Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Bard's Berkshire connection

Presented to the Club by Michael A. Shirley in April, 1999

It is quite remarkable that today we use in everyday language so many of those quotations which were written 400 years ago and are taken from plays performed not only in English-speaking countries but literally in almost every country in the world. Our love, respect, wonder and admiration for William Shakespeare know no bounds.

In a humble way I would like to show you how my tenuous connection with him in England has now coincidentally extended to the Berkshires. I hope, nay I pray that you will find it interesting and that for those of you who have never studied the Elizabethan period Shakespeare’s plays with their difficult but beautiful verse will mean more to you. After all, an entree to Shakespeare opens up a world that one can dream about all one’s life. “Such stuff that dreams are made of.”

You are warned, though, that I find the social conditions that existed at this time are what really interests me so I’ll pass some of them on to you. My history at school was of the dates of kings and queens and other such static information. Little social history was taught, although in fairness the emphasis has shifted in modern times.

A little over two years ago I received an e-mail from a most surprised young lady at Shakespeare & Co. She had ventured onto the internet to look for the alumni of a school in South London called Dulwich College, and found my name with an address on the same street as the company she worked for.

Why, and why surprised? She, Mary Guzzy, is in charge of a project to build a replica of the Rose Theatre and its surrounding village, one of the new theatres built in London in the late 16th century, where Shakespeare’s new plays were performed. So “you could have knocked her over with a feather” (not a Shakespearean quote, I hasten to add) when she made this surprising discovery.

Why this Dulwich College? Well, the school was founded by Edward Alleyn, one of the most successful of Shakespeare’s actors. He was married to the daughter of a gentleman called Phillip Henslowe, an entrepreneur, who built and ran the Rose Theatre. His diaries and all the plans of the theatre reside in the archives at Dulwich College. We will see how Edward Alleyn, an actor, celebrated in a profession which took advantage of the prosperous times of Elizabeth's reign, managed to make enough money to found a school for twelve poor scholars, originally called “Alleyn’s College of God’s Gift at Dulwich.”

In the space of a few years on the North and South banks of the Thames in London several theatres were built. One should say purpose-built theatres, because there is evidence of plays being put on in arenas or pits where bear and bull baiting went on and in the courtyards of inns, all open to the air of course.

The first was built in 1576 by James Burbage and his brother-in-law John Brayne, and was just called “The Theatre.” Another called The Curtain was built close by the next year, 1577. The Theatre was situated North of the river at Cripplegate. It is this theatre that in 1599 was dismantled and moved to the South Bank or Bankside to become the Globe Theatre of which there is now a replica which is the centre of a thriving Shakespearean “industry” where education, an exhibition and performances are the hallmarks. (I can only urge you to visit and attend one of the plays when you are in London. )

Besides these “public theatres” which were considered noisome and rowdy there were smaller indoor ones considered “private” because higher fees were charged. The original actors here were choir boys (from St. Paul’s, the Chapel Royal at Windsor) who had begun acting out religious parables but turned to the performance of secular drama. We will see how religion was central to much tension and strife in Elizabethan England. But I am running ahead of myself.

The Rose was built in 1587 by Philip Henslowe, as I told you. It was the fourth such purpose-built theatre to be built in London and the first on Bankside. Now, Henslowe was an Elizabethan with an eye for making money and one of the first to see the financial potential of the new drama that was rapidly developing in London’s nascent playhouses from 1576 onwards. He was no player, or playwright, but his business success became joined with that of the Rose, as did his private life. In 1592 his stepdaughter married the celebrated actor Edward Alleyn.

There is evidence that the Rose was first built with the general entertainments in
mind, particularly animal baiting and traditional forms of drama, and that the new drama which demanded a fixed stage, tiring house (where actors changed their costumes) and frons scenae (performing area) came as a later modification.

I should point out that that this is disputed by some. The first five years of the Rose was a period of frantic development and change, first when a fixed stage was introduced and ending when it became a full version of a purpose-built playhouse after the extensive modifications of 1592. In one building we find the impressions left from this seminal period in the evolution of English drama. The Rose was a crucible of theatre development.

As an aside, to give you an idea that the theatre was not suited at first to the performances of theatrical plays I’ll read to you this amusing if rather chilling account found in Henslowe’s records at Dulwich:
You shall understand of some accidental news here in this town, though myself no witness thereof, yet I may be bold to verify if for an assured truth. My Lord Admiral, his men and players having a devise in their play to tie one of their fellows to a post as to shoot him to death, having borrowed their callyvers [guns] one of the players’ hands swerved, his piece being charged with bullet, missed the fellow he aimed at and killed a child, and a woman great with child forthwith, and hurt another man in the head very sore. How they will answer it I do not study, unless their profession were better, but in Christianity I am very sorry for the chance, but God, his judgements, are not to be searched or enquired of at man’s hands. And yet I find by this an old proverb verified: "There never comes more hurt than comes from fooling."
History has taught us that the Elizabethan Age was a golden age. England enjoyed prosperity and a certain stability. Land values and employment increased. Ships explored foreign lands. Foreign armies and navies, particularly the Spanish, were defeated. Elizabeth matured into a wise, diplomatic, shrewd and popular queen. It is only recently that it has been realised that the momentous events and changes that occurred in the 16th century caused turmoil in the religious and political lives of her citizens, only three million at this time.

After all, in the space of less than a century medieval Catholicism was replaced by modern Protestantism accompanied by the more extreme Puritanism. The link with Rome had begun in 597 with the conversion to Christianity by the mission of St. Augustine. It had been strong ever since. Henry VIII in his dispute with the Pope over his desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Ann Boleyn in the 1530s solved it by declaring himself the supreme head of the Church of England in place of the Pope. He meant to establish that he was the ultimate authority in his own kingdom.

It is quite likely that he was happy for change to stop there, but for two things. First, in 1536 he had financial problems and these led him to seize the lands, buildings and treasures of the monasteries. Second, there was an influx of new Protestant ideas from the German states, where Martin Luther had defied the Pope and emperor and become a national hero. One’s relation to God was a matter of personal conscience and initiative not determined by the doctrines and superstitious goings-on of the Catholic Church. The ordinary folk was imprisoned by them.

So the dissolution of the monasteries and the Protestant Reformation that followed brought about a fundamental shift in the power structure in England, the rise of a new landed class whose well-being was dependent on the new regime (Henry VIII had sold much of the land of the dissolved monasteries to them) and a state religion. Out of the religious strife, class conflict and eventual civil war the secular Britain as we know it today would evolve.

However, at the level of the village, town and in the countryside when Henry died in 1547, not much had changed. The Church was part Catholic and part Protestant with such new features as a new prayerbook. Edward, Henry’s son from his third marriage, then attempted to speed up the change — his determined, pious, singleminded personality egged on by a group of politically motivated advisors. Religious statues, screens and paintings were to be removed from churches, chapels and cathedrals. This destruction was cut short by his early death still in his teens in 1553. His half-sister, Mary, daughter of Catherine of Aragon and an ardent Catholic, set about reversing the trend. Her five years saw the burning of many Protestants all over the country. She earned the nickname of “Bloody Mary.”

The country was see-sawing between the religions, and now entered the new queen, Elizabeth. She was a convinced Protestant but no zealot. She set out to return the country to the path her father had begun. She surrounded herself with wise, moderate and astute men and could look forward to the smooth establishment of a country-wide Protestant Church. She achieved this, but not smoothly.

From our point of view, her achievement allowed the wondrous Renaissance of English literature and the theatre evidenced by our playhouses, the plays of Shakespeare, Marlowe and Jonson and eventually snuffed out by the Civil War of 1642. And within this achievement lived William Shakespeare. He was truly a man of his times witnessing all the momentous events around him.

Much evidence has been accumulating that his family were being caught up in these religious tensions. In 1563, a few months before William’s birth John, his father, previously a farmer, then a glover and now the Treasurer of Stratford responsible for the town accounts, was supervising the covering up and desecration of the religious images and painting in the churches. The records show that from being a relatively prominent and wealthy citizen he lost much of this almost certainly because of his Catholic faith and was lucky not to have lost his life in the frequent purges that Elizabeth’s regime resorted to as papist plots increased.

A century later a most extraordinary discovery was made in the attic of John Shakespeare’s house — a will requesting that he be buried essentially in a Catholic funeral. The goings-on around him were the fodder for his plays. He is said to have invented the concept of personality; he skillfully balanced the conflicting opinions around him; and he was the witness to the rise of European nations to challenge the ancient Asian civilizations — and yet he was born early enough to know the great medieval traditions of Christian England and Europe. He was successful enough in his time to restore his family’s fortunes so that he bought property that allowed his family to live comfortably in Stratford.

The public was demanding more and more plays. Shakespeare, Marlowe and Ben Jonson among others were providing them. The competition must have been fierce, as new theatres such as The Swan were going up. Henslowe responded as we have seen by modifying and modernising the Rose. Later in 1600 he and Alleyn built the Fortune Theatre and another, the Hope was also built. Two to three thousand people attended each play, paying a penny in the pit, another in the gallery and another for private rooms.

The acting companies were busy, very busy. The most successful of them like the King’s Men and Admiral’s Men included as many as 20 plays in their repertoire. Shakespeare belonged to the Chamberlain’s Men which later became the King’s Men that performed at the Globe Theatre. Indeed he and about five other actors had invested in, it as Burbage had difficulty in raising enough money, when they moved from The Theatre and built the Globe. That move was mainly necessary because it had proved most difficult to get a new lease because of the objections of residents to the noise and exceedingly bad company attracted to that theatre.

Shakespeare of course had written plays to be performed by his company and it is most likely that in his later years he became more of a theatre manager, even collaborating with others on some of them. Rehearsing in the mornings and performing in the afternoons must have meant a punishing pace but the public’s main entertainment in this late Elizabethan era was the theatre.

It boggles the mind how actors remembered all their lines, but education at the time concentrated on learning by rote. Printed copies were scarce not only because of the current printing methods but to prevent theft. Actors received only copies of their own lines. And then there were tours of the country which were conducted at least twice a year. The only breaks were enforced closures of the theatres by the authorities because of outbreaks of the plague. There was one of 18 months from the spring of 1602 until November 1603. Descriptions of the urban conditions on Bankside and in London make it quite plain that disease was rife. Open sewers running into the River Thames abounded so that rats which spread the plague must have infested the place. The stench apparently was appalling and the ground was frequently waterlogged.

From the diagrams of the City of London at this time you can see that most of the habitation existed on the North side of The Thames. Here is where the City authorities’ writ ran, not on the South side. Permits had to be obtained for performances of plays, often denied because they thought theatres were dens of iniquity frequented by lewd and lascivious folks, let alone a fear of the doubtful political intent and its effect on the populace.

It was not an accident that Bankside on the South bank was the site of numerous brothels, inns, bear and bull baiting arenas and eventually theatres. It was out of the City authorities’ jurisdiction. Interestingly, the land was owned by the Church and administered by the Bishop of Winchester. We will see how Edward Alleyn, the founder of Dulwich College, took advantage of this situation.

Another phenomenon I find interesting is the continual discovery of more documents that throw light on these Shakespearean times. England’s public records are more complete than those of most European countries. She has not been invaded or ravaged by foreign armies. As records are being scoured and then further references found to all sorts of events and material, a more complete picture is evolving. For instance now that it is known that the acting companies toured the countryside, town records have been examined for where their performances took place and which gentry patronised them. Much recent information has surfaced about Shakespeare’s life in London and in later years back in Stratford-on-Avon.

Some scholars are having a crack at identifying the boy who is the object of his first 17 sonnets. Interpretation of course has fixed on a homosexual relationship, but it is quite possible that having lost his only son about the time that they were written in the late 1590s, he was in a crisis-time of his life. He had described this as “being a hell of a time”

Speculation is rife about who “The Dark Lady” is. She is the object of very many of his later sonnets. Diaries have been found of an astrologer-cum-healer called Forman who treated many of Shakespeare’s circle. A lady who fits the bill is a woman descended from a Venetian family that arrived in England in the early part of the century. Their name was Bassano, and it was a Jewish family. The intrigue of the sonnets is that Shakespeare used the young man to be a messenger to the Dark Lady, a common practice of those times, but he ended up sleeping with her. Forman’s diaries are full of news, comment and scandal of these times.

In the first decade of the 17th century when he had gained success and fame he lodged with a Huguenot family in Cheapside on the North side of London. Maps of the area show the pubs, inns, brothels, houses, etc. and it can be appreciated that he was in daily contact with the common people of London. He only returned to Stratford about once a year although his wife and children continued living there.

Illustration: the planned reconstruction of the Rose Theatre at Shakespeare & Co., Lenox, Massachusetts

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