“Language is the dress of thought.” ~ Samuel Johnson
I love language. I love the way anyone can employ almost infinite combinations of words and phrases to express themselves. There is a skill in the way words are arranged; their symmetry, their poetry, their layering, their meaning.
Language is sometimes woefully inadequate to express the human condition, (hence the saying, lost for words), but it’s the best, most accurate method we have to communicate with.
I’m not including music, which is in a realm of its own to stimulate imagination and emotions, a shared universal language that transcends language barriers. Music is more ephemeral, subjective and enjoyable, but it cannot give specific instructions, it can only elicit certain moods. It is a gateway to feelings, inspiration and words.
“Music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend.” ~ Ludwig van Beethoven
Having said that, I’ve always been drawn to speeches; sometimes making them, but mostly listening to or reading them. I even included a speech (in dramatic context of course), in my novel.
As a formal way of putting across ideas either to small groups of people or to large numbers of the population, speeches can be used effectively by charismatic politicians (not necessarily of good character), in nuggets of beguiling rhetoric to garner votes.
At their most effective speeches record history, provide inspiration, communicate important ideas and concepts, and of course, tell stories that need to be told.
Emmeline Pankhurst delivering a speech
Delivering an impactful speech in the modern era is probably harder than in centuries before. People stream their entertainment and news from many different sources and have limited time and probably shorter attention spans. Most of us lead busy lives and have to filter a multitude of outlets vying for our attention.
The TED Talks are a wonderful way for thought leaders to reach people who are looking for ideas, knowledge and inspiration. Being in a position of power gives certain individuals a platform, but once it has been consistently abused those words will eventually fall on deaf or resentful ears.
In the recent chaos of house renovations, back to school and starting secondary school preparations, plus the upheaval of my 18 year old son’s move to Germany, I have been burning the candle at both ends.
One night I was feeling particularly exhausted and burnt out, and experiencing unexpected empty nest syndrome. My eldest son has already been in New Zealand for over a year, I thought I might handle it better. Despite being fortunate enough to have my two wonderful daughters at home, I still feel Will’s absence immensely.
On this night when I was at a low ebb, I started watching a 2018 episode of Intelligence Squared on YouTube, and soon became totally engrossed. The speeches, made at pivotal moments in history, still seem so relevant to what is happening around the world right now; as humanity faces a global pandemic, the insidious dismantling of democracy by right-wing populist governments and the environmental behemoth of climate change.
I think that’s enough to be getting on with!
“Speeches are great when they reflect great decisions.” ~ Ted Sorensen (speechwriter to JFK)
Words That Changed the World is expertly hosted by journalist and political broadcaster Emily Maitlis, who is flanked by two respected, experienced speechwriters, journalists and political advisers: Philip Collins and Cody Keenan – discussing the historical context and fascinating insight on their chosen speeches. This is not to be missed. The acting talent who give life to the oratory is equally brilliant.
The chosen speeches in the order they are presented and discussed:
The Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln (1863)
50th Anniversary of Selma Speech by Barack Obama (2015)
Their Finest Hour – Winston Churchill (1940)
Elizabeth I – Tilbury speech addressing the troops (1588)
Emmeline Pankhurst – ‘The laws that men have made’ (1908)
William Shakespeare – From Henry V Saint Crispin’s Day speech (1599)
It felt good to remind myself of the strength of the human spirit listening to ‘words that changed the world’.
These speeches contain both substance and style – they resonate and connect with people on an emotional level – proof on me in the form of hair-raising goose bumps! That’s what we need now, leadership as a force for shared empowerment and good.
JFK’s full ‘why go to the moon?’ speech at Rice University on 12th September 1962 :
As Philip Collins so eloquently explains, rhetoric originates with the Greeks, and cites how Pericles in 431 BC gave his eulogy to the war dead before going on to praise democracy – a move mirrored by Abraham Lincoln in his immortal Gettysburg Address.
Cicero believed that rhetoric and democracy could not be separated. Collins highlights: “It’s only in a democracy that words really matter, because it’s only in a democracy where you’re trying to persuade. The act of persuasion is the act of politics…”.
An audience is always at risk of being hoodwinked by empty rhetoric. If only we could peer into the speaker’s heart and see their inner core, their truth. A truly great speech doesn’t pass from lip to ear – but from heart to heart.
Even one of our most revered statesmen, Winston Churchill, who wrote some of the most enduring, best loved speeches in our history didn’t always get it right. Collins shares that early in his career, Churchill had a tendency to lavish verbosity and grandeur where it simply wasn’t warranted. Churchill certainly embodied the phrase, cometh the hour, cometh the man.
Words that changed the world:
There is a danger that politicians will woo audiences with rhetoric that speaks to fear and prejudice, that appeals to our base motives, disguised as serving the national interest, but in reality does anything but.
The power of words, as is mentioned in this superb video, can work both ways. Freedom of speech is a razor sharp double edged sword.
“Speech is power: Speech is to persuade, to convert, to compel.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
Sadly, the broad, sunlit uplands that Churchill espoused in Their Finest Hour speech are currently shrouded beneath bloated grey clouds. Shadows and harbingers of our own collective making. We need to shine a light, a ray of hope, before we are enveloped in total darkness.Our finest hour seems a long way in the past, as we hurtle full steam ahead into what looks like will be our most desperate post war hour, come Brexit.
Who in their right mind would vote for such a horror? Only if it is portrayed as a benefit and a blessing, as was emblazoned across a certain red bus. But there comes a time when people perceive seductive slogans and disingenuous rhetoric for what they are: harmful and dangerous. Perverted ideological fantasies are being increasingly laid bare; exposed in the light of truth and reality.
The power of hindsight enables us to see through tempting rhetoric to the destructive political attributes beneath the surface: criminal incompetence, bare-faced corruption, jingoism, greed, cronyism, nepotism, hubris, deceit, censorship and breath-taking hypocrisy.
There should be no doubt that Brexit will be a nightmare for our nation, for the majority of its citizens. Just as Hitler’s rise to power proved devastating for Europe and indeed the wider world. His passionate oratory belied his inner psychopath, but perhaps the signs were already there for those who looked closely.
I fear that we are headed towards tyranny – the worst kind of tyranny because it was freely selected by a majority under the influence of rhetoric, aided by media complicity. We all need to pay attention to what is happening in the halls of power. British sovereignty is not being reclaimed, it’s being overtly purloined by a group of elected gangsters! The ugly content of their characters is on show for all to see.
Cody Keenan rightly says that speeches hold up a mirror to society.
“All the most powerful speeches ever made point to a better future.” ~ Patrick Dixon
Decency and honesty is such an important part of public life, alongside vulnerability. Being a servant-leader is a fundamental quality and should be a prerequisite for politicians.
When you look back at the best loved, most iconic leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Barack Obama, Emily Pankhurst and other luminaries who changed the world through their deeds and words; they had that skill to act selflessly and lift people up, not just to say,but to do the right thing.
Listening to these speeches gave me a glimmer of hope that sparkled like a luminous beacon in a deep, dark well of despair that has recently opened up within me. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this dread and anger over the egregious actions of the current government…
Some short and shrewd Twitter speeches:
So many people have objected to this system – including parliamentary committees in both the Commons and the Lords. Yet HMG *still* insists on using EU citizens as its immigration guinea pigs? https://t.co/WQCobwIj0g
1) For Ireland (north and south) May's red lines / decision to leave Customs Union & Single Market transformed Brexit from "problem" into "crisis": customs & regulatory checks on goods have to take place somewhere; if across Ireland = serious economic, social & political impacts
3) Brexit Loons went bonkers: May's backstop would stop them pursuing long- & dear-held plans to deregulate UK social and welfare standards; & hinder their (laughable) fantasy that "Global Britain" would revolutionise the terms of world trade in its own favour
5) Johnson's new Protocol was clear & specific about fact that NI will be subject to entirely distinct rules from GB (including eg powers for various EU institutions to decide about NI issues); & that this= significant barriers for NI goods into GB but especially GB goods into NI
7) but all along, we warned of real risk that Johnson had only signed his “oven ready deal” to win general election. Having done so, real plan would be to tear up withdrawal treaty, including own NI border plan, ruin talks on future EU-UK relations & blame EU for resulting mess
9) Eg refusing permission for EU to even have an office in Belfast. But culminating in UK Internal Market Bill – which clearly, deliberately and consciously empowers Johnson directly and without any ambiguity to breach two key parts of his own legally binding Withdrawal Agreement
11) But this is still serious stuff: not only a clear breach of the legally binding withdrawal treaty; also raises questions about WTO compliance if UK is not treating all trading partners equally; & of course makes NI a smuggler and fraudster’s paradise for access into entire UK
13) To the Brexit Loons, Johnson’s behaviour might look like it delivers on all the things they ever really wanted: teach Ireland a lesson; scupper relations with EU for years to come; totally free to deregulate UK & realign with hard right allies like the vile Trump
15) And Johnson’s attempts to justify his plans are so grossly dishonest (indeed, offensive) that it confirms him & his regime as full-scale post-truth populists of the most degenerate variety. A risk to peace and stability in Ireland. And a growing threat to UK democracy.
History tells how the war against fascism was won ,but you have to look harder to find out how it came to power, most dont bother to look & by the time its surrounded you it's to late ,Orwell nailed it pic.twitter.com/GUEhNTLJHe
You could fill every plum job in the land with right-wing Establishment figures who helped deliver Brexit. It won’t change the nature or reality of Brexit one jot. We’re into what hopefully have to be the final stages of unicornism now. God knows what’s next…
I see Cambridge Analytica is trending so here’s your friendly reminder that you need to watch The Great Hack on Netflix to see how social media is being used to elect authoritarian leaders across the world (including Trump in 2016)
Brexit has made this country mad. It’s lost its bearings, its sense of priorities, its morality. We give airtime to liars and fraudsters. We’ve turned against each other. Our politicians are actively deceiving us for their own ends and so many just don’t care.
It occurs to me that the most memorable speeches in the world highlighted injustice, created harmony, hope and connection, whereas, in the long run at least, the ones that are forgotten or rarely shared conversely sowed hatred and division.
It would also be remiss of me not to include these fantastic snippets of Nelson Mandela:
I also felt it was worth sharing this deeply felt, perfectly executed and excoriating ‘misogyny’ speech by Julia Gillard, voted the most unforgettable Australian TV moment by Guardian readers:
The speeches in this post have reminded me that democracy and freedom should never be taken for granted. Through the ages they’ve been fought and sacrificed for. Let’s not let complacency, ignorance and indifference rob us now.
“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” ~ Elie Wiesel
“After God, Shakespeare has created most.” ~ Alexandre Dumas
As February is famed for the commemoration of Saint Valentine, as well as being heart health month in the USA and UK, I thought it would be good to celebrate with a love-in devoted to William Shakespeare. Plus, I never need an excuse for a spot of Bardolatry, especially on a #ShakespeareSunday.
No-one in the canon of the English language has written more about love and its many faces, forms and facets than our Will.
Shakespeare’s insight into the foibles of human nature still resonate over 400 years since he quilled his immortal sonnets and plays. Observations from his frequently performed works often can provide a parallel to our personal lives as well as current events.
Take one of Shakespeare’s most vile villains – Richard III. His ruthless ambition for the crown of England and all the foul deeds he undertook in his quest for power were relinquished in a heartbeat in the face of death at the Battle of Bosworth Field. The last words Shakespeare puts into king Richard’s screaming mouth as, sans steed, he is about to be butchered are: “A horse! A Horse! My kingdom for a horse!”
David Garrick as Richard III by William Hogarth
The small things we take for granted are often the things we miss the most when they’re gone, and our need is great. Robust health is one that springs to mind.
Love is surely the state of being that is taken for granted the most. Those thoughtful acts of kindness and love that are performed daily and thought nothing of are sorely missed by the receiver when the doer is no longer willing or able to perform them.
But unconditional love is a divine blessing, it’s the only emotion that provides an infinite supply. The more you give away the more flows to you and through you.
Shakespeare’s sonnets, poems, comedies, histories and tragedies embody eternal human qualities and struggles, captured with such eloquent expression that the mysteries surrounding his life and his status as a god of literature – one of the greatest writers and dramatists that ever lived – shows no sign of slowing or abating. He is everywhere – almost, dare I say – ubiquitous.
Shakespeare is so often reduced to soundbites, but that’s because he wrote so many fantastic pithy phrases and unforgettable one-liners. Not to mention the plethora of new words he introduced into the English language that we frequently use today, without realising their origin.
When it came to phrase-making, he was second to none! (Also one of his).
“The best known and least known of figures.” ~ Bill Bryson
But the Bard is so much more than the sum of his genius parts. For my part I found Shakespeare heavy going at school, but I have come to love and appreciate his way with words as I have matured.
How like a winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!
What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!
~ William Shakespeare from Sonnet 97
Shakespeare was, and still is, a man of the people. London’s burgeoning East End was his stomping ground, along with his fellow players of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, which became the King’s Men during the reign of James I.
The Opiate of the People
In Shakespeare’s time eighty percent of the population were illiterate. His plays were meant primarily to be seen rather than read.
But you can’t please everyone, and even though he was loved by ordinary people and royalty alike, Shakespeare still had his detractors. He was envied by the playwright Robert Greene, who ungraciously labelled him an ‘upstart crowe’ in his 1592 autobiography. It is poetic justice that no one remembers the critics…
Romeo and Juliet
Probably the first play to be staged that had romantic love as its central theme, with an onstage kiss for good measure! It is based on Arthur Brooke’s 1562 poem, The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet.
Anthony, Viscount Montagu (his patron, Henry Wriothesley’s grandfather), may have inspired Shakespeare’s choice of name for the family foes of the Capulets.
Romeo and Juliet by Sir Frank Dicksee c. 1884
O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
I always used to think that Juliet was asking, albeit in poetic fashion, the location of her paramour, but in fact, ‘wherefore’ means ‘why’. She is pondering on the existential crisis of why she had the misfortune to fall in love with a Montague, a sworn enemy of her family.
Blaise Pascale summed it up perfectly: “The heart has its reasons which reason knows not.”
It seems forbidden love (or any kind for that matter), is something humans still fall into in the 21st century, as those in the grasp of its all-consuming intensity will know. There are many wonderful adaptations of Romeo and Juliet, I particularly enjoyed the most recent film (screenplay by Julian Fellowes):
As you may have gathered, the question my title poses is, why Shakespeare, and I’ll leave it to the centuries of brilliant writers and artists to answer that one!
Let’s start with the loving act of friendship on the part of John Heminges and Henry Condell to honour their dead friend and colleague, not solely by publishing 36 of his plays in the First Folio of 1623, but also with this touching preface for the generations of fans to follow:
“To the Great Variety of Readers,
Read him, and again, and again: And if you then do not like him, surely you are in some manifest danger, not to understand him. And so we leave you to other of is friends, whom if you need, can be your guides: if you need them not, you can lead yourselves, and others, and such readers we wish him.”
Henry Crawford’s line in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, (often attributed as Austen’s own view): ‘Shakespeare… is a part of an Englishman’s constitution. His thoughts and beauties are so spread abroad that one touches them everywhere; one is intimate with him by instinct.’
Charles Dickens was obsessed with Shakespeare and carried a volume of his plays around with him at all times; he even bought a house because of its associations with Falstaff. The influence of Shakespeare shines through his novels, including the depiction of family relationships based on Cordelia and Lear, as well as his use of theatrical-style devices borrowed from the plays.
There are echoes of Shakespeare’s Henry V in Winston Churchill’s ‘Their Finest Hour’ speech, and he used a quote from Julius Caesar in a memo to his staff in 1943, the one which begins, ‘There is a tide in the affairs of men…’
From Henry James’ 1876 review of Romeo and Juliet: ‘One never sees Shakespeare played without being reminded at some new point of his greatness’, although aside from his admiration of Shakespeare’s craft, it seemed he had a problem with the Bard being a common oik from Stratford!
Shakespeare was surely one of our greatest exports.
Abraham Lincoln would read his works aloud on many evenings to his aides (who may or may not have been as enamoured of them as their leader), and the French writer, Flaubert said: ‘When I read Shakespeare I become greater, wiser, purer.’
The Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh wrote of how Shakespeare made him feel in a letter to his brother: ‘What touches me… is that the voices of these people, which… reach us from a distance of several centuries, do not seem unfamiliar to us. It is so much alive that you think you know them and see the thing.’
The political prisoners held captive on South Africa’s Robben Island reportedly read a smuggled copy of the Complete Works, disguised as a Hindu Bible. Each of them signed their names by their favourite passages.
Walter Sisulu chose a speech of Shylock’s: Still have I borne it with a patient shrug, / For suff’rance is the badge of all our tribe. Nelson Mandela chose a passage from Julius Caesar, which begins: Cowards die many times before their deaths; / The valiant never taste of death but once. Years later Mandela said, “Shakespeare always seems to have something to say to us.”
Hamlet was one of the first characters in literature to be a fully rounded human being, plagued by doubt, inner conflicts and suicidal thoughts, which Sigmund Freud found perfect case study fodder. Hamlet helped him to explore the concept of the unconscious, and also to illustrate the Oedipus complex – maybe a step too far!
Book titles taken from Shakespeare include: Brave New World, The Sound and the Fury, The Dogs of War, Under the Greenwood tree, Infinite Jest, The fault in Our Stars, By the Pricking of My Thumbs, Remembrance of Things Past, Murder Most Foul, to mention but a few.
Such Sweet Thunder– The title of the jazz suite album and first track, are Duke Ellington’s homage to Shakespeare’s characters, with the title representing Othello:
Shakespeare has been credited with more than 1,000 films and TV shows. According to The Guinness Book of Records he is the most filmed author of all time. Hamlet has around 79 film credits with Romeo and Juliet hot on his heels with 59.
“Shakespeare – the nearest thing in incarnation to the eye of God.” ~ Laurence Olivier
William Hazlitt wasn’t taking any prisoners in the 19th century when he wrote: ‘If we wish to know the force of human genius, we should read Shakespeare. If we wish to see the insignificance of human learning, we may study his commentators.’ Hmm… better stop now!
Venus and Adonis by Titian c. 1560s
Shakespeare’s most successful published work during his lifetime was his long narrative poem, Venus and Adonis, which must have seemed rather racy and titillating to Elizabethan audiences… It was written between 1592 – 94 (when London’s theatres were closed due to the plague), as was another of his long poems, The Rape of Lucrece.
Shakespeare’s perspicacity and ability to illuminate the consequences of a mortal sin, versus the pleasure in committing it are remarkable.
Tarquin ruminates over whether to rape the virtuous Lucretia:
What win I if I gain the thing I seek?
A dream, a breath, a froth of fleeting joy.
Who buys a minute’s mirth to wail a week,
Or sells eternity to get a toy?
After he commits the terrible act, poor Lucretia is tormented with horribly realistic guilt and shame, ending ultimately in her suicide.
Tarquin and Lucretia by Luca Giordano
A poem with hard-hitting themes, which unsurprisingly was not as successful as Venus and Adonis.
Both poems were dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, one of the few occasions that Shakespeare ‘speaks’ to us in his own voice, (even if it is obsequious in tone): ‘The love I dedicate to your lordship is without end, and ‘What I have done is yours; what I have to do is yours; being part in all I have, devoted yours.’
The Sonnets and the mystery of the ‘Fair Youth’
It is debatable whether these were ever meant for public consumption and may only have been intended for the recipient, or a private audience. The subject is addressed as ‘you’ and known variously as ‘my lovely boy’, ‘lovely youth’ and ‘beauteous and lovely boy’, referred to as the Fair Youth by scholars.
Even though the long poems proved the most financially successful of his literary output during the Bard’s lifetime, his 154 sonnets were not greatly admired when first published in 1609, as this form of poetry was starting to go out of fashion. But they have stood the test of time, and are now perhaps considered the apotheosis of his literary achievements.
The first 126 of the sonnets, labelled the ‘Fair Youth’ poems, are mostly expressions of romantic love, encompassing all the associated emotions such as jealousy, anxiety, mistrust, and they progress into an affair between the youth and the narrator’s ‘Dark Lady’, (who the next 26 sonnets are about, plus a few relating to a ‘rival poet’).
Many of the sonnets are addressed to a man, and they are among the most tender, passionate and downright erotic poems ever written, causing much heated debate and consternation over the centuries.
Was Shakespeare gay? Or at least bisexual, as he was married to Anne Hathaway. Attitudes towards sexuality would surely have differed to what they are today. Either way, what really matters is his legacy of literary gold dust. It is not clear if all 126 poems are addressed to the same man, like one great outpouring, or if they are to different friends and lovers over a number of years.
It has long been argued that the Fair Youth was Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. He was a good-looking and debonair chap if his portraits are anything to go by.
Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton
Shakespeare scholar Jonathon Bate believes that Henry Wriothesley was indeed the fair youth, and that the sonnets were written for him in the quest for patronage.
However, there is no categorical proof that the poems are autobiographical. To over interpret them surely takes the focus away from their intrinsic beauty. This is the conclusion that James Shapiro came to by the middle of the 19th century: ‘The obsession with autobiographical titbits had all but displaced interest in the aesthetic pleasures of the poems themselves.’
Sonnet 130 is not complimentary to a particular lady, yet expresses genuine feeling in the last two couplets, in a slightly cynical, backhanded sort of way:
Another great British poet, William Wordsworth, was a firm proponent of the idea that Shakespeare revealed his true self in the sonnets.
Scorn not the Sonnet; Critic, you have frowned,
Mindless of its just honours; with this key
Shakespeare unlocked his heart; the melody
Of this small lute gave ease to Petrarch’s wound;
A thousand times this pipe did Tasso sound;
With it Camöens soothed an exile’s grief;
The Sonnet glittered a gay myrtle leaf
Amid the cypress with which Dante crowned
His visionary brow: a glow-worm lamp,
It cheered mild Spenser, called from Faery-land
To struggle through dark ways; and, when a damp
Fell round the path of Milton, in his hand
The Thing became a trumpet; whence he blew
Soul-animating strains—alas, too few!
By William Wordsworth
To me the sonnets seem too intimate and poignant to be figments of Shakespeare’s imagination, they must have risen up from a deep well… It is not wise to interpret them too literally, but through them his life experiences have left their indelible mark.
The tantalisingly cryptic dedication written on the front was signed by the publisher, Thomas Thorpe (T.T.) and further fuelled ideas that the Fair Youth, possibly Henry Wriothesley, was also the dedicatee with his initials reversed:
One does rather go down a rabbit hole investigating all of this, (I’ll save the ‘Dark Lady’ for another day). A recent hypothesis is that the publisher’s dedication is to William Holme, which seems highly plausible to me.
A detailed exploration of the sonnets’ dedication. Oscar Wilde even wrote a fictional story, The Portrait of Mr. W.H. based on Thomas Tyrwhitt’s theory that the Fair Youth was named William Hughes, based on certain lines contained in Sonnet 20: “A man in hue, all Hues in his controlling”, in which the word Hues is both italicised and capitalised in the original edition.
In her brilliant foreward to the RSC edition of sonnets Fiona Shaw writes:
Shakespeare’s sonnets give us the impetus required for a meaningful analysis of our foolish selves in love and our difficulty in really communicating with one another.
He uses ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ of all our conflicting thoughts and all in the pocketbook size of the sonnet. They are like literary entries in the diary of the human condition. We borrow his words and his rhythm, his hesitancy, his ease with conclusion, and it helps us to do more than merely navigate through the often fraught landscape of love and delight ourselves along the way.
We live in a time where being unable to utter our personal truth seems to hold more integrity. We have become suspicious of words. Shakespeare’s sonnets entice us back to a more precise rendering of emotional reality, and they do it with generous and extravagant language. In a sentence he captures the sound and the terror of feeling.
Sonnet 93 was the first of the sonnets to be subjected to biographical analysis by Edmond Malone in 1780, who proposed that the sonnet might reveal the unhappy state of Shakespeare’s marriage. Not such a big leap, when one considers the geographical distance between William and Anne for much of the time, in addition to scrutiny of the language.
Malone opened a scholar’s Pandora’s Box when he further suggested Shakespeare snubbed Anne Hathaway in his will, (to support his hypotheses), in bequeathing his wife his ‘second best bed’.
Men portraying women on stage
Women’s emancipation had a long way to go in Elizabethan England, when women were prohibited from acting on stage in public. Cue one of my favourite films, Shakespeare in Love. The heroine is Lady Viola de Lesseps, disguised as Thomas Kent for much of the movie, she is shipwrecked at the end of the film, a perfect prequel to Twelfth Night.
Twelfth Night is a tale of separation and rediscovery, set in motion by a storm at sea, a popular device used by Shakespeare, (shipwrecks also featured in varying plot degrees in The Tempest, The Comedy of Errors, Pericles and The Winter’s Tale). Maybe there was an excess of nautical props lying around…
Viola’s character dresses up as a man, Cesario, in the employ of Count Orsino; in a comic romp of gender swaps and mistaken identity on the road to love.
Nuggets of Twelfth Night performances:
Stephen Fry and Mark Rylance lend comic genius to an all male cast in a Globe Theatre production:
I can imagine how they must have howled in the 16th century, and how ludicrous and funny it seems to us today when men play female parts. Especially the scenes with Viola, in which a boy pretends to be a girl pretending to be a boy!
This plot may even have put Will’s head in a spin…
As is said in the play: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” I do believe Shakespeare to be in the second category, for he had no noble title at birth and secured his posthumous place in history through his wit, talent and hard work.
Much Ado About Nothing
The banter and brevity of Much Ado About Nothing meant it was a popular play in its day. The wrong done to Hero is technically the main plot line, but the sparring lovers, Beatrice and Benedick supply the most fun. Even King Charles II apparently wrote Benedick and Beatrice next to the play’s title in his personal copy of the Second Folio.
Sparks fly between Kenneth and Emma in Branagh’s wonderful film adaptation:
All is True
Kenneth Branagh talks about portraying Shakespeare in the twilight of his life in All is True:
I must see this film!
I think the fire scene at the end of the trailer might be depicting the unfortunate burning down of The Globe Theatre. It enjoyed much success from its opening in 1599 to its demise in 1613, after a stray spark from a stage cannon in a performance of Henry VIII ignited the thatch roof. Thankfully there were no fatalities. It was rebuilt the following year with a closed tiled roof.
The original title of Henry VIII was All is True, hence the film’s title, and it was changed for the publication of the First Folio to The Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eighth.
Steamy Southwark and Shoreditch were booming medieval theatre districts, home to not just The Globe, but also The Rose, The Curtain, The Swan and The Hope. What they lacked in sophisticated stage and scenery set-ups they made up for with lavish, colourful costumes and the use of animal organs and blood to lend authenticity to gruesome battle and death scenes.
Can you picture the atmosphere with 3,000 rowdy theatre goers packed tightly together?
The Puritans considered such theatres dens of iniquity and vice, (which they most probably were), and in 1642 they succeeded in closing them all down. The Globe was demolished two years later.
Today’s Globe Theatre on London’s Bankside (again in thatch but with the added benefit of modern water sprinklers), was built a mere 230 metres away from the first Globe’s location. It’s design however, was based on drawings of The Swan, made in 1596 by a Dutch tourist.
What things you make of us! For what we lack
We laugh, for what we have, are sorry; still
Are children in some kind. Let us be thankful
For that which is, and with you leave dispute
That are above our question.”
~ William Shakespeare (The Two Noble Kinsmen)
The above quote, the last words in the play (except for the epilogue), are perhaps the very last words that Shakespeare wrote.
The Tempest was previously thought to be his last play, but The Two Noble Kinsmen, based on Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale, is now generally accepted as Shakespeare’s final play; a collaboration with John Fletcher. Scholars believe that Shakespeare’s contributions are the writing of Act 1, two scenes in Act 3, and three in Act 5.
It may not be considered such a good swansong as The Tempest, but author Andrew Dickson says of the closing lines, ‘as a conclusion to his career these halting words… are infinitely more painful than anything voiced by Prospero’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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!
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.
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….
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…
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
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:
Paul de Senneville – Mariage d’Amour with Richard Clayderman:
Nino Rota gets the sax treatment with Kenny G:
Adam Hurst – Longing:
My Funny Valentine:
A Kiss to Build a Dream on:
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!
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)
~ 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:
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!
The Merchant of Venice (2004):
Much Ado About Nothing (1993):
Romeo and Juliet (2013):
Richard III (1955):
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
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
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
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
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
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…
“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
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 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
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
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 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 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:
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
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.
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:
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
“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)
I 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.
Walking 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.
As 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.
There 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.
From 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
14th Century Market Cross
Shakespeare’s lost signet ring
Shakespeare’s birthplace in the 17th Century
Changing face of the birthplace
Birthplace in the 18th Century
Window for selling John Shakespeare’s gloves
Swans on the Avon
Welcombe Hotel Stratford
Approaching Shakespeare’s birthplace in Henley Street
Exiting the birthplace
Judy Methuen’s 2014 sculpture of Shakespeare based on the Cobbe portrait
On the first floor
view across the first floor
The dining hall
Bed in pride of place in the parlour
Side view of birthplace
Othello from a victorian folio on display at the Welcombe Hotel
Yours truly being told not to step back by the kind man who took this photograph!
Fireplace of the Swan Inn
Ducks in a row…
Entrance to the birthplace
The Encore Inn at the waterside
Chronology of Shakespeare’s plays
Older window of the birth room complete with signatures from literary visitors
The birth room of William Shakespeare
Spire of the Holy Trinity Church from the river bank