All entries for February 2010

February 28, 2010

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Writing about web page

Not rated

I recently finished reading Wolf Hall, which as you probably know won the Booker last year. It's a wonderful historical novel, dealing with the key early events of the English Reformation. It's of interest to me as it is written from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell; the lead character, of course, of the Chamberlain's Play Thomas Lord Cromwell attributed in 1599 to Shakespeare.

One of the most striking features of the play is that, unlike the vast majority of other Elizabethan/early Jacobean histories based on a single figure, it begins in the lead character's youth before his entry into public life. We see Cromwell's teenage years living at his blacksmith father's, and then his travels around Europe before his entry into English public life, ascension to the highest offices and ultimate execution. It's an unusually person-centred play, building up a character before his public "character" is formed in office.

Wolf Hall follows a similar pattern, though concluding with the execution of Thomas More (and, by association, the collapse of the Catholic church in England) rather than Cromwell's own fall. While it's obviously a more popular historical novel motif to view a period through one individual's eyes, it's interesting to read two versions of Cromwell's history written four hundred years apart. Seemingly, this would indicate a prevailing fascination with the character. Born in obscurity, yet rising to favour through a combination of hard work and political savvy, he also navigated successfully the dangerous path from favourite of Wolsey to favourite of the King when the former fell. That this man, whose humble birth of course occasioned a great deal of prejudice against him, was also responsible for spearheading the English Reformation and, effectively, making possible Henry's remarriage to Anne Boleyn, is even more extraordinary.

Mantel's book is fascinating in its depiction of the interior life of this man. His pragmatism and directness are tinged with a disposition to violence, his childhood abuse informing his instinctive response to conflict-resolution. He recognises the fear he occasions in others and manipulates that fear; and his prodigious memory skills, learned in Europe, allow Mantel to weave an internal narrative that sees the past constantly impinging on the present, particularly in the persons of his dead wife and children. The play, on the other hand, is light on soliloquy, and we are curiously distanced from Cromwell. While his past is an important part of the character, here it is rather in the external circumstances of his youth: childhood connections return throughout his adult life, and he maintains a rapport with the lower orders that separates him from his aristocratic peers. Similarly, in Mantel's version of Cromwell, he shows a predisposition to help and support the young and poor, his household growing exponentially as he finds positions for those without work. This connection to the people, both endearing him to the lower orders and making an enemy of the lords, is constant in both versions.

Alongside this is the presentation of Thomas More, dramatically different in both. More is a presence in the Elizabethan play, and in his brief appearances we are reminded of his wit, humanism and essential decency, though his fall is spoken of without pity. Similarly, in the play of Thomas More, More is a man of humour and integrity, with implicit criticism of the circumstances that led to his fall. It's quite remarkable, when you consider that More was executed for his Catholicism and his opposition to Henry's marriage with Anne Boleyn, that two Elizabethan plays on More present him in so positive a light. By contrast, his presentation in Wolf Hall is ruthless. More's role in the torture and execution of Protestants (seen of course from the eyes of Cromwell, who shares those Protestant beliefs; or, at least, finds them more politically useful) is a secondary horror to his treatment of his family, and his self-martyrdom is taken to a degree that even Cromwell finds pitiful. The two men, in the book's closing movement, are portrayed as surprisingly similar, only with opposing spiritual positions; their dedication and obstinacy form a kind of kinship between them. It's a kinship that I read in the two Elizabethan plays that build their picture of Henry VIII's reign around them; these are two essentially decent men whose rise inevitably leads to their catastrophic falls.

Mantel's book is well worth reading. It's thoroughly entertaining and creates a tremendous world populated by rich characters, and it's just a disappointment it ends when it does. As related to the apocrypha, it's an interesting lens through which to revisit the earlier works on Tudor history.

February 24, 2010

Playing without a writer

Writing about Arden of Faversham @ The Emlyn Williams Theatre, Theatr Clwyd from The Bardathon

I was pleasantly surprised, attending Terry Hands' new production of Arden of Faversham last weekend, to find that the play not only chose not to sell itself on its apocryphal status, but that none of the publicity material even acknowledged the long-standing Shakespearean connection. The programme cover boldly stated it was "By Anonymous", and left it at that.

To me, that's really interesting in the theatre, an institution which of course prizes authors. It's not often a truly anonymous play gets put on without at least some guesswork as to the author, and in the case of the Shakespeare Apocrypha this is often used as a publicity device (cf the White Bear's Yorkshire Tragedy and the RSC's Thomas More "By Anthony Munday, William Shakespeare and others").

Listening to the comments around me, it was interesting to hear an audience responding to a play without authorial preconceptions. While I'm sure many of them knew it had been attributed to Shakespeare, I didn't hear anyone discussing this. Instead, people were intrigued as to why something anonymous was being revived and what the director had seen in the play to warrant staging it. People appeared to be interested, rather than pre-judgmental, in a way which I've not really felt among audiences before. I remember a post-show talk following a reading of The Two Noble Kinsmen at the RSC during which audience members seemed only interested in asking about which bits were by which author, assuming that the "best" bits were Shakespeare's.

It's inevitable we judge early modern drama by a Shakespearean standard. The canonical plays are so familiar, and have been so formative on our educational experiences, that we're always going to judge plays by other authors, and especially anonymous or disputed works, according to how far they measure up to a Shakespearean standard; which their relative unfamiliarity will inevitably cause them to fall short of. However, I do feel the anonymising of productions may be a big part of the answer to this. For as soon as a play is put on with a promise, or even indication, of a Shakespearean connection, audiences will expect Shakespeare, and then be disappointed when it's quite different. By de-canonising Arden, Hands allowed the play to stand on its own merits, separate from anyone's authorial canon, a work in its own right. That didn't make the production any better or worse, but it did at least allow it to be something, rather than not-be something. The Shakespeare Apocrypha are, seemingly, forever doomed to not-be Shakespeare, so for that alone, it was lovely to see Arden being presented in its own right.

February 11, 2010

The Shakespeare Code: The cult of Shakespeare's genius

Writing about web page

I've never been a Doctor Who fan (for my money, the rebooted version is just too arch and self-knowing - and, frankly, not very good). However, in the interests of performing cultural research into representations of Shakespeare, I finally got around to watching the episode "The Shakespeare Code" today.

The Shakespeare Code

It was, essentially, everything one would expect, right down to David Tennant's Doctor feeding Shakespeare most of his best-known lines ("All the world's a stage" "I'll use that!"). The essential plot was that the Doctor and his partner Martha arrive in London, 1599, and go to see a performance of Love's Labour's Lost. Under the influence of some witch-like aliens, Shakespeare then announces that Love's Labour's Won will be premiered the following night. He finishes the play while being controlled by the aliens, who also influenced the construction of the Globe to their specifications. These aliens, you see, operate through the power of words: the power of their words, penned by Shakespeare and delivered by the Chamberlain's Men in a 14-sided building that harnesses their power, will revive the rest of their people and allow them to take over the earth, eradicating humanity and turning it into a wasteland of bones and witchcraft.

I could be smug and point out all the flaws in chronology (such as that Francis Mere's references to Love's Labour's Won had been published the previous year), but that wouldn't be generous. Actually, I was impressed by the script's attention to scholarly consensus on chronology: situated in 1599, Shakespeare drew from the episode's events his inspiration for As You Like It, Hamlet, Macbeth and others, while recognising the Doctor's quote from the slightly earlier Henry V. There were a couple of nice nods for Shakespeare buffs too, especially the passing reference to a young scribe named Ralph (Crane) who was told to transcribe the pages of the new play. Considering that it was Saturday night family entertainment, they'd gone to a lot of effort.

No, what frustrated me was the insistence on Shakespeare's genius throughout. The production hinged around it: during the climax, Shakespeare's improvised words are needed in order to close the vortex (I can't believe I'm writing this), as only Shakespeare had the necessary power with words. Though, in an Oh-come-on moment, the magic word needed to close the void was "Expelliarmus".

Shakespeare and company

On what I assume must have been the real reconstructed Shakespeare's Globe stage, Shakespeare first appeared to us as a backstage writer, not an actor. The Doctor's companion Martha, yelled for "Author!", jokingly creating the cult of the Bard at this point as the audience took up her cry. As Shakespeare himself emerged and waved to the crowds, the episode threw away a great opportunity to undermine Bardolatrous attitudes: as the Doctor waited with bated breath to hear the great man's words, Shakespeare welcomed the crowd with "Shut your fat ugly faces!"

However, while the image of Shakespeare as gentleman and snob was pleasingly undercut (not a revolution, of course, after Shakespeare in Love popularised the image of Shakespeare as working dramatist), Shakespeare was instead cast as celebrity. As the Doctor and Martha went to his rooms to meet him, a weary writer told them he would be neither signing autographs nor posing for sketches. Relenting, he then dismissed his fellow actors imperiously before welcoming the visitors. Lapping up the Doctor's continual praise of his genius - the genius which, as previously said, went on to ultimately save the day - this was Shakespeare as contemporary celebrity, directing his company and arrogant in his talent.

Part of the fun of the episode was in the time travellers' unpricking of his balloon, particularly as Martha refused a kiss on account of his bad breath. I was reminded, though, of how much we project our modern day iconicisation of Shakespeare onto the historical figure. The arrogance and celebrity of Shakespeare is, of course, a posthumous construction, which can't effectively be undone or challenged except in isolation. Shakespeare, that is, is so pervasive that he can't be put down. By channelling the cultural dominance of Shakespeare, however, into a single individual figure - the historical Shakespeare - that dominance can be refigured as arrogance and presumption, which can then be easily put down.

What's the problem with this myth-making? Nothing really. It's all good fun, and obviously this episode didn't position itself as an academic contribution. What it did do, though, was reinforce the predominance of Shakespeare even in its gentle mockery of the same. Shakespeare was further universalised as a man out of time even in his own century: he could tell Martha and the Doctor were from the future, and finished the episode a little less arrogant, but more quietly accepting of the timeless significance and inutterable genius of his writing. Hell, the Doctor warned him not to rewrite Love's Labour's Won because it was so powerful it could destroy humanity. No-one comes close to Shakespeare, not even in Doctor Who.

Shakespeare and Martha

Last thing - the episode telegraphed from a million miles away, as he first gazed at her with open mouth, that Martha was to become the "Dark Lady" of the sonnets. A couple of nice touches here, particularly as she refused to let him kiss her (how's that for a classical Petrarchan mistress?!), but I still felt uncomfortable about so broad a brushstroke. As ever, though, if you're going to actually present Shakespeare, I suppose there's no option but to make the works autobiographical: it's far more interesting to watch.

February 03, 2010

A Man Named Harris

This one's just too good to let pass.

The late Eric Sams, infamous among Shakespearean authorship scholars for his vitriolic, dogmatic and wild claims that Shakespeare wrote a great many unattributed plays, commits many basic errors in his methodologies. One is that he looks for positive parallels only, without checking against other plays to make sure that the parallel does not apply to other dramatists as well as Shakespeare. So, if Edmond Ironside and Julius Caesar share the phrase "Get out of here" (they don't), you have to make sure that no other plays also have the phrase "Get out of here", otherwise the parallel is meaningless. Basic common sense.

This is Sams in his introduction to "Shakespeare's" Edmond Ironside, justifying his refusal to search for negative evidence:

You have to meet in a crowd a Mr. Harris, hitherto unknown to you, but who, you are informed, has red hair, wears a monocle and walks with a limp. You address with some confidence a stranger possessing these characteristics; and if he responds to the name of Harris, you would accept the identification, without brooding over the fact that there are nearly a thousand Harrises in the London telephone directory alone. (2).

MacDonald P. Jackson, reviewing Sams' book, feels that the defining authorial characteristics of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama are, however, slightly less firm evidence than a limp and a monocle.

Stand Harris beside any man in the street and the pair will turn out to have any of their innumerable characteristics in common, over and above those that declare them to be human: both wear black shoes, are left-handed, have moustaches, carry umbrellas, are six feet tall and answer to 'Hey, you!' We might even reckon probabilities - one in ten men is left-handed, one in eight wears a moustache, and so on - and enlarge the list to the point where multiplying the separate odds would produce a billion-to-one coincidence. Harris must have met his doppelganger! No, the passer-by is a stout Caucasian and Harris is a slim West Indian. The total absence of constraints on our search for resemblances renders the calculations meaningless. (225)

One of the more eloquent cases for the importance of negative checks that I've found.


Jackson, MacDonald P. "Editions and Textual Studies." Shakespeare Survey 40. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. 224-36.

Sams, Eric (ed.). Shakespeare's Lost Play: Edmond Ironside. London: Fourth Estate, 1985.

February 01, 2010

Set texts

From Martin Wiggins' Shakespeare and the Drama of his Time (OUP, 2000):

Though Roman plays [in the Elizabethan drama] ranged widely from the last days of the Tarquins in The Rape of Lucrece (Heywood, 1607) to the dissolute later emperors in Heliogabalus (anonymous, 1594, lost) and Valentinian (Fletcher, 1614), the greatest concentration of attention was on the middle to late republic, and in particular on the Punic Wars, the conspiracy of Catiline, and the career of Julius Caesar, the single most dramatized historical figure in the English Renaissance. Unsurprisingly, these were also the subjects covered by the three Latin historians most often studied in the Elizabethan grammar schools, Livy, Sallust, and Caesar; and while the playwrights generally did not use these school texts as sources, the familiarity of the events and characters must have been a key factor in the selection of subject matter (21).

I wrote a piece for the Guardian a while back, expressing frustration that the same Shakespeare plays kept coming round, catering to perceived educational needs. While I knew what Wiggins says here, however, it's the way he phrases it which caught my attention just now. In a sense, this is the same problem that's been with us since the earliest days of modern English drama: the familiarity of stories ensures their constant re-presentation in various forms. One wonders if early modern audiences ever got fed up: "Oh no, not bloody Caesar again, I hated Latin class..."


I’m Peter Kirwan, a final year doctoral student in the English Department at Warwick, and this is my PhD blog.

Conferences, reviews, articles, thoughts and links relating to my interests in the Shakespeare apocrypha, early modern drama, authorship and performance.

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