Monday, 24 October 2016

WS ABC #28 Sir John/Jack Falstaff

SIR JACK FALSTAFF is the greatest comic character created by William Shakespeare. However, that wasn't going to be his real name. Shakespeare's original intent was to call this 'fat knight,' 'this huge hill of flesh' and 'this sanguine coward,' after the real knight, Sir John Oldcastle, a 15th century martyred knight and Lollard. However, his descendants, the Cobham family, heard of this and protested. Fortunately for them, and perhaps unfortunately for our William, one of the Cobhams was the official censor. This meant that Shakespeare had to change the name of 'this horseback breaker,' 'that villainous abominable misleader of youth' and 'this bed-presser' or have his play banned.

However, Shakespeare had the last word. He inserted a few 'old castle' jokes into his plays, as when Prince Hal (of Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 and Henry V) refers to Falstaff as 'my old man of the castle.'

We first meet Falstaff in Henry IV, Part 1, where he is Prince Hal's best buddy. He is depicted as a father-figure to the young prince, a past knight who has gone to seed. He lives by his wits and earning a living is anathema to him. He reappears in Henry IV, Part 2 playing the same role, but by now, the growing prince is trying to distance himself from 'this fool and jester' who requires, 'two and twenty yards of satin' for a suit.
Falstaff in the centre of Stratford-upon-Avon. (Author's photo)

Finally, Hal does rid himself of his sack (white wine) swilling crony at the end of Henry IV, Part 2 saying:

I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have longed dreamed of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane.

Hal has to be cruel here, because he must separate himself from Falstaff and their collective past and show that he is no longer the high-spirited and mischievous youth that he was. Now that his father, King Henry IV, has died, Hal is the country's next king and so he must behave accordingly. Nevertheless, his words do hurt in this tremendously pathetic scene.
Falstaff being beaten by the wives in "The Merry Wives of                                                           Windsor"

But the irrepressible Falstaff doesn't really die. According to tradition, Queen Elizabeth I was was so enamoured of this character that Shakespeare was asked to resurrect him. He did so about eight years later. This old knightly rogue and lecher, 'well nigh worn to pieces with age' reappears taking centre-stage in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Here, Falstaff is conned by the two wives, Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page, and ends up getting a terrible beating before being attacked in Windsor Park by a crowd dressed as fairies.

More about Falstaff next time.
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Tuesday, 18 October 2016

WS ABC # 27 Shakespearean Fools

SOME OF SHAKESPEARE'S BEST LOVED CHARACTERS ARE THE FOOLS. This doesn't mean that these people were necessarily foolish, because often they were anything but.
In fact, many literary critics have quoted the following line spoken by Touchstone, the 'fool' in As You Like It. His words sum up the essence of being a Shakespearean fool - "A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool."
                                       A modern Fool

In Shakespeare's time (and even beforehand) the fools and the court jesters were usually glib-tongued peasants who used their wits to outdo their 'elders and their betters.' Much of their humour was based on word-play and witticisms, an aspect of language that was very important to the Shakespearean playgoer. 

However, in addition to this, the Fool's role in Shakespeare's theatre followed a long tradition, in fact, since Roman and then medieval times. Not only did they have to be witty, but they also had to know how to sing, dance, tell stories, juggle and perform acrobatics. 

The three most famous actors who played Shakespearean fools were William Kempe, Robert Armin and Richard Tarlton. Our William must have known these actors well and it is said that he wrote many of his 'foolish' roles with these three well-loved actors in mind.
                                        Robert Armin

                                         Richard Tarlton
                                          William Kempe

Note, some of the Fools were called as such or 'Clowns'. Others had specific names. Below is a list of Shakespearean fools and their plays:
'A Fool' in Timon of Athens
'Citizen' in Julius Caesar
'Costard' in Love's Labours Lost
'Autolycus' in The Winter's Tale
'Cloten' in Cymbeline
'Falstaff' in 1H4, 2H4 (Also appears in Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor but not as a Fool.)
'Clown' in Othello
'Dromio of Ephesus' in The Comedy of Errors
'Dromio of Syracuse' in The Comedy of Errors
'Clown' in Titus Andronicus
'Feste' in Twelfth Night
'Grumio' in The Taming of the Shrew
'Launce' in Two Gentlemen of Verona
'Launcelot Gobbo' in The Merchant of Venice
'Lavache' in All's Well That Ends Well
'Nick Bottom' in A Midsummer Night's Dream
'Speed' in Two Gentlemen of Verona
'Puck' in A Midsummer Night's Dream
'Pompey' in Measure for Measure
'The Fool' in King Lear
'The Gravediggers' in Hamlet
'Thersites' in Troilus and Cressida
'Touchstone' in As You Like It
'Trinculo' in The Tempest

Other roles such as Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing were those of simple peasants trying to act above themselves or roles such as Malvolio in Twelfth Night where normally (over)serious and pedantic people behave foolishly. In Macbeth, the Porter, with his observations about people and liquor is not really a Fool as he does not warn anyone about their behaviour, he just comments on it. He also provides the only light moments in this 'murderous' play. 

The function of the Fool was to be a servant of person of low social status who would not be scared at speaking his mind to his superiors. One of the most well-known Fools is the Fool in King Lear. He ridicules the king's actions and he can see Goneril and Regan for the rapacious daughters that they are. He also foretells the results of Lear's foolish actions. Despite his doing all this, the king accepts him as a friend even though in Act I. sc.4 the king warns him, "Take heed, sirrah, the whip."
                                 The Fool and King Lear

 Usually, the fools and clowns wore patchwork or ragged coats. In addition they wore bells and hoods and carried a short stick topped with a doll's head or something similar.

Next time: the greatest and most popular fool of them all: Falstaff
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Wednesday, 12 October 2016

WS ABC #27 Edgar & Edmund & King Lear

In King Lear, the Earl of Gloucester has two sons: Edgar, the good and the legitimate one, and Edmund, his bad and illegitimate brother.

EDGAR: Although he is the son of an earl, WS has given him a much more important role than that of his father. Edgar is also one of the main connections between the main and the sub-plots. Despite all the chaos, confusion and storms, at the end of the play, as the loyal son, he is ready to assume the burden of rule in the wrecked kingdom of prehistoric Britain. Edgar also plays more parts than any other player in the whole of the Shakespeare canon. 

He plays an aristocrat, a feigner of madness - Poor Tom - and a rustic. At the end of the play, he also plays the role of a noble knight who accepts the challenge that has been thrown at Edmund. Finally, in a way that imitates Lear's own behaviour, he become qualified to become the country's ruler where he confronts and defeats Edmund, his bastard brother.
                                  Edgar as 'Poor Tom'

George Orwell called Edgar 'a superfluous character, ' but this isn't true. His roles in the play make him vital to its success.

In contrast to multifaceted Edgar, Edmund is a traitorous evil son on whom both the plot and sub-plot intertwine. At the end of the play, Shakespeare makes an attempt to redeem him, showing that nobody can be completely evil or pure. In the end, partly motivated by shame, he informs Albany's party of the plot he has laid against King Lear and Cordelia and indeed attempts to rescue them. Unfortunately he is too late.

As with several of WS's other villains, he is witty and attractive, at least to King Lear's daughters, Goneril and Regan but he does try to make amends at the end trying to save Cordelia.

Edmund is aware of his own villainy and seems to delight in it (like Richard III) as this extract from his soliloquy in Act I sc.2 shows: 

...Our father's love is to the bastard Edmund
As honest madam's issue? Why brand they thus
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,
And my intention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top th' legitimate -: I grow, I prosper;
Now gods, stand up for bastards!

Next time: Shakespearean Fools.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

WS ABC #26 Elizabethan Theatre (Part 2)

Shakespeare was lucky. His acting company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men (later known as the King's Men after Elizabeth I died in 1603 and was succeeded by James I) used one of the best theatres in London. When the lease expired in 1598 and the landlord demanded more money to renew it, according to the story, the actors and their supporters had revenge. They dismantled the wooden building in the middle of a Christmas night and rowed the timbers over the Thames from the north bank to the south bank. There they rebuilt their new theatre and called it the Globe. It stayed there for the next 14 years until it was accidentally burnt down in June 1613 during a performance of Henry VIII.  (More about the Globe in a later blog.)

At the same time, a new kind of theatre was being built in London, a smaller theatre which attracted the wealthier classes and kept the poor 'groundlings' out. They were called 'hall' theatres and gave the impression that the plays were being performed in private houses. One advantage of this new type of theatre was that they were completely closed against the elements, e.g. the rain, and that plays could be performed in them all year round including during the winter. Another advantage was that as these buildings were closed, the actors and audiences were not disturbed by the noises of the surrounding street. (I remember when I was at the Globe in 1997 and had to listen to an overhead helicopter or two as Henry V was praising 'this wooden O' and 'the vasty fields of France.') In addition, these 'hall' theatres also had to rely on inside artificial lighting.

As it may be supposed, the theatre experience then was very different to that of today. People talked of 'hearing' a play rather than seeing it. Perhaps this was because watching a play then was a very boisterous occasion. Cannonballs and firecrackers were used for background effects in the battle scenes in the History plays as Henry the Fifth and Richard the Third. Trumpets blared to announce the entrance of kings and soft string music was played to evoke a mystical atmosphere as in The Tempest. In addition, vendors walked about selling nuts, fruit and sweetmeats, while woe betide an actor who forgot his lines or acted badly. Then he would hear the groundlings et al. 

And if all of this excitement wasn't enough, the theatres tended to attract the low-life of London as well. It was well known that cutpurses and prostitutes frequented the crowds applying their various skills.
         A modern performance of 'Henry V' in the Globe today.
                                 Author's photo.

The plays were often performed much quicker than today. The contemporary records speak of Romeo and Juliet using 'two hours traffic of our stage.' As soon as one scene was over, the actors would leave the stage as the actors for the next scene were already there waiting in the wings to make their entrance. 

In addition, in order to cut down on wages, many of the actors had to 'double-up' and play several roles in the same play. An actor playing a soldier in Act 1 may have played a lord in Act 3 while a messenger in Act 2 could have played a prince in Act 4.
The play, Romeo and Juliet, which has forty parts was acted by a cast of sixteen.

In order to watch or hear a play, a groundling would pay a penny and drop this into a clay box as he entered the theatre. This box would be broken open later and the money counted in order to see how much that particular performance had made. This box gave rise to the term, 'the box office.' The groundlings would stand in the centre on three sides of the stage and the lords and merchants who paid more for the honour, would sit on benches which were situated around the inside perimeter of the circular or polygon building. Theatres like the Globe, Rose and Swan could accommodate over two thousand spectators.
       Richard Burbage, the Elizabethan Kenneth Branagh

As for the actors, the more famous ones it seems, that some of them had their lines written especially for them. It is said that Shakespeare wrote much of Hamlet, King Lear and Othello with his friend, the popular actor Richard Burbage in mind. The same is probably true about the much loved comedian, William Kempe. This famous actor who played the part of the lugubrious constable Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing could easily have had his lines written especially for him by the Bard.
               Will Kempe, the popular comedian and dancer.

None of the actors were given a complete script of the play They were only given their own lines and the cues that came before. This was done in order to prevent the actors selling the whole play to a rival company. This also may explain why today, we do not have any complete plays written in Shakespeare's own hand.  

Finally, to end on a sanguine note, when a murder took place on stage which involved the stabbing of an enemy (or perhaps the killing of an innocent person such as the son of Lady Macduff in Macbeth), then the actor to be 'killed' would conceal an animal's bladder full of pig's blood inside his coat or shirt. When his enemy stabbed him, then the bladder would burst, shooting blood all over the place. This was Elizabethan realism!

Next time: Edgar and Edmund from 'King Lear.'
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Wednesday, 28 September 2016

WS ABC the Elizabethan Theatre (Part 1)

THE ELIZABETHAN THEATRE which is often associated with our hero also includes the first decades of the following Jacobean period as well. This type of theatre was very different from the Church dominated Miracle Plays and theatre that preceded it and the later post-Restoration theatres, i.e. the ones that followed the Civil War and the Cromwellian period.(1642-1660).
                           A c.1596 sketch of the Swan theatre.

The Elizabethan theatre did not have a front curtain that separated the audience from the stage, there was no lighting (plays being performed in daylight hours only), and female actors were not allowed. All female roles were played by young male actors, who acted Lady Macbeth, Ophelia, Beatrice, Desdemona et al before their voices had broken.
A modern drawing of how "A Midsummer Night's Dream' may                                 have looked like 400 years ago.

Costumes were very important and were looked after very carefully. many of the richer ones were donated by aristocrats and merchants. Since it was the law in Elizabethan times that no-one was allowed to dress above their station in life, actors were given a special dispensation to do so. Otherwise they may have had to pay heavy fines or worse.

Since there was no on-stage lighting, the play had to make frequent references to the time of day. Hence the many famous WS lines that refer to the passing of time:

 The bright day is done,
And we are for the dark. 
                         (Antony and Cleopatra (V.2)

Night's candles are burnt out, and jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops. 
                                               (Romeo and Juliet III.5)

Come, seeling night,
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day.
                                                 (Macbeth III,2)

So foul and fair a day I have not seen. 
                                                (Macbeth I,3)

But soft! methinks I scent the morning air.
                                                      (Hamlet I.5)

The day begins to break, and night is fled...
                                                         (1 Henry VI, II,2)  

The public theatres (as opposed to the private theatres in aristocrats' and merchants' houses) were open to the sky and built of wood. They were polygonal or rectangular and the stage stuck out into the auditorium. These theatres were modelled on the inn-yards where plays were performed before purpose-built theatres such as the 'Globe,' the 'Rose' and the 'Swan' were constructed along the south bank of the Thames. 
London's theatres spread along the south bank of the Thames.
They were situated here so as to be beyond the possibility restrictive authority of the city fathers.

The audience would sit around the stage (with some rich members actually sit on it on stools). They would pay one penny which was dropped into a box (hence the term ,'Box Office') and these 'groundlings'** would stand and be exposed to the elements. For those who wanted to pay more in order to remain dry and sit out of the wind, they could sit on benches in covered galleries which ran around the inside walls of the theatre.  

There was a curtained recess at the back which could
be used to show a separate room or scene. An upper story could be used as a balcony, as in the classic scene when Juliet first sees Romeo in her garden. Above this balcony, there was another room where musicians would play and above the stage would be a large canopy whose underside was painted with stars. Several trapdoors were built into the stage which led to an empty space - the cellarage - a place which the audience could not see.
      The writer of this blog outside the 'Globe' theatre, London

The public were informed when a play was about to begin by the use of flags and cannon. Cannon were also used for sound effects and it was the sparks of a cannon that set the thatched straw roof of the 'Globe' theatre on fire. This lead to this theatre's destruction during a performance of Henry VIII on June 29 1613. (The new 'Globe' was rebuilt with a tiled roof and stood until 1642.)

** 'Groundling' was the name of a certain type of fish that lived on the sea-floor and looked up all the time.

More about the Elizabethan theatre next time.
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Friday, 23 September 2016

WS ABC Part 22 - William D'avenant WS's godson?

WILLIAM D'AVENANT (1606-68) {WS's son/godson? - more on this later} the son of an Oxford vintner was an English playwright, poet and theatre manager. He wrote many masques and plays and King Charles I appointed him to be the Poet Laureate in 1638. In the Civil war that broke out four years later, D'Avenant was a Royalist. He fought for the king and was knighted after the siege of Gloucester in 1643. Later he was captured and imprisoned (1650-52) and while he was a prisoner in the Tower of London he composed his epic Gondibert. He is said to have been released by Cromwell's secretary, John Milton. He repaid the writer of Paradise Lost by helping him out during the Restoration period.
                         William D'Avenant (before 1630)

After the Restoration in 1660, D'Avenant, together with Thomas Kiiligrew received official permission to form an acting company - the Duke's Men - and also to manage a theatre at Lincoln's Inn Fields. Here, among other plays, they also staged several of Shakespeare's.  

D'Avenant had quite an influence on how plays were acted then and his productions of Macbeth, The Tempest, Measure for Measure and Much Ado About Nothing were considered important steps in the development of the theatre. He also put on Two Noble Kinsmen (as The Rivals) a Shakespearean play that has since been lost. He also wrote The Siege of Rhodes in 1656, the first English opera which introduced actresses to the stage.

D'Avenant produced his own first tragedy, Albovine in 1629 and he followed this up with The Cruel Brother and The Just Italian. He also worked with Inigo Jones, an important and influential architect and stage-designer, to co-produce three masques.  

The famous and gossipy writer, John Aubrey, (1626-97) recorded that D'Avenant was Shakespeare's natural (i.e. illegitimate) son although other theories state that he was the Bard's godson. Aubrey based this theory (c.1680) on that WS had to pass through Oxford on his journeys back and forth between Stratford-upon-Avon and London and it was in Oxford, D'Avenant was conceived. So far no-one has found any positive proof to back up this theory. Aubrey's theory first appeared in print in 1749.
                                              John Aubrey

D'Avenant is also said to have preserved and transmitted a number of Shakespearean theatrical traditions, especially in connection with the stage direction of production of Hamlet.

On a less pleasant note, D'Avenant contracted syphilis in 1630, a disease which caused him to lose part of his nose. This accounts for the discreet way his nose appears in John Greenhill's best-known portrait of him.
                     D'Avenant as Poet Laureate (after 1638)

Next time: The Elizabethan theatre.
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Thursday, 15 September 2016

WS ABC Part 21 - Desdemona

DESDEMONA - "the sweetest innocent that e'er did lift up eye" starts off on the wrong foot. Without consulting her father, a Venetian senator, she runs off and marries Othello, a Moorish gentleman and soldier of fortune. She is brought to the council to explain her behaviour and her father reluctantly accepts it that she loves her husband.

She is then escorted to Cyprus by the evil and jealous Iago and learns that another officer, Cassio has been disgraced as a result of Iago's stratagem. Cassio asks Desdemona to intercede for him with Othello, and Iago, who is annoyed that he wasn't promoted, used this contact to suggest to Othello that Cassio and Desdemona are lovers. Iago then boosts Othello's jealousy and in the end Othello kills his wife by smothering her in her bed. 

In many productions of the play, Desdemona is shown as a soft and passive beauty. This is not true. She has the strength of character to 'buck the system' and marry without her father's permission. But not only that, but she marries a Moor as well. She is also a sophisticated woman of the world who has a witty tongue, this being apparent when we hear her flippant banter with Iago and Cassio on the quayside in Act II. sc.i. 

On the other hand, although she is an educated Venetian lady, she is slow to realise the depth of Othello's jealousy and tends to belittle Cassio's flirting. It is this innocence on her part that causes many directors to cast her as a simple, passive wife.
Iago's wife, Emilia, sums her up best, "O she was heavenly true!'

Desdemona was first played by an actress (not allowed in WS time) by Margaret Hughes in 1669, this performance being watched by Samuel Pepys. The 19th century actor, Charles Kean (1811-68), son of the famous actor, Edmund Kean collapsed while playing in Othello and died soon after. Memorable performances of Desdemona were given both by Sarah Siddons (1755-1831) and Dame Ellen Terry (1847-1928).
                               Maggie Smith as Desdemona

More recently in 1966, Maggie Smith (Downton Abbey, Marigold Hotel and Pride of Miss Jean Brodie) played Desdemona opposite Sir Laurence Olivier and the film received more Academy awards for a WS play than any other. An Indian Bollywood version was produced in 2006 and starred the ever-popular Kareena Kapoor as Desdemona.

It is generally agreed that WS based Othello on Giraldi Cinthio's novella, Hectommithi (1565), but the only direct link is Desdemona's name which is the only name that appears in both the original and the WS version. In the original, Desdemona dies when the bed falls on her while other versions have Othello smothering, stifling or strangling her to death. In the 1948 film, A Double Life, actor Ronald Coleman kisses his wife to death.

In another version, Orson Welles stretches a scarf across Desdemona's mouth before kissing her to death. Some other versions in keeping with the Elizabethan stage tradition had Desdemona killed off-stage. The murder was accompanied by lurid and fatal noises.

Next time: Sir William D'Avenant (Shakespeare's godson?)