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Tag Archives: Shakespeare

The last few days I’ve run across some totally awesome things and I am going to share them with you.

Awesome thing number 1:

A Linguist Explains What Old School British Accents Sounded Like

As a matter of fact, there are actually very good reasons to think that neither Shakespeare nor Ichabod should be speaking with what we currently think of as a “British” accent at all. What? Yes, really. Let me explain.

The recitation of the sonnet in the first video. Oh. My.

Awesome thing number 2:

The Hidden Wardrobe – a costume collection explored
From The National Trust. Go there. Look around.

Awesome thing number 3:

“Nuns Can’t Paint”: Sexism, Medieval Art, and Dudes on Mopeds

A reminder of just how deeply “isms” are embedded in our culture, in this case, sexism.

It’s one thing to argue that nuns make bad art because they’re not trained artists; because they’re hyper-emotional; because they’re women. It’s another to imply that at the moment they take their vows, the moment these women simultaneously renounced and calcified their femininity, medieval nuns lost all aesthetic taste.

Enjoy your Wednesday!

A day late–or possibly even more, because no one really knows the date, but happily April 23 is also St. George’s Day, by a fortuitous coincidence. So I thought I’d make a stab at the huge topic of Shakespeare during the Regency, a time of both revival and suppression.

Essentially people have been tinkering with Shakespeare before his ink was barely dry, and the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were no exception. There was a great Shakespeare revival in the period, thanks in part to larger theaters, not to mention larger than life performers:

The Kembles were statuesque: the two factors, which, according to James Boaden in 1826, caused Sarah Siddons to change her style were the larger theaters and ‘her delight in statuary, which directed her attention to the antique and made a remarkable impression upon her as to simplicity of attire and severity of attitude … Hazlitt thought Kemble was ‘the very still life and statuary of the stage … an icicle upon the bust of tragedy.’ Such frigidity was especially absurd off stage: a contemporary remembered Kemble at breakfast looking as if he had eaten ‘a poached curtain rod’. Read more

siddons_katherineMrs. Siddons made the role of Queen Katherine in Henry VIII one of her signature roles. Henry VIII also plays a pivotal role in Austen’s Mansfield Park–Austen came from a family that loved the theater, performed amateur productions, and almost certainly read Shakespeare aloud to each other. The seductive Henry Crawford reads aloud from the play and Edmund becomes jealous:

Edmund watched the progress of her attention, and was amused and gratified by seeing how she gradually slackened in the needlework, which at the beginning seemed to occupy her totally: how it fell from her hand while she sat motionless over it, and at last, how the eyes which had appeared so studiously to avoid him throughout the day were turned and fixed on Crawford—fixed on him for minutes, fixed on him, in short, till the attraction drew Crawford’s upon her, and the book was closed, and the charm was broken.

Crawford elsewhere in the book states that Shakespeare “… is a is a part of an Englishman’s constitution. His thoughts and beauties are so spread abroad that one touches them every where, one is intimate with him by instinct.” Edmund agrees, saying that “No doubt, one is familiar with Shakespeare …from one’s earliest years. His celebrated passages are quoted by every body; they are in half the books we open, and we all talk Shakespeare,…”

boydellShakespeare was big business. In 1786, engraver and publisher John Boydell began an ambitious project to foster a school of English history painters and publish an illustrated edition of Shakespeare and a folio of engravings based on commissioned paintings. The Boydell Shakespeare Gallery in London enjoyed enormous popularity during the 1790s.

Here’s an engraving from the collection by Robert Smirke:

smirke_sa1I have to admit I had trouble guessing what play this could possibly be. It’s an illustration of infancy (the infant, mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms) from As You Like It, beautifully translated to the late eighteenth century. A very well-dressed lady is visiting the foster family of her latest child, but I’m not sure whether it’s her child or that of the woman kneeling in the foreground. I love the details of this–the cottage loaf on the table, the poor but honest foster family, and the dog barking at the black servant outside.

I think the two examples from Mansfield Park sum up the contemporary attitude toward Shakespeare–our playwright, but also an artist who can be disturbing or unwholesome. And that brings us to the sorry case of King Lear. In 1681, Nahum Tate rewrote–or “Reviv’d with Alterations,” as he put it–the play as The History of King Lear for the sophisticated patrons of London’s theaters. Notably, he gave it a happy ending, provided Cordelia with a love interest, dropped the role of the Fool, and so on. You can read his description of the changes and the whole text here. Incredibly, this was the version in use until 1823 when Edmund Kean restored the tragic ending, although Tate’s version remained in use throughout the nineteenth century. But performance of the play was banned entirely from 1810 until after the death of George III, because the story of a failing king succumbing to madness and being the head of a very dysfunctional family was a little too close for comfort. You can read more at The Regency Redingcote and What’s It All About Shakespeare.

And then, bless his heart, there was Dr. Bowdler who found that reading Shakespeare aloud to his family could be a little icky, apparently something that didn’t bother the Austens. He censored as he went (I used to do much the same when reading the Care Bears to my toddler daughter) and then had the bright idea of publishing his cleaned up version in 1818: THE FAMILY SHAKSPEARE, in which nothing is added to the Original Text; but those Expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud.

What’s your favorite Shakespeare play or movie version? Or have you seen a particularly good production recently?

For today’s post, I originally planned to write something about murdered gamekeepers in the winter of 1843/44 (this is the backdrop for my current WIP, which starts with the murder of a gamekeeper), but because that’s a rather depressing topic and because I stumbled across something last night that bowled me over, I’m going to talk about something else.

Or rather, someone.

Mr. Shakespeare.

As you might know, my day job consists of torturing teaching students at Mainz University, and at the moment I’m teaching Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in one of my classes. One of the problems I always have with teaching a play is that the text doesn’t really come alive until it is performed. I always include a session on the Elizabethan stage, and if I have time enough, I also try to show at least excerpts from one of the many film adaptations of Shakespeare. (And I do like Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night with Imogen Stubbs as Viola and the dashing Toby Stephens as Orsino – even though Orsino is a bit of a wet blanket! – and – oh! – the wonderful Ben Kingsley as the fool. I haven’t yet figured out why this adaptation is set in the 19th century, but what the heck!)

So a few weeks ago I was looking for some more detailed info about The Globe, and I checked on YouTube whether I could find something featuring the inside of The Globe. Instead I found a short little film in which David Crystal and his son Ben talk about the pronunciation in Shakespeare’s time. (David Crystal is a linguist who in the eyes of academia has done the unforgivable: He has made his research topics interesting for the unwashed masses. This is generally considered to be A Very Bad Thing.) (Please note the sarcastic tone here. Personally, I think he is rather wonderful, and I heartily recommend his book The Story of English in 100 Words – fascinating stuff!) This is what I found:

(WP is supposed to embed this video, but I haven’t yet managed to embed videos on my own blog. Hmph. So I hope it works here.)

Fascinating, isn’t it?

But it gets even better! Last night I stumbled across this talk by Ben Crystal, where he talks about performing Shakespeare, about developing scenes using the invisible cues within the text itself, and, of course, about the Original Pronunciation.

It’s like… Ooooooh my! Light bulbs!

In the middle of that talk, I had to pause the film and order all of his books on Shakespeare. And then I wrote a quick e-mail to our course administration office and told them I’d like to teach a double dose of drama next term. Including a class on Shakespeare. 🙂


So let’s hear it: Do you have a favourite Shakespeare play? And what’s your favourite film adaptation of Shakespeare?


P.S.: I’m so going to model one of my future heroes on Ben Crystal! 🙂

I have been avidly following the news about the discovery and identity of the remains of Richard III. I’ve been a sucker for Richard III ever since reading Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time--without going so far as to join the Richard III Society or anything (here’s the US R3 Society). I’m already mightily distracted from writing.

This month I attended a couple of events at the Folger, a fantastic resource in Washington DC that those of us who live here tend to take for granted. First, a lecture from the forensic and archaeological team, and then I saw the current production of Richard III which I highly recommend. Here are some interesting snippets from the lecture:

  • The team is doing further DNA analysis from tooth tartar (eew).
  • Richard III would probably have gone down in history, had the Tudors not taken over, as a just but fair king (the um, issue, of the two princes in the Tower would have been downplayed, just as the Tudors, and Shakespeare, propagandized Richard as a misshapen spawn of Satan).
  • Yes, he did have scoliosis. But he was also a seasoned warrior. The BBC (I think) is doing an experiment with a young man with the same degree of scoliosis teaching him horseback warfare, wearing armor, and so far so good. Expect a documentary or two.

Edmund Kean as Richard IIIIn the Regency, Richard III was one of Edmund Kean’s signature roles but he had a rival–Junius Brutus Booth, father of John Wilkes Booth. Booth’s London career was launched in 1817 in the title role of Richard III at Covent Garden, and thereafter Boothites and Keanites frequently quarreled in theaters. Booth and Kean seem to have both exploited the rivalry, often performing in the same plays.

battle2richardsBooth emigrated to the US in 1821 where he led a colorful life as an actor, and is buried in Green Mount Cemetery, Baltimore, where Betsy Bonaparte also lies.

Once again truth is stranger than fiction.

What’s your take on Richard III?

ShakespeareLOLToday marks Shakespeare’s 449th birthday!  Well, sort of–he was baptised in his hometown of Stratford-on-Avon on April 26, 1564, and since that usually happened about 3 days after a baby was born, plus it’s St. George’s Day AND Shakespeare died on April 23 in 1616, it just makes a neat little juxtaposition, so April 23 is the Official Day.

Not much is really, concretely known about Shakespeare’s personal life.  He grew up in Stratford, where he probably attended the free local grammar school, The King’s New School.  His father was a glover in town who was very prosperous for a time (and married an Arden, local gentry), but then kind of went downhill.  At 18 he married Anne Hathaway, who was 26 (the hussy!) and gave birth to their first child, Susanna, 6 months later.  Twins followed, Judith and Hamnett (Hamnett died at 11, but Judith grew up to make a disappointing marriage).  Between 1585 and 1592, he built a successful theater career with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later the King’s Men) as an actor, playwright, and eventual sharer in the company.  He made enough money to buy New Place, the biggest house in Stratford, as well as rent respectable lodgings in London (see Charles Nicholl’s book The Lodger Shakespeare about a lawsuit he got embroiled in via his landlords the Mountjoys on Silver Street.  His part in the quarrel was tiny, but it’s a great picture of London life at the time).  Around 1613 he retired back to Stratford where he died 3 years later.  His direct line ended with his granddaughter Elizabeth, but his monument can still be seen at the church there.  That’s about it really, though bits and pieces keep popping up to give grist to the scholarly mill.  He left 38 plays, 154 sonnets, and 2 long narrative poems.

Shakespeare2But what’s really important isn’t what Shakespeare did in his life, but the beauty of the words and the worlds he left us, which have brought such immense joy to so many people and taught us so much about the world around us and ourselves.  One of the best nights in my life was spent at the Globe Theater, watching a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, imagining what it must have been like to be there when those words were first spoken, and what that world must have been like. (This also happened to be the first Shakespeare play I ever saw, when I was about 7!  An outdoor production where Puck would climb the trees to say his lines, which really impressed me then…)  I just saw a production of Love’s Labors Lost (not the best play, but fun) updated to the 1950s, where it lost none of its humor and meaning, and goes to show the timelessness of Shakespeare’s characters.  (Really, I think he and Jane Austen, and possibly Dickens, had the greatest insight into human nature of any writer…).  Plus there’s a new movie version of Romeo and Juliet coming this summer, and I can’t wait!!!

For a man who left so little mark of his personal life on the world, there’s no end to great biographies.  Some of my own favorites are: Peter Ackroyd’s Shakespeare: The Biography; Jonathan Bates’s The Soul of the Age; Park Honan’s Shakespeare: A Life; James Shapiro’s 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (which mostly sets Shakespeare in the wider Elizabethan world); and Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.  Since I’m working on 2 Elizabethan projects of my own at the moment, I’m happy to live vicariously in Shakespeare’s Tudor world whenever I can. 🙂

What are your own favorite Shakespeare plays, or memories??

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
Sonnet 29
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