SIL Book of the Week – The ‘stuff’ of early modern history

The latest addition to the Routledge Guides to using Historical Sources, Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources has been received into the Shakespeare Institute Library this week. Edited by Laura Sangha and Jonathan Willis, this book is an invaluable resource for the student of early modern history. Every student knows that primary sources are the lifeblood of the historian and without them, as the Introduction clearly states, history would be impossible to write. But where to start?!

understandingFor the student, the array of material ranging from state papers, printed books, literary sources, manuscript letters, diaries, wills and inventories, visual sources such as paintings, buildings, clothing etc. etc. can be daunting, if not overwhelming. The first part of this book offers a practical guide to approaching such sources, providing information on how the material was produced in the first place, how it has been preserved and how it can be accessed. There are pointers as to where to look at original material as well of course as how to access the vast and ever-increasing  digital resources now available. There are hints on the kind of questions to ask when approaching such sources together with case studies and examples.

The second part of the book approaches its subject thematically, examining what kind of sources can be used to explore a range of major themes such as popular culture, political culture, gender, science, warfare, religion and so on.

A must for the student of early modern history as well as the student of Shakespeare who is interested in setting the work of the bard within the wider context of the world in which he lived.

Dr Jill Francis, Library Support Assistant


Shakespeare in 1950s India: Wendy Beavis writes home


The Shakespeare Institute Library has recently acquired the letters of Wendy Beavis, an actor with the Shakespeareana Company touring India and Pakistan in the 1950s. Run by Geoffrey and Laura Kendal, the company performed in schools, theatres and sometimes the open-air and experienced long, cramped train journeys, basic accommodation and prickly heat as well as staying in palaces, riding on elephants and seeing the Himalayas, together with the camaraderie and petty squabbles of a small touring group of actors.


Wendy wrote to her parents in Sutton Coldfield every few days and her letters are full of the everyday experiences of being away from home: trying new food, making her limited money last, dealing with other company members and their foibles but also of the specific problems of a theatre troupe: trying to keep the costumes clean and pressed, coping with inadequate electrical supplies in remote villages, playing to audiences who don’t speak English and the constant shortage of greasepaint which Wendy frequently asks her parents to send her. The searing heat caused the Macbeth witches’ rubber masks to melt and the costumes to be drenched in sweat, monsoon rains flooded the theatre and drummed on the tin roof and, during a performance of Othello, an earthquake caused the audience to stampede from the theatre, endangering Jennifer Bragg (the Kendals’ daughter) who was lying on stage as the dead Desdemona.

Shakespeareana performed a varied repertoire, not just Shakespeare but also Gaslight, The Importance of Being Earnest, Charley’s Aunt and She Stoops to Conquer, here shown in a performance in Simla with Wendy on the far left.


The company performed for and met many notable people including Prime Minister Nehru, Tensing Norgay, Countess Mountbatten, the Maharajah of Mysore and Gopi Krishna, the famous Kathak dancer.

The main sequence of letters runs from June 1953 when the company set sail on the TSS Jal-Jawahar from England to Bombay (performing several shows on board ship) until October 1956 when Wendy and fellow actor John Day returned on the MS Batory, with her final letter on the 20th ending ‘only another 17 days’. Having told her parents back in March that she would be coming home in the autumn and would be at home for Christmas, by the time she left India the ever-changing Shakespeareana schedule had changed again. The plan then was for the company to tour America and Canada and for Wendy to join them in Antwerp in November for the transatlantic crossing. However this tour never materialised, the company travelled on to Singapore and Malaya and Wendy never rejoined them. How her parents or Wendy herself felt about this we shall never know.

Wendy discussed news from home both domestic and national. She always responded to details in her parents’ letters and constantly asked questions about their garden, her relatives and Candy the cat. She also mentioned the 1955 general election, an outbreak of myxomatosis, a serious crash at Sutton railway station (still Birmingham’s worst rail disaster) and asked ‘How is this commercial T.V. going? Are you getting any better programmes, or is it more irritating?’

One of the common frustrations of reading an archive of letters is that you only get one side of the story.  A rare treasure therefore are two letters written to Wendy in November 1954 which were returned to sender covered in redirections: one from her father and one from her mother. Mrs Beavis went into hospital in 1954 for an operation; it’s clear Wendy worried about her and even offered to come home but we don’t know how much she knew about it or whether her parents withheld the details. Mr Beavis wrote that while his wife was in hospital he has put two coats of paint on the kitchen as a surprise for her and reports she was ‘bucked’ to get a letter from Wendy with snaps and flowers. Mrs Beavis wrote from Ward 2 of the Women’s Hospital and on page 11 of a 16-page letter mostly talking about other people she mentioned she has had a hysterectomy. We know Wendy did not get this letter but we have those she sent her mother in hospital, one enclosing two sprigs of bougainvillea, exotic blooms in Sparkhill, Birmingham.


Kate Welch, Senior Information Assistant

The Art of Deception: Kurosawa’s ‘The Bad Sleep Well’


This morning on Twitter a stunning poster of Ran reminded me of my awe and wonder for Kurosawa’s films. Yes, I’ve blogged about Kurosawa before but it struck me that Throne of Blood and Ran get much attention while the marvellous The Bad Sleep Well is less known and less praised. Here’s a short piece about that film which contains moments of pure cinematic genius.


In his book Theatre of Chaos William Demastes states that ‘Hamlet is like a sponge. Unless produced in a stylized or antiquarian fashion, it immediately absorbs the problems of our time… its philosophical dimensions are as rich and culturally moveable as its political dimensions.’

Kurosawa sets his version of Hamlet in contemporary post-war Japan. During the 20th century Japan transformed from a feudal empire to an industrial super state, and the transition was not a smooth one. When Japan surrendered at the end of the Second World War the emperor declared, “We must endure the unendurable”, and for the first time in their history Japan became an occupied country. Traditional feudal values were repressed by the American occupiers, there were political and economic reforms, democratic institutions were set up. A whole new way of life had to be adopted – some threw themselves into it with a self-destructive force, others, like Kurosawa, approached it carefully, adapted to it and made it their own. He was given the chance to make films about subjects that had never been tackled before – one of them being the social chaos of the post war years. Wartime austerity had been replaced by indulgence and excess. He said:

I wanted to make a film of some social significance. At last I decided to do something about corruption, because it has always seemed to me that graft, bribery, etc, on a public level is the worst crime that there is. These people hide behind the façade of some great organisation like a company or corporation and consequently no one ever really knows how dreadful they are, what awful things they do. Exposing them I thought of as a socially significant act – and so I started the film.


Kurosawa’s resulting screenplay examines the effect that political decisions can have on the personal, and by association, national psyche – how will the human soul be affected? The Bad Sleep Well shows us a complete warping of traditional values – a sickness brought about by corruption within new and established institutions disturbed by the war. Speaking later he said: ‘Maybe it was because I came from the old samurai class, but even back then I remember hating anything crooked or underhanded’.

Important traditional qualities such as loyalty and honour are manipulated for self-interest. Employees are encouraged to commit suicide in order to save the skins of their superiors. Self-assertion was seen as immoral in pre-war days and self-sacrifice as a sensible course in life. In Kurosawa’s film the old levels of Japanese society, their ways and values are still in place but have been perverted for diabolical ends and a hidden agenda. Nobility and virtue no longer apply in a capitalist environment. Beneath the veneer of duty, ritual and obedience to authority is a wealth of personal trauma. The ‘Hamlet’ character, played by Toshiro Mifune (and by association Kurosawa himself), wishes to explode the facade, and takes on the important responsibility of trying to expose these men who hide behind the mask of respectability and act like gangsters.

the-bad-sleep-well-noirAppropriately, The Bad Sleep Well is photographed like a film noir. This was a style born in America by directors who fled Germany at the start of the Second World War. They used expressionistic techniques, chiaroscuro, angled camera positions, and disturbing cityscapes. This genre of film told stories of people who found it difficult and sometimes impossible to wade through the dark underbelly of their country – characters that are severely tested in their adjustment to civilian life after the war – having fought for justice, they find only corruption, and the fates against them in their own city streets. The noir style fits Kurosawa’s subject. Beautifully photographed in ravishing black and white widescreen, the film flows between the clinical corporate world of offices and meetings to the darkened suburban streets where ersatz ghosts and would-be-killers lurk in shadows, only to disappear in car headlights moments later.


Japan, like Denmark, is a prison. This feeling of entrapment is cleverly created with Kurosawa’s visual style. The majority of his shots in this film have a symmetrical composition. Characters stand on opposite sides of the screen reflecting each other and framing the action. The actors are often blocked to form converging lines or triangles so that the viewer subliminally feels as though he is being fenced in or pushed into a corner.

The settings also emphasize this eerie claustrophobic aspect with long corridors lit by strips of light, darkened streets lined with fences that block off sight-lines: a police office with horizontal blinds lit from outside creates bars of light across the walls; home interiors of plain walls with bars of wood again creating the idea of being closed in.


This film is a myriad of mousetraps, as Nishi tries to expose his father’s murderers and bring down the company. The centre-piece to this film is a breath-taking and extraordinary scene which occurs directly after Nishi has saved Wada, another company pawn, from committing suicide. Wada, who is believed dead by everyone, is forced by Nishi to watch his own funeral. This is Nishi’s incredibly cruel ‘play within the play’ which Wada must endure in order to spur the revenge plot. (The scene is first up in this trailer for the film).

It is a scene that reflects the concerns of the entire film. It is about truth and the juxtaposition of conflicting ideologies, and is completely cinematic – what we see and hear are completely at odds and so the horror of it is accentuated.

Nishi and Wada are in the constricted environment of the car, the windscreen itself acts like a cinema screen, and Nishi produces his own soundtrack – a recording of the corporate villains of the company Dairyu in a nightclub. So, we are watching a film within a film. The soundtrack is completely at odds with what we are watching, thus making it more grotesque. A grieving widow and child unknowingly receive the would-be murderers of the man they have lost. The very traditional funeral mount and the national costumes of the women, place them in traditional Japan – a funeral service for a man who believes in the validity of old values – the belief of which has ironically resulted in his attempted suicide and presumed death. The men from Dairyu, their dark suits representing the corporate world, appear reverential and humble, they pray – their deception in the outside world goes unnoticed. But we hear, with Wada, from their morbid drive-in, the truth. The westernisation of Japan and the corporate identity that the executives represent is echoed in the swinging western music of the night club, we see them bow in reverence but hear them laugh about the man’s death and talk about celebrating his demise with drink and women.

There is a great sense of corruption here, of guilt and the gullibility of innocence and, of course, of betrayal. In Hamlet, those in power act above the law – as in Macbeth they show a face that hides a much darker self.

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Although he is alive, Wada is the ghost at his own funeral. He says, ‘after this I cannot go on living’. The rights have been performed and he is dead in the eyes of the world. Nishi leaves him no option but to join him in his revenge plot. But his role is that of a ghost, a visitor from the grave exposing the crime committed against him. Like Banquo’s ghost he repeatedly appears to his murderer and drives him out of his mind. His would-be murderer is also one of the men indirectly responsible for the death of Nishi’s father. He is left a gibbering wreck and in his madness, acknowledging his guilt, can only utter ‘Forgive me Furuya’.

Sons seeking revenge, corruption, murder for personal gain, madness, appearance versus reality, ghost and mousetraps – they are all here, joined by the pervading theme of deception. Kurosawa succeeds in exposing the corrupt interlocking of business and government in post-war Japan. Nishi’s attempt to impose justice on a world in which justice is absent is futile. As in Ran the chaos that ensues leads to madness and loss.

Karin Brown, Shakespeare Institute Librarian

Many of Kurosawa’s film are available on Box of Broadcasts including:


Throne of Blood

See the Bfi’s page on Kurosawa vs Shakespeare

The SIL Extraordinary Current Awareness Services

So. I recently paid for my final few months as a research student at the Shakespeare Institute (which, great news, turned out to be less than I thought it was going to be).  I’m nearly done. I just need to get through this final stretch, and I’ll get my officially sanctioned floppy hat.

I am absolutely certain I would not have made it this far without the Current Awareness scheme. As a research student, there are a million demands on your time, and it’s easy to slide out of touch with the latest research when you’re trying to bend the last fifty year’s theory to your will. It often seems to me that there are simply not enough hours in the day to keep abreast of everything going on in Shakespeare studies. And I just have to worry about text; our revolutions are slow tidal waves to the perpetual motion of performance, the never-ending permutations of stage craft, or the kaleidoscope root-scape of theory. If a helpful librarian wasn’t browsing through the new books and journals looking for my key words, I would have had to give up on sleep to get through it all myself.

shakespeares-words-via-flickrBut I am getting ahead of myself; I haven’t even explained what this marvellous scheme is yet. Current Awareness is part of the library service offered by the Shakespeare Institute Library to PhD students. For free. The doctor-to-be sends a list of keywords to the library (, and the library staff then read through every new book and periodical that crosses the SIL magnetized threshold, and alerts the researcher when their keywords pop up. To call it time-saving is an understatement in the extreme.

My only regret is that I didn’t know about it until I started working on it as an LSA. I am not aware of any other university libraries offering this service to their students; in Copenhagen, where I did my first degree, the librarians were busy protecting the older, frailer tomes, and pushing carts brimming with books from one part of campus to another, and while I did of course ask the occasional question, it never occurred to me that they could help me with my research.

It may be argued that my enthusiasm for Current Awareness is simply proof that I am not a very good academic: that I need to get better at managing my time – that a researcher who put in the hours could easily transverse the ever-broadening expanse of new material. Fortunately, however, I am not alone in valuing the benefits of this unique service. Here is their praise, in short, twitterific bursts: “That looks great – thanks!”, “Thank you for the recommendations”, “Most helpful, as always”, “Thank you – it sounds ideal”, “Thanks.  This sounds very useful”, “Thanks, that’s very cool!” “Thank you so much for making me aware of this :)”, “Thanks v. much – v helpful”.

And, speaking from the other side of the desk, from the comfort of the LSA chair, such positive feedback makes all the scouring worthwhile.

Truth be told, I enjoy hunting through all the new journals, looking for incredibly specific topics other than my own. It has made me aware in a very direct way of the richness of research being carried out across the world of Shakespeare studies, of the countless new publications that help reinvigorate our field each year, of how my little thread adds to the texture of a tapestry that is as much in our minds as out of them.

Words, words, words.

Sara Marie Westh, Library Support Assistant (and expectant PhD)

SI Old Stager on New Blood & a New Academic Year

Then nightly sings the staring owl.

A time of change is upon us here at the Shakespeare Institute Library.

I know it’s part of the academic year, as sure as the seasons roll on, and a great deal more punctual for that matter. Yet I’m always surprised by it. My inbox is flooded with good advice to new students – the system doesn’t seem capable of differentiating between the new and the continuing learner – who to write, what to write, how to find a housemate, where to file supplications for council tax exemption.

I knew it was coming, and it caught me completely unawares. It always does.

waitingLast Sunday saw the new MA students gather for the welcome tea, and from behind my desk at the Library entrance I hardly noticed. The old academic year has come to an end, and the new one is about to kick off. I haven’t met any of them yet. I haven’t met enough of the old MA’s yet, and they’re leaving this little, little stage, bowing out with Rosalind and Prospero.

It’s strange; the old MA students don’t seem so very old to me, and I find it hard to believe they’ve been here a year. I find it equally hard to believe that even younger students are about to embark on the same journey through Shakespeare scholarship I undertook not that long ago. The whirligig of time brings in more students.

I know they’re here in all their ripeness. I’ve seen a few of them in the library already. At least, I think I’ve seen them. They have the slightly overwhelmed, preoccupied look of people finding their feet on new ground. They pull at doors that should be pushed, and fumble with the card readers. Each of them reminds me a bit of Ferdinand and Viola, looking at the Institute island and trying to decide where they fit into it all.

Perfectly timed to coincide with the hurly-burly of seasonal scholarly change, we have implemented a new loans system across the University of Birmingham Libraries, which should, hopefully, make things run a little smoother all around. Loans will now automatically renew, to be recalled only when someone else requests the book. This will give our patrons the liberty to use our material with the greatest amount of freedom possible, restrained only by the needs of their fellow scholars. To the new students, this will not be a change. To them, this will be the system that always was.

Change is a natural part of the business of learning – when early career scholars are told to publish or perish, this is as much born of the necessity to contribute something preferably measurable to an academic field that often deals with things boundless as the sea, as it expresses the need for movement and for change. The day we stop moving is the day we become a museum. I feel a deep nostalgia for the past year, but I wouldn’t want to relive it.


I will miss the old ones. I look forward to meeting the new ones.

I was new once, too.

Tu-whit, tu-whoo! – a merry note.

Sara Marie Westh, LSA and PhD student at the Shakespeare Institute

Shakespeare at Abington Park

As a follow-up to my blog in April about a wartime production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream  ( last weekend I visited Abington Park in Northampton where it was staged. The church where Shakespeare’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Bernard, was buried was open on Sunday as part of the Heritage Open Days scheme as mentioned in Sylvia Morris’s blog


St Peter and St Paul Church is a beautiful little church dating back to the twelfth century, built in typical Northamptonshire ironstone.

Elizabeth’s second husband, John Bernard, has a grave stone in the church and, when Elizabeth’s coffin was found in a vault beneath the Lady Chapel, a plaque was placed on the wall nearby.


The house where John and Elizabeth lived is now the museum next to the church and in the grounds is the mulberry tree planted by David Garrick in 1778 as a cutting allegedly from Shakespeare’s mulberry tree at New Place in Stratford. There is a plaque marking the event and an explanatory sign.



Kate Welch, Senior Information Assistant

Shakespearean Popcorn: Snacking in the Playhouses of London

popcorn_jf10_310After a recent performance of Doctor Faustus, theatre producer Richard Jordan was an unhappy man. Writing in The Stage, he declared the West End audience to be:

‘Possibly the worst…I have ever encountered…Many of them… (were) talking, eating…often vocally commenting…There was also…an interval for bar and ice-cream sales – here was a Friday night commercial audience out for entertainment.’

With rising outrage, he continues:

‘A couple saw nothing wrong in producing…a box of … Chicken Nuggets and a large side of fries…Munching certainly seemed to be the order of the day. The couple to my left ate their way through a large tub of popcorn…while the couple on my right chomped through a packet of crisps. It was like listening to eating in Dolby stereo.’

References to ‘fast’ food and technology aside, Mr Jordan might almost have been in a 16th century playhouse.


We know from contemporary records that Elizabethan audiences could be unruly and raucous. In our century, recent excavations of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and, more comprehensively, the Rose, have uncovered a wealth of historical and archaeological information about the structure and organisation of the playhouses. The discovery of huge quantities of food detritus reveals what was eaten there and, to some extent, by whom.

By the 1590s, the commercial theatre as we know it, was firmly established in London. It was an innovation in mass entertainment as radical as television in the 1960s and, for the first time, dramatic productions took place in purpose-built, permanent and secure venues. London’s commercial life was thriving and an increased population meant large audiences and large takings, which sustained both actors and the fabric of the buildings .The new genre was assisted by the flowering of the talent of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

theatrePublic playhouses were usually circular or many-sided in shape, and open to the air. A roofed stage jutted out from the lowest of three galleries, with standing room in front of it. This cost a modest penny and accommodated the ‘groundlings’: Hamlet’s word, and uncomplimentary, since it referred to the small fry who feed on sludge at the bottom of streams and rivers. Superior positions in the galleries cost more while the ‘Lords’ Rooms’ were closer to the stage and catered for more prestigious playgoers.

This provision for all classes of society underlines the fundamentally commercial nature of the new theatres, some of which could accommodate up to three thousand people at a time. If theatre shows us to ourselves, then the new professional playwrights drew audiences by peopling their dramas not just with Kings and nobles, but with ‘ordinary’ folk: servants, door-keepers, porters, constables and young blades on the street. So do soap operas in our own century.

The playwright, Thomas Heywood, recorded:

‘Playing is an ornament to the Citty, which strangers of all Nations repairing hither, report of in their Countries, beholding them here with some admiration;  for what variety of entertainment can there be in any Citty of Christendome, more than in London?’

The church and the authorities did not agree: a part of Southwark and its highway, Bankside, which ran beside the river, was already the site of inns, gambling dens, animal baiting rings and brothels. It was, however, outside the city limits and its laws. Not surprisingly, the building of the new theatres was only permitted in that area. They were generally regarded as dens of vice: actors had traditionally been seen as dubious individuals, but now cut-purses and prostitutes were attracted to mass audiences who were already held responsible for spreading the Plague. Heywood, having praised the theatre, also admitted, ‘Pay thy tuppence to a player (and) in (the) gallery mayest thou sit by a harlot.’

Julian Bowsher of the Museum of London Archaeology, the moving force for the playhouse excavations, describes the procedure for going to the play:

‘You entered through a main door and paid a one penny entrance fee to the ‘gatherer,’ who would have a little money box rather like a piggy bank with a bright green glaze on it and a slot through which to put a penny…they were smashed open when they were taken back stage.’

Thousands of fragments of these money boxes were found on site. But having entered the playhouse, the buying and consuming of food became a major part of the experience.

The importance of readily available snacks was made clear by one Thomas Platter (no pun intended) who wrote that ‘during the performance food and drink are carried round the audience, so that for what one cares to pay one may also have refreshment.’ Many theatres had tap rooms attached to them and, at the Rose Theatre, surviving accounts reveal that a grocer by the name of John Chomley purchased what we might now call a ‘catering franchise.’  Chomley’s house, at the south-west corner was ‘to keepe victualinge in’ to sell to theatre goers.

034715 cropped 5

Many samples collected on site indicate the consumption of native species: walnuts, hazels, almonds, elderberry, blackberry, raspberry, plum, pear, peach and cherry. That huge amounts of shellfish were eaten is evidenced by the remains of cockles, mussels, periwinkles, whelks and cuttlefish. It was the popcorn of the day. The standard dagger, carried by every man, was as much a tool as a weapon, and was used to winkle out the cheap shellfish. Oysters were a popular cheap treat and were associated with the groundlings.  Cheap food equalled cheap standing room and was identified with those at the bottom of the social scale.

A visitor to London, Paul Hentzner, recorded seeing apples, pears and nuts on sale according to season. The cores might be hurled at the stage by unruly audience members unimpressed by the play, and there are references to ‘pippins’ and nuts being used as missiles. With the opening of new trade routes, much fruit was imported into London and raisins, dates, currants, figs and prunes were popular. Oranges from southern Europe arrived in large quantities but were expensive and regarded as exotic. Numerous pips were found at the Rose excavations. While the privileged in London might afford to buy them, they had also reached other areas. I am indebted to my colleague Dr Jill Francis for informing me of accounts which show that oranges were given as gifts in the provinces, reiterating their status as luxury items. The seeds of marrow, pumpkin, squash and gourd represent relatively early evidence of contact with the New World.


Apart from ‘water-bearers’ in the playhouse yard, the only other beverage seems to have been ‘bottled ale.’ This made a loud fizzing noise when opened and, along with the continual cracking of nuts, formed what may have been a disturbing accompaniment to the play. ‘When (a playwright) hears his play hissed, hee would rather thinke bottle-Ale is opening’ wrote a sardonic commentator. Ale did, however, fulfil a practical purpose when, on the occasion of the burning down of the Globe Theatre, it was used to extinguish the burning breeches of an unwary man.

forkThe privileged, meanwhile, brought their own more glamorous food along with their own wine, glasses and cutlery. An iron fork found at the Rose excavations bore its owners initials inlaid in brass, and would have sported an elegant wooden handle. This was upmarket cutlery identified as a ‘sucket’ fork, used to spear sweetmeats such as marchpane (marzipan), sugar-bread and gingerbread – the equivalent of a box of quality chocolates today. Its owner must have been someone of sophisticated tastes and some social status for such an item would not have been associated with the groundlings.

The variety of foodstuffs available in the playhouses was remarkably wide. It was also organic, and packed with the antioxidants, vitamins and enzymes which we are encouraged to consume today. The mass-produced, ‘fast ’food of our own century, laden with artificial colouring and chemically-derived flavourings may, in nutritional terms, be far worse for our health.

Bring on the whelks!

Bettina Harris (Library Support Assistant)

Howl, howl, howl, howl! Lear is mad again…

2016 sees a glut of King Lear productions, which our current exhibition in the SIL explores. LSA and PhD student at the Shakespeare Institute, Sara Westh explores Lear’s enduring fascination.

The by now quite venerable Arden Shakespeare Lear characterises its subject as “a colossus at the centre of Shakespeare’s achievement as the grandest effort of his imagination.”

Whether a fan of the play or not one cannot deny the influence of Lear as an iconic moment of narrative and drama in our age, something that Kott’s praise of it as “above all others the Shakespearean play of our time” seems to bear out. Of course, the date of publication of Shakespeare Our Contemporary suggests that rather than being the sigil of one age in particular, Lear has, as the rest of the Shakespeare gang, shown an aptitude for eternity. Maybe Lear speaks to us because the divide between age and youth is always instantly recognisable as well as being infinitely adaptable; the issues that prompted Kott to claim a singularly powerful status for the mad king in the mad world, cut off from human kindness, suffering in a hell as much of his own making as created by the people closest to him, are issues of humanity, and they are no less poignant today.

As we once again embrace the heath for its familiar barrenness, the inevitability of Lear seems closer than ever before. Our world is growing old, the tempests that rage just outside the castle walls are all too real, and the twitterings of our Fool companion are a constant buzz in the back of our minds. When everything appears to spiral out of our control in spite of well-laid plans and best intentions, we all howl with Lear. Unlike the king, however, we know how the story ends.

Turning to the play itself, to the king that staggers across the stage rather than through our minds, its enduring influence can be traced in part to its history, and in part to the fascination it engenders among the audience. There is, apparently, something at once deeply satisfying and unsettling about the gradual destruction of the elderly, followed by the revival (and un-blinding) of everyone involved through the magic of applause. Freud and Lacan can probably offer very incisive analyses of the play, in particular its use of sharp objects, and Barthes and Derrida can beyond doubt oblige us with new worlds of verbal slippage and dead gods from within the lines. And while all of this forms part of the reason why Lear is mad again this year, there is almost certainly more to it than penetration, castration, repetition, and perpetuation in our communal cultural memory.

The reviews of this year’s offerings help us suck the marrow from the bone:

“Through Warrington, Lear’s madness is made at one with the storm […]. He emerges from it transformed: fragile, human, as authentic as Cordelia, whose love – and whose death – he movingly shares.”

“Pennington’s performance charts Lear’s course from overconfident folly to humbled self-knowledge via the storms of madness with moving craft, culminating in scenes of extraordinary loving tenderness, first with blinded Gloucester (Pip Donaghy) and then, heart-wrenchingly, with the hanged Cordelia (Beth Cooke).”

Michael Pennington is portraying Lear at Royal & Derngate, Northampton, while Don Warrington takes the king upon him at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. Judging from the publicity photos, both productions visually evoke an era past, with costumes suggesting the 1930’s-40’s, and both show their protagonists descending into white shirts as they descend into madness.

Clare Brennan reviewed the two productions side by side for the Guardian and according to her description the two lead actors are comparably magnificent; both combine the air of death that clings to Lear’s shoulders like tar with tender moments of excruciating pain. Both portrayals she describes as “moving”.

Apart from the immediate meaning of emotions that transport us beyond the hum-drum every-day, and maybe even deposit us in that rare embrace of catharsis where our own problems fade into insignificance for a few, brief moments, until the lights go up again, and we once more set out across the heaths we spend our lives cultivating, there is a deeper sense of movement at play. Maybe the “moving” centre of Lear is what makes its particular calamity of so long life; the savage joy of witnessing inescapable suffering, sorrow of a magnitude that goes far beyond what any one of us can reasonably pretend to fathom, and yet witnessed from such a privileged point of view that every moment of the old man’s downfall is available to us in the full technicolour of our own senses.

Glenda Jackson will be portraying Lear at the Old Vic later this year, as will Antony Sher at the RSC. The Lears of 2016, then, are so far looking like an at least approximately representative model of the population. The only unifying feature is age: this year’s Lear must, apparently, be old. Perhaps the traditions that surround this theatrical sacrifice demand a certain stiffness in the joints and toughness in the sinews; an old actor’s offering, much as Hamlet belongs to the young, provided that Uncle Monty’s view of the world in Withnail and I is to be credited.

If the 2016 Lear productions are anything to go by, this is the age of the mad king, of the player who only too late realises that he is the star of his own tragedy. And as such it is, of course, the story of everyone alive. It is, unfortunately, a story we love to watch – in others as in ourselves. And we never start clapping until the lights go down.

Sara Marie Westh, LSA Shakespeare Institute Library


Brennan, Clare. “King Lear Review – Two Lears Acting up a Storm”. The Guardian. 10.04.2016. web 01.08.2016. <;.

Foakes, R.A. “Introduction” King Lear by William Shakespeare. Arden Shakespeare 3rd series. gen. eds. R. Proudfoot, A. Thompson, D.S. Kastan. Walton-on-Thames: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, 1997.

Kott, Jan. Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Trans. Boleslaw Taborski. London: Routledge, 1988.



Aebischer, Pascale, Edward J. Esche, and Nigel Wheale (eds). Remaking Shakespeare: Performance Across Media, Genres, and cultures.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2003.

Burt, Richard (ed). Shakespeare after Mass Media. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002.

Henderson, Diana E. Collaborations with the Past : Reshaping Shakespeare across Time and Media. Ithaca; London: Cornell UP, 2006

Holland, Peter (ed). Shakespeare Survey 62: Close Encounters with Shakespeare’s Text. Cambridge: CUP, 2009.

Joughin, John J. Philosophical Shakespeares. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.

Kelley, Philippa. The King and I. London and New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011.

Lusardi, James and June Schlueter. Reading Shakespeare in Performance: King Lear. London, New Jersey, Ontario: U of Delaware P: Associated UP’s, 1991.

Mack, Maynard. King Lear in Our Time. London: Methuen & Co Ltd, 1966

Massai, Sonia. World-wide Shakespeares – Local Appropriations in Film and Performance. Oxon: Routledge, 2005.

Muir, Kenneth (ed). King Lear – Critical Essays. London and New York: Routledge, 2015.

— and Stanley Wells (eds). Aspects of King Lear. London, New York, New Rochelle, Melbourne, Sydney: CUP, 1982.

Ogden, James and Arthur H. Scouten (eds). Lear from Study to Stage – Essays in Criticism. Madison; Teaneck: Fairleigh Dickinson UP; London: Associated UP’s, 1997.

Proudfoot, Richard (ed). Shakespeare : Text, Stage and Canon. London : Arden Shakespeare, 2001.

Sun, Emily. Succeeding King Lear. New York: Fordham UP, 2010.

Wagner, Matthew D. Shakespeare, Theatre, and Time. London and New York: Routledge, 2012.

“I’m a wild one…”: the wild men of Shakespeare

‘What is man,

If his chief good and market of his time

Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more’

On inquiring what it means to be human, Hamlet finds himself questioning the difference between man and animal, and if indeed they are all that different. In his plays Shakespeare presents us with a number of characters with a folkloric origin which Lear calls ‘unaccomodated man’ – the wild man – illustrated here from 2 contemporary ballads.

SantaWildman (1) Wild man elizabethanThe wild man can be traced back to both classical mythology and European folklore. Romulus who was reared by a she-wolf, Hercules dressed in a lion skin and carrying a club, satyrs, fauns, and other such characters lived happily with nature. Another example is the Roman god Sylvanus – a tutelary deity of woods and fields. As protector of forests (sylvestris deus), he especially presided over plantations and delighted in trees growing wild. He is also described as a god watching over the fields and husbandmen, protecting in particular the boundaries between wild and cultivated land.

2Alternatively, the wild man was a symbol that primitive existence was truly bestial and that society, through collective effort and human reason was the only way of improving the quality of life. In Europe during the middle ages there were many rumours of forest dwelling wild folk living in a state of nature. These savages were feared as the enemy of man and were associated with demons of the earth and ghosts of the underworld. Another association was with elves and fairies of country lore, impish, not always kindly and connected with vegetation and fertility.

In Book 1 of Spenser’s the Faerie Queene we meet a ‘salvage nation’ who live at ease with nature. They recognize the holiness of Una and protect her even if they cant understand her notion of true faith. In Book 3 conversely, there is a goat-herding tribe who are remarkable for their unrestrained sexuality. With bagpipes, dances and garlands they celebrate the acquisition of the strumpet Hellenore as their Maylady – which is what they call her. We are reminded here of a passage from Stubbes Anatomie of Abuses (1583) raging against the May Day Celebrations:

‘then they have their Hobby-horses, dragons, and other Antiques, together with their baudie pipers and thundering drummers to strike up the devil’s dance withal, then marche these heathen company towards the Church or churchyard, their pipers piping, their drummers thundering, their stumpts dancing, their bells jingling, their hankerchiefs swinging about their heads like madmen.’

Caliban is described in the first folio list of characters as ‘salvage and deformed’. Edmund Malone described his costuming as ‘a large bear skin, or the skin of some other animal; and he is usually represented with long shaggy hair.’ His fishiness could be attributed to his smell considering he spends time among the rocky shores, rather than to his appearance. Trinculo calls him a moon-calf. This refers to one of many items of lore connected with the moon. The moon-calf was a false conception, a foetus imperfectly formed due to the influence of the moon. Caliban’s deformity, however, derives from a different area of lore. In the days of witchcraft it was supposed that devils called incubi and succubi roamed the earth with the express purpose of tempting people to abandon their purity of life. Most records of these creatures came from monasteries and convents and were a convenient way of covering up the sexual activity of supposedly celibate orders. Badly deformed children were suspected of having such undesirable parentage. In this instance we know that Caliban’s mother was a witch and that he was ‘got by the devil himself’.

Caliban...Cambion_or_MooncalfHowever, Caliban’s intelligence and emotional development is far above the usual literary and mythological breed of savage man. When he is denied the pleasure of Miranda’s bed and forced to serve under Prospero’s will he expresses a very human bitterness:

When thou cam’st first,

Thou strok’st me, and made much of me

And then I lov’d thee,

And show’d thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle.


Renaissance literature provides us with many examples of the civilised man turned savage, whether due to banishment or exile, or due to betrayal in love or friendship.

Pericles, The Globe, 2015

Pericles, The Globe, 2015

In Pericles the hero displays the characteristics of the wild man. Believing both his wife and daughter to be dead, he swears never to wash his face, nor cut his hairs. And when his ship reaches Mytilene we are told in Act 5 Scene 1 that  ‘for this three month he hath not spoken / To anyone, nor taken sustenance / But to prorogue his grief.’ Having found incest, fraud and jealously among men, having lost those he held most dear, and seeing nature indifferent to justice and misery, he becomes less than human in his suffering. In his reunion with Marina we are reminded of Edgar’s words at his own reconciliation with his despairing father ‘Twixt two extremes of passion , joy and grief’ they meet. Through the extreme depth of suffering that we see physically manifested, a reaction of extreme cathartic joy is reached.

Edgar victorianEdgar embodies many of the characteristics identified as that of the wild man but he is unlike any other. He dramatizes a vision of man brought near to beast – appropriate in a play full of animal imagery and crowded with comparisons of man to animal. As Bedlam beggar, he will mortify his flesh, elf all his hair in knots, grime his face with filth and take the ‘basest and most poorest shape/That ever penury, in contempt of man, /Brought near to beast.’ Through his encounter with Poor Tom, Lear reaches an awareness of the nature of humanity. If man is inherently different from animal, the distinction between the two lies not with physical or material qualities, but with rational and spiritual values – duty, affection, kindness, pity, fortitude and forgiveness. As critic G M Princiss stated:

In enacting the role of Poor Tom, Edgar embodies the lowest pitch of human existence. However, through his various impersonations we watch him re-establish order and hierarchy among humanity. Starting with the bare, forked animal, ‘the thing itself’, Edgar by turns becomes peasant, soldier, knight incognito and perhaps even king. He stands for the great range of human potential in behaviour and class and at the same time reminds us of the narrow distance between noblemen and beggar, accommodated man and bare forked animal. He portrays not only man’s closeness to the beast but his distance from it. And in emphasizing man’s common humanity, Edgar is perhaps the most powerful, poignant and comprehensive presentation of the savage man in literature. In the words of Beckett’s tramps, ‘He’s all humanity’.

Karin Brown, Shakespeare Institute Librarian

Whereof are you made? Shakespeare’s Inspiring First Folio

A few weeks ago the Cadbury Research Library held a lovely event to welcome the arrival of a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio into the University’s collections. The First Folio itself was on display along with many other Shakespearean related treasures and beautiful editions of the works. The ability of the written word to transmit Shakespeare into different forms and eras, the metaphysical properties of the text itself, were revealed in the pieces presented on the evening; whether through Dr John Jowett’s lecture, the readings of selections of Shakespeare’s works, through the illustrations and various editions of the works. Shakespeare’s presence was evoked through ink and paper, voice and image.

One of the highlights of the evening were the contributions made by the students of the University. This original work written in honour of the occasion by Richard O’Brien wonderfully brought together the themes of the evening and to myself, a librarian, illuminated the physical miracle of the printed word.

Whereof are you made?

Cut rags to ribbons. Bring them to the boil,

then beat them into pulp. Set up a frame.

Remove the frisket. Give the tympan oil.

Lay out the letters of a normal name.

Wait for a wasp to swell an oak with gall,

then crush the growth and stir it in hot piss.

Dampen the paper. Fetch a leather ball,

and roll it in whatever comes of this.

Blacken the type, then lock the page in place.

Push in the press bed. Pull to wind the screw.

Lower the platen. Black marks on white space.

Open the hinges. Lift out something new.

Do this all day, in dim light. Here it stands:

one man’s words, and the work of many hands.

Richard wrote about the idea behind the poem and his discovery of Elizabethan printing techniques.

“When I first spoke with Martin Killeen about writing a poem for the Folio event, I wanted to do something about the proliferation of editions and the fact that all the libraries of Shakespeare texts we have today only exist because of this one little (though not that little…) book. The idea of that contingency was what I wanted to explore: if not for this one volume, we wouldn’t have Twelfth Night, Macbeth, the Droeshout engraving… Martin kindly put together a list of all the historically significant editions the Cadbury could supply for handling, and fetched them up from the stacks. I was scrabbling around for something about mighty oaks and little acorns, but it didn’t quite work and eventually I gave up on the idea entirely, after Martin had gone to the trouble of getting all the books out. (Thanks, though!)

Instead I decided it’d be more interesting to think about the contingency of the Folio as a physical object. I’d recently been to the American Bookbinders Museum in San Francisco – which I highly recommend – where an extremely cool woman showed me how to use a 16th-century screw press and talked to me about the making of rag paper. A few days later my girlfriend showed me a clip from BBC coverage of, I think, the Chelsea Flower Show, with a woman talking about wasps and galls and I thought – that should not be what we have to rely on to print great literature. And yet obviously it is, and all these strange, messy, organic components are brought together in a very labour-intensive, human process, using some quite elaborate machinery, for us to be able to have this book at all. And the works of Shakespeare are sometimes imagined as this kind of transcendent thing, living in the mind – and their existence is completely reliant on some torn-up rags and some tree bark having a bit of an over-reaction. I thought there was something fascinating about that, and I just wanted to convey the sense of process and the work involved. The title comes from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, which is similarly trying to struggle with how something – someone – came to be the way they are, and that was the final piece of the picture, really.”

Huge thanks to Richard for allowing us to print his great poem on our blog (which may also get framed and hung in the library to remind us of those valued physical items we call books!).

Karin Brown, Shakespeare Institute Librarian