Saturday, 10 December 2016

WS ABC #73 - Fire at The Globe!

             FIRE AT THE 'GLOBE'!
     Bankside Playhouse Utterly Destroyed!

  Scoop Report by our own Malvolio Oldcastle

This afternoon at about three o'clock fire broke out at London's favourite playhouse, the 'Globe.' This occured during a performance of William Shakespeare's latest play, All is True, better known as Henry the Eighth.

The fire started at the beginning of the play when the actor playing King Henry the Eighth was making his appearance on stage. Just as he was stepping onto the stage, one of the cannons that were firing in order to make the king's entrance more impressive, shot off a spark which immediately ignited the playhouse's thatched roof.

Within minutes the whole structure was blazing. Sir Henry Wotton, the author, diplomat and politician, later told your reporter,

The King's players had a new play called "All is True" representing some principal pieces of the reign of Henry VIII. When certain cannons being shot off at Henry's entry, some of the paper or other stuff, wherewith one of them was stopped, did light on the thatch, where being thought at first but idle smoak, and their more attendant to the show, it kindled inwardly, and ran around like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very ground.

Sir Henry Wotton

Naturally, when the audience of 3,000 playgoers observed the fire taking hold of the whole building, panic spread as fast as that of the blazing thatch on the roof. Everyone rushed for the doorways which consisted of two very narrow exits. Thankfully nobody was wounded or killed in the massive hasty dash for safety.

Only one playgoer was hurt making his way for the exit. We do not know his name but as another playgoer told your reporter, 

"one man had his breeches set on fire, that would perhaps have broyled him, if he had not, by the benefit of a provident wit, put it out with a bottle of ale."

It is thought that Mr Shakespeare's friend and rival playwright was in the playhouse at the time but we could not find anyone to confirm this story. However, it is thought Mr. Shakespeare lost many of the original drafts of his plays in the blaze. Your reporter also learned that despite the above, Mr. Shakespeare did not lose any of his own monies because of this unfortunate incident as he had previously sold his shares in the Globe. It is now known that he is now spending much of his time back at home in Warwickshire where he resides with his wife, Anne, in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Two questions must now be asked. Is the King's company of players thinking of rebuilding their playhouse and if so, will they construct it with more and wider exits if God forbid, another fire breaks out? 

Next blog - The Globe part 3
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Monday, 5 December 2016


"THE GLOBE" - THE MOST FAMOUS THEATRE IN THE WORLD was funded and built by Richard Burbage (1568-1619), the son of James Burbage and also one of the most famous actors in his day) in 1599. The main timbers for its construction were taken from James Burbage's theatre, 'The Theatre' which was built in 1576 in Shoreditch, north of the River Thames. According to tradition, these timbers were taken during the Christmas festival after protracted negotiations for the extension of the lease had broken down. The original lease had said that Burbage could 'take down and carry away' the structure and that is exactly what happened. 
                                          James Burbage

Burbage, together with his actors and a dozen or so supporters and workmen dismantled the 'Theatre' and ferried the timbers over the river to the site near where the modern reconstruction of the Globe now stands. The new building was a round hollow, or to be exact, a twenty-sided polygon, and in typical Elizabethan style, it was similar to the Colleseum in Rome. Shakespeare reminds us of this particular construction in the opening Chorus of Henry V.
                            ...may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did afright the air at Agincourt?

The Globe could house an audience of three thousand who sat in three tiers around the sides (and who paid extra for being protected from the rain) as well as the groundlings who stood in the middle in the open and who paid a penny to enter. This penny they dropped into a box as they entered, hence the use of the term 'box office.' 
                                 The view from the stage

The wealthier citizen who wished to watch from one of the surrounding tiers had to pay an extra penny in another box at the foot of the stairs to go up to the second and third levels. (Today, a groundling pays five pounds and a higher level seat costs about twenty-five pounds.)At the end of the play, the 'box' was opened and the money was shared among the actors etc. WS and several others received more as he was a 'sharer' - a shareholder in the Globe.   

Since there were no toilets in the building, and since Elizabethan personal hygiene was somewhat different from today's standards, the groundlings were also known as 'stinkards,' - fish that swim on the riverbed and gape upwards.  Such a description sounds very apt especially when you imagine all of these happy spectators all crammed and standing in the lower 'pit' on a hot and clammy summer's day in good ol' Elizabethan London. WS's rival playwright, Ben Jonson, called the stinkards, 'the understanding gentlemen of the ground.'
Johann de Witt's contemporary sketch of the 'Swan' theatre, c.1596, a building very similar to Shakespeare's 'Globe.' Note: the flag is flying on the top.

A crest also appeared above the main entrance to the Globe saying, Totus mundus agit historionem - 'The whole world is a playhouse.' (Sounds somewhat similar to another well-known WS line?) In addition, to let everyone know that the play was about to begin, a trumpet would be sounded.When a play was showing, a different coloured flag on the roof: red - historical play, white - comedy and black for a tragedy. (A bit like the system of different coloured warning flags on beaches about the dangers of swimming).
The author standing next to the 'Holy of Holies,'  the stage at the Globe.

The performances began between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. This meant that a long play such as Hamlet could only be shown in the summer as otherwise it would be dark before the play was over.

Next time: More about the Globe, its destruction and  resurrection.
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Sunday, 27 November 2016

WS ABC # 70 Shakespeare's GHOSTS

THERE ARE FOUR INSTANCES OF GHOSTS APPEARING IN SHAKESPEARE" PLAYS, (five if you include the final appearances of ghosts at the end of Cymbeline which I'm not going to include here as they play a passive 'background role).

They include the ghosts 
1) who appear in Richard III's dream before he is killed in    battle.
2) The ghost of Banquo who was murdered by Macbeth. Macbeth also sees apparitions of the future kings of Scotland.
3) The ghost of Julius Caesar who appears to Brutus before his      own suicide.
4) The ghost of Hamlet's father who appears at the beginning of      the play.

In all of the above plays (apart from Hamlet), the ghosts appear only to certain individuals whose behaviour is strongly influenced by this unnatural encounter. In Hamlet, the ghost first appears to Hamlet's friends, Bernardo and Marcellus before appearing later to Hamlet himself.

Another common factor concerning the ghosts is that they are almost all the spirits of people who have been killed by Brutus, Macbeth or King Richard. (Hamlet's father was killed by his brother Claudius, leaving Hamlet innocent of the knowledge of this death until the ghost informs him of such.)
Iconic painting of 18th cent. actor Edmund Kean playing Richard III seeing the ghosts before the battle of Bosworth.

In terms of the history of the composition of WS's plays, the first ghosts who appear are in Richard the Third (c.1592-3). Here, on the night before the fateful Battle of Bosworth (Act V) the ghosts of Henry VI and his son, Edward, Richard's brother, Clarence, the Lords Hastings, Rivers, Grey and Vaughan as well as those of the two Princes in the Tower and Richard's wife, Lady Anne, appear to torment the king in his sleep. And torment him they do! They all end their maledictions, "Despair and die!" - a prediction that comes true.

On the other hand, these same ghosts appear in the dreams of Richard's opponent, Henry of Richmond, the future King Henry VII. In contrast to Richard's troubled dreams, the same ghosts wish him to "Live and flourish" and that he should     "... fight, and conquer for fair England's sake!"

The next time WS uses ghosts is in Julius Caesar (c.1599). Here, the ghost of the murdered Julius Caesar appears to Brutus who, like Richard III, is resting before the final battle which will be fought on the Plains of Philippi. The ghost promises Brutus that he will see him later on the battlefield leaving Brutus to exclaim, "O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet! Thy spirit walks abroad, and turns our swords in our own proper entrails." This, of course, is highly prophetic as soon after Brutus does indeed kill himself using his sword.

Approximately two years after writing Julius Caesar, WS used the ghostly motif once again. This time the ghost of Hamlet's father appears at the beginning of the play. The ghost informs Hamlet that his father was killed by his brother Claudius in order to rule Denmark in his stead. It is this knowledge that spurs Hamlet on, albeit sometimes reluctantly at times, to seek revenge.

In 'the Scottish play,' written in 1605-6, (dated through references to the Gunpowder Plot, 1605) Macbeth is completely thrown off balance when he is faced with the gory and ghostly remains of his past friend, Banquo. This scene happens, when Macbeth, accompanied by his wife and several of his chief lords are celebrating Macbeth's recent ascent to the throne. Despite this crowded scene, it is only Macbeth who sees the ghost, a vision that completely derails him. Later, the three weird sisters/witches, in response to Macbeth's request, show him more apparitions in the form of eight future kings of Scotland. This unsettles him even more and from now on, he is hell-bent on fighting his way through to his final demise.

Next time: Hamlet's mother, Gertrude.
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Monday, 21 November 2016

WS ABC First Folio Pt. 2

One of the reasons the First Folio is so recognisable is because of the iconic engraving of Shakespeare on the title page. This was done by Martin Droeshout (1601-c.1650), an engraver who didn't know the Bard personally and who was only 15 years old when WS died. He must have copied it from an existing portrait but it must have been a fairly accurate representation as WS's friends and fellow-actors and compilers of the First Foio, Condell and Hemminges, approved of it.

This book is called a folio (Latin for 'leaf') because its leaves or sheets of paper were folded only once as opposed to twice as in a 'quarto. This meant that the original First Folio was a larger book than the normal size one of the time.
          Copy of the First Folio in the Bodlean Library, Oxford

Many of the plays that first appeared here were probably based on WS's manuscripts or prompt-books owned by his acting company, as well as from faulty quarto copies of the original plays. It is also likely that a paid scribe copied them for the printer (William & Isaac Jaggard {son})before they were finally produced. All of this meant that several mistakes crept in which were eventually removed in later folio copies of WS's plays.

THE SECOND FOLIO was printed nine years after the first in 1632. and was printed by Thomas Cotes for Robert Allot, Smethwick, Apsley, Richard Hawkins and Richard Meighen. It is a faithful copy of F1 but some of the original mistakes and proper-names and stage directions have been corrected.

THE THIRD FOLIO was printed in 1663 and contained further corrections as well as the text of Pericles which was missing in F1 and F2. This third Foli is fairly scarce today because a number of unsold copies were burned in the Great Fire of London in 1666. This folio also contained seven other plays including The London Prodigal, The Puritan Widow and A Yorkshire Tragedy.

THE FOURTH FOLIO, printed in 1685 is a reprint of F3 and contains more corrections as well as adding its own new mistakes. It also contains Pericles and the extra plays which appeared in F3.

Note: The second, third and fourth folios are not always considered by literary critics etc as they were printed without any reference to the early quartos or manuscripts.

Next time: Ghosts in WS plays.
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Wednesday, 9 November 2016

WS ABC #31 First Folio

THE FIRST FOLIO - the first collection of Shakespeare's plays was first published in November 1623, seven years after his death. It was a large book, made up of folded folios of paper and was compiled by two of WS's fellow actors, John Hemminges and Henry Condell. In the preface they wrote that they were publishing this book 'without ambition either of self-profit or fame, only to keep the memory of so worthy a friend and fellow alive as was our Shakespeare.'
Memorial to Hemminges, Condell and Shakespeare in Love                                         Lane, in the City of London.

It is thought that about one thousand copies were printed, of which 230-240 copies survive until today. The First Folio originally cost one pound sterling, about $50 in today's money. In 2001, a copy sold for 4.3 million pounds! It was printed and published by William and Isaac Jaggard, with Edward Blount as an additional publisher. It included thirty-six plays, of which eighteen (some say fourteen), had already been published as Quartos. This meant that Hemminges and Condell succeeded in rescuing eighteen (or twenty-two) plays from being lost forever. 

The Folio divided up the plays into Comedies, Histories and Tragedies but it didn't include all of WS's plays. Those that didn't appear include Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen (partly written by WS) and possibly Sir Thomas More and Love's Labours Won and Cardenio (probably written by WS and John FletcherAnother play, Edward III, has been credited to WS, but that was only in 1656 and today is not accepted as a genuine WS play by certain academics.

Incidentally, the printer miscalculated the space he needed for Timon of Athens in the First Folio. As a result, many of the play's lines were cut in half and rewritten as verse so that they could easily be fitted in the available space.

Today, of the 232 known copies of the Folio known to be in existence, 82 of them are in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC.**
A copy of the First Folio in the Folger Library, Washington DC.

One of the most well-known features of the Folio include the poetic dedication written by WS's fellow-playwright, Ben Jonson, which includes the following lines:
[Shakespeare was] not of an age, but for all time.
Soul of the Age! The applause, delight,  the wonder of our stage!
How far thou didst our Lyly outshine,
Or sporting Kyd, or Marlowe's mighty line.

Another well-known feature in the First Folio is the iconic engraving by Martin Droeshout. Since this engraver was only 15 years old when WS died in 1616, he must have based it on an unknown contemporary drawing. However, I will deal with this in more detail in my next blog.

                         Ben Jonson and his poetic preface

**Personal comment: I think it is a shame that the Library has aimed to collect as many copies of the Folio as it can. I believe that copies of this historic book should be distributed throughout the world as much as possible so that more people can enjoy experiencing it and not just the Folger Library and private collectors. In other words, why can't the Folger Library 'lend out' copies of the Folio to other libraries and institutions around the world? 

Next blog: More about the Folio. 
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Friday, 4 November 2016

WS ABC #30 Shakespearean Friars

In his plays, Shakespeare makes the use of five friars:
Friar Francis in Much Ado About Nothing
Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet
Friar Peter in Measure for Measure
Friar Thomas in Measure for Measure 
Friar John in Romeo and Juliet

In this blog, I am going to concentrate on the first two, Friars Francis and Lawrence.

FRIAR FRANCIS is the well-meaning friar who has the job of marrying Hero and Claudio in Much Ado. When Hero faints after being slandered by Claudio at the wedding, the friar suggests that it is published that Hero has died of grief. Claudio feels remorse and later marries the 'revived' Hero. In the final scene, not only does Friar Francis join Hero and Claudio in holy matrimony, but he also does the same with Beatrice and Benedick, the two loquacious heroes of the play.
Friar Francis marrying Hero & Claudio in Kenneth Branagh's                           version of "Much Ado about Nothing."

FRIAR LAWRENCE is another-meaning friar who secretly marries Romeo and Juliet. At the beginning of the play in Act II, sc.iii, he foreshadows the grim ending of the play when he refers to the life and death of plants and how they can be compared to people. Unfortunately for the friar, and even more so for our 'star-crossed lovers,' his plan becomes unstuck as both Romeo and Juliet die in the end.
Friar Lawrence in Zefferelli's film version of "Romeo and                                                                  Juliet."

Question: Was this friar, despite his good intentions, a good guy? After all, it was his plan that led to the untimely demise of Romeo and Juliet.

Interestingly enough, both of these friars are called on to act as the 'middlemen' in these two plays. In a way, they both 'play God' and use the device of shamming death to try and bring a joyful solution to the conflict. Unfortunately, in R&J it doesn't work out that way.

Another point is that these friars are representatives of the Roman Catholic Church. This was certainly not an institution that was 'flavour of the month' during the **Jacobethan period. They both play a vital and pivotal role in both of these plays. 
       Pete Posslethwaite as the Friar in "Romeo and Juliet." 

**I have recently discovered the word, 'Jacobethan,' a word that covers Shakespeare's life time and playwriting career. I will  be using it from now on quite happily. 

Next time: The First Folio of Shakespeare's plays.
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Friday, 28 October 2016

WS ABC #29 Falstaff, Part 2.SIR


In both parts of Henry IV, Falstaff is Prince Hal's noisy sack-drinking companion. In The Merry Wives of Windsor he is the blustering buffoonish old knight who tries to woo the wives, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, while in Henry V, he plays a passive role as we learn of his death but he doesn't actually say anything on stage.

He is a vain, fat (you'll never see a skinny Falstaff on the stage), cowardly braggart. These last two qualities are extremely well exemplified in Henry IV, pt. 1. Here he boasts how he and several of his lowlife cronies beat off eleven men (he starts off his story with two) during an ambush at Gadshill. Later in the same play when he has a chance to earn some real glory at the Battle of Shrewsbury, by killing Douglas, one of Prince Hal's enemies, he decides to play dead instead and later claim that it was he, Falstaff, who wounded Douglas.

In Henry IV pt.2 Falstaff and his disreputable bunch of cronies are disowned by Prince Hal when the latter learns that he is to be the future King Henry V.

Falstaff returns to play his opportunistic self in The Merry Wives of Windsor (see previous blog for more details) as the unsuccessful suitor of Mistress Page and Mistress Ford. One of the most famous scenes in this play is when the two wives after learning of Falstaff's amorous tricks, stuff the fat knight into a laundry basket.

Dr. Samuel Johnson (of Dictionary fame) described Falstaff thus:
Thou compound of sense and vice, of sense which may be admired, but not esteemed, of vice which may be despised, but hardly detested.

Orson Welles, some 250 years later said, "Falstaff is the greatest conception of a great man, the most complete man, in all drama.
I have played the role three times in the theatre and now in film, (in 'Chimes at Midnight') and I'm not convinced that I have realised it properly yet. It's the most difficult part I have ever played...I feel he is a wit rather than a clown, and I don't think much of the few moments in the film where I am simply funny, because I don't think that he is."

Falstaff is one of Shakespeare's most popular characters. His appetites for food, drink and women are legendary and yet despite some of his clowning, he is no unthinking fool. His soliloquy on honour the the middle of the Battle of Shrewsbury is one of the most memorable speeches in the play.

What is honour? A word. What is that word, honour? Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died o' Wednesday. Doth he feel it?....  (Henry IV, pt.I - Act V, sc.i)
                               Did Da Vinci know Falstaff?

Finally, I will sum up this 'huge hill of flesh' by paraphrasing The Friendly Shakespeare by Norrie Epstein. He writes that Falstaff is not just a character; he's a phenomenon. He's been the inspiration for songs, paintings, beer and operas. Actors have made their careers playing him... he is so inimitable that his name has become an adjective - 'Falstaffian.'

Falstaff is an opportunistic schemer, a sad old clown, a corruptor of youth and a philosopher. Falstaff has seduced the greatest actors: it was Orson Welles, life's ambition to play it, and the role capped Ralph Richardson's career. Like Hamlet, Falstaff transcends gender. The actress Pat Carroll earned accolades for her performance in The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Perhaps her part was made easier by the fact that although Falstaff boasts of his sexual prowess, he's usually too drunk to consummate his lust.

Next time, how many Friars did WS write about?
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