Shakespeare’s foul papers with some correspondence with Q1 by the compositor.

Hibbard spends most time with F1 which he chooses as the basis for his text on the assumption that it was produced from a clean, revised manuscript of Hamlet by Shakespeare himself, a final revision of the material that increases the pace but also clarifies the story in other places. His argument is sound, but I still prefer the much later Arden 3’s approach of suggesting that all the close textual analysis in the world won’t definitively confirm which of the texts is definitive, so it’s best just to present all three (unless like the RSC edition that was much influenced by Hibbard work, the mission is to reproduce an edition of the folio in particular).

The Text.

F1 presented in a similar format to Arden with textual notes in a two column formation beneath the play. Like the later RSC, the Q2 sections not in F1 appear in an appendix at the back, including “Now all occasions do offend me" and like the RSC it “corrects” what’s actually in F1 and changes “sixteene” to “sexton” in the gravedigger scene as per Q2. No one to answer, but have to ask. How come, if by Hibbard’s argument, F1 is Shakespeare’s final word on his play and filled with revisions and clarifications, no one will be believe that one of his revision or clarifications was to make plain the much younger age of his protagonist?


The afformentioned Q2 passages. A list of alterations to textual alignment and the changing between texts of verse to prose and vis-versa. A synopsis of Der Bestrafte Brudermord, a German adaptation of the play. Manuscripts of music for the songs by Dr Frederick Sternfeld. Some notes on stage directions in 1.2.

How is it, my lord?

Perfectly affable, if very traditional edition which rigidly treats the play as a text rather than a script for production. Although there are images from its theatrical history, Warner at the RSC, Gielgud at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, they’re not named and that whole aspect of the play is kept at arms length. Since this appears to be a choice rather than oversight, it’s hard to criticise it for that.

Hamlet (Oxford World's Classics). Edited by G.R. Hibbard is published by Oxford University Press. £7.99 paperback. ISBN: 978-0-19-953581-1.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Does Pi = Hamlet?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Original pronunciation.

The British Library releases the first ever audio CD of Shakespeare spoken in the original pronunciation, Hamlet included:
"This CD promises to be entertaining as well as a unique and important resource for the study of Shakespeare. Thanks to the latest scholarship it takes us closer than we have been able to come before to how the works of the greatest English playwright were spoken and acted in his own lifetime.

"Under the guidance of Ben Crystal, actor and expert in original Shakespearian pronunciation in performance, a company of actors performs some of Shakespeare’s best-known poems, solo speeches and scenes from 18 of his plays. The selection of speeches includes Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be”, Antony’s "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” from Julius Caesar, Henry V’s “Once more unto the breach, dear friends”, and “All the world’s a stage” from As You Like It. Scenes are included from The Comedy of Errors, King Lear, Macbeth, Much Ado about Nothing and Othello."
A few extracts have been included with the press release and the experience of listening to familiar words in a less familiar idiom is beguiling, like hearing them again for the first time. This piece of Jacques from As You Like It brings a new sense of reality to the character, the pronunciation of "fool" to sound more like "full" bringing greater sense to the text.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Finding Ophelia.

Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's Finding Shakespeare blog looks at various depictions of Ophelia, focusing initially on a 1789 painting by Benjamin West:
"The flowers in this painting do not necessarily depict the individual emotions such as remembrance and thoughts that they do in Shakespeare’s text, but instead we see a collection of wild flowers in Ophelia’s hair, in her clothes and on the floor. They symbolise other-worldliness and link her with nature and perhaps also mythology. They emphasise Ophelia’s incongruity with court and the characters around her."
There's also an excellent video of Anna Griffith revealing key items from their collection.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Patrick Stewart and Simon Callow in The Guardian

Patrick Stewart and Simon Callow have a joint interview in today's The Guardian about their competing West End shows, Stewart plays the bard towards the end of his life in Bingo and Callow is performing the latest iteration of his collaboration with Jonathan Bate now called Being Shakespeare:
"There's one thing they do agree on, though: contrary to the conspiracy theories, Shakespeare was definitely Shakespeare, not the Earl of Oxford or Francis Bacon. "It seems so unnecessary to go down that route," Callow splutters. "It's so clear that his is the work of a working writer who dealt with the common problems of life." Stewart shakes his head. "All the reasons that people give that Shakespeare could not have written Shakespeare are, for me, reasons why it has to be him."
Tell that to Derek Jacobi.