Thursday, 19 January 2017


Shakespeare in Denmark. Sculpture based on iconic portrait by Droeshout in the "First Folio."

Last time I dealt mainly with the sources and past productions of Hamlet. This time I wish to deal with the technical side of the play: no. of lines, quotations etc.

First of all, as a play, it is probably the most performed play since it was written - in c.1601-02, in English and in any other language and it is certainly the most quoted one of all of the Bard's works. The 1996 Revised Edition of The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations devotes 71 pages to Shakespeare, and of these, EIGHT!!! pages (about one-ninth) are quotations from Hamlet.

Examples of Hamlet's best lines:
O that this too too solid flesh would melt
Frailty, thy name is woman!
This above all; to thine own self be true.
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
The time is out of joint.
Brevity is the soul of wit.
What a piece of work is a man!
The play's the thing!
The lady protests too much, methinks.
There's a divinity that shapes our ends.
Now cracks a noble heart. Good night sweet prince: and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!

And (listen for the drum-roll!) the most well-known quotation in all of Shakespeare, nay in all of the world's literature:
To be, or not to be; that is the question...

In addition, Hamletit is the longest play that WS wrote and includes (depending on the edition you read) 4,042 lines, nearly 300 lines more than 'longest play #2,' Coriolanus which has 3,752. In comparison, the shortest play, The Comedy of Errors has a mere 1787 lines, while my favourite, Macbeth,  contains just over half of the length of the Danish play, i.e. 2,349 lines.

In addition, Michael LoMonico in Shakespeare 101, says that Hamlet is the second bloodiest play after Titus Andronicus. Richard The Third comes in third, Julius Caesar fourth and Macbeth completes the list of the Top Five Bloody WS Plays.
                        The sad and untimely end of Ophelia

In addition, Hamlet offers no great roles for female roles, although Hamlet and Ophelia are one of the most famous pairs of lovers and also dysfunctional couples in this play. This play also contains no songs and no suicides (as in Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra) but there is a 'missing mother,' i.e. we do not read about Mrs. Polonius, Ophelia and Laertes' mother. In contrast, it does contain one of the most thrilling sword-fights of all of WS's plays when Hamlet and Laertes fight each other in the closing scene. 
Hamlet (Brannagh) and Laertes fighting it out to and at the bitter end.

This play is also somewhat bawdy in parts, (#5 in LoMonico's list) and for more details on this subject, you are advised to consult Shakespeare's Bawdy by Eric Partridge and Naughty Shakespeare by Michael Macrone. According to this last book, our Hamlet is in the top five, together with Falstaff, Iago, Much Ado About Nothing and The Merry Wives of Windsor. In this last play,in which Falstaff makes his own serious contribution to the ribald nature of this comedy.
Hamlet and Ophelia appear in court in front of King Claudius

More on Hamlet next time.
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Saturday, 14 January 2017

WS ABC Hamlet (1)

What can you say about the play, HAMLET that hasn't been said already? Gallons of ink and thousands of megabytes, if not terabytes have been used to describe and analyse the plot, the characters, the significance etc. etc. of the play. Therefore I will not deal with any of these aforementioned topics but will concentrate on some of the more marginal aspects of this play.

Shakespeare may have used several different sources for this play but which one we cannot say definitely. He could have based his play on one of the following or a combination of Saxo Grammaticus' work, Historia Danica, or Gesta Danorum (Deeds of the Danes) c.1200, which told of the story of King Amleth or he may have referred to Histoires Tragiques, Extraicts des Oeuvres Italiennes de Bandel (1559-82) by Francois de Belleforest, or Timothy bright's play, Treatise of Melancholy. It is known that there was an earlier version of Hamlet in existence, this play now called Ur-Hamlet but it has been lost since it was acted in 1594. This last play may have been written by WS's fellow playwright, Thomas Kyd.  
   Hamlet as he appears in "Y is for Yorrick" by Jennifer Adams: "a young man who had a hard time making decisions...who killed his fiancee, future father-in-law, brother-in-law, stepfather and mother, all because he had a lot of trouble with follow-through"             
However, we do know that contemporary records show that Shakespeare was paid five pounds for this play (probably something equivalent to 3,500 pounds in today's money) and that the first actor to play this role was Richard Burbage, WS's friend, fellow-actor and business partner. 

Shakespeare's Hamlet was first performed by the King's Men at the Globe in 1601 or 1602 and then it was performed in Oxford and Cambridge in 1603. The next known performance took place on a boat - Captain Keeling's East Indiaman's merchant ship and then possibly, the next recorded performance took place in front of King James I at court. We also know that another performance at Hampton Court took place 'before the kinge (Charles I) and queene' (Henrietta Maria) on January 24th 1637.
                 Kenneth Brannagh playing Hamlet in 1996 

This play has attracted the most famous actors of the day to perform the leading role including David Garrick who, in 1772 produced a refined version at Drury Lane which excluded the graveyard scene. Edmund Kean (1787-1833) played this role two hundred years ago and Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir John Gielgud and David Warner played the Danish Prince in the 20th century. Olivier also acted this role in a filmed version in 1948 and Kenneth Brannagh followed suit in an impressive version in 1996. Nicol Williamson gave an energetic version of Hamlet in 1969 and Mel Gibson also played this part in 1990. Director Michael Almereyda had Ethan Hawke play the title role in 2000 in which the play is set against the backdrop of new York. 

Sarah Bernhardt playing Hamlet over one hundred years ago.
                 Sarah Siddons, the first actress to play Hamlet
But it was not only men who played this role; women did as well. The first actress who played Hamlet on the professional stage was Sarah Siddons (1755-1831) while Sarah Bernhardt played an unforgettable Hamlet one hundred years later.
A British Prince (Charles) playing a Danish Prince with Judi Dench

In Shakespeare 101, Michael LoMonico lists 101 actors/ actresses who have played Hamlet. Read this list carefully. Some of the names may surprise you. They include: Ian Bannen, Alan Bates John Barrymore, Simon Beale, Edwin Booth, Richard Burton, Richard Chamberlain, Tom Courtney, Daniel Day-Lewis, Maurice Evans, Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney Alec Guinness, Harry Hamlin, Leslie Howard, William Hurt, Henry Irving, Derek Jacobi, Charles Kean, Val Kilmer, Ben Kingsley, Kevin Kline, Raymond Massey, Ian McKellan, Siobhan McKenna, Burgess Meredith, Peter O'Toole, Ronald Pickup, Christopher Plummer, Michael Redgrave, Mark Rylance,Maximillian Schell, Paul Scofield, Martin Sheen, Robert Vaughan, Sam Waterston Orson Welles and Zapatka.      
                An American actor trumping Hamlet - 2016-17                                     

Next time: More on "Hamlet."
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Saturday, 7 January 2017

WS ABC Hall Family - Shakespeare's descendants

Shakespeare and his wife, **Anne Hathaway, (1555/6-1623) had three children: Susanna who was born in May 1583 and the twins, Judith and Hamnet who were born two years later in 1585. Unfortunately, Hamnet died aged eleven in 1596 and it is thought that the following lines from King John are the Bard's way of dealing with the loss of his only son.

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form:
Then have I reason to be fond of grief. 

The death of Hamnet also meant that this was the end of the use of Shakespeare as a surname, although his two daughters did marry and continue the family line.

Susanna (1583-1649) married John Hall, (1575-1635) a local physician in June 1607. Apparently he earned a good reputation as 'his advice was solicited in every direction' and he was summoned to attend cases involving the Earl and Countess of Northampton as far away as Ludlow Castle. He left a medical notebook in Latin but he never mentioned his father-in-law, WS. John Hall was said to have had Puritan leanings and so would not have approved of much of the Bard's plays and poems.
                             Hall's Croft in Stratford today.

Susanna is said to have been financially savvy but was also alleged to have been illiterate so that she couldn't have read her father's works. The Hall's lived in Hall's Croft in Stratford-upon-Avon, a Tudor-style house that still can be seen today.

Elizabeth Hall and John Nash
                                                                 Elizabeth Hall

John and Susanna had one child, Elizabeth who was the only grandchild that WS knew. She was eight years old when he died. In 1626 Elizabeth married John Nash who died in 1647. She then married John Barnard in June 1649 who outlived her. Both of her husbands were known for their pro-Royalist tendencies during the English Civil War (1642-49). Elizabeth's death in 1670 signified the end of WS's direct descendants.
                                 Crest of Doctor John Hall

Susanna's sister, Judith (1585-1662) married Thomas Quiney, a local vintner in February 1616, two months before WS died. It seems that WS did not approve of his son-in-law as he did not mention him in his famous will. The reason for this was that not long before Judith and Thomas' marriage, Thomas had impregnated a local girl who died soon after in childbirth. He was publicly humiliated for his 'bawdy' behaviour and so WS deleted his son-in-law's name from his will and substituted his daughter's name instead. Another reason for this may be that simply WS preferred Susanna over Judith. We'll never know.
          Idealised Victorian portrait of the Shakespeares at home.

Judith died in February 1662, aged 77 and was buried in the graveyard of Trinity Church as opposed to her father and several other members of the family who were buried inside the church. Today we do not know exactly where she was interred. 

The Quiney's had three children. The first-born, Shakespeare, was named after his grandfather who he never saw and died aged six months in 1616. His brothers, Richard and Thomas were born in 1618 and 1620 and both died in 1639 (due to plague?)

**Some literary historians doubt if WS's wife was really Anne Hathaway as the name mentioned on the marriage certificate was Anne Whately.

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Next time: Halle & Holinshed, WS's historical sources

Friday, 30 December 2016

WS ABC - Robert Greene, WS's PR man.

                                    Robert Greene (?)

ROBERT GREENE has gone down in literary history as the man who first let us know that a rustic scribbler from Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire was now in London and was doing quite well, thank you very much.

It all started when Robert Greene (1558-1592) who was a fellow dramatist in Elizabethan London published a pamphlet, A Groatsworth of Wit bought with a Million of Repentance as he lay dying in London. This pamphlet, edited by Henry Chettle, would probably have gone completely unnoticed had it not contained the following diatribe against his fellow writers and dramatists which said:

...for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tyger's hart wrapt in a Player's hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and beeing an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey.

Why is this important? Because it is absolute proof, literally black on white, that our William was already in London, happily and successfully writing plays for the London stage. In fact, in order to denigrate his more successful rival, Greene even paraphrased one of Shakespeare's speeches from Henry the Sixth, Part Three, (I.iv.137) in which WS describes the weak King Henry's tough, aggressive wife, Margaret of Anjou, who had a  tiger's heart wrapt in a woman's hide.

Who was Robert Greene? He was a moderately successful dramatist who led a very unhealthy life and it was a surfeit of wine and pickled herrings that finally brought about his untimely demise in September 1592, aged 34. Not only did he attack our William, but he also castigated three other contemporary  "University Wits" as they styled themselves (as opposed to WS who never had a university education,)  Christopher Marlowe, -'famous gracer of Tragedians,' Thomas Nashe and George Peele.
The iconic picture of Robert Greene in his goose-turd green coat.

Greene studied at Cambridge and then admitted in his writings that he had led a dissolute life in Italy and Spain before he returned to England. Even though he tried to reform himself and even married, he relapsed into his old ways and abandoned his wife and son before 1586  to live among London's lowlife. His mistress was the sister of a notorious thief, "Cutting Ball" who was later hanged at Tyburn (site of Marble Arch today).

He wrote romantic novels such as Menaphon (1589) and Pandosta (1588), the latter being the source for WS plot for Winter's Tale. He also Orlando Furioso and Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay which deals with the 'Faustus' theme, but with a touch of comedy and also James the Fourth, Alphonsus and A Looking Glass for London (with Thomas Lodge).

Greene died in great poverty in the company of his mistress and his landlady and left his unfortunately named son, Fortunatus, to face the world.

Final note: Some scholars think in fact that it was Henry Chettle who wrote the above about Shakespeare and not Robert Greene.

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Next time: The Harts - Shakespeare's descendants.  

Saturday, 24 December 2016

WS ABC News flash!

To all the followers of my Shakespeare blog: This is to tell you that the next entry will appear in the first week of January 2017.

Festive greetings to all and that you should have a Happy and Healthy 2017, or as Lorenzo says to Portia in "The Merchant of Venice,"

Fair thoughts and happy hours attend on you."

Thursday, 15 December 2016

WS ABC Blog #74 The Newest Globe Theatre

                               Sam Wanamaker and friend.

In the 1950's the Hollywood blacklist against "UnAmerican" actors and directors caused many of them to leave the USA. One of the most famous was Charlie Chaplin. Another was Sam Wanamaker and this was very good news for England. Wanamaker had a passionate drive, some called it an obsession to recreate Shakespeare's Globe theatre in London.

In 1970, Wanamaker established the Shakespeare's Globe Trust and its aim was to rebuild the Globe theatre as close a copy as possible to the
Jacobethan playhouse. Many technical experts doubted if this was possible, but after overcoming mountains of technical and legal problems, very near to where the original playhouse stood 400 years ago, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre opened on the South Bank of the River Thames in May 1997. 

The first play to be performed was Henry the Fifth, and the first artistic director was the actor, Mark Rylance. Since then, Dominic Dromgoole and Emma Rice have succeeded him.

The building was made of English oak and mortice and tenon joints were used instead of nails and screws to join these huge wooden beams together. Unlike the original Globe, the wood has been impregnated with special material so that it will be inflammable and that the thatch roof - the first to be built in London since the Great Fire of 1666 - has also been rendered inflammable by the use of fire retardants. In addition, if you look up at the roof carefully, you will notice that fire sprinklers have been embedded in the thatch.
Thatch from Norfolk being made fireproof as it is laid on the roof of the Globe. Small fire sprinklers were added later.

Other differences between this Globe, the third, (the second lasted from 1614-1642 when it was pulled down by Cromwell's Puritan forces) is that the pit where the groundlings stand has a concrete surface, as opposed to the original rush-strewn earthen floor. Today, the Globe can hold up to 857 spectators, about half of the number who would have filled it in the Bard's day.

Other differences include a gift-shop, a restaurant and visitor centre. Perhaps the greatest differences between the Globe that WS knew and loved and today's theatre is that there are public toilets and that the price for tickets between the sixteenth century and today has jumped from one penny for the groundlings to five pounds for the honour of standing in the open pit. If you wish for greater comfort, you will have to pay45 pounds to sit in one of the surrounding and covered galleries. 
Author photo taken of "Henry V" during one of the first performances at the Globe in summer, 1997. 

At first, in 1997, the Globe did not use microphones, speakers or any form of amplification, but since 2016, experimental sound and lighting systems have been tried out. Fortunately, the Globe theatre today, as in WS's period, does fulfil a need, so much so that it is generating over twenty million pounds per year.
               The author outside the reconstructed Globe.

When because of its open-roof structure, the main theatre cannot be used during the winter, the adjacent Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is used instead. This is modelled after the 16th century indoors Blackfriars theatre, which in those days was candle-lit.

The Globe theatre in London is not unique. There are different Globe theatres in Argentina, Germany, Rome, Tokyo, New Zealand and six in the USA. However, Sam Wanamaker's looks the closest to the original. (Said by me who wasn't actually present as a spectator at the original!) However, I have been to the newest London Globe twice and watched performances of Henry the Fifth and Richard the Third.
A certificate of my own personal contribution to the reconstruction of Shakespeare's Globe theatre.

Note: If you want to know more about the modern Globe theatre, read This Wooden O by Barry Day.

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Next time: The playwright who made WS famous - Robert Greene. 

The w

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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