If Music be the Food of Love, Play on…

“And still, after all this time,

The sun never says to the earth,

“You owe Me.”

Look what happens with

A love like that,

It lights the Whole Sky.” ~ Hafez

Happy Valentine’s Day! I hope you are able to share it with someone who loves and respects you.  Not everyone is involved in a romantic, intimate relationship when the 14th February rolls around, but you will almost certainly have friends or family who will show you that you’re in their hearts and minds.

love-osho

There are as many shades and facets of love as there are surfaces on a finely cut diamond, and each touches us and lights up our life in a unique and special way. The most important thing is that somewhere in your life you give and feel love, even if it’s for yourself. Traditionally Valentine’s Day focuses on romantic attachments, but love is too all-encompassing to be identified as purely a romantic attachment.

Love kept even our best philosophers busy identifying its purpose and meaning;  but probably the most beautiful words used to express it came from the Sufi poet Rumi.

love-rumi-soul

However, that being said, the voice of a lover is music to savour, as are the notes that spring from a composer’s quill onto lined parchment in a fever pitch of delirium. Their passions and desires, those deep feelings for the object of their affection that would make their heart explode if they weren’t cathartically hauled and wrung from their chest cavity, bursting with love and in some cases, anguish.

The most beautiful, exquisite and soul piercing music has arisen from heartbreak. Unrequited love is such agony, even as it is for two people who long to be together but must live apart. Sometimes being in an unhappy relationship is worse than being alone.

love-rumi-heart

For those in the early stages of romantic love it is like nothing you’ve ever felt. But you are not in control. Those crazy, heady sensations that take over your mind and body whenever that someone special is near is disconcerting. Even if they are far, they are always there, by proxy in your heart. It is like being at sea with no compass and no sails, at the mercy of the elements. Even after the heat of the initial infatuation has cooled a bit, there will be something you cherish from that bond. You can never truly erase such a powerful connection.

And nor should we, because the highs and lows and everything in between make us who we are. We suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and we survived.  If you were a composer, a songwriter or writer, you cleansed the pain by creative force of will. But you first had to be consumed by the searing flames to do it.

love-rumi-quote-light-up-the-fire-of-love-inside-and-blaze-the-thoughts

There must be more music and songs written in the name of love than any other subject. Those souls caught in the throws of passion or the depths of despair can relate to what someone else once lived through, what they transmuted into art and culture for the benefit of others.

Is it possible to define this emotion that dominates us so? The lack of it in childhood can cause untold misery, or betrayal turn love into hate. For we cannot have one without the other, the constant companions of our duality. But what if love is more than a feeling? Feelings and emotions are fleeting, by their nature temporary.

‘It struck me tonight how music mirrors life. Fleeting ephemeral moments, made up of beauty, sadness, joy, hope and despair. The melodies are created in both major and minor keys. Flowing and fleeting. You can’t hold onto it, or keep it from changing. Our emotions possess the evanescence of a note.’ ~ The Virtuoso

Real, true love is transcendent and unconditional; a state of being in the world. It’s treating all beings with kindness, compassion, benevolence and lovingness.

love-rumii-will-be-waiting-here

Lust is too destructive and romantic love without a deeper regard will never blossom into a more lasting relationship. It would be hard to cope with everyday life if one were permanently in a state of euphoria and ecstasy. Although some historical figures gave it their best shot, such as the infamous Marquis de Sade. He took something divine in nature and used it for his own perverted pleasure and hedonistic impulses.

Intoxication and rapture by their very nature can be addictive…

love-rumi-journeys

Let’s not beat about the bush, we’re all here because two people once loved each other and physically embraced their love. It’s a miracle and not to be treated lightly. However, the Garden of Eden has many thorns and stinging nettles growing in its pristine beds. As Shakespeare so perfectly put it, the course of true love never did run smooth…

So let’s celebrate this invisible force called love, this ethereal yet palpable potion that is strong enough to make men kill and women weep. It can bring untold joy, or pain like no other. Blessed are we who have basked in its magnificent rays, for however long.

love-rumi-in-your-light-i-learn-how-to-love

I have often pondered how and why two people are attracted to each other and at what point that becomes love. Perhaps each possessed an energy field that the other needed? Their coming together fulfilled the yin and yang of each other’s energy. But there’s also alignment – of one’s values, interests and outlook. We each speak a different archetypal language, so there are many twists and turns for us to navigate to our happy ever afters!

The concept that Plato suggested that we each have a twin soul is an intriguing one. The other half of our soul…

And if you did ever feel like your heart had been ripped out and stomped on, that person gave you the opportunity and reason to love yourself again.

love-rumi-universe

Maybe the closest definition I can come to is that love’s purpose is to put us in-touch with our higher selves, to imbue us with soul stamina, to evolve and grow our capacity to love.  We are all worthy of love, and when we give love there is never any shortage from this infinite well. It keeps us in tune with our heart.

Now to poetry and music. I’m merely following Shakespeare’s advice because I’m an inveterate romantic and glutton when it comes to love!

Rumi’s eternal love verses are succour for the soul….

Byron:

Shakespeare, from one of my all-time favourite films!

Percy Bysshe Shelley:

There is nothing more powerful than music to capture feelings and as a portal to our emotions, to a time, a place or a person…

Baroque Beauties:

Thomas Tallis – If ye love me:

 Purcell – ‘My dearest, my fairest’ (Jaroussky & Scholl):

The Fairy Queen – If love’s a sweet passion by Veronique Gens:

Handel – Semele ‘Endless Pleasure, Endless Love’ by Kathleen Battle:

In 1852 the young Richard Wagner became infatuated with a beautiful writer, poet and song composer, Mathilde Wesendonck, also the wife of the wealthy businessman who had bestowed his generous patronage on Wagner.

Mathilde Wesendonck by Karl Ferdinand Sohn c. 1850

Mathilde Wesendonck by Karl Ferdinand Sohn c. 1850

Their love affair seems to have been intense, (at least from Wagner’s perspective), occurring at the same time he was working on his Tristan poem. The final consummation of Tristan’s hopeless love for Isolde, the wife of his liege lord, could only be achieved in death. Wagner also set his beloved’s poetry to music, in his Wesendonck Lieder. Their relationship was hastily ended when Wagner’s first wife Minna discovered a love letter and threatened to show it to Mathilde’s husband Otto.

There can be no doubt that Mathilde was Wagner’s Isolde…

In Tristan and Isolde he perfectly expresses the hopeless, languid longing that was clearly pulling at his own heart strings:

 Tchaikovsky’s immortal Rome and Juliet Fantasy Overture:

Beethoven – Violin Romance No. 2 in F major, Op. 50 with Christian Ferras:

Beethoven – Romance Cantabile in E Minor for piano, flute, bassoon and orchestra:

Brahms – Violin Concerto in D Major, ‘Adagio’, with love oozing from Itzhak Perlman:

Dvořák – Romance for Violin and Orchestra in F minor, Op. 11 with Jodef Suk:

Kriesler – ‘Liebeslied’ (love’s sorrow) with Yo-Yo ma and patricia Zander:

Liszt – Romance oubliée with Guido Schiefen and Eric Le Van:

Liszt – ‘Liebestraume’ No. 3 in E-Flat Major (Love Dream) Harpist unknown:

Liszt – Consolation No. 3 with Nathan Milstein and Georges Pludermacher:

Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 20 K. 466, 2nd movement ‘Romance’ with Friedrich Gulda:

Chopin – Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11, 2nd movement ‘Romance’:

Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No. 2, the romantic, dreamy 2nd movement:

Contemporary Classical:

Paul de Senneville – Mariage d’Amour with Richard Clayderman:

Nino Rota gets the sax treatment with Kenny G:

Adam Hurst – Longing:

Jazz:

My Funny Valentine:

A Kiss to Build a Dream on:

Opera:

Opera arias are in a league of their own when it comes to love!

‘O sink hernieder, Nacht der Liebe’ (‘Descend, o night of love’) from Act II of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Tristan and Isolde rapturously hail their ‘night of love’ to an exquisite melody drawn from ‘Träume’ (‘Dreams’) of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder:

Mozart – Voi che sapete with Cecilia Bartoli and Jean-Yves Thibaudet:

Bellini – A Te, O Cara from I Puritiani – Pavarotti & Sutherland:

Berlioz – Les Troyens ‘Nuit d’ivresse et d’extase infinie’ (‘O night of intoxication and infinite ecstasy’) from Act IV. Dido and Aeneas finally admit their love in this exquisite duet:

Saint-Saens – ‘Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix’ from Samson et Delilah:

Bizet – Carmen ‘La Fleur Que Tu M’avais Jetée’ by Plácido Domingo:

Puccini – Tosca ‘E lucevan le stelle’ (and the the stars were shining), Pavarotti:

Beethoven’s beautiful aria of wedded love, ‘O namenlose Freude’ from Fidelio:

Verdi – La Traviata (the fallen one) – Maria Callas is supreme in this heart-rending performance of E strano! E strano!

Duke Orsino:

If music be the food of love, play on,

Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,

The appetite may sicken, and so die.

~ William Shakespeare (Twelfth Night Act 1, scene 1, 1–3)

Purcell and the King’s Singers:

Until the next time, with all my love!

The Special and Noble Tradition of Being a Bard (Part 2)

“All the world’s a stage,

and all the men and women merely players:

they have their exits and their entrances;

and one man in his time plays many parts …”

~ William Shakespeare from As You Like It, Act II, Scene 7, 139–42

I’m going to commence part 2 unapologetic for my continued worship binge of William Shakespeare! Especially after his recent #Shakespeare400 anniversary.

For me, text comes alive when you can see and hear actors performing it. So there’s going to be lots of media in this post.

Here’s a comic Hamlet taster from the celebrations held at the RSC in Stratford in conjunction with the BBC:

The first published mention of Shakespeare’s plays was made  in Palladis Tamia: Wit’s Treasury, by Francis Meres in 1598:

Palladis_Tamia,_Wits_Treasury_Francis_Meres_Love_labours_won_excerpt_1598

His sonnets weren’t published as a collective work for a further eleven years.

Love’s Labour’s Won

Because so little is known about William Shakespeare the man, the mention of an unknown play, Love’s Labour’s Won adds to the mystery surrounding his life and work. It was originally thought that Love’s Labour Won was the same play as The Taming of the Shrew, it wasn’t uncommon for his plays to be known under different names: Twelfth Night was sometimes called Malvolio and Much Ado About Nothing was sometimes referred to as Benedict and Beatrice, so the possibility of an alternative title was entirely plausible.

But in 1953 the mystery deepened when a book dealer in London came across a fragment of a bookseller’s inventory from 1603, listing both Love Labour’s Won and The Taming of the Shrew together, indicating that they were indeed separate plays. If it ever existed in printed form there is hope that one of the potential 1500 lost copies may surface one day…

It leads on to the question, if Love’s Labour’s Won really is a separate play, why wasn’t it included by Heminges and Condell in the First Folio?

Shakespeare vs Milton – Fascinating debate about the kings of English literature:

Shakespeare in film

Films continue to be made of his plays, and even about Shakespeare himself. For your viewing pleasure!

Macbeth:

The Merchant of Venice (2004):

Much Ado About Nothing (1993):

Coriolanus:

Romeo and Juliet (2013):

Richard III (1955):

Henry V:

Hamlet: (1996):

Othello (1995):

Twelfth Night (1996):

Shakespeare In Love:

I’d like to dedicate the remainder of the post with excerpts from some of the greatest bards the world has ever known.

Christopher Marlowe – Excerpt from Doctor Faustus

You stars that reign’d at my nativity,

Whose influence hath allotted death and hell,

Now draw up Faustus like a foggy mist

Into entrails of yon labouring clouds,

That when they vomit forth into the air,

My limbs may issue from their smoky mouths,

So that my soul may but ascend to Heaven.

Mephisto before Faust by Eugene Delacroix

Mephisto before Faust by Eugene Delacroix

William Blake ~ (Notebook 40)

Abstinence sows sand all over

The ruddy limbs and flaming hair

But Desire Gratified

Plants fruits and beauty there.

Cremation of Shelley by Louis Edouard Fournier

Cremation of Shelley by Louis Edouard Fournier

Love’s Philosophy by Percy Bysshe Shelley, read beautifully by Tom O’Bedlam:

Ulysses ~ Alfred, Lord Tennyson:

It little profits that an idle king,

By this still hearth, among these barren crags,

Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole

Unequal laws unto a savage race,

That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink

Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d

Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those

That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when

Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades

Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;

For always roaming with a hungry heart

Much have I seen and known; cities of men

And manners, climates, councils, governments,

Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;

And drunk delight of battle with my peers,

Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.

I am a part of all that I have met;

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’

Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades

For ever and forever when I move.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,

To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!

As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life

Were all too little, and of one to me

Little remains: but every hour is saved

From that eternal silence, something more,

A bringer of new things; and vile it were

For some three suns to store and hoard myself,

And this gray spirit yearning in desire

To follow knowledge like a sinking star,

Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,

To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,—

Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil

This labour, by slow prudence to make mild

A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees

Subdue them to the useful and the good.

Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere

Of common duties, decent not to fail

In offices of tenderness, and pay

Meet adoration to my household gods,

When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:

There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,

Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me—

That ever with a frolic welcome took

The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed

Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;

Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;

Death closes all: but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done,

Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:

The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep

Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,

‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.

Push off, and sitting well in order smite

The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:

It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,

And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Ulysses by JW Waterhouse

Ulysses by JW Waterhouse

BBC Documentary about Byron, Keats, and Shelley – The Romantics – Eternity:

Edgar Allan Poe-The Raven- Read by James Earl Jones:

Audio book playlist by Random House – The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran:

Rabindranath Tagore on boundaries and understanding:

Audiobook of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno (Part 1 of 4):

Great website covering classic literature, explaining here about the epic poem The Iliad by Homer.

Achilles Slays Hector by Peter Paul Rubens

Achilles Slays Hector by Peter Paul Rubens

I’m going to finish with Shakespeare, probably the greatest Bard of all time and the greatest soliloquy of all time: To be, or not to be from Hamlet.

Kenneth Brannagh is electrifying:

Going back through the ages, oral tradition was everything, however, when the written word came into being all the ‘Bards’ that have come since could be immortalised.

True Bardic tradition may be a thing of the past, but modern authors, poets and musicians can leave a legacy of their work. Perhaps not on the scale of the likes of Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare and Tagore, but we all have an imagination, which Einstein reminded us is more important than intelligence.

Excerpt from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Excerpt from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Art and culture as we know it owes everything to the bards of the ages, and in this digital age we can all be a ‘Bard’ or even ‘Bardess’, to a larger or lesser extent…

#Shakespeare400 – William Shakespeare, Exalted Wordsmith Extraordinaire…🎭✒📖

“Shakespeare’s language has a quality difficult to define, of memorability that has caused many phrases to enter the common language.” ~ Stanley Wells

Four hundred years ago today, our greatest playwright, poet and actor passed away at his home in Stratford-upon-Avon at the age of fifty two.

Shakespeare's birthplace in Henley Street

Shakespeare’s birthplace in Henley Street

It’s a miracle Shakespeare made it that far, in a time when the plague wiped out huge numbers of the Tudor population, especially in infancy and youth, and if that didn’t get you there was malnutrition, starvation, murder, or being executed for saying or writing the wrong thing at the wrong time.

He is long gone, but far from being forgotten…

I was surprised to learn that Shakespeare wasn’t as learned as I first assumed, especially not when compared with Ben Johnson, his friend and contemporary; an intellectual poet, playwright and dramatist who had been influenced by Tacitus, Pliny and Suetonius. Although an ardent fan of Shakespeare, author Bill Bryson describes Johnson as a man ‘whose learning hangs like bunting on every word’.

The Tempest by William Hogarth c. 1735

The Tempest by William Hogarth c. 1735

There are errors in Shakespeare’s plays that seem inconsequential in the face of his fame; such as placing a sailmaker in Bergamo (a land locked city it Italy) in The Taming of the Shew, while having Prospero and Valentine set sail respectively from Milan and Verona in The Tempest and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. He indicated no knowledge of Venice consisting of canals, and he introduced the clock to Caesar’s Rome fourteen hundred years before the first mechanical ticking was invented.

He was a master at manipulating the facts to suit his plots. One such example is in Part 1 of Henry VI, where Lord Talbot pre-deceases Joan of Arc instead of facing her in battle at Orleans.

Where Shakespeare did excel, to a large extent, was by taking existing plays, plots and poems and reworking them to be more engaging and memorable; imbuing them with his own brand of greatness.

It appears that he wasn’t scrupulous about what, where and how he sourced his ideas. This ‘borrowing’ of material was common practice to all Elizabethan playwrights, and it’s probably just as well for us that ‘intellectual property’ hadn’t yet been invented, and even the plays of the day often went without attribution.

It’s suspected that the first version of Hamlet that pre-dates Shakespeare was by Thomas Kyd, but it has been lost and no-one knows how similar or different the two versions are.

Romeo and Juliet before Father Lawrence by karl Ludwig Friedrich Becker

Romeo and Juliet before Father Lawrence by karl Ludwig Friedrich Becker

Other plays by Shakespeare that were based on earlier works include: King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, The Winter’s Tale, Othello and Much Ado About Nothing. So, even though he was, and still is, rightly considered England’s undisputed literary genius, he wasn’t without flaws.

There’s hope for the rest of us folks!

Master of language

Shakespeare assimilated the knowledge he needed and integrated it with the human condition, which he did have a vast knowledge of (vast being one of his words incidentally), so even though he didn’t necessarily have all the facts right, nobody could hold a candle to him when it came to emotions; to ambition, intrigue, love and suffering. Those universal conditions he portrayed with deft understanding and imagination.

Play Scene from Hamlet by Daniel Maclise

Play Scene from Hamlet by Daniel Maclise

He was an innovator who used the power of words and language to its maximum advantage. The English language was undergoing somewhat of a renaissance in the 16th century, when around 12,000 new words entered the language between 1500 and 1650, with approximately half of them still in use today. Many of the old words were also employed in a new contextual and linguistic framework.

A breath of fresh literary air…

We think of Shakespeare’s language as being old fashioned, but in his day he mostly opted for the more modern, newer word. He never used seeth, but preferred sees, and used spoke rather than spake, cleft to clave, and goes to goeth. However, he did have his idiosyncracies, and for the most part employed thou in preference to you.

Shakespeare inventively created expressions that had no usage in grammar beforehand, such as ‘breathing one’s last’ and ‘backing a horse’ and over the span of his career is credited with the first recorded use of 2,035 words.

Included in some of these words are: abstemious, antipathy, critical, frugal, dwindle, extract, horrid, vast, hereditary, excellent, eventful, barefaced, assassination, lonely, leapfrog, indistinguishable, well-read, zany and countless others (including countless)!

Shakespeare's bust at the Birthplace House

Shakespeare’s bust at the Birthplace House

Shakespeare also pioneered use of the prefix un- to some 309 existing words to give them new meaning, such as: unmask, unhand, unlock, untie and unveil.

He was a wordsmith of unfaltering exuberance and fecundity, introducing a torrent of new words and phrases into common usage: one fell swoop, vanish into thin air, play fast and loose, go down the primrose path, be in a pickle, budge an inch, the milk of human kindness, more sinned against than sinning, to thine own self be true, flesh and blood, foul play, be cruel to be kind, with bated breath, pomp and circumstance – and many others, which have become so deliciously irresistible and a staple of our language diet.

There are even two in one line from Hamlet:

Though I am native here and to the manner born, it is a custom more honoured in the breach than the observance.

Using the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations as a guide, Shakespeare contributed around one-tenth of all the most quotable phrases ever uttered in the written English language. Quite a feat!

In an age when Latin was the prevailing scholarly and published language , (out of 6,000 books contained in the Bodleian Library in 1605, only 36 of these were in English), Shakespeare and his contemporaries can be credited with increasing the availability of English in its country of origin and eroding the Latin trend.

Valentine Rescues Silvia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona c. 1789

Valentine Rescues Silvia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona c. 1789

Stanley Wells stated, ‘It is telling that William Shakespeare’s birth is recorded in Latin but that he dies in English, as “William Shakespeare, gentleman”.’

Here is an interesting and humorous lecture given by the pre-eminent Shakespeare scholar, Stanley Wells, on Sex and Love in Verona, Venice and Vienna:

The First Folios

The main reason Shakespeare continues to entertain us today is down to the publication of his plays in 1623, seven years after his death. These ‘first folios’ were given the title: Mr William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies and had 630 pages.  It is thought that around 750 editions were originally printed, but only 233 remain in existence today.  However, recently a first folio was discovered on the Isle of Bute. 

First_Folio_VA

From The British Library:

He wrote around 37 plays, 36 of which are contained in the First Folio. Most of these plays were performed in the Globe, an open-air playhouse in London built on the south bank of the Thames in 1599. As none of Shakespeare’s original manuscripts survive (except, possibly, Sir Thomas More, which Shakespeare is believed to have revised a part of) we only know his work from printed editions.

Of the 36 plays in the First Folio, 17 were printed in Shakespeare’s lifetime in various good and bad quarto editions, one was printed after his death and 18 had not yet been printed at all. It is this fact that makes the First Folio so important; without it, 18 of Shakespeare’s plays, including Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, Macbeth, Julius Caesar and The Tempest, might never have survived.

The text was collated by two of Shakespeare’s fellow actors and friends, John Heminge and Henry Condell, who edited it and supervised the printing. They divided the plays into comedies, tragedies and histories, an editorial decision that has come to shape our idea of the Shakespearean canon.

In order to produce as authoritative a text as possible, Heminge and Condell compiled it from the good quartos and from manuscripts (now lost) such as prompt books, authorial fair copy, and foul papers (working drafts). The First Folio offered a corrective to what are now called bad quartos – spurious and corrupt pirate editions, likely based on memorial reconstruction.

The portrait of Shakespeare on the title page was engraved by Martin Droeshout and is one of only two portraits with any claim to authenticity. As Droeshout would have only been 15 when Shakespeare died it is unlikely that they actually met. Instead his picture was probably drawn from the memory of others, or from an earlier portrait. The writer Ben Jonson’s admiring introduction to the First Folio, seen in the title page image, declared in verse that the engraver had achieved a good likeness.

A wonderful talk from Dr. Eric Rasmussen of the University of Nevada, about the project of locating and cataloguing the First Folios, based on the locations discovered by Anthony James West over fifteen years:

When I visited Stratford in 2014 I purchased his revised edition of the RSC ‘s Complete Works that he co-edited with Jonathon Bate, complete with the yellow cover he jokes about!

My treasured copy of the RSC Complete Works of William Shakespeare

My treasured copy of the RSC Complete Works of William Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s plays were made up of about seventy percent Blank Verse, five percent rhymed verse and twenty five percent prose. His vocabulary ran to about 20,000 words (more like 30-50K if you include variants of words), and boy did he work magic with those words…

He illuminated the workings of the soul in a way that very few have been able to do before or since.

Duke Orsino:

If music be the food of love, play on,

Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,

The appetite may sicken, and so die.

Twelfth Night Act 1, scene 1, 1–3

The Special and Noble Tradition of Being a Bard (Part 1)

“The appropriate business of Poetry, (which, nevertheless, if genuine, is as permanent as pure science), her privilege and duty, is to treat of things not as they are, but as they appear; not as they exist in themselves, but as they seem to exist to the senses, and to the passions.” ~ William Wordsworth

There will be plenty of bardolatry in these two posts, to quote the rather satirical term coined by George Bernard Shaw in his fervent appreciation of Shakespeare. When I think of ‘The Bard’, of course it is always Shakespeare that immediately springs to mind. With the 400th anniversary of his death approaching and his incredible legacy of literature, he is rightly referred to as ‘The Bard of Avon’.

William Shakespeare - The 'Chandos' portrait, artist unknown

William Shakespeare – The ‘Chandos’ portrait, artist unknown

Another more recent ‘Bard’ is Rabindranath Tagore, who was known by the sobriquet ‘The Bard of Bengal’.

But, strictly speaking, what is a ‘Bard’?

A ‘Bard’ has its roots in ancient Celtic, Welsh, Scottish and Irish culture, referring to one who had the innate skill of storytelling, composition of verse and poetry and or being a musician and singer, usually employed by a monarch or noble patron. Bards shaped our culture and ensured that our stories (and the wisdom contained within them), was passed on to future generations.

The Bard before the Royal Family by Anton Huxoll

The Bard before the Royal Family by Anton Huxoll

The meaning and influence of bardic tradition has evolved over the centuries to the more romantic understanding that is defined so perfectly in our modern world by the writings of William Shakespeare.

Interestingly, works of art work portraying bards tend to depict elderly men with windswept white hair playing a harp or grasping a tome, set against the backdrop of epic scenery.

The Bard by Benjamin West

The Bard by Benjamin West

It awakens quite a primordial longing to be at one with nature, be of service to the community and also kinship with fellow man. For me, there seems to be a very close connection with the wilderness, which, in ancient times would have been the case.

The Bard by John Martin c. 1817

The Bard by John Martin c. 1817

I’d like to start way back before Shakespeare though, with a poet I’d not heard of before, who hailed from Dark Ages Wales – Taliesin.

The Bard by Thomas Jones

The Bard by Thomas Jones

The Tale of Taliesin

Thanks to my good friend, fellow musician, writer and sound therapist, Laurelle Rond, I recently learned of the mythic Celtic folklore that surrounds the birth of Taliesin, a 6th century Welsh Bard.

He was a revered poet of the post-Roman period whose work seems to have survived in a Middle Welsh manuscript, known as the Book of Taliesin. Taliesin is believed to have sung at the courts of at least three Celtic British kings.

His name, spelt Taliessin in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and in some subsequent works, means ‘shining brow’ in Middle Welsh. In legend and medieval Welsh poetry, he is often referred to as Taliesin Ben Beirdd (‘Taliesin, Chief of Bards’ or chief of poets). According to legend Taliesin was adopted as a child by Elffin, the son of Gwyddno Garanhir, and prophesied the death of Maelgwn Gwynedd from the Yellow Plague. In later stories he became a mythic hero, companion of Bran the Blessed and King Arthur.

Here is the mythological Tale of Taliesin, as told by Peter Freeman:

At its heart the Tale of Taliesin is a story of rebirth. It is layered with symbolism and meaning on many levels, but for me, the ultimate message of the myth is that spiritual struggle, suffering and cleansing can transform us, at which point we are reborn with inner vision, as Taliesin, the Bard.

Ceridwen, the queen and a Goddess herself, cannot bear to look upon her ugly son Morfran, who represents the shadow side of human nature; the dark side of ourselves that we don’t want to see and find hard to look at.

Gwion, Morda and Ceridwen attending to the cauldron - Taliesin

Gwion, Morda and Ceridwen attending to the cauldron – Taliesin

Gwion Bach, the young boy who is tasked with guarding the magic elixir, but who consumes the three drops of inspiration to avoid a burn when the potion is accidentally spilt on his hand, ignites her wrath and the shape-shifting chase begins. The chase is akin to the vicissitudes of everyday life, the ebb and flow of our fortunes, whereby we have to take different forms (personality traits and strengths), in order to run with our challenges.

Eventually we are empowered and born with the gift of intuition, poetry, music, wisdom and a willingness to be of service to others.

This tale has inspired composers, musicians, singers and songwriters alike, and I was delighted to find this evocative concerto for alto saxophone and orchestra by Martin Romberg, with Anja Bachmann as the soloist:

Song by Damh The Bard – Ceridwen and Taliesin:

#Shakespeare400

It will soon be 400 years since William Shakespeare shuffled off his mortal coil on 23rd April 1616, and with iconic titles such as Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, Henry V, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Othello and Macbeth to his quill it’s no wonder that his name will never be erased from the great canon of English literature. His works are  as relevant and loved today they were in Elizabethan times. Talk about staying power!

Trends and ‘celebrity’ status are transient, but true genius is enduring. No-one created characters like Shakespeare…

Procession of Characters from Shakespeare

Procession of Characters from Shakespeare

Historically, poets had glorified God, but our William had other ideas.  His muse was free and he did not censor her. Imagination was the foundation for his art. He wrote plays about love, hate, jealousy, ambition, power, greed, potions, witches, kings, queens, noblemen and women, fairies and everyday people. He needed to entertain the people so that he could make a living and support his young family back in Stratford.

However, in 1593, in the wake of the dreaded plague the theatres were closed and so ‘The Bard’ turned to poetry. His first poem was Venus and Adonis.

In the midst of the religious turmoil of the Tudor period, Shakespeare’s own distant cousin, Robert Southwell, was imprisoned in the Tower of London. He had sent his cousin W.S. a letter on the duty of poets, which was given to Queen Elizabeth I on the evening after his execution.

In 1594 under the patronage of Lord Hunston William formed a company of actors, mainly with his long-time friends, John Heminges, Henry Condell, William Sly, Augustine Phillips and Richard Burbage, who played many of his most memorable roles.

Shakespeare and his Contemporaries at The Mermaid Tavern by John Faed.

Shakespeare and his Contemporaries at The Mermaid Tavern by John Faed.

Sadly, William and Anne’s only son, Hamnet, died at the tender age of 11, so he was no stranger to heartache. It is thought that Sonnet 33 with its poignant verses could be describing Shakespeare’s grief, or potentially his despair at the rift in his relationship with the Earl of Southampton:

Sonnet 33

Full many a glorious morning have I seen

Flatter the mountain-tops with sovereign eye,

Kissing with golden face the meadows green,

Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;

Anon permit the basest clouds to ride

With ugly rack on his celestial face,

And from the forlorn world his visage hide,

Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace:

Even so my sun one early morn did shine

With all triumphant splendour on my brow;

But out! alack! he was but one hour mine,

The region cloud hath mask’d him from me now.

Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;

Suns of the world may stain when heaven’s sun staineth.

In part 2 we’ll hear more from the ‘Bard of Bengal’ and the ‘Bard of Avon’, as well as some other much loved poets that have graced our lives since then.

“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.” ~ Rabindranath Tagore

Film Review: Macbeth

“Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires.” ~ William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Macbeth

This latest film joins the ranks of earlier TV and movie adaptations, providing a realistic, gritty and modern version with a dark touch of the supernatural, which is bound to be popular.

It’s probably no coincidence that Shakespeare penned The Tragedy of Macbeth during the reign of King James I of England (formerly King James VI of Scotland), between 1599 and 1606 with characters based on real people from Holinshead’s Chronicles.

Whilst not exactly a verse for verse reproduction (as films of plays rarely are), I think it’s true to the spirit of the play. A look behind the scenes with director Justin Kerzel and his two stars:

This Film 4 production of Macbeth is an assault on the senses. It’s not just that what you see is so brutal and visceral; it’s the intensity with which it is portrayed that is so startling.

Michael Fassbender as the tortured Macbeth and Marion Cotillard as his scheming wife are in a league of their own. Worthy of mention is David Thewlis as the King of Scotland, Sean Harris as Macduff (the Thane of Fife) and Paddy Considine as Banquo.

The combination of acting talent, amazing costumes, stunning locations, a pared back text, powerful, evocative soundtrack and visual artistry make it a worthwhile watch.

To sum up Macbeth the film in a few words, I would say it’s totally mesmerising, disturbing and compelling.

macbeth2

The cinematography is as epic as the on-location highland scenery of Scotland; misty mountain moors place you at the burial of the Macbeths’ child at the start. It is cold, windy and inhospitable.

Tragedy starts it all off, and tragedy certainly ends it.

We see Macbeth (the Thane of Glamis), with Banquo and his depleted army by his side, fighting for King Duncan of Scotland against Macdonwald and his group of Scottish, Irish and Nordic rebels.

Every gory detail, every scream and pained expression is framed in slow motion; including the urgency of Macbeth to reach the traitors. In the midst of the bloody battle he sees through the mayhem and smoke, three female figures and one child. They are standing where Macdonwald was. The moment seems to last forever. Then the fighting proceeds at full pelt again and Macbeth eventually emerges weary but victorious.

Theodore Chasseriau - Macbeth and Banquo meet the witches.

Theodore Chasseriau – Macbeth and Banquo meet the witches.

As he and Banquo respectfully place their dead into a pit the witches approach them. It is the fateful moment when you just know that double double, toil and trouble will haunt Macbeth ’till the end of his days. The sinister prophecy is spoken by the ‘weird sisters’. They finish with, “All hail Macbeth,” before disappearing back into the fog.

At this point echoes of “all hail Caesar” are in my mind, and you know it’s not going to end well.

It is with these words playing in his mind that he returns to his wife and village. Soon after he is rewarded by a grateful King Duncan who bestows on him the title Thane of Cawdor as foretold by the witches, and his thoughts turns to the crown.

The spellbinding 1979 performance by Judi Dench of Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy after she hears of Macbeth’s strange and prophetic visitation:

Macbeth is persuaded by Lady Macbeth (whilst they engage in carnal pleasure), to do away with Duncan as he sleeps in his tent at their home. Sexually sated and consumed with a deadly purpose, Macbeth walks menacingly towards the king’s tent.

Torrential rain is falling and while Duncan’s body guards lay slumped in a wine induced stupor he commits regicide in a frenzied dagger attack.  Lady Macbeth later places the bloody daggers into the hands of the sleeping guards to deflect blame from her husband. Gruesome as this murder is, it’s not the most horrifying scene in the film.

The rain may have washed the king’s blood off his hands, but it’s now ingrained in his soul, the poison has already begun its inevitable journey to Macbeth’s heart. You see the glint of unbridled ambition burn in his eyes. The acting is just chilling.

A little water has not ‘cleared them of their deeds’ as Lady Macbeth suggested it would in the aftermath of Duncan’s murder, in an attempt to assuage them of guilt.

Once the ‘gold round’ is on his head Macbeth slides further into paranoia and hunger for total power. You see that he is cursed as he ponders the witches words, the fact that he has no heir and has won the royal line for Banquo’s seed. Macbeth tells his wife whilst pointing a dagger at her empty womb, “Full of scorpions is my mind”.

And so his henchmen hunt down and strike down the unfortunate loyal Banquo in an act of utter betrayal that is only slightly lessened by the fact that his son, Fleance escapes the steel blade of his father’s slayers. Distasteful as it is, it’s still not the worst scene in the film.

The weirdness of the banquet seals Macbeth’s fate. The sight of his murdered friend Banquo at the table confounds and confuses Macbeth, now racked with guilt over his treachery, causing him to react strangely and lose face among his people. Macduff begins to smell a rat and leaves.

Another visit to the witches leaves Macbeth confident of his victory, killing off his last remnants of kindness and moral rectitude. He is now dead inside and willing to stop at nothing to crush his enemies.

I’m not sure I can articulate the horrors that Macbeth goes on to commit; the grief etched on Marion Cotillard’s face show us his wife cannot believe that he is capable of it either. The latter part of the movie has some pretty haunting scenes, which prove too much even for Lady Macbeth.

In her sleep she is dreaming she’s back at the chapel of their old village with her dead child. She is tired of the power struggles and the monster her husband has become, a path that she herself pushed him onto. It makes for a poignant scene.

Here are her words taken from the text in what is Act 5 Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s play:

Yet here’s a spot.

Out, damned spot! out, I say! – One: two: why, then, ’tis time to do’t. – Hell is murky! – Fie, my lord, fie! A soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account? – Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him.

The thane of Fife had a wife: where is she now? – What, will these hands ne’er be clean? – No more o’that, my lord, no more o’ that: you mar all with this starting.

Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh!

Wash your hands, put on your nightgown; look not so pale. – I tell you yet again, Banquo’s buried; he cannot come o

To bed, to bed!

There’s knocking at the gate: come, come, come, come, give me your hand. What’s done cannot be undone. – To bed, to bed, to bed!

And thus, she never wakes up. Meanwhile an inconsolable Macduff and Malcolm (the elder son of Duncan), return from England to Dunsinane to wreak revenge on Macbeth for their murdered loved ones.

Fire now rages beyond the walls of Dunsinane and Macbeth goes defiant into battle once more. In one on one combat he has his sword at Macduff’s throat – believing he cannot be harmed by a man born to a woman – when Macduff splutters that he was untimely ripped from his mother’s belly.

Macbeth seems only now to fully comprehend the evil empty promises that the witches have instilled in his mind and the hatred he felt for Macduff evaporates into the red smoke that fills the screen, as the camera hones in on their darkened bodies and grubby, agonised faces, the outer sign of their troubled souls.

Macbeth then allows Macduff to strike him down on the battlefield. The final scene shows a courageous Fleance pulling Macbeth’s sword from the scorched earth and running into the distance like a child warrior.

This film is a very human tale of seduction, deceit, quest for political power and betrayal. My sympathy for Macbeth only returned at the very end; a broken, pitiable figure when he recognises the tyrant he has become and what it has cost him.

It’s gut churning action and powerful soliloquys from beginning to end. All in all, a gripping film, even if the turn of events are hard to watch at times. I emerged from the cinema into a cold rainy night somewhat traumatised!

A must see for Shakespeare connoisseurs and Bardolaters alike…

“To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.” ~ William Shakespeare, Macbeth

The Muses of Music – Composers and the Works Inspired by Literary Greats

The legendary words of Marcus Aurelius most definitely apply to the arts. “What we do now echoes on to eternity.”

John Faed - Shakespeare and his contemporaries 1851

John Faed – Shakespeare and his contemporaries 1851

It’s only natural that the early composers served as inspiration for the musical creators that followed, but in this post I thought I would explore the rich cultural legacy that poets, playwrights and literary greats have inspired in composers, choreographers and purveyors of the arts. Of course, writers haven’t just provided mythical fodder for music, they have also been prolific in the imaginations of artists and painters through the ages in the world of art. However, today I’m going to stick to music.

I’ll be exploring opera, ballet and instrumental works. There are a range of writers who have provided creative juice to our musical geniuses, but Shakespeare due to his incredible literary legacy, features more than most.  There are ‘Bardolaters’ aplenty to investigate!

As opera is musical storytelling it is the perfect medium for literary adaptations, and I believe it’s on the stage of the vocal arena where Shakespeare’s plays have become a most popular muse to composers and librettists of the last two hundred or so years.

Dicksee - Romeo and Juliet on the balconyIn many ways, the music that came after the words has cemented the iconic status of certain plays in our hearts and minds, ensuring they remain at the forefront of popular culture, as the music transports us into these fictional worlds and helps us transpose them into our own lives.

Perhaps Shakespeare was hinting at musical imitation when he penned the immortal phrase: If music be the food of love, play on…

The Italian operatic composers Gioachino Rossini and Guiseppe Verdi both wrote operas based on Othello, and here is an aria each from each composer:

Rossini – Otello ‘Assisa a pie d’un salice’ sung by Cecilia Bartoli as Desdemona:

Verdi – Otello ‘Willow Song’ with diva Maria Callas as Desdemona:

A powerful aria sung by Piero Cappuccilli from Verdi’s opera Macbeth ‘Perfidi! … Pietà rispetto amore’:

Prokofiev’s immortal ballet Romeo and Juliet was first performed in Brno in the Czech Republic on 30th December 1938, but was then revised and shown again at the Kirov Ballet in January 1940. Since then it has become a firm favourite in both ballet and instrumental repertoire with choreographers such as Frederick Ashton, Sir Kenneth Macmillan, Rudolf Nureyev, Yuri Grigorovich and Peter Martins amongst others, who all had their own stylistic take on this most tragic and classic of love stories. Prokofiev also arranged his ballet music for solo piano.

Montagues and Capulets (also known as Dance of the Knights) Act I, Scene II:

Sticking with Romeo and Juliet I couldn’t leave out Tchaikovsky’s orchestral masterpiece, the ‘Fantasy Overture to Romeo and Juliet’. Here is Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra with a wonderfully evocative performance that always pulls on my heart strings:

Tchaikvosky also wrote instrumental music for The Tempest and Hamlet. But it is the music of little known Thomas Linley the Younger (1756 – 1758) who was childhood friends with Mozart and later became known as the ‘English Mozart’ that I feel best encapsulates the theme of ‘The Tempest’.

Chamber orchestra Pratum Integrum and vocal ensemble Intrada perform “Arise! ye spirits of the storm” directed by Ekaterina Antonenko:

In the nineteenth century Felix Mendelssohn, a child prodigy, virtuosic pianist and violinist, turned composer and conductor, was inspired by Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and wrote the overture at the age of 17 in 1826, followed by the incidental music for the play in 1842.

Kurt Masur and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig do a great job of bringing this spritely comedy to life!

Romanticism:

“Romanticism is the art of presenting to people the literary works which …can afford them the greatest pleasure. Classicism presents them with works which gave the greatest possible pleasure to their great-grand parents.” ~ Stendhal

Hector_Berlioz by Gustave CourbetBorn into the world just before Napoleon was crowned Emperor , the French composer Hector Berlioz grew up with a love of literature, and was greatly inspired by the works of Virgil,  Shakespeare, Goethe, Byron, Thomas Moore, Sir Walter Scott and French poet Theophile Gautier. His musical God was Beethoven, (which is hardly surprising as Beethoven was the catalyst for the Romantic era of music), with his non-conformist and rebellious nature that dared to breach the traditional classical rules about structure and content; his passion for the notions of freedom and brotherhood, and above all else for his art, no matter what was deemed popular and the ‘done thing’ at the time. With such a combination of dramatic and artistic love it’s no wonder Berlioz wrote many works inspired by the Bard and the Romantics!

Dispensing with a career in medicine he focused on his music, and as an incomparable romantic he wrote the choral symphony Roméo et Juliette, after seeing Harriet Smithson star as Ophelia when a London Theatre Company was performing Hamlet in Paris. The cream of the Paris literati were also in the audience that night; Victor Hugo, Alfred de Vigny, Alfred de Musset and the painter Delacroix.

JW Waterhouse - Shakespeare - Miranda-The TempestThis music was followed with an Overture to King Lear, and also to the Tempest, which, as legend would have it, on the night of the performance in Paris the worst storm for fifty years was unleashing its wrath over the city and hardly anyone ventured out. Franz Liszt did attend however, and was later to transcribe his Symphonie Fantastique for the piano. The two became great friends.

Here is an excerpt from his last work, the comic opera Béatrice & Bénédict, loosely based on Shakespeare’s comedy ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ the aria ‘Nuit paisible’:

Debussy had a thing about gothic writer Edgar Allan Poe, Wagner’s operatic output is steeped in mythical legend, and composer and piano virtuoso, Franz Liszt wrote the ‘Dante Symphony’ and we can also thank him for creating a new art form: the symphonic poem. Here is his dramatic ‘Hamlet’ with Bernard Haitink and the LPO:

Generations of composers have written work from Shakespeare, I’d love to include their music but there’s only so much room! Worthy of mention are Henry Purcell, Shostakovich, Smetana, Sibelius, Poulenc, Debussy, Elgar, von Weber Ambroise Thomas, William Walton and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The English poet and writer John Milton who was himself a keen musician and composer, inspired composers such as Joseph Haydn, who’s oratorio ‘The Creation’ (with the libretto by Baron van Swieten), was based on his epic poem Paradise Lost, and an opera was written on it by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. More recently contemporary composer Eric Whitacre wrote an ‘Electronica Opera’ entitled Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings inspired by Milton’s text.

A section of Miguel de Cervantes’ timeless chivalric novel ‘Don Quixote’ has been a firm favourite in the dance community, having been adapted and featured over the years as a ballet. The music was written by Ludwig Minkus with the original choreography by Marius Petipa, and it was first performed in 1869.

An excerpt from The Bolshoi Ballet with Maria Alexandrova & Mihail Lobuhin:

More recent literary works and novels have also been turned into ballets, such as the classic Alice In Wonderland by C.S. Lewis, The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway, As I Lay Dying by William Fualkner, Sophie’s Choice by William Styron, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and even Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Who would have thought that John Steinbeck’s iconic working class tale Of Mice and Men could be done? I wonder what George Orwell would have made of 1984 on the stage at Covent Garden in 2005, a much critically maligned production by the late maestro Lorin Maazel.

I think it is most fitting for me to end with Beethoven, the great titan of classical music composition, who served as inspiration himself for many musicians to follow, and who is still an icon of his art today. He wrote music to some of Goethe’s poems but my favourite of his Goethe inspired pieces will always be his eponymous overture for Count Egmont, with its themes of heroism, which was later adopted as the unofficial anthem of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.

Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmoniker on top form:

“Music begins where words end.” ~ Richard Wagner

Treading the Bard’s Floorboards – An Afternoon at Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford

“A quibble is to Shakespeare what luminous vapours are to the traveller: he follows it at all adventures; it is sure to lead him out of his way and sure to engulf him in the mire.”

“He was not of an age, but for all time!” ~ Ben Jonson (1573 – 1637)

Birthplace signI say floorboards, but technically the ground floor of Shakespeare’s birthplace is stone. The original floor in fact, in the parlour, has remained in place for over 450 years. It’s something of a mystery to me why I’ve only just been able to visit the birthplace of one of the world’s greatest literary icons – but better late than never.

I had a few hours spare on my recent business trip to Stratford-upon-Avon, so I was determined to pay homage to ‘our William’, home grown poet, wordsmith and playwright. The weather was decidedly wet, and we had intermittent heavy rain showers, plus it was late in the afternoon; so luckily for me it wasn’t as busy as I suspect it usually is.  Without any of my beloved brood by my side to moan and whinge at me about how boring it was and when could we go, I was free to meander and absorb the environment of a time and place that has had a global impact and continues to define our cultural heritage to this day.

front of Shakespeares houseWalking up the old High Street, (now Henley Street), you see the Tudor house on your right. It’s wonderful, but you probably wouldn’t stop and stare for too long other than to admire a historic building if you weren’t aware of its illustrious son’s writings…

The main entrance is past the birthplace, through the modern building further up.  There’s a fascinating exhibition to take in before you pass out through the garden and into the rear of the birthplace.

Rooselvelt signature visitors book 1910As part of the exhibition I was interested to see that American President Teddy Roosevelt visited the house in 1910 (and stayed at the same hotel as me, the Welcombe Spa), although in 1910 it was a private house owned by George Otto Trevelyan.

Also in the exhibition his family tree is laid out, clips of his plays and film adaptations run, some of his personal items, and a chronological list of his works are on display. The first folio was produced in 1623. There are no known surviving hand written papers of his individual plays, as penned by him with quill and ink, so we are very fortunate they were collated shortly after his death and have been in print ever since.

I have included a small photo album at the end of the post. The drag and drop option wasn’t working so I’m afraid they are a bit random!

The entrance is through the dwelling next to Chez Shakespeare, a simple one up one down house which was also owned by William’s father, John Shakespeare, and rented out. From this small room you enter the parlour, which has a decent fireplace and a bed, which I was told was a sign of wealth. I suppose if you got bored of the conversation you could just snuggle down… Also what struck me is just how vertically challenged people were in medieval times, I had to stoop to pass under the low doorways.

John Shakespeares work studioThere is more natural light in the adjoining dining hall. Again there is a large fireplace and a table and bench, and kitchen items.  Moving on from there you come to John Shakespeare’s workshop. This was easily the biggest room in the house, and the place where he made his leather and suede gloves and bags.  The window would have been absent 450 years ago, so that he could sell his wares directly to customers passing in the street. There would have been a market in the street in front of their house too. I couldn’t stop thinking how draughty and cold it must have been, especially in winter.

In the 1500’s Stratford had a population of around 1500 inhabitants, and at that time Birmingham didn’t exist, so it was a stop off point for travellers and traders journeying from Liverpool to London. It was roughly two to three days ride from Liverpool to Stratford, and four to five days from Stratford to London. John’s gloves sold well, and the family was wealthy. Although, his stint as a ‘brogger’ (illegal wool dealer) was probably more lucrative than glove making!

From there you follow the stairs up to the bedrooms. There is a bust, letters from famous visitors, the birth window that was signed by many literary figures, and of course, the birth room itself. A section of the wall has been left open so that visitors can see the original wattle and daub materials used in its construction.

lady in period costume at Swan Inn SHFrom the birth room you then go to the extension made to the house by John Shakespeare, which served as an Inn. In the upper floor of the Swan Inn a lady in costume sat on the window sill and we shared some witty repartee. She told me she was wearing the traditional middle class costume of the era, a white chemise, long wool pinafore dress and silk overskirt, all held in by a corset.  I learned that the way a woman’s corset was stitched up said a lot about her status and moral standing. There were three ways to do up a corset. If it was cross-stitched (whereby a finger could unhook it all in a single lift and let it all hang out in one fell swoop) then she was considered a strumpet. The girl assured me that she wasn’t but that the costume had been easier to do up that way! Then you could strait-lace it (hence the saying about someone being puritanical), and the wealthiest women were done up at the back.

It was amazing to place myself into 16th century life, and imagine the place as William was growing up. He later inherited the house from his father and lived there with his own family. After his death the property passed to his sister, Joan Hart, and later his daughter, Susanna.  There is a timeline of ownership from his day to modern day, which also shows how the house was modified over the years.

What is the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust? Great video that features two of the guides I spoke to.

After purchasing a few tomes in the shop I went for a stroll past the Encore pub and along the canal and river, by the modern RSC theatre. In conclusion, Stratford and Shakespeare’s birthplace are well worth a visit if you ever find yourself in the heart of ye old England.

In Search of Shakespeare – a documentary for further education if you are a Bardolater!

A Time of Revolution:

The Lost Years:

The Duty of Poets:

For All Time:

“Till that I’ll view the manners of the town, Peruse the traders, gaze upon the buildings. ~ Comedy of Errors