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)

Wilde About Mr W.H. : Oscar and the Sonnets

When Shakespeare’s Sonnets were published in 1609, no-one at all seemed anxious to unravel the mystery of the Dedication. This was not signed by Shakespeare, as might reasonably be expected, but with the initials of Thomas Thorpe, the publisher. There is a theory that the edition was pirated, without the knowledge of the author; if Shakespeare had authorised it, however, why didn’t he sign it?

Another difficulty lies with the ‘Onlie Begetter.’ In the usage of the period, who does it refer to? The inspirer, the obtainer of the Sonnets, the publisher or the author?

And against this is the problem of the identity of Mr. W.H. in the Dedication.

Does the Dedication refer to Mr. W.H.or not? The confusing wording and spacing, together with a lack of punctuation – apart from the full-stops inserted between the words for decorative effect – allow for all sorts of different interpretations. A full stop after ‘SONNETS’ might indicate that the Dedication is to Shakespeare himself. But commas after ‘SONNETS’ and ‘Mr. W.H.’point to Mr. W.H. himself. Other interpretations suggest themselves according to different punctuation and the stress put on certain words. One can have endless fun – without ever arriving at a firm conclusion.

At the end of the 18th century, the scholar Thomas Tyrwhitt noticed the puns on ‘hue’ in Sonnet 20:

‘A man in HUE all HUES in his controlling’

These were italicised and capitalised in the original edition, and Tyrwhitt  suggested that they stood for William Hughes, the favourite musician of the Earl of Essex, who would have been known to Shakespeare. Given the number of puns on Shakespeare’s name: ‘Will,’ throughout  the Sonnets, he decided that Hughes was the ‘beauteous and lovely youth’ to whom a number of them appear to be addressed. The Shakespearean scholar Edmond Malone, endorsed this view in his edition of the Sonnets in 1790 which was widely circulated. After that, nearly 160 years after the publication of the Sonnets, the flood-gates opened.

Henry Wriothesley

‘Few if any published sentences have given rise to so much speculation and controversy’ writes Stanley Wells of the Dedication. The list of suggestions as to the identity of Mr. W.H. is enormous. Candidates have been advanced such as Shakespeare’s brother- in- law, William Hart; or Shakespeare’s supposed patron William Hammond; or an inn-keeper’s son, William Holgate. Amongst aristocratic possibilities were Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, and William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. Other  contributions asserted that the initials stood for ‘William himself’ or that W.H. was a misprint for W.SH.; Shakespeare. To this very day, theories continue to appear.

One of the most fascinating and unusual responses to the Dedication, however, is Oscar Wilde’s fictionalised account of Shakespeare’s relationship with the young man of the Sonnets. This, The Portrait of Mr. W.H., was written in 1889 and revised by Oscar  – I can only think of him by his first name – in a version that remained unpublished until 1921, long after his death.

Oscar chose to be a writer while still at Magdalen College, Oxford. Later in his career he claimed a physical resemblance to and a spiritual kinship with Shakespeare. He was to write various essays on Shakespeare and in his book The Critic as Artist laid down various precepts for understanding the plays:

‘He who desires to understand Shakespeare truly must understand the relations in which Shakespeare stood to the Renaissance…to the age of Elizabeth and the age of James…he must know the conditions of theatric presentation… he must study…blank or rhymed verse’

Perhaps inevitably, given that he was gay, Oscar was drawn to the homoerotic material in Shakespeare’s Sonnets.  After leaving Oxford he declared himself as a ‘Professor of Aesthetics.’ He had read widely in the classics and identified closely with the concept that sex between men was the highest form of love. This rationalised, purified and elevated what was criminalised in Victorian Society and referred to as ‘sodomy’ –but  which Oscar regarded as ‘aesthetic truth’:  spiritually fruitful and a stimulus to thought and virtue.

Oscar was fascinated by Tyrwhitt’s initial theory: that William Hughes was the young man of the Sonnets. With his vivid imagination he began to create in his mind the image of a young actor, who played the female leads in some of Shakespeare’s plays. Oscar imagined Shakespeare to be captivated by this ‘beautiful boy’ as he himself had been by Robert Ross, his former lover at Oxford  with ‘the face of Puck.’  In conversation with Ross, the plot of what would become The Portrait of Mr. W.H. began to evolve. ‘You must believe in Willy Hughes’ Oscar told a friend. ‘I almost do myself.’ To Ross he wrote ‘indeed the story is half yours, and but for you it would not have been written.’

Fired up by his idea, Oscar commissioned a painting of Willie Hughes with which to illustrate his story:

‘A young man….about seventeen…and…of quite extraordinary personal beauty …somewhat effeminate…with…dreamy, wistful eyes and…delicate scarlet lips’

Early in the text, the portrait is revealed. The young man’s hand rests on a copy of the Sonnets and Oscar’s protagonist cries: ‘ “Good heavens!  Is this Shakespeare’s Mr. W.H.?”.’

In his story, Oscar’s characters try to prove Tyrwhitt’s theory. The plot is convoluted and involves the narrator being shown the beautiful but faked portrait in an attempt to convince the world that Willy Hughes was indeed   ‘Mr. W.H.’ When the forgery is revealed, the perpetrator commits suicide, a martyr to his poetic cause. The narrator is left to take on the challenge of proving the theory. In doing so, he exhausts his enthusiasm and comes to see Willie Hughes as a myth.

The story is pure Oscar Wilde: full of brilliant and extravagant ideas. On one hand, it is about presumably gay men trying to prove other men gay. Yet it also comments on the allure of literary research, on the strange theories about the Sonnets and it encourages the reader to question the lengths to which both ordinary people and scholars will go in order to prove their ideas. To commit suicide over a theory seems absurd. Yet Oscar’s letter to his friend Harry Marillier contains the germ of his idea: ‘I think I would more readily die for what I do not believe in than for what I hold to be true.’ he writes.

Throughout the narrative, Oscar shows off his knowledge of Shakespeare, reading new and vivid meanings into the Sonnets and making a case so convincing that other characters come to believe the Willie Hughes theory. It might well convince readers too, until we remember that Oscar cleverly adopted a fictional form within which to air his most fanciful ideas, without being constrained by scholarly rigour.

In much of Oscar’s work, truth and make-believe, fact and fairy- tale mingle, reflect and glance off each other. Significantly ‘The Portrait of Mr. W.H.’ was written around the same time as ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’,  in which another portrait – itself a sort of fiction – tells the ugly truth about Gray. Until the end of the book, vice and virtue change places and reality is elusive, to the confusion of the characters and of the reader too.

In his ‘Portrait of Mr. W.H.’ Oscar offers a theory, dazzlingly appears to back it up by an ingenious display of critical expertise, then withdraws it. Even the suicide of the narrator’s friend is a fake like the portrait, for the character has actually died of natural causes. But Oscar teases us to the last line, where the disillusioned narrator still appears to offer us the theory again. Gazing at the portrait, he concludes , ‘“I think that there is really a great deal to be said for the Willie Hughes theory of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.”’

Bettina Harris, Library Support Assistant

The Jasper Britton Script Collection

To compliment our current exhibition on the SIL’s Actor’s Script Collection here’s a blog originally posted in 2014 on the scripts of Jasper Britton.

Shakespeare Institute Library

With Jasper Britton returning to the Royal Shakespeare Company to play the eponymous character in Gregory Doran’s productions of Henry IV, it seems a good time to delve into one of our newest collections in the Shakespeare Institute Library. Our intrepid leader, Karin Brown, is making great strides in expanding the SIL’s special collections, especially those items connected with the performance history of early modern plays. The Jasper Britton Script Collection contains five treasures from four of his Globe and RSC appearances: Macbeth and The Tempest from productions at the former and Gregory Doran’s productions of The Taming of the Shrew and John Fletcher’s The Tamer Tamed from 2003.

Jasper Britton in rehearsal for Henry IV Jasper Britton in rehearsal for Henry IV
Photo: Kwame Lestrade

Britton’s association with the RSC begins long before our script collection, having appeared in A Jovial Crew, The Beggar’s Opera, as Meander in Terry Hands’ production of Tamburlaine

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Actors Approaching Shakespeare: the SIL Actor’s Script Collection

Janet Suzman

SIL Librarian, Karin Brown & Janet Suzman, on receiving the Suzman Collection, 2017

In the summer of 2017 the Shakespeare Institute Library was extremely fortunate to receive the first delivery of Janet Suzman’s script archive. It was like opening a treasure chest; with great excitement the script for the definitive performance of Cleopatra for a generation (and possibly beyond) was lifted from her suitcase! In order to celebrate the arrival of Janet Suzman’s collection and to promote the wonderful research possibilities in the SIL script collection we decided to hold an exhibition of some of these treasures.

Actor’s scripts are held both a the SIL and in the Cadbury Research Library in Birmingham (the most exciting in term of Shakespeare studies at the CRL, Laurence Olivier’s script for Hotspur in the Old Vic production of I Henry IV, 1945).

The collections of Janet Suzman and Samuel West hold their work as both actors and directors of Shakespeare’s works. Suzman’s iconic production of Othello for the Market Theatre Johannesburg, 1987, is included in the collection and, as well as her own notes as director, contains the detailed notes of Richard Haddon Haines who played Iago in that production, described by one reviewer as ‘a personification of the devil’.

OTH 1987 Janet Suzman and cast

Janet Suzman with the cast of Othello

The collection also holds her directorial notes for her own production of Antony and Cleopatra staged in 2012 with Kim Cattrall as Cleopatra and Michael Pennington as Antony. Suzman claimed, ‘I’d go as far as to say she’s the most interesting role for a woman ever’ and went on to state that it was her favourite role ‘by miles’.

suzman cleo

Antony & Cleopatra, RSC 1972 Photo: Reg Wilson

Suzman’s own heavily annotated script for her performance as Cleopatra at the RSC in 1972 contains fascinating detail on her creation of the character with many notes focusing on the Cleopatra’s physicality: stillness in self-control and power, franticness in the lunacy of love, and her penchant for performance.

In contrast, in Samuel West’s heavily annotated script for Hamlet (RSC, 2001), you have a fascinating read which follows in depth the emotional, metaphysical and psychological journey of the character (and the actor for that matter) through every act and scene.

DSH27_3 2001 HAM 01

Pages from Samuel West’s rehearsal notebook, using a family photo of himself for a visualization of young Hamlet. A friend of the family has become Hamlet’s Dad as they play in the Elsinore garden. The age and the date refer to Hamlet who in this modern dress production of 2001 would have been 9 in 1980.


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. His ‘reading list’ includes sources as diverse as The Spanish Tragedy, Festen, Fight Club and Batman. There are references to Mamet, Ibsen and Thoreau in the script; and in finding contemporary relevance in the play he notes that ‘I’m Dennis Skinner to Tony Blair’s Claudius.’

Jasper Britton’s casting as Richard III was significant as he is one of the few disabled actors to have played this demanding role. Directed for Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in 1995 by the actor Brian Cox, it was the performance which launched Britton’s career as a classical actor. In a written interview, Britton described his pragmatic approach:

Britton RIII

Jasper Britton as Richard III, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, 1995

“I was in pain all the time, I couldn’t walk properly, and was carrying all the associated emotional and spiritual baggage… great writers have done the work for you as an actor. Ignore that at your peril, because you will embark on a niminy piminy journey of minor and pointless embroidery…

I had no movement in my right hip at all and very little in my left. In addition my pelvis was tilted on the right side by subconscious muscular contraction (over which I had no control) by 2 to 2.5 inches, effectively making an apparent leg length difference of those measurements. I didn’t have to try too hard to be a hunchback cripple.”

Of course, the actor’s script is a personal working document but also a key text to uncovering the rehearsal process in which the actor learns from director, fellow actors, voice coach, etc. In his script for Richard III Britton noted that Richard’s soliloquy of self-doubt after his ghostly visitations, is the character haunting himself. When asked about this illuminating note in the script Britton remarked:

“Well I dunno who said that about me haunting myself, could’ve been Brian Cox, or the cleaner at the end of the day. Could even have been me… you never know.”

Actor’s scripts held by the University include those belonging to Janet Suzman (SIL), Samuel West (SIL), Nigel Hawthorne (SIL), Jasper Britton (SIL), Norman Painting (CRL), John Gielgud (CRL), Laurence Olivier (CRL), and Noel Coward (CRL)

(SIL – held at the Shakespeare Institute Library, Stratford-upon-Avon / CRL – held at the Cadbury Research Library, Birmingham)

Karin Brown, Shakespeare Institute Librarian

Good Queen Bess meets Master Shakespeare

All in the playhouse have fallen to their knees as the Queen herself, glittering in gold, emerges from the gallery. Master Shakespeare bows before her. ‘Next time you come to Greenwich’ Elizabeth tells him, ‘we will speak some more.’ Then, leaving, she tosses an afterthought over her shoulder: ‘Tell Master Shakespeare, something more cheerful next time….for Twelfth Night.’


Whatever you think of Shakespeare in Love, this scene in the film reveals a great deal about how Elizabeth and Shakespeare are perceived. In the same scene, Elizabeth addresses first a boy among the groundlings, and then a Lord. She appears truly democratic, able to mix with her people and communicate freely with them. But more importantly she is portrayed as keenly interested in the new genre: theatre. Master Shakespeare is known to her – she has just seen Romeo and Juliet, with Shakespeare himself playing Romeo. Evidently Master Shakespeare is, in some capacity, a regular at her palace at Greenwich and now she invites him there for a personal conference. She also actively commissions a new play for Twelfth Night and so appears as the patron and enabler of Shakespeare’s plays. He is her protégé, classless in being elevated above his rural origins, and enjoying a relationship with a Queen whose remarkable insight has recognised his genius.

Elizabeth and Shakespeare are each individual icons but together they are even more powerful. We enjoy the traditional perception of a celebrated ruler and revered poet jointly producing the birth of national greatness and national literature. The picture of an Elizabethan Golden Age, of ‘Merrie England’, of Good Queen Bess, of the plays and characters of Shakespeare is attractive to us. We relish the idea of an imagined relationship between Elizabeth and Shakespeare. It is so deeply ingrained  in our culture and occurs so frequently that we cling to it, without bothering much about historical truth.

The scene in Shakespeare in Love is complete fiction. There is no evidence that playwright and Queen ever met. Many anecdotes have Elizabeth visiting a playhouse – usually the Globe – but the monarch would not have done so. Playhouses were situated on the notorious south bank of the Thames and were regarded as dens of vice. It would have been so shocking and sensational for Elizabeth to have gone there that such an event must have been reliably recorded.

Players traditionally had been summoned to great houses and palaces. If Elizabeth and Shakespeare did meet, the most likely place was at court, at the performance of a Shakespeare play. Shakespeare himself was the leading member and resident playwright of the company known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Records show that 33 performances by them took place at court between 1594 and Elizabeth’s death in 1603, and Shakespeare’s plays must often have been performed.

It is likely that Elizabeth would have seen Shakespeare perform: in the First Folio, his name is first in the lists of ‘The Names of the Principall Actors in all these Plays’ He might even have been presented to the Queen; this was not an unusual practice. He might have seen her on the river – the ornate royal barge was kept near the playhouses – or have watched her setting out on, or returning from one of her Royal Progresses. Early on, these took her to Charlecote and Kenilworth in Warwickshire, and the boy Shakespeare might have glimpsed her from among the crowds. But there can only be educated guesses, based on scanty and inconclusive references, as to whether the two ever came face to face, exchanged words or enjoyed any sort of relationship.

Shakespeare-Beginner-Workshop-770-x-430It is in the posthumous ‘lives’ of Shakespeare and Elizabeth that they begin to flourish as a dual icon.   Far from being a ‘golden’ age, England was violent, unstable and divided. Yet both in her life and after her death in 1603, Elizabeth retained the status of national icon. Shakespeare died in retirement in SUA in 1616 but his passing caused hardly a ripple in the short term. Would his work have been lost had not The First Folio appeared in 1623?

At the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, Shakespeare’s plays were revived and became part of the core repertoire, though greatly altered and revised. The ghost of Shakespeare began to appear in epilogues and prologues, encouraging excellence in dramatic and national endeavour. Then, in the first biography of Shakespeare, in 1709, Nicholas Rowe stated that “Queen Elizabeth had several of his Plays Acted before her, and without doubt gave him many gracious Marks of her Favour.” Rowe could not say what these favours were and, in any case, had drawn his information from oral sources, but this picture of a warm relationship had enduring appeal and influence.

Rowe also details the episode at Charlecote where the young Shakespeare was allegedly imprisoned for deer poaching. His account is embellished in the Biographica Britannica in 1793 where the story goes that Shakespeare petitioned the Queen in writing and owed his release to her kindness. It is highly unlikely that Elizabeth would intervene in the case of an unknown young man in rural Warwickshire, but it was a chance for the biographer to show how her mercy took Shakespeare to London – and was thus the indirect catalyst of his career – along with the suggestion that her amazing acuity had spotted a genius in embryo.

Shakespeare1aIn the 1750s Shakespeare’s status had soared and five editions of the plays were in existence. A memorial statue was placed in Westminster Abbey, showing Shakespeare, noble and pensive – far from the wayward deer-poacher – with the masks of Elizabeth, Henry V and James I placed  below him.  Dictionaries, books of quotations, essays and poems on Shakespeare began to be current and were collected in the libraries of great houses. To know Shakespeare and to quote from him was becoming the mark of a cultivated mind, of status and of education. Garrick’s Jubilee in 1787 in Stratford-upon-Avon, attended by the great and the good, cemented Shakespeare’s position as ‘The Bard of Bards.’

Another connection between Queen and Playwright was provided by one John Dennis who had revised The Merry Wives of Windsor. ‘I knew very well’ he declared boldly ‘that it had pleased one of the greatest Queens that ever was.’  Elizabeth, he went on to claim, wishing to enjoy the spectacle of Falstaff in love, had commissioned the comedy with a fourteen day deadline. Shakespeare, however, wrote the play in only ten. This anecdote is still current among the many others relating to the pair, and had the effect of merging Elizabeth’s reputation with the now high-flying status of Shakespeare, so that her regal power and his literary genius became closely associated.

shakes and liz

The myths roll on with Robert Ryan’s retelling of a story which has Elizabeth watching a play in which Shakespeare had taken the role of a king. To attract his attention, she throws down her glove and, without missing a beat, Shakespeare, retrieves it, effortlessly ad-libbing with ‘And though now bent on this high embassy/Yet stoop we to take up our cousin’s glove.’ When Sir Walter Scott’s Kenilworth  appeared in 1821, Shakespeare is produced in conversation with the Queen, as an adult and an accomplished playwright, though the novel deals with the year of the Princely Pleasures: 1575, when Shakespeare was only eleven.

Floods of novels, plays and paintings followed Kenilworth, often flagrantly distorting the chronology of the lives of Elizabeth and Shakespeare so that they meet, talk, flirt and even discuss or quote from plays not actually written until after the Queen’s death. Shakespeare-based paintings appeared regularly in the Royal Academy’s annual exhibition, many of them depicting Shakespeare and Elizabeth together. They were so numerous as almost to constitute a new genre and the fact that a female monarch now occupied the British throne gave new relevance to Elizabeth’s Golden Age. It was important to the self-image of Victorian Britain, that Queen Victoria asserted its imperial authority and national identity, as Elizabeth had done. And so, a Shakespeare play was performed every Christmas at Windsor before the royal family, much as Shakespeare’s troupe had been summoned to perform at Greenwich Palace.


Shakespeare Reading to Queen Elizabeth I by John James Chalon (1778-1854)

Shakespeare and Elizabeth continued to be represented together in the 20th century. In the USA they became icons associated with ideas of democracy , freedom, and  female power. It was a major Hollywood studio which financed Shakespeare in Love and constructed an artistic package which was British in essence, but which was designed to succeed in America, with record box-office takings and multiple Oscars.

In Britain, the two World Wars created both national pride and national insecurity while theatre direction and literary criticism moved away from the portrayal of a stable world over which Shakespeare and Elizabeth presided. History began to be viewed differently. New ways of looking back and understanding the past produced new Shakespeares, new Elizabeths and new encounters between them. It was suggested that they had been lovers or that Shakespeare was Elizabeth’s son. In the ultimate merging of two glorious icons,  Elizabeth actually becomes Shakespeare and is the author of the plays.


Upstart Crow Christmas Special, 2017 with Emma Thompson as Elizabeth I and David Mitchell as Shakespeare

Now, in the 21st century, Shakespeare and Elizabeth enjoy an active afterlife in the digital realm, via Facebook and other social networking platforms. They have met many times, go on meeting and are likely to go on meeting for some time to come.

Bettina Harris, LSA

‘The gloomy and sublime kind of terror’ of Ann Radcliffe and Shakespeare

In an essay written in 1920, Clara McIntyre argues that the very term Gothic is a misnomer, that:

The novels of Mrs Radcliffe and her followers … are not an expression of the life and spirit of the Middle Ages, if this is what the term Gothic means. They are, rather, an expression of the life and spirit of the Renaissance, as Elizabethan England had interpreted the Renaissance.

Haunted castles, violent and unnatural murder and bloody revenge are the stuff of Renaissance tragedy, and they are also the essence of Gothic literature. In our modern understanding of the term Gothic this can be traced from characters such as Julia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, through to Edgar in King Lear, and from Shakespeare’s earliest to his later plays, from Titus Andronicus to The Tempest. There is a strong cross-fertilisation between Shakespeare and the Gothic novel. The novels of Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis, Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker, are so dependent on this cross-fertilisation as to make the two forms near inseparable with regards to the conception of character, plot, and textual choices.

Essayist Nathan Drake referred to Ann Radcliffe as ‘the Shakespeare of Romance writers.’ Ann Ward was born in Holborn, London, in 1764 – the same year as the publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. Her most famous novel is probably The Mysteries of Udolpho, published in 1794. Her portrayal of the rapture and terrors of her characters’ imaginations is vivid and compelling, and she is one of the first novelists to use descriptions of landscape, weather, and the effects of light as mirrors to the emotions and circumstances of her leading characters. Although Otranto is considered the first Gothic novel, it was Radcliffe who took up the mantle, defined the genre and inspired other writers in new form. As Camille Paglia pointed out, ‘it is a rare example of a woman creating an artistic style.’

In 1826, Radcliffe wrote an essay “On the Supernatural in Poetry,” for The New Monthly Magazine which not only helped define the Gothic but espoused Shakespeare as the major proponent of ‘the Sublime’ as described by Edmund Burke in his 1757 treatise on aesthetics, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. The essay took the form of a dialogue between Willoughton, “the apostle of Shakespeare,” and Mr. Simpson, “the representative of Philistine common sense”:

[W____:]”Who ever suffered for the ghost of Banquo, the gloomy and sublime kind of terror, which that of Hamlet calls forth? though the appearance of Banquo, at the high festival of Macbeth, not only tells us that he is murdered, but recalls to our minds the fate of the gracious Duncan, laid in silence and death by those who, in this very scene, are reveling in his spoils. There, though deep pity mingles with our surprise and horror, we experience a far less degree of interest, and that interest too of an inferior kind. The union of grandeur and obscurity, which Mr. Burke describes as a sort of tranquillity tinged with terror, and which causes the sublime, is to be found only in Hamlet; or in scenes where circumstances of the same kind prevail.”

“That may be,” said Mr. S____, “and I perceive you are not one of those who contend that obscurity does not make any part of the sublime.” “They must be men of very cold imaginations,” said W____, “with whom certainty is more terrible than surmise. Terror and Horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes and nearly annihilates them. I apprehend, that neither Shakespeare nor Milton by their fictions, nor Mr. Burke by his reasoning, anywhere looked to positive horror as a source of the sublime, though they all agree that terror is a very high one; and where lies the great difference between horror and terror, but in uncertainty and obscurity, that accompany the first, respecting the dreaded evil?

Radcliffe’s knowledge of Shakespeare was encyclopaedic, her books permeated with borrowings from the Bard – direct quotes, borrowed language, plot devices, castle and forest settings. She regularly prefaces her chapters with quotes from Shakespeare and she displays a particular love of Hamlet. This love may well be traced to a period in her youth when, staying at Bath she was fortunate enough to see the great actress Sarah Siddons act in some of her most famous roles. At a special benefit performance at Bristol Theatre Royal, on 27 June 1781, Sarah Siddons performed Hamlet for the sixth time, and this performance may well have had a profound effect on the future novelist. An examination of her novels shows the extent to which, what may be called ‘the Siddons effect’, informed Radcliffe’s creative imagination. In her essay ‘On the Supernatural in Poetry’ she writes:

Mrs Siddons, like Shakspeare, always disappears in the character she represents, and throws an illusion over the whole scene around her, that conceals many defects in the arrangements of the theatre. I should suppose she would be the finest Hamlet that ever appeared, excelling even her own brother in that character; she would more fully preserve the tender and refined melancholy, the deep sensibility, which are the peculiar charm of Hamlet, and which appear not only in the ardour, but in the occasional irresolution and weakness of his character – the secret spring that reconciles all his inconsistencies. A sensibility so profound can with difficulty be justly imagined, and therefore can very rarely be assumed. Her brother’s firmness, incapable of being always subdued, does not so fully enhance, as her tenderness would, this part of the character. The strong light which shows the mountains of a landscape in all their greatness, and with all their rugged sharpness, gives them nothing of the interest with which a more gloomy tint would invest their grandeur; dignifying, though it softens, and magnifying, while it obscures.’(p.163)

The last part of this is instructive. Radcliffe, echoing Edmund Burke, likens the light upon a mountain to the light that an actor – in this case Siddons – and indeed she herself, throws upon her heroines. She eschews ‘rugged sharpness’ in favour of a gloomy tint which magnifies ‘while it obscures’. The conditional ‘would’ here, covers the fact that the seventeen year old Ann Radcliffe did see Sarah Siddons as Hamlet at the Theatre Royal Bristol on 27 June 1781, and that on that night the Radcliffian heroine was born in the mind of the author. James Boaden ‘imagined that she [Siddons] must have far surpassed her brother Philip in communicating the Prince’s “real feminine alarm”.’ This Siddonsesque ‘tender and refined melancholy’ and ‘deep sensibility’ and, most of all, ‘real feminine alarm’, are keynotes to the characters of Julia in A Sicilian Romance, and are developed further in Adeline in The Romance of the Forest, and Emily in The Mysteries of Udolpho.

Where there’s a Hamlet there’s a Ghost and in Udolpho, the ghost of Hamlet’s father is summoned at the start of the novel by Radcliffe’s use of the epigraph to Volume 1 Chapter 2, ‘I could a tale unfold whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul’. Following Emily’s father’s death, Emily’s fancy that she ‘almost … saw him before her’ is reminiscent of Hamlet’s mental vision of his father before he sees his ghost, ‘in my mind’s eye, Horatio.’ (1.2.184).

The dead St. Aubert appears before Emily in an armchair – and she is immediately after described, like Hamlet, as being susceptible to the ‘thick coming fancies of a mind greatly enervated’ (memories of Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth also obviously playing in Radcliffe’s memories here).

As ever, Ann Radcliffe meters up the gloom, tension and fear for her central protagonist. Udolpho, like Elsinore, continues to be bedevilled by mysterious sightings. Emily herself perceives the mysterious figure on the ramparts which has so petrified the watch. Radcliffe writes:

Her scattered thoughts were now so far returned as to remind her, that her light exposed her to dangerous observation, and she was stepping back to remove it, when she perceived the figure move, and then wave what seemed to be its arm, as if to beckon her, and, while she gazed, fixed in fear, it repeated the action.

Parallels with Hamlet continue when it becomes clear that the villain of the piece, Montoni, is a Claudius-type character. He usurps St. Aubert and inherits Udolpho by villainous means – in much the same way that Claudius inherits Elsinore.  He murders his wife and plans to bury her ‘hugger-mugger’ so to speak, until Emily entreats him otherwise. Radcliffe is at her sublime best in the ensuing description of the pitiable Madame Montoni’s funeral. She cites the painter Dominico Zampieri openly as an influence, but she scarcely needs to. Her plangent gothic description, as gleams of light play in and out of the vault surrounding the torch lit grave, suffices to give the scene an almost filmic quality, as if Radcliffe wants to stage Ophelia’s burial with proper decorum.

Radcliffe’s Shakespearean Gothic had a massive influence on literature and her contemporaries – one need only look at the affect she had on Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis. Matthew Gregory Lewis was born in London on 9 July 1775, the son of a Deputy Secretary at the War Office. He left Oxford University intending to follow a career in the diplomatic office like his father, but on his journey towards the Hague where he was due to take up a position as attaché, he read a novel which was to change his life. The nineteen-year-old Lewis picked up Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho whilst on the boat over to the Netherlands and fell under it’s spell declaring it to be ‘one of the most interesting books ever published’.  It was during this period, before his father recalled him back to England, that he wrote The Monk in the space of ten weeks. Lewis’s The Monk caused so much of a sensation that the title even worked itself into his name. The Monk, which scandalised late-eighteenth century literary society, is partly driven by a Shakespearean osmosis. Indeed, as if prepared for the storm the novel would provoke, Lewis apes Hamlet in his Preface ‘An Imitation of Horace’:

Go then, and pass that dangerous bourn

Whence never Book can back return:

Book One of the novel proper opens appropriately with a quotation from Measure for Measure:

Lord Angelo is precise;

Stands at a guard with envy; Scarce confesses

That his blood flows, or that his appetite

Is more to bread than stone.

… thus signalling to us the incipient hypocrisy and underlying concupiscence of the eponymous Monk Ambrosio, who in the course of the novel sells his soul to the Devil with fatal results having along the way indulged himself in obscene occult and sexual practices.

Radcliffe received an unprecedented £500 advance for The Mysteries of Udolpho. Udolpho. She outsold every other author of her day. Unfortunately, unlike Shakespeare, very little documentary evidence remains of Radcliffe’s life.  Gothic scholar Robert Miles commented:

Ann Radcliffe was, in her day, the obscurest woman of letters in England. Her contemporaries despaired of learning anything about her, while Christina Rossetti abandoned her planned biography for lack of materials.

In the British Library’s 2014 exhibition on the Gothic ‘Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination’ a rare letter from Radcliffe to her mother-in-law was displayed for the first time – one of the few personal documents of her life remaining. 

Newly discovered Ann Radcliffe letter, 31 August, London. Photography (c) British Library Board

In the 20th century Gothic studies have revived an interest in the works and life of Radcliffe and especially her relationship to the works of Shakespeare::

Shakespearean Gothic / Christy Desmet and Anne Williams.
Cardiff : University of Wales Press, 2008 (SI Library PR2973)

Gothic Shakespeares / edited by John Drakakis, Dale Townshend.
London : Routledge, 2008 (SI Library PR2976)

For more information check out the British Library’s Introduction to Ann Radcliffe.

You can also read more about editions of her work in this piece by Chawton House Library.

A audio version of Udolpho can be found on Box of Broadcasts: The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

Karin Brown (Shakespeare Institute Librarian) & David Brown (Alumni of the Shakespeare Institute)

Touring Shakespeare in India with Wendy

Transcribing the Wendy Beavis Archive

Those of you who are regular readers of this blog may remember one from this time last year, written by Kate Welch, describing the recent acquisition of a collection of letters and other ephemera relating to the actress Wendy Beavis, who toured India in the 1950s with the theatre company, Shakespeareana¸ run by Geoffrey and Laura Kendal. Work on transcribing this collection is now well under way, with the added impetus that it is now being used by a Shakespeare Institute alumnus, Thea Buckley, to put together a book proposal about Shakespeare in India. This archive certainly provides plenty of useful material for that.

Wendy B 1Wendy was born near London in 1932, but grew up in Sutton Coldfield, was educated at a convent school in nearby Erdington and attended the Birmingham School of Drama where she studied acting for two years. She also trained as a model, which is possibly when this photograph was taken. In her letters to her parents from India, Wendy often asks them to send ‘repros’ of the big photographs, as ‘we are always being asked for photographs, and they would be handy’.

After leaving the BSD, she joined the Rex Deering Repertory Company, touring around the Midlands in the early 1950s, before joining Shakespeareana and setting off for India in June 1953. She returned home in October 1956 and, as far as we know, never  acted again.

Transcribing the letters has proved a fascinating project and as time goes on,  (for us and for Wendy), it is possible to build a picture of this young woman who left for India over sixty years ago. After getting used to some of her foibles (always writing ‘+’ for ‘and’; peppering every sentence with dashes; squeezing everything into one small airmail letter with no paragraphs in order to make economical use of the paper; always employing the ‘i before e’ rule, but often forgetting the exceptions – ‘wiegh’,’ viel’), we encounter a letter-writer who takes pleasure in using an unusual green ink, or in mailing her letters in long envelopes. All this of course has to be recorded in the transcripts: although it is very easy to ‘correct’ small mistakes without even noticing, it is important that the letters appear as Wendy wrote them – warts and all. This is how we get to know her. Always darting from one topic to another, often leaving the letters half-written (on one occasion, because she was due on stage!), then coming back to them, once, twice, three times.

She writes to her parents at least once a week for the entire three years that she was away, and the things she chooses to write about are revealing. It becomes increasingly clear that there are aspects of life in India that she chooses NOT to tell her parents about, and when reading this archive, it is important to bear in mind that she was writing for a very specific audience. She describes the places the Company stays, from the grim boarding houses in rural areas of India, to the occasional sojourn in a luxurious hotel in Calcutta or Simla; the weather – of course! – and the food – at first strange and exotic, but then, she discovers, absolutely delicious! She learned quickly, as many a traveller does, that eating local food is far more rewarding and tasty than expecting to find chips or a decent shepherd’s pie. She complains that meat in India is ‘awful’ and more than once, she considers becoming a vegetarian.


She writes a lot about her clothes (or lack of them) – although she often has new dresses made locally; money (or lack of it); how she spends her free time – swimming, going to the wrestling (!), visiting coffee houses, trips to the cinema. She talks a lot about her fellow actors, and some she clearly gets on better with than others: Jennifer (the Kendal’s eldest daughter) becomes a great friend, but Nancy and her untidy ways does not meet with much favour. Seven-year-old Foo (Felicity Kendal) however, is everybody’s darling! Wendy often comments on what Foo has been up to in her letters. She seems to miss a lot of things from home –  whether this might be exaggerated for her parent’s benefit is anybody’s guess – but she talks longingly of the garden, her cat and ‘mummy’s’ home cooking. She remembers birthdays and anniversaries  and often sends presents home, although the vagaries and frustrations of sending and receiving international mail take up a great deal of her attention. Letters are lost, delayed and cross in the post, while some parcels sent from England have to be sent back unopened because the duty charged is too high for her to pay.

It has been noted before that one of the common frustrations of reading an archive of letters is that we only get one side of the story. However, in this case, Wendy is so meticulous at responding to the details of her parents letters in her replies, that in fact, we have a very good idea of the contents of their letters to her. We also learn in this way about the home she left behind, neighbours, friends and relations who are all mentioned in her replies to her parent’s news about them. She shows concern at the death of the neighbour, Mrs Mason, and wonders what will become of her dog, Nip. And she apparently feels very badly that she is not at home to see her mother through a serious operation and its aftermath, although we might suspect that she was spared much of the detail here by her protective ‘Mummy and Daddy’.

Wendy B 2As well as all the day to day details of her life, Wendy does make occasional mention of the work she is there to do – the staging of theatrical productions for audiences around India. Although we can glean the company’s repertoire, some of the parts she played (the nurse in Romeo and Juliet, Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice, Mrs Higgins in Pygmalion), and occasional details of her costumes and make-up, there is in fact frustratingly little information about the productions, how they were staged and how they were received. Perhaps she thought her parents wouldn’t be interested, or perhaps they didn’t quite approve of their daughter gallivanting off to foreign parts to be an actress, so she doesn’t dwell too much on this – who knows? But work she did, sometimes a punishing schedule with several performances a day: other times there was less work, but this of course was accompanied by less money. All carried out against a background of searing heat, monsoon rains, inevitable illnesses, the general frustrations and inconveniences of being on the road – and mosquitoes!

Much is already known about the work of Shakespeareana from Geoffrey Kendal’s book and then the subsequent film, Shakespeare Wallah, as well as Felicity Kendal’s later White Cargo, which tells the story of her childhood in India, touring with her parents’ theatre company. What the Beavis archive adds is another valuable facet to this story – and one which we hope to see in print in Thea’s book in the not too distant future.

Jill Francis and Bettina Harris, Library Support Assistants