‘A Torch, a Mattock and a Crow of Iron’: Shakespeare’s stage properties

propsLast year, the Royal Shakespeare Company held a grand jumble sale in Stratford-upon-Avon, offering about 10,000 unwanted stage properties. It was an imaginative way of funding the restoration of the theatre’s new costume department, A Stitch in Time, since patrons and theatregoers could actually buy a little piece of the Company, or of the actor who wore it, as their own personal souvenir. It was a roaring success and queues built up through the day for a chance to rake through the huge variety of uniforms, jewellery, shoes, hats and costumes used in former productions.

We are used these days to seeing all manner of sophisticated and realistic stage properties in the theatre. Sets, lighting and stage effects may vary from the sparse to the elaborate, according to the vision of the director: the variety of styles stimulates and engages an audience, besides keeping theatre critics in work. The idea still persists, however, that Elizabethan theatre was very close to what might be called minimalist: a bare stage, no scenery, very basic props if any, and actors performing in the dress of the period. Some critics have claimed that the early stage was occupied predominantly by the playwright’s language. The simplicity of the Wooden ‘O’, empty of visual ornament, was thought to appeal mainly to the mind. So, people went to ‘hear’ a play rather than to ‘see’ it: it was something to be considered rationally rather than engaging all the senses. But, the Elizabethan theatre used more sophisticated props and stage effects than is often assumed.

simon formanThat the early stage involved visual spectacle is borne out by the eye-witness accounts of contemporary theatre goers. The astrologer and herbalist Simon Forman, who was a member of Shakespeare’s circle, left a number of manuscripts, one of which – the ‘Book of Plaies’- records descriptions of the productions he saw between 1610-11. He comments with fascination on the action around Macbeth’s chair – a very solid and visible chair – in the banquet scene.

‘the ghost of Banquo came in and sat down in his (Macbeth’s)  chair behind him, and turning about to sit down again,(he) saw the ghost: which affronted him so that he fell into a great passion of fear and fury’                  

He also mentions the bracelet in Cymbeline, the chest or trunk in which Iachimo, and Autolycus’ ‘pedlar packe’ in The Winter’s Tale.

We are fortunate to have the so-called Peacham drawing, now in the library of the Marquess of Bath at Longleat. It appears to depict a scene from Titus Andronicus where vigorous gesturing and several props and costume give a vivid impression of Elizabethan acting.

peacham drawing

That the public stage was known for the presence on-stage of a number of eye-catching objects, is attested by Philip Henslowe, the leading theatre proprietor and manager of The Admiral’s Men.  Henslowe’s  extensive 1598 inventory of the company’s props describes articles from  the fairly functional ‘paire of rough gloves’, ‘one plain crown’ and ‘one snake’, to articles designed to impress and boggle the eye: a golden sceptre, one Hell’s mouth’ one ‘tree of golden apples,’ ‘the cloth of the sun and moon’ and – most impressive –‘the city of Rome.’

‘Props’ – theatrical slang for properties – first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary of 1841 and so Shakespeare and his contemporaries would not have used the shortened word. Props include all the moveable, physical objects of the stage: costumes, furniture and stage hangings. But we have no record of the props used by Shakespeare’s Company. How did they create the Capulet family vault, into which Romeo breaks with ‘a torch, a mattock, and a crow of iron’ How too, were Caesar’s Rome, the Forest of Arden and The Tempest’s peacock-drawn flying chariot realised on stage?

Inevitably, Henry V comes to mind, where attention is drawn to the theatre’s inability to create a wholly realistic scene. ‘Can this cockpit hold/The vasty fields of France?’ asks the Chorus. And then comes the suggestion that the audience should employ its ‘imaginary forces’, and ‘piece out imperfections [with] its thoughts,’ so creating France and England for itself.

Shakespeare’s audience would have had no difficulty in  understanding visual clues and metaphors. A cloak would signify outdoors, while riding boots a suggested a journey or a traveller. We see this in A Midsummer Night’s Dream where the Mechanicals use ‘lime and rough-cast’ to create a wall and a ‘lanthorn, dog and bush of thorn’ to represent the moon. There must, in order to portray Bottom’s ‘translation’ have been a comical ass’s head too.

Stage directions give us considerable information about props: ‘ Enter a messenger with two heads and a hand’ and ‘Enter the Clown with a basket, and two pigeons in it.’ Elsewhere, detailed and precise descriptions conjure up visual images. Shakespeare’s Company might well have had an object which signified Titania’s ‘mossy bank’ but it took Shakespeare’s words to dress it with flowers. Shakespeare himself must have responded strongly when he read – and virtually copied – Petrach’s description of Cleopatra’s barge. The image is multi-sensory:  perfumed sails, flute music and a vessel so decked with gold that it ‘burns’, almost  making the hearer blink.

Dress signified social status and the centuries-old Sumptuary laws forbade ordinary people to wear certain colours and costly fabric but theatre companies got round the difficulty by purchasing a licence from the monarch. For ordinary parts, players used their own clothes but Henslowe’s inventory lists clothes made in the silks, cloth-of-gold, satins and velvets reserved for gentry. These would be worn to play kings and nobles. Such costumes were often left to actors by fellow thespians, or high-ranking citizen bequeathed luxurious clothing to servants who in turn sold them on to theatre companies.

Stage hangings served as places of concealment for spying and hiding, as in the scene in Hamlet where Polonius is stabbed through the arras. Small spaces such as a cell, study or bedroom would be disclosed when hangings were drawn back; or a spectacular object hidden until the moment came for the Grand Reveal. The fabric of the theatre was a prop in itself: a trap door in the stage might be a grave, a pit, or the mouth of Hell, sometimes emitting smoke and fireworks. The upper gallery of the playhouse served as Juliet’s balcony or Cleopatra’s monument, or might become the wall of a city or a castle. Pillars supporting the canopy or roof set the scene for Greek temples or Roman palaces.

Other smaller props also played their part. Rings appear in no fewer than 15 plays of Shakespeare. They are often love-tokens and are given as symbols of binding emotional commitment and fidelity.  Juliet sends a ring to Romeo to indicate her continuing love, despite the fact that he has killed her kinsman. But rings can often go astray; may be lost, stolen, sold or mistakenly given to the wrong person. Much confusion, either tragic or comic results. In an attempt to guide its audience through the vagaries of the plot and it is amusing to note that 2009 production of All’s Well had its actors wear rings with stones the size of golf balls which lit up in different colours.

We know that many Elizabethans kept skulls on their desks as a memento mori, in an age where violent death and epidemics of disease were a fact of life. Some critics believe Hamlet to be the first play in which a skull is used as a prop. The gravedigger’s scene allows both Hamlet and the audience to contemplate mortality, at first objectively, and then subjectively when the skull of Yorick is identified.

Severed heads and limbs, blood and gore, the plucking out of eyes and tongue….. There was a long way to go before Kensington Gore, the generic term for stage blood, achieved a convincing colour and viscosity in our own era. Shakespeare had to be satisfied with a bladder of pig’s blood to achieve his shock effects.


So much for a bare stage and the notion that plays were only to be heard. Shakespearean productions were fairly crowded with props – 572 at the last count. The images are embedded in our culture: the politics, skulduggery and drama surrounding coronets and crowns, Antigonus pursued by a bear, Desdemona’s handkerchief, swords, spears and foils, digging tools, paper as letters or maps, Ophelia’s herbs and Titania’s bower. Add to these, the music of trumpets, drums, viols and citterns and, occasionally, even the reek of cordite as Jupiter in The Tempest descended, astride an eagle, throwing thunderbolts. I call that a complete theatre experience.

Bettina Harris, Library Support Assistant


Where Are We Now: celebrating alumni of the Shakespeare Institute

by Sara Marie Westh, PhD student and Library Assistant

As a long-time student at the Shakespeare Institute – it is over six years now, altogether, can you believe it, time flies, doesn’t it just? – it is almost scarily easy to forget that there is a world beyond our wee bastion.

Friends go off to Warwick, to Leeds, to Newcastle, to London. They scatter themselves across England, the UK, the world, posting photos of sunshine and snow on Facebook, along with comments about food and homesickness. And sitting in Stratford-upon-Avon, all the places seem eerily alike. All of them are far away.

When friends leave the Institute, they go to the Great World Beyond, where rare, magical creatures such as Career and Funding roam the lush plains, and where the frontier is the horizon, not the train station. And this month we at the Institute Library use our exhibition to celebrate those intrepid explorers who boldly went beyond the edge of town, and filled my feed and our exhibition with far-away dreams.

There is Professor Christian van Nieuwerburgh, an erstwhile member of the exclusive club of UOB students who have also borne the honour of working for the Institute Library. Discovering an interest in professional development and the role of coaching in education, he joined the University of East London in 2009, where he was made a Professor of Coaching and Positive Psychology, having taught positive psychology in Cambridge and in Paris.

His publications have seen immense popularity in the field, with his Introduction to Coaching Skills: A Practical Guide running into its second edition last year, and Coaching in Islamic Culture, co-written with Raja’a Allaho breaking new ground. Unfortunately, this bold scholar will look toward the farther world in the new year, for, as he writes: “Given some of the political uncertainty surrounding the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, I will be leaving University of East London in November and will be focusing more time and attention to my international work in Australia, the Middle East and the US”.

Christian J. van Nieuwerburgh_1Reflecting on his time at the Institute, Professor van Nieuwerburgh remarks “I’m very appreciative of my time at the Shakespeare Institute, the friendship of fellow students and the expert guidance and supervision of the academic team, particularly Dr Martin Wiggins. Studying Elizabethan and Jacobean drama with some of the world’s experts has had an enormous impact on my personal and professional life. I’ve maintained my interest and curiosity about what motivates human beings. Without my time at the Shakespeare Institute, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now. It was a challenging and life-shaping time”.

A no less intrepid scholar is Dr José A. Pérez Díez, who likewise did service to this Library in concert with his studies. To Dr Pérez, England was “a country towards which I had always felt a huge emotional attachment”. On impulse, he joined the Shakespeare Institute Players, and was cast in the eponymous role of Othello, beginning his illustrious career on our stage. Dr Peréz received an offer to read for his PhD in 2010, “under the wise supervision of Dr Martin Wiggins”.

Carrying the old SI standard at Shakespeare's Birthday Parade in 2011Dr Pérez’ fondly recalls his six years at the Institute: “During those years I made lifelong friendships with people from all around the globe—from Japan to California, from Denmark to Australia—and finally got to marry the love of my life, Irma. I worked weekends and evenings as a library support assistant in the astonishing SI Library—the best Renaissance-focused research library in Europe—and taught in the Birthplace and on main campus for years. I also founded, with Will Sharpe, the Lizz Ketterer Trust in memory of a much-missed alumna, Dr Elizabeth Ann Ketterer, as well as the theatre company Ketterer’s Men, the Players’ unofficial ‘sister’. Towards the end of the PhD, while I was frantically writing up my critical edition of Fletcher and Massinger’s Love’s Cure (soon to be published in the Revels Plays), Irma gave birth to our firstborn, David, a Warwickshire lad begot some three hundred yards away from the Birthplace itself”.

Dr Pérez viva enabled him “to take up, literally within weeks, a five-year research fellowship at the University of Leeds”. Looking back, “nine years, four houses, two Birmingham graduations, multiple jobs, some twenty theatre productions, a wedding, and two children later (Daniel was born in 2018),” he still considers the Institute his home, “And not a single day goes by without my missing the seminars, the playreadings, the Library, the theatre-making, the laughter, the building, and, above all, the wonderful people that inhabit it”.

The gallant Dr Lise Olsen likewise holds her time at the Institute close to her heart, she “relishes the time spent at the Institute and often calls upon it in her work.” Currently, Dr Olsen is the Course Director of MA in Acting at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. An American ex-pat, she has been working professionally in the UK for over 25 years, and spent a year in the PhD programme at the Institute, researching “20th Century Vocal performance of Shakespeare, beginning with the actor Henry Ainlie (early 1900’s)”

Lise Olson 52018Dr Olsen is an acknowledged international specialist in the areas of Vocal Violence and Acting Through Song, and has given perennially popular musical theatre workshops at International Stephen Sondheim conferences, and Song Stage and Screen conferences. She has also received a number of directing awards in both the US and UK, and was a founding director of Seattle’s first small specialist musical theatre company.

Dr Olsen presented at ‘Women in Parliament’ in celebration of the Representation of People Act earlier this year, and her upcoming chapter ‘VOX FEMINA PUBLICA’ in Amending Speech: Women’s Voices in Parliament, 1918-2018, due to be published later this year, is eagerly anticipated. She is currently directing the Croatian family drama 3 Winters, which will opened at the Old Rep Theatre on October 10th.

Dr Susan Kay-Williams, Chief Executive Royal School of Needlework, and equally fearless of the Stratford frontier, was first put on the track to Shakespeare studies by her MA tutor at University College Cardiff. Wanting to explore less thoroughly mapped areas of the works, and inspired by the mid-1970’s production of the Henry VI plays in Stratford, she settled on their stage history.

During Dr Kay-Williams’ time at the Institute it was located in Birmingham, “with research students in the attic rooms”, but she undertook a significant part of her research in Stratford, enduring the traditional pilgrimage that is getting here. She embarked on postdoctoral studies in charity fundraising and marketing, first at United World Colleges, and subsequently at the British Lung Foundation. Finishing her PhD, Dr Kay-Williams was made a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, and CE of the Henry Doubleday Research Association.

Image of Dr Susan Kay-WilliamsHarbouring a long-standing interest in textiles, she then joined Royal School of Needlework, and has been with them for the past 11 years. There, “We have worked on the wedding dress of the Duchess of Cambridge, a dress for the Oscars for Naomi Harris, Millennium Vestments for Buckfast Abbey, pop art nudes for Philip Colbert and above all taught many people how to create wonderful pieces of art or embellishment for clothes or costumes and ensured we keep the art of hand embroidery alive. We have also taught our first ever summer School in the US, introduced Stitch A Selfie, a project for schools Today the RSN is a £2m+ charity with endowment funds in the bank.”

Dr Cathleen McKague, the final scholastic explorer extraordinaire of this blog, finished her PhD in 2014, supervised by Prof Ewan Fernie, exploring competing representations of androgyny in Renaissance literature.

Dr McKague took an active part in student life during her Institute time, taking part in seven productions with the Players, both on and behind stage. She was a frequent patron of the Thursday night play-readings, and was yet another magnificent soul who worked for the Institute Library.

BritGrad 2013 2Dr McKague was hired as an Adjunct Assistant Professor with the Department of English Language and Literature at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario after her graduation, and offered a Bader Postdoctoral Fellowship in 2016. This allowed her to research a play-text that she had discovered, owned by Canadian playwright, novelist, scholar, and director Robertson Davies. Following this exciting time, she became Visiting Scholar at Queen’s, and Eisenbichler Research Fellow for the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies at Victoria University, University of Toronto.

Continuing to stand at the forefront of her field, Dr McKague’s recent publications include ‘Twelfth Night’s “poor monster”: Viola/Cesario as Holy Grotesque’, a chapter in Michael Heyes’s Holy Monsters, Sacred Grotesques: Monstrosity and Religion in Europe and the United States (2018); and the forthcoming ‘“Pedant Needs More Paunch”: Reviving Robertson Davies’s Annotations from his Performance Copy of The Taming of the Shrew’, with Theatre Research in Canada / Recherches Théâtrales au Canada (2018).

During their peregrinations through far-flung academic disciplines in the Great World Beyond, hunting illusive creatures of time, space, fabric, and text, our alumni turn their falcon gaze to the little, little town that holds the Institute. Somewhere along the way the Institute remains with them, even hidden all the way out here in Stratford upon Avon, at the mercy of Chiltern Railways and London Midlands. Somewhere out there, our alumni show us how to dream beyond borders.

The Where We Are Now exhibition is on now at the Shakespeare Institute Library. Do come.

Sons and Brothers Immortalised in Glass: Sir Frank Benson and the boys of King Edward’s School


Frank Benson (photo courtesy of V&A Theatre Collections)

Francis Robert Benson, an actor-manager famous for his patriotism and love of cricket ran the annual Shakespeare festivals in Stratford-upon-Avon. In 1913, he invited Stratford’s King Edward VI School to present a production of Henry V in the Memorial Theatre as part of that year’s festival. The production was a triumph. The Stratford Herald described it as “a blaze of colour, with variegated pennons and flashing swords and shields.” One year later twenty-five of the cast enlisted in the armed forces. The following young men never returned: Victor Hyatt, Albert Whateley, Henry and Herbert Jennings.


kes window

The Jennings’ parents commissioned Benjamin J. Warren to create a memorial window featuring Henry V at prayer before Agincourt in honour of their sons and the other students killed.




1913 KES H5 prod photo 06

Boys awaiting action in Henry V (photo courtesy of KES Archive)


I have supp’d full with horrors… Shakespeare’s Serial Killer


Michael Fassbender as Macbeth in Justin Kurzel’s 2015 film

Evil in Macbeth, finds expression in the need to suppress natural feelings. Murder comes at a cost. Night brings with it dark spirits, blasphemous acts, nightmares and madness. Day becomes night and sleep is murdered. Lady Macbeth’s witchcraft gives bloody birth to a new devil, her own husband, whose sacrilegious act in killing the king has opened hell on earth. Macbeth isolates himself in order to save his wife from ‘unseen horrors’ but neither can escape the inescapable consequence of damnation. Hence we have Macbeth’s tragedy, he knows that they path he has taken is the wrong one, they are destroyed by inescapable guilt.

Polanski’s Macbeth is much grimmer and nihilistic than Shakespeare’s original. Directed by a man who suffered at the hands of the Nazi’s as a Jewish child in occupied Poland and only a year after the murder of his wife by the ‘family’ of real life serial killer Charles Manson, ‘Polanski’s Macbeth’ (as it was billed and is often referred to) takes place in a godless world and at the end Macbeth is dead but evil triumphant. Evil to Polanski was not the idea of Satan and the supernatural but the reality of what lies within, ‘it’s in the week and impressionable human heart and soul.’

He cast two beautiful, young actors in the lead roles, and cut the play around their ambitions for power. When criticised for his choice in casting, Polanski and Kenneth Tynan (scriptwriter) explained their deliberate choice of young actors rather than a middle-aged couple whose ambitions would be short-lived. The young Macbeth’s have less to lose and everything to gain:

Tynan:  The point about the Macbeths is that they do not know they are in a tragedy. They think they are in a story that is going to have a triumphantly happy ending. When the witches prophesy that Macbeth will be king, he is filled with exhilaration, like a man who has come into an unexpected fortune. That is the dream. Rushing to fulfil it, the Macbeths encounter the reality of their own natures, which hitherto neither of them knew; and that is the tragedy…

013mcbpstr_465_640_intHis attention to making the film look ‘real’ extended beyond historical accuracy and the casting of John Finch and Francesca Annis highlighted a move away from traditional Gothic representations of villains giving the film a contemporary feel in tune with the film horror genre but also with the perpetration of real-life horrors. He said ‘people who do ghastly things in life, they are not grim, like a horror movie.’ (Polanski)

When we compare the characters of Shakespeare’s Macbeth with another murdering villain, Richard III, the difference is clear – Richard enjoys the game, he has no moral dilemma, no ambiguity, no empathy; even when destroying his close family he invites the audience to revel in his nastiness. He attempts to protect no one but himself – he would annihilate everyone if he could.

In the last fifty years Richard III in performance has come to symbolise evils particularly relevant to our times. When performed as part of the history cycle involving the three parts of Henry VI, the play and the character’s significance become part of a wider examination of socio-political concerns. When performed in isolation, the character of Richard becomes dominant, and the play usually delves into psychological territory encompassing modern beliefs on the nature of evil in man.

s-l300If there is anything close to what we now consider a ‘serial killer’ in Shakespeare it is Richard, and Shakespeare’s dramatic treatment of Richard, can be seen in many modern extreme horror films. In Man Bites Dog (Belgium, 1992) dir. Rémy Belvaux and The Last Horror Movie (UK, 2003) dir. Julian Richards, the serial killer, like Richard, talks to the audience directly about his actions, plots and feelings (or lack of them) about what he does, often comically. These films, including others such as Funny Games by Michael Haneke (Austria, 1997) act as an indictment against media violence and the viewers’ ability to watch violent acts without appropriate emotion. Ultimately, they shock the audience back into a sense of their own humanity through fear. As with Richard III there is a breaking point between the audience and the protagonist where laughter dies and creeping horror takes hold, not least because of their earlier complicity through humour.

In order to make the psychology behind his Richard something recognisable, Henry Goodman (2003) found a parallel for Richard’s deranged mind with modern fictional serial killers, such as Hannibal Lector. Similarly, actor Antony Sher also described how he looked at the behaviour of recent real-life serial killers in order to get a handle on Richard’s completely amoral behaviour:

Despite his appetite for perversity … Richard’s tendencies to normalcy are almost more disturbing. In fact, this is the hallmark of the psychopath, as Sher discovered watching the Nilsen murder case. S P Ceransano, Shakespeare Quarterly, vol.36, no.5, 1985 (Dennis Andrew Nilsen was a British serial killer who lived in London. During a murderous spree which started in 1978 and lasted five years, he killed approximately fifteen men in his home and disposed of the bodies in his garden, attic and other rooms about his house).

In 1974 Barry Kyle’s production at The Other Place studio theatre took place in ‘an asylum with all the characters dressed in costumes vaguely reminiscent of concentration camps.’ Ian Richardson, who played Richard, was fascinated by what he called:

… the schizophrenia … in the very last soliloquy, the nightmare one where he seems to be two people talking to each other. The one is some horrid, monstrous spectre, the other what is left of the good soul of Richard, if anything is left at all. Any examination of that soliloquy will show that Richard’s mind has completely gone, in much the same way as some of the monsters of our own lifetime – Stalin, Hitler, Ida Amin all spring to mind. This is total schizophrenia born out of megalomania.

The extraordinary stream-of-consciousness speech by Richard is fairly unique in drama of the period, but is it psychological or supernatural? In Jasper Britton’s script for his performance as Richard III for Regent’s Park he noted a more metaphysical aspect to this soliloquy, ‘This is Richard’s ghost haunting himself.’ Having been cursed by the ghosts of those he murdered Richard is then visited by his own spectre. There is a divinity in the death of Richard and the ghostly procession which precedes Richard’s soliloquy is topped by self-damnation from a future ghost who may have learned some humility in hell.


Jasper Britton’s script, ‘Richard III’, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, held at the Shakespeare Institute Library

In the 1973 an extraordinary and wonderfully blackly comic-horror film about a serial killer was made. The opening titles were backed by footage from silent film adaptations of Shakespeare’s works with the likes of Forbes Robertson, Emil Jannings, and John Martin Harvey, intercut with Nicholas Hilliard’s famous Elizabethan miniature Young Man Among Roses. A beautiful melancholy score by Michael J Lewis emphasises the love of something lost, the excitement and the emotion of the action it accompanies; it places the audience’s sympathies with the drama of Shakespeare.

Therefore, when he appears, the audience’s sympathies fall with the old-time actor, who returns from the dead, to revenge himself on the critics who gave him frightful reviews for his renditions of Shakespeare. Towards the end of the film Lionheart explains his motive for dispatching this pretty despicable bunch:

Edward Lionheart: How many actors have you destroyed as you destroyed me? How many talented lives have you cut down with your glib attacks? What do you know of the blood, sweat and toil of a theatrical production? Of the dedication of the men and the women in the noblest profession of them all? How could you know you talentless fools who spew vitriol on the creative efforts of others because you lack the ability to create yourselves! No Devlin, no! I did not kill Larding and the others. PUNISHED them my dear boy, punished them. Just as you shall have to be punished.

Peregrine Devlin: Well get it over with then, just so you don’t have to make me listen to that demented rubbish of yours. Go on, kill me then!

Using the gruesome methods of murder taken from Shakespeare’s works, Edward Lionheart, played with such relish by Vincent Price, bumps off his enemies in wonderful updated adaptations of Julius Caesar, Cymbeline, Troilus and Cressida, Titus Andronicus (substitute poodles for sons), and I Henry IV; thus proving his critics wrong in their assumption that his methods were outdated. After receiving the heart of theatre critic Trevor Dickman in a box, Devlin, his fellow critic, confirms the identity of the serial killer from the fact that he’s messed about with The Merchant of Venice: “It’s him all right. Only Lionheart would have the temerity to rewrite Shakespeare!”

Theatre of Blood is a brilliant work which as Peter Hutchinson points out in Gothic Shakespeares:

… clearly looks forward to the serial killer dramas that would become popular from the 1990s onwards. The idea of the serial killer as a kind of artist whose killings have an overall pattern and which exhibit a distinctive ‘signature’ – Se7en (1995), Copycat (1995). (Drakakis, p.162)

The theatricality of murder is explored in Shakespeare’s plays and the horror influenced by it. One of the key elements of the successful serial killer is being a good actor, showing one face to the world whilst being something completely different underneath. As Lady Macbeth instructs her husband one must ‘look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it.’ Richard III in his opening soliloquy sets out his theatrical stall – the part he is born to play.


Henry Goodman as Richard III, RSC, 2003

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determinèd to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

All his actions subsequently are acts, performances in which he pretends to be something he’s not in order to manipulate. He is a killing machine rampaging his way through unsuspecting dupes who think the war is over.

So if you’re stuck for something to watch on Halloween you can always go back to Shakespeare (or Edward Lionheart) and indulge yourself with a bit of Shakespearean psycho and explore the limits and complexities of sanity and madness, reality and performance. The Greek word ‘persona’ means mask and stories of serial killers, an extreme example of mask-wearing, can throw light on the other ways in which people ‘act’ in order to validate or justify their behaviour. The question is not if we wear a mask but which mask we choose to wear. As W. H. Auden once wrote:

Only animals who are below civilization and the angels who are beyond it can be sincere. Human beings are, necessarily, actors who cannot become something before they have first pretended to be it; and they can be divided, not into the hypocritical and the sincere, but into the sane who know they are acting and the mad who do not.

Karin Brown, Shakespeare Institute Librarian


Gothic Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis & Gale Townshend (London, Routledge: 2008)

Judith Cook, Shakespeare’s Players, 1983 (London: Harrap, 1983)

Owens, Rebekah, Macbeth, Devil’s Advocates series (Leighton Buzzard: Auteur Publishing, 2017)

Polanski, Roman. Roman (London: Heinemann, 1984)

Shakespeare Quarterly (Washington, D.C.: Folger Shakespeare Library) vol.36, no.5, 1985

Shakespeare, William, Richard III, ed. Jonathan Bate & Eric Rasmussen (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2008)


Shakespeare as Giant Tomato: the ‘Lost Years’


bill_3143715kThe scene: an unlikely-looking Stratford-upon-Avon. At the Swan Inn, the itinerant boy-band Mortal Coil is performing a gig – and trialling Bill, an out-of-work local. Despite playing an energetic riff on the lute, Bill is rejected and Mortal Coil – (erm) -shuffle off. This is one of the series of dreadful jokes and puns in the Horrible Histories Team’s mock-biopic Bill, which offers its own comic account of Shakespeare’s ‘lost’ years.

Apart from a brief mention of a legal case, we know nothing of Shakespeare’s life between 1585, when the birth of his twins was recorded in Stratford, and 1592 when the London dramatist Robert Greene apparently identified him as a pushy newcomer in London’s theatre-land.

What was Shakespeare doing in those so-called lost years? In Bill, our hero has already written a play and leaves Stratford seeking literary success in London. A serendipitous meeting with a gloomy dude called Chris Marlowe sees the pair answer an ad. for ‘Players’ and,  costumed as a tomato and a courgette,  they hand out ‘Get your 2-a- day’ veg-promoting leaflets. ‘Not a very meaty part’ murmurs Chris.


But Bill aside, how did a man from a small rural town, without a university degree, re-invent himself as a successful dramatist and actor-manager in London? Something must have led him, or driven him, to leave his home and family. There is an attraction in that traditional fairy-tale space of seven years, and all manner of story and myth, fantasy and speculation, as well as a great deal of scholarly theorising and investigation, has been poured into it.  In any event, in the absence of reliable biographical material, we know little about Shakespeare’s life as a whole, much less about the years 1585-1592. Most of what is written about him cannot be verified from primary sources, and there are so many gaps in the historical record that attempts at his life-story depend on speculation, and are mostly fiction.

There was very little interest in the actual life of Shakespeare through the 17th and 18th centuries, but an early tale alleged that he poached deer and rabbits on the estate of Sir Thomas Lucy at Charlecote near Stratford. When Nicholas Rowe edited the plays in 1709, he too mentioned the deer poaching story. Young Will had ‘fallen into ill company’ and ‘made a frequent practice of Deer-stealing…’  Having been prosecuted and even ‘whipp’d’ by Lucy, Will fled to London.


A later anecdote speaks of Shakespeare’s first theatre job, when, ‘Driven to the last necessity [he] went to the playhouse door, and pick’d up a little money by taking care of the gentlemens horses who came to the play.’ In 1765, Samuel Johnson embellishes the story: Shakespeare did such a good job that he found himself with ‘more horses than he could hold.’ He was then obliged to hire others to work for him and finally rose from equine parking lot attendant to Complete Theatre Man. All of this makes a good story; none of it can be verified.

In the late 1600s John Aubrey’s Brief Lives claimed that Shakespeare was a schoolmaster for part of the ‘lost’ years.The idea gained in popularity after the publication of E.A.J. Honigmann’s book in 1985 which theorised that Shakespeare acted as a tutor in the household of the wealthy Lancashire landowner, Alexander Hoghton. In his will Hoghton named a ‘William Shakeshafte, now dwelling with me.’ There is also mention of costumes and musical instruments. But the will does not imply that Shakeshafte was a teacher or a musician or a player. And even given that spellings and forms of names were fluid in the period, Shakeshafte is not Shakespeare, and the name, Shakeshafte, which was very common in Lancashire, was virtually unknown in Warwickshire. Most critics remain sceptical.

newsclipping jonsonIt is possible though, that Shakespeare might have been employed somewhere as an assistant teacher. When Ben Jonson famously records that though Shakespeare had ‘but little Latin and less Greek… he understood Latin pretty well, for he had been in his younger years a schoolmaster in the country’, his information came from the son of an actor in Shakespeare’s Company. Though indirect and second-hand, it may be reliable.

Another theory was offered by William Bliss in his 1940 Counterblast to Commentators. Bliss proposes that young Will, disinclined to help in his father’s butchering business, ran away at the age of 13. Where did he run to? Why, to sea of course. As evidence, we are urged to look at the number of shipwrecks in the plays. Shakespeare himself must have been in one, says Bliss. The young seaman is next taken aboard The Golden Hind and goes with Sir Francis Drake on his round-the-world voyage; the mention of ‘remainder biscuits’ in Twelfth Night (the sort that were carried on very long voyages in the 16th century) being enough to convince Bliss. Then he is off again, is shipwrecked on the coast of Illyria (the setting for Twelfth Night) and ends up in Venice where he meets and falls in love with the Earl of Southampton. Needless to say, these ideas have convinced no-one.

A little more sensible is a book by Prof A.F. Falconer: the plays display such a comprehensive knowledge of ships, of navigation, of nautical and naval terms, that, like Bliss, Falconer concludes that Shakespeare had gone to sea on at least one occasion. He even offers a glossary of maritime and naval terms compiled from the poet’s many references. We guess Shakespeare’s mind to have been highly inquisitive and retentive. He could have gathered all this information by reading, or by chatting to sailors in drinking places along the Thames.  But Falconer still claims that Shakespeare’s understanding of seamanship is that of a hands-on professional. He may have a point.

A soldier then? Does the amount of military knowledge in the plays suggest that Shakespeare was conscripted for Elizabeth I’s wars in the Low Countries? The idea was expanded in Duff Cooper’s Sergeant Shakespeare (1949). Evidently Sir Philip Sidney, the gentleman-soldier-poet involved in the war, had entrusted a letter home to one ‘Will, my Lord of Leicester’s player.’ Without any other evidence, Cooper imagines this ‘Will’ to be Shakespeare, but his idea is generally regarded as being as duff as his forename.

Other dubious theories continue to pop up. In 1952 a scholar living in Verona  discovered documents which suggested that Shakespeare, in company with the Earl of Southampton, travelled as a secret agent to Italy. Their mission was to raise a loan for Queen Elizabeth and they were described as ‘Noble and learned cavaliers’ with the initials H.S and W.S.  A likely story.

cervantesAnother source claimed that Shakespeare spent the lost years working for the English Embassy in Spain. Who should he meet there but Miguel Cervantes himself! Allegedly the two discussed their work and advised each other on writing styles. No proof is offered unless both dying on the same day – 23 April 1616 – was a last minute token of solidarity.

Jobbing gardener, the inmate of a lunatic asylum, a printer, a tailor, the proprietor of a zoo, the owner of a kennels, a dancing teacher or a games master – any of these has been suggested as Shakespeare’s occupation during those missing years. One can virtually go through the whole gamut of trades and find ‘evidence’ in the texts. But though a wealth of different terminology finds its way into Shakespeare’s language, it does not imply that he was a member of any particular trade.

Two theories in particular seem feasible. One concerns the acting troupe The Queen’s Men who visited several Midlands towns in 1687. On June 13, an argument broke out which ended in the fatal stabbing of one of the players. Stratford was on their itinerary and it is possible that they arrived there lacking one man. Before they left the town, had they enlisted Shakespeare, then aged twenty-three as their latest recruit?

The other concerns the research done by David Fallow, a former financier, who has made an in-depth-study of the Shakespeare family’s finances. Surviving records suggest that Shakespeare’s father, John, was a national-level wool trader who was making large profits, some of them via shady deals. It was the wool, argues Fallow, not the theatre that prompted William to leave Stratford for London where he could act as the family’s business representative. The theatre could never have brought him a fortune but he was able to afford shares in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men – the company for which he wrote and acted – with his income from wool. There are records too of large purchases of land by William in the Stratford area, to say nothing of the acquisition of New Place, the second finest house in town, presumably financed from the same source.

I turn in conclusion, to the excellent Newcuttings Collection at The Shakespeare Institute Library, for an eminently sensible letter from a Mr. Harley Smith in March 1965. Mr Smith writes:

     ‘may I ask an expert to answer…a query about Shakespeare’s “missing years?” … Amid all the most detailed researches into what Shakespeare did during those years…why has no investigator apparently ever even given a passing thought to the fact that he could have been writing? … This answers the other “mysteries”. When and why did he come to London? He came when he was ready to market his work, as many another has come to London from the provinces….. How was he able to appear in London as a fully fledged dramatist more than holding his own with Marlowe and the other “University men?”  Because he came with a bagful of plays already written, partly completed, or outlined.’


I rest my case.

Bettina Harris, Library Assistant (and to her colleagues, Queen of Glue)

Shakespeare Institute Players: 65 years and counting…

display case floor

Driven by the desire to enrich their understanding of plays from the Renaissance period through innovation, exploration and creative play, the Shakespeare Institute Players have enriched the extra-curricular learning at the Institute for over 65 years. The company is comprised of students from the SI’s post-graduate community, often assisted by local University of Birmingham alumni who share their talents and experience. Together the company make costumes, learn lines, write music, and by doing so deepen their understanding of Renaissance drama whilst developing theatre skills and having fun. Library Assistant and former Player, Hannah Perrin who co-curated the exhibition with Sara Marie Westh tells us more about why the company has a special and an enduring part inthe SI experience…


As I see it, there are three types of production:

Type 1: the productions that have been so successful and so much fun to take part in that closing night is a heart-wrenching experience and the cast actually feel at a loss the next day when there is no performance and don’t know what to do with the evenings that used to be taken up by rehearsal. These are the productions that still get talked about between the cast, even years later. They’re also the ones that alumni will gabble on endlessly about to new MAs, when tasked with the job of promoting the Players.

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A Yorkshire Tragedy, performed February, 1953

Type 2: the productions that had entertaining rehearsals and a moderately successful run. The cast thoroughly enjoyed the process and while closing night does come with an element of sorrow, it also comes with a teeny-tiny sense of satisfied relief. The production has been done, and done well but it has run its course and been put to bed in the archives where it belongs. It gets mentioned now and again, almost as an afterthought to a Type 1 production, but is always spoken of with a fond sense of pride.

Type 3: the productions (thankfully a rare phenomenon here) that start with a worryingly large number of alarm bells, then things steadily get worse and worse and more and more stressful until eventually everyone is on edge and no one is talking to anyone except on stage when they have to. The period leading up to opening night seems to get longer and longer until finally it arrives and the countdown to closing night begins. And unlike the other two production types, closing night comes with a monumental (and collective) sigh of relief. Type 3 productions only ever get mentioned when the speaker is in a bad mood and wants to vent about something, anything, to the nearest available person.

But it is all three types of productions that make the Players what they are and why they’ve been going so successfully for 65 years. If the productions were always Type 1 or Type 2, audiences would quickly get bored, followed just as quickly, I suspect, by the Players themselves.

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The SI Hall where so many Players productions have been performed.

Because, let’s face it: while it may be true that Type 3 productions are best left to gather dust in the Library archives – they are the most fun to talk about! After all, who doesn’t love a good rant and rave, especially in a group when you can all share in the anger?

If you would like to know more about the Shakespeare Institute Players (or its sister company, Ketterer’s Men) then come along to the Library for this month’s exhibition: 65 Years and Counting, which runs until the end of October. For us nostalgic alumni it’s a chance to look back at the memories – good and bad! For all the new MAs joining us, it could be the start of your own journey with the Players – or, if nothing else, a chance to giggle at photos of alumni in various funny costumes!

Either way – pop in and see for yourself!


Hannah Perrin, Library Assistant

The Art of Lady Macbeth: the actress as muse

The works of Shakespeare have inspired great art as have some of the powerful performance and personalities associated with his work. The Art of Lady Macbeth exhibition currently on at the Shakespeare Institute Library focuses on four actresses whose performances as the dark Lady M inspired artists to immortalise them in paint: Mrs Pritchard, Sarah Siddons, Sarah Bernhardt and Ellen Terry.

Mrs Pritchard

Many thought that the pairing of Garrick and Pritchard as the Macbeths was unequalled. The excellence of their performances was the subject of immediate acclaim. In the opinion of actor Thomas Davies, stated, the ‘merits of both were transcendent’.

Zoffany.MacbethJohan Zoffany painted an image of the damned couple in a marvellous Gothic setting. The tall, statuesque figure of Hannah Pritchard—particularly in contrast to the smaller, slighter Garrick—holds the dagger in one hand while pointing towards Duncan’s chamber with the other, capturing something of the physical power of her performance.

Fuseli was the most Gothic of Shakespeare’s painters and was drawn to Macbeth as a subject for obvious reasons. He was introduced to Shakespeare’s plays during his student days in Zürich with the Swiss scholar Jacob Bodmer and while in Switzerland he translated Macbeth into German. In 1766 he attended the production of the play with Garrick and Mrs Pritchard in the lead roles. Inspired by the assassination scene, he made a drawing, ‘I have done the deed’ (c.1766) in which Macbeth points the daggers towards his wife as if terrified by her as well as his own actions.


Similar in composition is Fuseli’s Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers (1812), but far less realistic in approach. Pritchard and Siddons were so iconic in their performances that there is some debate as to whether Fuseli was inspired by one, or both of their performances for this particular painting. It’s clearly not a portrait of either actress but captures the metaphysical terror of the scene through Macbeth’s expression, prominent bloody daggers and Lady Macbeth breaking into a pitch-black room as if loosed from hell.

Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers ?exhibited 1812 by Henry Fuseli 1741-1825

Sarah Siddons

Mrs Siddons is known as one of the greatest actresses of all time and first played Lady Macbeth on 2 February, 1785 at Drury Lane. It quickly became one of her most celebrated parts. In The Oxford Illustrated History of Shakespeare on Stage, Jonathan Bate described how Siddons’s:

…most memorable moments were the terrifying, not the tender ones… This Lady Macbeth elicits the language of the Gothic: ‘It was something above nature… Power was seated on her brow, passion emanated from her breast… She glided on and off the stage like an apparition.’

Füssli Lady Macbeth sleepwalkingThe startling effect may be glimpsed in Henry Fuseli’s wide-eyed painting of the sleep-walking scene.

In this wonderful passage, the actress herself eloquently described the terror which the play elicited in herself whilst memorising her lines:

I went on with tolerable composure, in the silence of the night (a night I never can forget), till I came to the assassination scene, when the horrors of the scene rose to a degree that made it impossible for me to get farther. I snatched up my candle, and hurried out of the room, in a paroxysm of terror. My dress was of silk, and the rustling of it, as I ascended the stairs to go to bed, seemed to my panic-struck fancy like the movement of a spectre pursuing me. At last I reached my chamber, where I found my husband fast asleep. I clapped my candlestick down upon the table, without the power of putting the candle out; and I threw myself on my bed, without daring to stay even to take me clothes off.

Siddons obviously transmitted something of this terror to the audiences who watched her, inspiring art which still ranks amongst some of the most startling and disturbing images of this character.

Sarah Bernhardt

The great French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt played the coveted role of Lady Macbeth in 1884. One of the first truly international stars, she had a huge following in Britain and America as well as her native France, and was the inspiration for many artists and playwrights. Even her stage failures were immortalised—and Macbeth was one of them. We see a completely different, softer and more sensual image of Lady Macbeth in this portrait by Franz von Lenbach (1892).

Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt, as Lady Macbeth, 1892 (oil on board)

Her portrayal of Lady Macbeth was different from previous versions. Bernhardt brought a dominant, femme fatale quality to the character, and she designed costumes that would hug her body, showing off her shape and enhancing her seductiveness.

It might have been that the public weren’t ready for Bernhardt’s performance or the translation of the text by her lover Jean Richepin. It was a modern take on the play which Berhardt’s biographer Ernest Pronier described as ‘very literary, unafraid of plain, coarse language, extremely vivid, and very close to the original,’ qualities which were not necessarily appreciated by the French public. When it first opened in Paris in June1884 it closed within a month.

Virtually the only person who praised it was Oscar Wilde who was on honeymoon in Paris when he saw the production. He thought Macbeth Sarah’s finest creation – Sarah’s, because ‘Shakespeare is only one of the parties. The second is the artiste through whose mind it passes…There is no one like Sarah Bernhardt’.

The failure of her Macbeth made Bernhardt ill and she spent the summer brooding at Sainte-Adresse. Richepin disappeared which made matters worse. In order to encourage communication she insisted that Richepin’s version was revived at the Porte Saint-Martin Theatre. It closed within two weeks; the production, like their relationship, doomed to fail.

Ellen Terry

Ellen Terry starred as Lady Macbeth in Sir Henry Irving’s production which opened at the Lyceum, Theatre London on 29 December 1888, and ran for 150 nights closing on 29 June 1889. Sargent was at the first night and according to his biographer Charles Merrill Mount was impressed, uttering ‘I say!’ as Ellen Terry made her entrance.

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth 1889 by John Singer Sargent 1856-1925Her spectacular gown, designed by Alice Comyns Carr, was crocheted  using a soft green wool and blue tinsel yarn from Bohemia to create an effect similar to chain mail. It was embroidered with gold and decorated with 1,000 iridescent wings from the green jewel beetle. On seeing her costume Oscar Wilde quipped: “Lady Macbeth seems to be an economical housekeeper and evidently patronises local industries for her husband’s clothes and servant’s liveries, but she takes care to do all her own shopping in Byzantium.” The restored costume can be viewed at Smallhythe, Terry’s early 16th century house.

Sittings for the portrait began soon after despite her reluctance to be painted in the role until the success of the production was assured. Sargent painted Lady Macbeth about to put the crown of Duncan on her head. The scene depicted in not in the play, and there is no evidence in the prompt books to indicate that it was in Irving’s production. Nevertheless, the image of Lady Macbeth became one of the most iconic of the character and has been much copied.


The exhibition ends on the 9th of September so there are still a couple of weeks to come along and see these and many more images of the fiend-like Queen. Of course, the Shakespeare Institute Library holds a wealth of information on Shakespeare in art which proves an endlessly fascinating and illuminating subject.

Karin Brown, Shakespeare Institute Librarian

SIL Book of the month: An occasional series ‘Mapping Shakespeare’ by Jeremy Black (Bloomsbury Conway, 2018)

Recently received into the Shakespeare Institute Library, this beautiful book is a must for anyone interested in the world in which Shakespeare lived – and surely that must be all of us?

Illustrated throughout with maps dating from the thirteenth century to Shakespeare’s time, it depicts the world as contemporaries saw it, from maps of the universe, controversially placing the sun at the centre rather than the earth, to a street map of Southwark, showing named buildings such as the bullring, the market place, the pillory and the prison.

This was a time of great changes in the known world – horizons were being widened both literally and metaphorically as travellers and adventurers returned to England with fantastic tales of lands overseas – we remember that Desdemona was enthralled by Othello’s discourse of ‘men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders’. They also brought with them more tangible souvenirs – curiosities and luxury goods never seen before to display or trade. Such discoveries challenged the accepted, Eurocentric view of the world: the Americas were not mentioned by the classical writers of antiquity – there are no avocados in Pliny! And neither are they referred to in the Bible.  What then to make of new peoples who were not descendants of Adam and Eve? New discoveries played havoc with received wisdom, forcing people to rethink their place in the world and in the universe.

The maps themselves are fascinating in their detail, often including pictorial descriptions as well as cartographical information – seas are inhabited by sea monsters as well as ships and faraway lands with strange creatures and even stranger men. There is however, a marked, if not surprising, variation in their accuracy. Some early sixteenth century maps reveal Europe and the African continent as we would recognise them today, although the mapping of countries further afield is inevitably a little more vague – where knowledge was lacking, it would seem that the imagination simply took over! But street maps of Venice or London would be almost as useful now as they were in Shakespeare’s time, showing streets and landmarks that are still standing.

As well as the land and the sea, there were also maps of the skies and the constellations and it is well to remember that at that time, the science of astrology was treated with the same respect as the science of navigation. The stars of course, were used by navigators, but the signs of the zodiac were equally important, because, if we stop to think about it, the geography of the stars was in fact far more immediate to most people than that of distant and unknown continents – they could both see them, and believed that they experienced its influence and control over their everyday lives.

To the student of the early modern world then, this book offers a glorious picture of that world, as it was seen by the people who lived, worked, played and died in it.

But more than this, the book also demonstrates how Shakespeare picks up and works with this new knowledge in his plays. Set in locations as local as Windsor or the Forest of Arden, to towns and cities across Europe such as Verona and Venice, to far away Alexandria in the mysterious East – and whether fact or fantasy – Shakespeare ‘put a girdle round the earth’ and brought this world onto his stage and to his audiences.

Jill Francis, Library Support Assistant

Jeremy Black, Mapping Shakespeare: An exploration of Shakespeare’s world through maps (Bloomsbury Conway, 2018). Available in the Shakespeare Institute Library now. PR3014.

Image from The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, c. 1357

‘Audace, toujours de I’audace’: the Bicentenary of the Old Vic

‘Dare, always dare’ wrote Lilian Baylis, that great stalwart of the Old Vic. Her words must be the most fitting motto for the world-renowned theatre whose Bicentenary falls this month. A special season to celebrate its landmark anniversary includes a new Dickens adaptation, an Ayckbourn play, a new musical dance production, a Birthday street party and Open House, marching bands and various community activities.

Yet the survival of the Old Vic for over two centuries is little short of miraculous: if its spirit is daring, its continued existence has always been precarious in the extreme. It has borne a variety of names – The Royal Coburg Theatre, Royal Victoria Theatre, New Victoria Palace, Royal Victoria Hall and Coffee Tavern. It has been sold and resold, refurbished, gutted and refurbished again. Neglected, bombed and fallen into disrepair, it has even been threatened with demolition. At the outset, it was built on the dubious wasteland of the Lambeth marshes. Managements, transient and money-grubbing, or else comprising those passionately committed figures who have made the Old Vic their life, have come and gone. It has been notorious for drunken, low-life audiences and then, in total contrast, become a temperance hall. It was claimed as the London home of Shakespeare and was the proving ground for many of our greatest actors. The National Theatre had its beginnings there and an adult education college grew up on its premises. And throughout its long history, the Old Vic has lurched through financial hardship and disaster, beset by that traditional curse of all theatres: money, money, money.

old vic1The theatre – The Coburg –was built near to the grand new Waterloo Bridge.  There were immediate difficulties with money, the projected cost of £4,000 becoming £12,000. The Waterloo Bridge Company, aware of the tolls it could collect from large audiences crossing the river, stepped in with funds. At last, in May 1818, the theatre opened offering melodrama and pantomime. The season was a success and the house underwent its first ever re-embellishment, showing off the famous, five tons looking-glass curtain. This comprised sixty-three mirrors in a gilt frame, which reflected the audience, but was so heavy that it damaged the roof and eventually had to be removed.

The Coburg went on to offer spectacular productions: an enormous ship ploughed through Arctic ice, while an Indian piece featured slaves, a real elephant, music and cannon fire. By 1824 a new impresario, George Davidge, had taken over the lease and the first attempts at Shakespeare – of a sort – were put on. As a minor theatre, The Coburg was constrained by ancient royal licences which forbade presentation of Shakespeare or any straight play.  To get round the law, a melodrama of Richard III was presented, which contained various musical interludes and which, to the chagrin of several actors hoping for a juicy part, starred a real horse called ‘White Surrey.’ Davidge pushed his luck further with the Three Caskets – an adapted Merchant of Venice – while Lear became The King and His Three Daughters. But in a bold coup the great and outrageous old vic2Shakespearean actor, Edmund Kean was engaged to play Richard III, Lear and Othello over six nights. Kean’s appearance on June 27th 1831 is legendary, for this was the occasion on which, fancying that Iago had received greater applause than himself, he railed at the audience, calling them ‘a set of ignorant, unmitigated brutes.’  Davidge had to appear before a Commons Select Committee to explain his flouting of the law. He got away with it: Shakespeare was to be preferred to the doggerel of melodrama. But again, money ran out, and the lease was sold.

The new owners redecorated the auditorium, built a new stage and re-named the theatre. But the entertainment at The Royal Victoria became even rougher and more raucous. It became known as the most notorious drinking den in town, where low-life patrons packed in, 3.000 at a time. Both Charles Dickens and Charles Kingsley wrote of audiences teeming with all ‘the beggary and rascality of London…from…neighbouring gin palaces and thieves’ cellars.’  A false alarm in 1858 caused a panicked stampede from the theatre in which people were killed or badly trampled. There had been no outbreak of fire but the incident did nothing to rescue the Victoria’s reputation.

By 1870, the Victoria had become badly in need of repair. Sold to a limited company, it was marked for demolition. A new splendid theatre was to be created. But money again dictated events and the New Victoria Palace was built between the original side-walls and the original roof. But, while still The Palace, the theatre did not thrive and was put up for auction twice more in the 1870s.

A remarkable metamorphosis was at hand when a Company devoted to temperance took out the lease. A music and dancing licence was secured for what now became The Royal old vic3Victoria Hall and Coffee Tavern. A tavern it most certainly was not, for no alcoholic drink was served at the bar for the next fifty years. Under the Company secretary, Emma Cons, variety acts innocent of innuendo, indecency or vulgarity were put on. Their purpose was the moral improvement of the lower orders. Supported by the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, and employing a clergyman as stage-manager who monitored the modestly-proper length of the lady performers’ skirts, the Royal Victoria was praised in the Birmingham Daily Post for its ‘civilisation of the roughs’ and for creating an ‘atmosphere of purity and truth which must cause rejoicing in Heaven.’

And then Lilian Baylis was invited to join the Victoria. She was a niece of Miss Cons and had had a remarkable early life touring South Africa with her parents’ concert party. She was a woman of parts: could sing, play various instruments and had taught dancing and music. She began work at the age of 24 and earned £1 a week, gradually assuming more managerial duties and taking over the lease on the death of her Aunt in 1912.

Miss Baylis’ real love was opera; she had already staged The Bohemian Girl, but one nightold vic4 a male voice spoke to her as she lay in bed. She had quite often had nocturnal dialogues with Jesus but this voice instructed her to produce his plays. It was Shakespeare’s. We know, of course, what great days were to come and how the arrival of the actor-manager Ben Greet was viewed as a further Act of God by Miss Baylis. Under Greet, the Old Vic Shakespeare Company was formed and performed the entire First Folio over the course of seven years. Hamlet was given in its entirety, a stint of five hours, and became an Old Vic tradition. The theatre could now properly be called that after Miss Baylis formally adopted the popular local nickname as its official title.

The Old Vic offered both classical drama and opera at moderate prices which meant that performers’ pay was low. When asked for a rise, Miss Baylis would reply, ‘Sorry, dear, God says no.’ But she had the knack of attracting talented young actors who then had the chance of playing a wide range of great Shakespearean roles. ‘God send me a good actor, and send him cheap’ was another classic Baylis saying. And God evidently obliged with the provision of some of our finest twentieth-century actors: Sybil Thorndike, Edith Evans, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Peggy Ashcroft…..  These were among the greatest years of the Old Vic. When Miss Baylis died in 1937 she had secured Michael Redgrave, Alec Guinness and Laurence Olivier. At least one of them would have a marked effect on the future of theatre in Britain.

The Old Vic was bombed during the Blitz and restored in the 1950s. Again the money gremlins struck and a budget of £30, 636 had risen to £75,000 by the time the works were finished in 1957. By 1961 the idea of a National Theatre situated on the South Bank had been revived, and Olivier was asked to be its Director. But not yet: in the meantime, the new N.T. was to be housed in The Old Vic. Yet another rather unsatisfactory refurbishment took place but it was not until 1976 that the N.T. eventually moved to its new home. ‘It is the chief labour of my life’ said Olivier.

The closing night remembered Lilian Baylis in Tribute to the Lady, with Peggy Ashcroft repeating the Lady’s threat to come back and haunt them all should her work, or the theatre itself, ever be put at risk. The Old Vic changed hands again in 1982 and was restored by the Canadian entrepreneur ’Honest Ed’ Mirvish to the tune of £2.5 million – before being put on the market yet again. Plans to make it a pub, bingo hall or lap-dancing club caused wide outrage and protest. The ghost of Miss Baylis undoubtedly played its part.

The Old Vic Theatre Trust 2000 acquired the building in 1998 and in 2003 Kevin Spacey was appointed Artistic Director. In his time there, Spacey mounted a series of screen projects, played Richard 11 and Richard III and numerous other parts. No other actor-director has received such consistent publicity as he did; the glamour of Hollywood clung to him and informed everything he attempted. ‘He’s done an incredible job’ was one comment when Spacey stepped down, ‘He’s totally revitalised the place.’

The present Artistic Director, Matthew Warchus, has a new vision for the Old Vic. A fuller programme comprises world premieres, revivals, dance, musicals and variety shows which build on the preceding 200 years of creative endeavour. ‘We hope to be a surprising, unpredictable, ground-breaking, rule-breaking, independent beacon of accessible, uplifting and unintimidating art.’ Is his new mission statement.

old vic5

Happy Birthday, Old Vic.

Bettina Harris, Library Support Assistant

Pale Primroses: the Folklore of Shakespeare

The Shakespeare Institute Garden is resplendent with bright Spring flowers and despite the April rain, they persist. Delicate in appearance, they are hardy reminders of the rebirth of sleeping nature.

Shakespeare rarely mentions a plant’s name without wishing to evoke the folkloric or proverbial associations that go with it. The cyclical nature of plant life coincided with the lives of the Elizabethan people in their calendar festivals. It is not surprising then that a living connection between plant and human life was established in many aspects of plant lore.

With regards to Spring flowers, behind the bright a beautiful colours lies many a dark piece of folklore. A contemporary of Shakespeare’s, Sir Thomas Overbury, describing the ‘Fair and Happy Milkmaid’ observed:

Thus lives she, and all her care is that she may die in the spring time, to have store of flowers stuck upon her winding sheet.

Young ladies, best to die in Spring so you have ample flowers to bedeck your grave. Nice.


The primrose, especially, was a common symbol of death in young women. Perdita, in The Winter’s Tale, speaks of:

…pale Primroses

That Dye unmarried, ere they can behold

Bright Phoebus in his strength (a maladie

Most incident to maids)

The reference in this lovely speech is to chlorosis – the green sickness, or maid’s malady, which, until as late as the 19th century was often fatal. There was a legend that young unmarried girls who died from this anaemia – of which one sign was a yellow-green complexion – were turned into primroses. In Herrick’s Poems we find the following reference:

Virgins, time past, known were these,

Troubled with Green-sicknesses,

Turn’d to flowers: stil the hieu

Sickly Girles, they beare of you.

With the frequent mention of this illness in literature one can only assume that death accompanied by chlorosis was common. Shakespeare used this vivid piece of imagery – the early spring flower with anaemic appearance, which dies before the coming of the summer sun – as the perfect melancholy symbol for those maidens who died before their time. In Act 4 Scene 2 of Cymbeline, Arviragus, believing Imogen dead, says:

With fairest flowers

While summer lasts and I live here, Fidele,

I’ll sweeten thy sad grave; thou shalt not lack

The flower that’s like thy face, pale primrose…

When a girl died unmarried, a maiden’s garland of flowers was carried in the procession and afterwards hung either over her seat in church, over her grave, or in the chancel – as a token of purity and virginity. It was very unlucky to remove these garlands, or break bits from them. As they decayed naturally the fallen pieces were gathered up and buried in the church yard. The word ‘crants’ used by Shakespeare in Hamlet, is an old Dutch word for a garland or wreath, retained by the Saxons.

Two hundred year old maiden crants from Minsterley in Shropshire

If the funeral occurred when natural flowers could not be had, evergreens and artificial garlands and wreaths made from paper flowers were used. In some places they were made of bay leaves and rosemary. Belarius in Cymbeline mentions that:

The herbs that have on them cold dew o’ the night

Are strewings fitt’st for graves.

It was a matter of custom to also cover the bridal bed with flowers, and when a young unmarried person, male or female, died the corpse was strewed with flowers. They were described as going to their nuptial beds. Gertrude says of the dead Ophelia:

Sweets to the sweet, farewell,

I hoped thou should’st have been my Hamlet’s wife –

I thought thy bride bed to have decked sweet maid,

And not to have strewed thy grave.

In Henry VIII Queen Catherine directs that:

When I am dead, good wench

Let me be used with honour, strew me over

With maiden flowers.

Evocations of burgeoning life bring associations with their polar opposite. The natural powers associated with various images of animal and plant life are primitive, to do with origin, sustenance, fertility, the life cycle and continuity. They are basic and timeless, springing from man’s attempt to control and stimulate the processes of nature. From country to country, region to region and indeed from family to family, certain traditions and customs have been established which bring with them a sense of life as rooted to people and nature, to the land.

One of the things that makes Shakespeare a very English writer is his constant reference to the folkloric beliefs of his day. His allusions to folklore would have been understood by court, city and country populations alike. It was a way of making the meaning behind his words accessible to all and there is hardly an act or scene goes by without a mention to some piece of animal, plant, festive, medicinal, customary point of lore. A quarter of a century ago the Mississippi Folklore Register devoted an issue to Shakespeare in which Philip C. Kolin identified 300 items relating to folklore in Shakespeare’s works. Yet mention of folklore is often dismissed as a quaint, rural and irrelevant element.

Our perception and the importance of folklore in our lives may have radically altered since Shakespeare’s day, but we can see how the backlash of 1980’s greed culture lead to the plethora of new age shops emerging in the 1990s – where you can get in touch with nature by burning sandalwood, sleeping under dream catchers, and listening to whale tapes or Enya. It is a need in many to feel connected to the world as a community where little real connection exists. It is sadly ironic that commercialization has taken over folkloric beliefs making true traditions coarsened and falsified. Professor R D Dorson of Bloomington, Indiana coined the perfect name for it – ‘fakelore’. As the late, great Katherine Briggs pointed out:

This is not legitimate, spontaneous growth which we find in stories handed down from father to son, or in customs that alter as they are practised, it is an ignorant and wilful debasement for the sake of money.

There is one element of folklore which remains strong – the power of storytelling. The beliefs and legends drawn on by Shakespeare and shaped into literature has enriched the folkloric tradition by in turn inspiring future generations of writers. Hence, the story Cap o’ Rushes – becomes King Lear – becomes A Thousand Acres. If we take Alfred Nutt’s definition of folklore as ‘knowledge, gathered and formulated, communicated by word of mouth and actions of various kinds from generation to generation’, we can define Shakespeare’s plays and their allusions to folklore as part of the great folkloric tradition themselves.

Karin Brown, Shakespeare Institute Librarian



Briggs, Katharine Mary. Pale Hecate’s Team: an examination of the beliefs on the witchcraft and magic among Shakespeare’s contemporaries and is immediate successors (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962)


Briggs, Katharine Mary. The Anatomy of Puck: an examination of fairy beliefs among Shakespeare’s contemporaries and successors (London: Routledge & Paul, 1959)


Dorson, R M. Folklore and Folklife: an introduction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972)


Dyer, T F Thiselton. Folk-lore of Shakespeare; originally published 1883 (New York: Dover, 1966)


Gerard, John (1545-1612), Gerard’s Herbal; the history of plants, ed. Marcus Woodward (London: Senate, 1994)


Muir, Kenneth. ‘Folklore and Shakespeare’, in Folklore, Vol. 92, No. 2 (1881), pp. 231-240


Nutt, A. Trübner. The fairy mythology of Shakespeare. London: D. Nutt, 1900)