Raising the Ghost: Shakespeare as fictional character


We are used, in this media-dominated age, to encountering fictional representations of the great figures of our culture. It is more the case with Shakespeare, than with any other individual, and is conveyed in every conceivable art form. He is a global icon, immediately recognisable, usually portrayed with that mask-like face and high forehead which has become less than human, and more and more a brand image, as ubiquitous as the Coca Cola logo.

Shakespeare’s appearances as a character are far from fixed or static: he has lived many fictional lives which have been portrayed through a vast variety of approaches. We know so little about his private life that to present him as a character allows any amount of solutions to the identities of, for instance, the Dark Lady or Mr.W.H.. We may be offered insights into his relationships with Sir Thomas Lucy or Christopher Marlowe. His marriage may be given a melodramatic soap-opera spin, where William appears as a serial adulterer, Anne as a faithful but unappreciated wife. Or the other way round. These can seem serious or be ridiculous: the great playwright walking his chihuahua, a depressive on Lithium, or an addict mainlining cannabis.

Though fictional Shakespeares take many liberties with the known facts – and there are precious few of those – unverifiable myths such as the Deer Poaching episode stand side by side with the scholarship that is continually careful to discredit them. There is a ‘kinship of interest’ as one critic comments, ’like theologians fascinated by sin,’ which holds the unlikeliest fictions featuring Shakespeare in affectionate regard. Besides that, the genre of fictional lives has a mass appeal, and whereas scholarship attracts a smaller elite, our television series, films, dramas and prose narratives appeal to large audiences. And for many, there is the yearning for direct contact; ‘I began with the desire to speak with the dead’ wrote Stephen Greenblatt, of his biography of Shakespeare. How many of us, Shakespeare critics or not, have dreamed of what they would ask the Bard? I have quite a list of questions myself.

Literary fantasies, underlying the desire for direct communication, began to appear Rowebefore 1800 and usually present the Bard as a ghost. But, actually, Shakespeare had long pre-empted these manifestations in his own lifetime, by appearing in person, as an actor in his own play. Or so says Nicholas Rowe in his biographical account of 1709. Cosy, gossipy, but unfortunately unable to verify the various orally-transmitted stories he had gathered together around Stratford, Rowe writes that he ‘could never meet with any further Account of him…than that the top of his Performance was the Ghost in his own Hamlet

This traditional story from Rowe, marks the emergence of Shakespeare as ghost figure. Like the spectre of Old Hamlet, he is a figure of authority and moral integrity, coming not kindly, but to castigate posterity and set right corruption. So, in John Dryden’s 1679 adaptation of Troilus and Cressida, the ghost of Shakespeare arises to berate the current degenerate state of the theatre:

‘Now, Where are the Successours to my name?

What bring they to fill out a Poet’s fame?

Weak, short-liv’d issues of a feeble Age;

Scarce living to be Christen’d on the Stage’

Rather more mundanely, the ghost of Shakespeare was useful in theatrical disputes: in an adaptation of Measure for Measure in 1800, he appears to speak an epilogue which praises the production and castigates a rival company ‘on yonder stage.’ The audience would, of course, have known exactly who that was. But this sort of treatment had the effect of diluting the authority of the Shakespeare figure, which is some quarters, became an outright object of mockery. In Farquar’s The Constant Couple, the prologue ridicules the ghost for trying to ‘fright the ladies,’ warning that it was ‘the DEVIL did Raise that Ghost’ and remarking:

‘Let Shakespear then lye still, Ghosts do no good:

The Fair are Better Pleas’d with Flesh and Blood’

The ghost also turns his attention to political matters where he assumes a manner of grim seriousness, particularly where the French are concerned.  In a poem by Mark Akenside, the spectre rouses the nation against the French, while an anonymous tirade of 1803 sees Shakespeare:

‘in the character of A TRUE ENGLISHMEN and A STURDY JOHN BULL,

Indignant that A FRENCH ARMY should WAGE WAR IN OUR ISLE’

Though, up to the present day, some Shakespearean ghosts are still regarded as figures of literary and moral authority, they are more usually raised for the purpose of ridicule. A satirical sequel to Hamlet was written in 1901, in which the new ruler, Horatio, builds a wing to his palace in order to escape the many ghostly casualties of the play. A new, arrogant ghost arrives, wanting to move in: Shakespeare himself. Horatio is obliged to call up his solicitor and have the spirit ejected.

A comic verse, not likely to amuse Bardolators – appeared in the 1920s:

I dreamt last night that Shakespeare’s ghost

Sat for a Civil Service post:

The English paper for the year

Had several questions on King Lear

Which Shakespeare answered very badly

RylanceAnd in 2007, the Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance produced a play called I Am Shakespeare in which the magic of the Web raises the ghost of the Bard. He is forced to defend his authorship by a troupe of other ghosts, who claim to have written his works. Reviewers at the time noted how unusual it was for an actor to suggest that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him. But Rylance is an ‘Anti-Stratfordian’ and really let rip in this production. After a thorough mauling from the ghosts – and even from a passing cop who applies Jack the Ripper identification techniques to the authorship question – Shakespeare is reduced to tears of self-pity in the final scene and is diminished both as a man and a dramatist.

The presence of an electronic device in Rylance’s play is indicative of how science fiction has offered an alternative way of gaining direct contact with Shakespeare. A time machine, or similar device, either transports a character to the 16th century to meet the playwright in his own age and setting, or else transports Shakespeare to the present era. Time travel fantasies are usually associated with popular culture and the TV series Doctor Who presented a memorable episode called The Shakespeare Code in 2007. This saw the doctor and his companion arrive at the Globe theatre in 1599 and become involved in a plot where evil aliens pose as three witches. The episode fuses the magic and witchcraft of Shakespeare’s writing with the Doctor’s pseudo technology, so offering perspectives on traditional views of Shakespeare’s age and plays, and the imaginary future world of scientific advances.

dr who

A paternal Shakespeare appears in Susan Cooper’s 1999 children’s novel, King of Shadows. Nat Fields, an orphaned young actor, is transported to Renaissance London where he plays Puck to Shakespeare’s Oberon: a father/son pairing. He defeats the traumas of adolescence and the grief of losing his parents through contact with the father-figure of Shakespeare, who represents support and love, as well as cultural authority. In many of these books for children, a solitary protagonist travels to London and becomes involved in theatre. Shakespeare is usually presented as an idealised mentor, offering parental-style support and encouragement and guiding the youngster into a successful adulthood.

Another strain of fiction focuses on Shakespeare’s life in the theatre: the problems surrounding stage productions, his style as actor-manager, or his relationships with colleagues and rival playwrights. In contrast to the children’s genre, Maurice Baring’s The Rehearsal is bitingly satirical with Richard Burbage, The Globe’s prime actor, ripping apart (not literally) the ‘tomorrow, tomorrow, and tomorrow’ speech in Macbeth. ‘It’s a third too short’ rages Burbage, ‘There’s not a single rhyme in it …. it’s an insult to the stage. “Struts and frets” indeed!’

It is impossible not to mention Neil Gaiman’s Shakespeare stories for the Sandman comic book series. Shakespeare appears discussing his work with Marlowe and tellingly refers to Dr Faustus: ‘I would give anything to have your gifts, or more than anything to give men dreams…that would live on long after I am dead.’ His wish is granted by Lord Morpheus, a supernatural being from the domain of dreams and myths.


Shakespeare has lived in many fictional lives: philanderer, faithful husband, gay, bisexual, straight, black, white, male, female, amongst others. Even a brief glimpse into these apparitions charts the preoccupations of a particular author, age or nation, and pinpoints the ideological, social, religious or political concerns which underlie them. In the present age of technological advances, the range of media is so extensive that Shakespeare as a fictional being can appear anywhere and in almost any form. He is the mirror of a period, an outlook on life and a ghost that refuses to lie down.


Bettina Harris, Library Assistant

The Samuel West Script Collection

“It’s a part in which you can’t fail, and you can’t succeed because it’s not about finding answers. It’s all about asking questions.”

The Shakespeare Institute Library is extremely fortunate to have amongst its actors’ script archive Samuel West’s scripts. His collection covers his work as both actor and director of Shakespeare and other work. It is wonderful to be able to promote the research possibilities of this script collection. This exhibition features just some of Samuel’s treasured material.

Photo by Nils Jorgensen

Samuel West was born in London on June 19, 1966, the son of the actors Prunella Scales and Timothy West. It was perhaps inevitable that he would follow them on to the stage, since both his parents have had successful acting careers and even his grandparents Lockwood West and Olive Carleton-Crowe were also actors.

Though Sam West claims that he and his parents do not constitute a ‘family firm’ of actors, the three have appeared together on several occasions. West’s portrayal of Prince Hal in 1996 was opposite his father, Timothy, as Falstaff; they played the same character at different ages in the film Iris, and all the family took part in a reading of Pinter’s play Family Voices. He records that when he told his parents that he wanted to be an actor, they replied ‘Be a plumber.’

West ignored the advice and went on to win a number of awards, act and direct in every medium, and is now one of our most highly regarded Shakespearean actors.

He made his London stage debut in 1989 playing Michael in Cocteau’s Les Parents Terribles which drew positive critical comment. Early Shakespearean roles included Prince Hal for the English Touring Theatre’s production of both parts of Henry IV, and Octavius Caesar in Antony and Cleopatra at the National Theatre.

Photo by Malcolm Davies

In the first of his two seasons with the RSC he undertook the title role in Richard II in Steven Pimlott’s production of 2000. West’s account of planning the production describes how the company saw the play as a chronicle but also a fable, not so much about a king holding on to power as an individual trying to come to terms with mortality. The play was designed with minimal set and props, blue and white lighting that contrasted with darkness, and costumes which evoked the shadows cast on the set.

West has written about the “ammo box” which began life as the base of his throne, became the mirror Richard “crack’d in a hundred shivers” and finally ended as Richard’s coffin.

Reviews were enthusiastic; “A Richard to remember” wrote the critic Dominic Cavendish. In a bold stroke, the soliloquy at Pomfret – “I have been studying how I may compare/ This prison where I live unto the world”- was repeated by Richard’s rival and his queen: the king’s loss of identity a universal condition, not an individual insight. The rehearsal discussions had clearly born fruit.

In 2001, again directed by Pimlott, West played Hamlet. He appeared at first as the typical young student, dressed in jeans and leather jacket, but was soon revealed as clever, able to see through other people’s rhetoric, yet aware of his own powerlessness. West’s performance was set in a highly political world where individual conscience is stifled by power without morality and was generally described as “brilliant.”

Whilst working on Hamlet, West produced three notebooks and one very heavily annotated script. The notebooks cover his initial thoughts and ‘homework’ on the play; his rehearsal process; and fine-tuning of his performance in previews. Evidently a cerebral actor, West’s rehearsal notebook goes into great detail on Hamlet’s relationships with other characters as well as discussing major themes in the play. His ‘reading list’ includes sources as diverse as The Spanish Tragedy, Festen, Fight Club and Batman.

The production featured many memorable bits of staging which are not referred to in the original script, for example in the Ghost scene the phantom held his son close to him in their shared distress, and before Hamlet is sent to England he kissed Claudius squarely on the lips.

Combined with the notebooks, West’s script is a revelation as to how this actor deciphered one of Shakespeare’s most challenging roles.

From 2005–7 West was artistic director of Sheffield Crucible Theatre. As a passionately political man with strong left-wing beliefs, he believed that theatre was a strong vehicle for airing vital issues and making people think. Accordingly, he revived and directed the controversial The Romans in Britain and also directed As You Like It.

West’s As You Like It, which was also performed on the Swan stage in Stratford in 2007, played with ideas of the fluidity of identity with a collection of hats sprouting from the stage to be tried on by the company. The cast included Eve Best, Lisa Dillon and Sam Troughton. Reviews praised Best for “showing all the symptoms of a sparkling wit with a gnawing need inside” and for her “radiant emotional intelligence”.

Eve Best in As You Like It, Sheffield Crucible, 2007

Starting the play with ‘All the world’s a stage’ as a framing device was “subtly magical” but while Michael Billington called it “an eye-opening As You Like It” others thought it “laboured” and “too earnest” and Charles Spencer thought the approach “a load of old bollocks”.

There was praise for West’s leadership of the Sheffield Theatres – both for his choice of plays and his ability to attract actors to the venue and this, his farewell production, “makes one wish he were staying longer.”

West has also appeared in a variety of films including Notting Hill, Hyde Park on Hudson and Darkest Hour but was in the role of Leonard Bast in E.M. Forster’s Howards End in 1991 that he made his name. Bast signals the arrival of the urban white-collar worker in British society, a role that could have been tailor-made for the politically aware West. He plays him as a tragic hero whose dreams of a higher form of existence are in contrast to the spiritual inertia of an office job. He received a nomination for the role at the 1993 BAFTA Film Awards. West was also cast as the colourless and emotionally sterile St. John Rivers in Zeffirelli’s 1996 Jane Eyre, and was praised for his portrayal of the character in an otherwise not highly rated production.

On television, West has had leading roles including Anthony Blunt in Cambridge Spies, a BBC drama about Kim Philby and his associates. In ITV’s 2011 Eternal Law he played Zak Gist, one of two angels who have fallen to earth in order to serve Humankind. The mix of fantasy and legal satire appeared initially to be an intriguing and promising, but critics found it too absurd to take seriously, particularly when West and his colleague appeared with huge white wings sprouting from their backs. Appearances in long-running series, such as Midsomer Murders, Poirot, Mr Selfridge and Grantchester, made West a familiar face on-screen and his prolific work on radio and as a voice artist for audiobooks and documentary narrations make his an instantly recognizable voice.

He is a long-time collaborator with the Shakespeare Institute and has a personal connection to the place. One of West’s earliest Shakespearean roles was Florizel in a 1985 Oxford Playhouse production of The Winter’s Tale in which Michael Dobson, our current Director, played Time ( …and claims to have upstaged him).


In 2016, as part of the birthday celebrations also marking 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Samuel West, as Garrick, narrated the actor-manager-playwright’s 1769 Jubilee Ode at Holy Trinity Church giving it its first full-scale performance since the eighteenth century.

Samuel West generously donated his script collection to the Shakespeare Institute Library in 2012 and our students have already mined the scripts for course work, theses and dissertations. 2014 saw West receive an honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University of Birmingham.






Shakespeare Institute Library ‘Book of the Month’

Sarah Werner, Studying Early Printed Books (1450-1800): A Practical Guide (Wiley Blackwell, 2019)

There can be few students of Shakespeare and the early modern period who do not come into contact with early printed books at some time or another during their studies – and some, of course, more frequently than others. But while we may become familiar with their format, there are always questions at the back of our minds: How were these books printed? Why were they printed in the way that they were? Who was involved in their production? What is the meaning of the printers ornaments, headpieces and tailpieces? How were the pages identified? What were the costs involved? Why is the spelling inconsistent? And why might two copies of the same book bought from the same bookseller at the same time be different from each other?

In this excellent book – a practical guide – Sarah Werner addresses all these questions and more in a detailed account of the entire printing process of the early modern book, from blank sheets of paper to sequential pages of printed text (it was the responsibility of the bookseller, not the printer, the bind the texts as required). This information is presented first as an overview, then again in more detail in subsequent chapters, thereby offering a format that can be utilised by the reader in a number of ways. The book then moves on to discuss the use of advertisements and title pages as marketing tools – the economics of printing are constantly borne in mind. All the less familiar features that might appear on the page, apart from the actual text, such as printer’s devices (the fore-runner of the logo), marginal notes, signature marks and so on are explained in detail and the various ways of reproducing images, including movable diagrams which were popular in astronomy and navigation books, are all discussed and illustrated. By the end of Part 3, we have pretty good idea how an early printed book came into being. But for the researcher of course, this is just the beginning!

The remaining two parts of the book are concerned with what we can learn of a book from looking at (not necessarily reading) the early printed text. What are it’s physical features and how should we handle old books? Werner deals with working with both a physical book in our hands, as well as the increasing number of early printed texts which are now available in digital form. Clearly this advance in technology makes such texts far more accessible to us and possibly easier to navigate, but digitization brings it’s own problems. Although we can see all the words, we cannot feel the pages, smell the book, see the binding – and often, it is not at all certain whether or not we are looking at the complete book.

Werner ends by urging us to treasure and value these early books, not just for what is written within their pages, but what they can tell us about the world in which they were produced:

‘Books tell us stories. It’s easy enough to read what’s written. It’s harder to read in a different type of languge, to look at the signs left by long-ago workers about their unseen actions…. no book exists outside of it’s making’.

Dr Jill Francis, Library Assistant

Sarah Werner, Studying Early Printed Books (1450-1800): A Practical Guide (Wiley Blackwell, 2019) is available now on the New Acquisitions shelf in the newly reburbished library – come and have a look at both!

‘Each night a new lost Shakespeare’: The School of Night

A timely reblog of a post on the archive of The School of Night, who treated our students to a wonderfully entertaining evening at the SI on 22 February. Impressive and inventive improvisation featuring Chaucer, Milton, Yeats, Beckett and of course, Shakespeare. The ‘new lost play’ found featured Venusian King Dobson and the reluctant stammering heir Prince Stanley – title suggestions for this new work welcome…

Shakespeare Institute Library

The Shakespeare Institute Library is delighted to be receiving the archive ofThe School of Night.Connected by name but not to be confused with Sir Walter Raleigh’s secret society, the improv company originated in a celebration of Shakespeare devised by the late, great Ken Campbell in 2005 forThe Globe.

img017iimg015This initial gift from the company to the SIL by actor Oliver Senton contains publicity material for many of the School’s performances including details of Ken Campbell’s In Pursuit of Cardenio, 2006 – a series of performances inspired by audience suggestions promising ‘Each night a new lost Shakespeare. Never seen before and never to be seen again!’

As actors and audience mingled, a series of semi-spontaneous routines emerged through word suggestions and associations from the audience. Riffing in blank verse, iambic pentameter and sonnet form, Campbell’s troupe of actors improvised in Elizabethan style around possible scenes…

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‘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.


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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.




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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.

hall today

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