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Subject: ‘Shakespeare’

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Richard III was a victim of the Tudor propaganda machine

Posted in Famous battles, Famous crimes, Historical articles, History, Royalty, Shakespeare on Monday, 17 March 2014

This edited article about King Richard III first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 592 published on 19 May 1973.

Richard III,  picture, image, illustration
Richard III put up an heroic fight at Bosworth Field by James E McConnell

The image of Richard III as a monstrous hunchback slaughtering his way to the throne has persisted in the popular mind for almost five centuries. History, it seems, has rarely produced a villain so thoroughly evil or so totally detestable.

This pejorative picture is renewed every time an actor takes the stage to play the part of Richard in Shakespeare’s powerful drama of his life and death. In “Richard III,” the king is shown as a murderer, usurper and schemer, utterly lacking in feeling or morals, who ends, deservedly, the victim of fear-ridden dreams, remorse and violent death.

Shakespeare’s play was produced in 1593 – 108 years after Richard was killed at the battle of Bosworth, the closing conflict of the Wars of the Roses, and the victorious Henry Tudor became King Henry VII.

Shakespeare wrote it for an audience which appreciated the stability strong Tudor rule had brought to England, and which was used to the idea that Henry had been England’s saviour, banishing the dread of civil war and curbing the power of the nobles whose ambitions had fostered it.

The play was very popular, not least because this audience saw in it what it wanted and expected.

However, it was also seeing one of the most diligent pieces of character assassination history has ever known.

The battle of Bosworth saw the end of Richard III in more ways than one, for its sequel was the murder of his reputation.

The contrast between the historical Richard and the heinous villain of Tudor propaganda appears most forcefully in the work of John Rous, a priest who was working on a history of the Earls of Warwick in the closing years of the Wars of the Roses.

In its first version, this history, known today as the Rows Roll, described Richard in particularly effusive terms. Rous wrote of him as “A mighty prince and especially good lord . . . in his realm commendably punishing offenders of the laws . . . . . . by the which discreet guiding he got great thanks and love of all his subjects.”

This was not mere sycophancy. Ample confirmation of Rous’s sentiments exists in several independent sources, and the picture that emerges from them shows that Richard enjoyed much popularity and respect as a fair administrator and a dispenser of justice in whom his subjects could, and did, place great faith.

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The Rose Theatre at Bankside in Southwark, London

Posted in Actors, Architecture, English Literature, Historical articles, History, London, Shakespeare, Theatre on Friday, 14 March 2014

Rose Theatre,  picture, image, illustration
The Rose Theatre, Southwark by Peter Jackson

The Rose Theatre was one of four theatres on the south side of the Thames in Southwark, that district notorious for leisure and lascivious pleasures, whence the revenues went to William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester, and undoubtedly paid for the establishment of his New College at Oxford, as well as Winchester College itself. It was the first London theatre to stage any play by Shakespeare, and yet its success was short lived. It was built by Philip Henslowe, whose diary from the period remains the most important historical primary source for the study of the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre. It was the smallest of the London theatres, but despite later enlargement by Henslowe himself, seems to have been unpopular with many theatre-goers. An outbreak of the Plague closed all playhouses for two years, and when they re-opened the Rose failed to increase its popularity. The Privy Council’s decree in 1600 that there should only be two theatres in the district signalled its demise, along with the building of the Globe in 1599. The Rose was abandoned and closed in 1603 when its lease expired. It was probably demolished around 1606.

Many more pictures relating to Southwark can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.

The golden age of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama

Posted in Actors, English Literature, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History, Literature, London, Shakespeare, Theatre on Monday, 3 March 2014

This edited article about the English theatre first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 576 published on 27 January 1973.

Shakespeare at the Globe,  picture, image, illustration
Shakespeare performing at the Globe Theatre by Peter Jackson

Telling the boy apprentices to look after the shop, Master and Mistress Page, a prosperous tailor and his wife, went out into the street and headed south.

This was a street with a difference, for it was London Bridge with its high houses and marvellous array of shops. It was a wonder of the Elizabethan world.

The Pages walked hurriedly, waving at friends and not stopping to talk to them, for it was already nearly 1.30 and the play at the newly built Globe Theatre on Bankside on the south bank of the Thames began at 2.

Boats were taking other theatre-goers across the river, which in Spring 1600 was London’s main highway, but it was more sensible for the Pages to walk. They passed under the south gateway, glancing up at the shrunken traitors’ heads stuck on poles to deter others, then they turned right into a world of churches, slums, bear-gardens and theatres all alongside each other. Many patrons of the bear-baiting and cockfighting dens were just as much at home in the Globe listening to Master Shakespeare’s thrilling poetry, or to singers accompanied by lutes. Such was the sharp contrast of Elizabethan London – beauty and pain, music and sudden death, and always in the background the fear of the plague, which, when it came, closed all the theatres on Bankside for fear of mass infection.

The flag was flying over the Globe to show that a play would definitely be given that afternoon, and streams of people, some 2,000 or so, were heading for the cylindrical building with the thatched roof that the great actor Burbage, Shakespeare and several of their friends had built when their old one in north London had been threatened by the landlords. The Pages knew the story of how Burbage and the others had literally pulled the old theatre down and carried the wood across the river to help build the new one. They had once met Shakespeare himself, a most likable man, as everyone agreed, and they knew one of the boy actors at the Globe, who played women’s parts.

They waved at friends going to the Swan Theatre. Still more were heading for the Rose, where a play by Christopher Marlowe, who had been killed in a tavern brawl, was being given by the Lord Admiral’s Men, rivals of Shakespeare’s company, the Chamberlain’s Men.

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Shakespeare reimagined Macbeth as a murderous obsessive

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Royalty, Scotland, Shakespeare, Superstition on Tuesday, 28 January 2014

This edited article about Scotland first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 529 published on 4 March 1972.

Macbeth in battle,  picture, image, illustration
Macbeth in battle by Neville Dear

Although William Shakespeare wrote a great deal about history, a historian would have to admit that the dramatist was not strong on accuracy, which in itself is the key to history. Some kings were lucky in the treatment they received from Shakespeare; others suffered cruelly.

One of those who suffered was Macbeth, King of Scotland. He was, says the Bard, an ambitious thane who one day, while crossing a moor with his friend Banquo, met three witches who told Macbeth that in due time he would become King of Scotland.

The prophecy, made over the old hags’ boiling cauldron, began to obsess Macbeth, and egged on by his even more ambitious wife, who liked the idea of becoming a Queen, he murdered King Duncan in his bed while the old King was his guest.

For a short time, says Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth then reigned over Scotland. But before long Malcolm, the son of Duncan, came against him with an army of English and Scots and slew him. The crown then passed to Malcolm, its rightful owner.

How true is this story? The answer is, hardly at all. Shakespeare, who was said to have heard it from a Scottish writer, would not have received many marks for this piece of history.

To set the record straight, we must begin with the reign of Duncan. England was still a Saxon kingdom and the future William the Conqueror was a mere boy of seven when Duncan, a handsome young man, came to the throne of Scotland in the year 1034.

At this time part of Scotland was called Moray, and it was a much bigger part than the present-day county of that name. It was ruled by a family who never stopped insisting that the crown of Scotland rightfully belonged to them. One Earl of Moray after another rebelled against the country’s successive kings, so that even the mention of the name Moray was enough to make a King of Scotland seize hold of his sword.

When Duncan reigned, the Earl of Moray was Shakespeare’s hero Macbeth. Like all his ancestors, Macbeth believed he should be king; it was, therefore, only a matter of time before he raised a rebellion against Duncan. At a battle near Elgin the King was killed and Macbeth took the crown.

What sort of a king was he? Not a great deal is known about his reign, but there is no evidence at all to suggest that he was the bloody murderer that Shakespeare made him.

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Was King Richard III traduced by Sir Thomas More and William Shakespeare?

Posted in Famous crimes, Historical articles, History, Mystery, Myth, Royalty, Shakespeare on Thursday, 16 January 2014

This edited article about the Princes in the Tower first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 514 published on 20 November 1971.

Murder of the Princes, picture, image, illustration
The Murder of the Princes in the Tower by Sir James Tyrrell

The following notice appeared in the memorial column of the “New York Times” on a recent August. It read:

“Plantagenet – Richard, of York, Duke of Gloucester, King of England, who died 478 years ago today, the 22nd day of August in 1485, in battle at Bosworth Field, betrayed, slandered, his memory destroyed by the Tudors as was his body, a victim of malicious propaganda horrendously immortalised forever by W. Shakespeare . . .”

Stop! Wait!

These are strong words, indeed, to use about the memory of an English king. Strong – because the blunt facts about Richard III in the history books are quite clear. They tell us that he ruthlessly murdered the two sons of his brother, King Edward IV; Edward, Prince of Wales and Richard, Duke of York. Then, having seized the throne, he was killed fighting on Bosworth Field by the troops of Henry Tudor, afterwards Henry VII.

It was a fitting end, you might say, for a brutal and vicious child-murderer.

The city records of York, however, would disagree with you, and the history books. On learning of Richard’s defeat at Bosworth, the Mayor and Aldermen authorised this entry to be made in the records:

“This day was our good King Richard piteously slain and murdered to the great heaviness of this city.”

Well! What really happened?

Let us glance back a moment over his life. From the first Richard’s was a success story. At the age of seventeen he had joined his elder brother Edward in the fight against the Lancastrians in the bitter closing stages of the Wars of the Roses. Before he was twenty he was the medieval equivalent of a brigadier, and a good soldier.

When Edward became King, he had already learned to trust Richard implicitly and it was to him that he gave the task of driving the Scots from the frontier town of Berwick, which had been a bone of contention between the two countries for many years.

At this time, too, Richard governed the North of England and did so well that he was loved by the whole countryside.

When Edward IV died in April 1483, Richard was the most popular man in England. By Royal Decree he had been appointed Lord Protector – a sure sign of the trust that his brother had placed in him.

So the Kingdom was in his hands until the young Edward, Prince of Wales was old enough to govern for himself. It was at this time, we are told, that Richard took the throne and murdered the Princes.

When Richard was crowned King the two boys were lodged in the Tower of London, which was then a Royal residence and not primarily a prison. And it was here, according to the Tudor historian Sir Thomas More, that they were murdered.

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Shakespearean alchemy transformed Prince Hal into King Henry V

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Royalty, Shakespeare on Thursday, 16 January 2014

This edited article about Henry V first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 514 published on 20 November 1971.

Henry V, picture, image, illustration
King Henry V by Dan Escott

If a monarch could be said to owe a debt to a man who lived 150 years after him, then Henry V of England owed one to William Shakespeare.

For, as a royal biographer, Shakespeare was, and still is, responsible for much of the popular knowledge of Henry. He painted a portrait of the King that might have made even Henry, his royal ‘Star of England,’ blush a little.

In our time Sir Laurence Olivier and the cinema have projected the Shakespeare story to mass audiences. As he was to the Tudor playhouse spectators, so has Henry been the darling king of twentieth century cinemagoers.

In his teens a madcap tumbleweed, frolicking with fat Falstaff, frequenting low taverns, rebellious against law and authority, at odds with his father. In his maturity a steadfast soldier, brilliant victor at Agincourt, ennobler of the high and mighty crown of England.

That is the Shakespeare version of Henry the Fifth. It is moving, entertaining, immortal as literature. But is it true or false?

The answer lies somewhere between the two. It is true that some vague references to the King having been imprisoned for boisterous behaviour when he was Prince of Wales do exist, but they remain vague and unsupported. It is generally held to be true that the Falstaff whom Shakespeare depicts as the Prince’s tavern companion existed as one Sir John Oldcastle. But Falstaff is a slur on that worthy knight, who was a soldier of distinction.

It is true, too, that young Prince Hal had a tempestuous youth, that earned himself a reputation for enjoying a riotous life. And it is true that Prince Hal often quarrelled with his father. Their principal differences were concerned with a struggle for power that was going on in France and it was doubtless also a cause of frustration to the fiery Prince that his father’s last years were punctuated with bouts of illness that made him incapable of government.

But the old King must have found plenty to praise in his eldest son, certainly plenty more than Shakespeare admits. As a soldier young Henry proved that he had few equals. His containment of the considerable threat posed by Owen Glendower’s revolt to wrest Wales from the English was tactically good, and at 16 he was co-victor with his father at the Battle of Shrewsbury against a large force of northern rebels.

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Charles Lamb was a hard-drinking essayist devoted to his beloved unstable sister

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History, Shakespeare on Friday, 29 November 2013

This edited article about English literature first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 469 published on 9 January 1971.

Charles and Mary Lamb, picture, image, illustration
Charles Lamb and his sister were driven from one lodging to another by local gossip about how Mary Lamb had suffered a brainstorm and stabbed her mother to death

Mary Lamb snapped angrily over her needlework at the young servant girl who was working at the table in the Lamb family’s sitting-room.

The girl had said something to annoy Mary, whose quick temper had always been aggravated by the amount of work she had to do in order to keep her poverty-stricken parents alive.

While Mary’s senile father dozed in a corner and her brother Charles was working, her mother gently chided her. Unfortunately, the servant girl unwisely snapped back at Mary, who picked up a knife from the table and pursued the servant round the room. Mrs. Lamb jumped up and tried to pull the knife from her daughter’s hand. Brimming with uncontrollable rage, Mary swung the knife at her mother and pierced her heart with it.

Then Mary picked up a handful of other knives and hurled them round the room. One of them wounding her father, others embedded themselves in walls. It was left to her brother Charles to overcome her.

Next day, at an inquest, Mary Lamb was adjudged to be insane, and ordered to live in a mental hospital. But her madness was only temporary. And at that time, in the latter half of the 18th century, dangerous people who could return to sanity, even if only temporarily, were allowed to live at home. So Mary Lamb was soon back with her family.

With her mother dead and her father a sick man, there was only Charles to look after her. He surrendered a prospect of marriage and devoted the rest of his life to caring for Mary, whose madness regularly returned.

Hers was hereditary and both Charles and their brother John had been previous victims of it. Mary’s attacks were generally attended by forewarnings, which enabled brother and sister to take the necessary measures. A friend of Lamb’s has related how he met Charles and Mary “walking hand in hand across the fields to the old mental asylum, both bathed in tears.”

Lamb bore his self-imposed task with incredible fortitude. Shunned and sometimes driven from lodging to lodging, the brother and sister never lost their faith and trust in each other.

Every morning Charles Lamb would set out for his office at the East India Company, where he was employed in the accounting department. There he would sit, dressed in clerk-like black, a light, thin frame surmounted by a head crowned with curly black hair; “a most noble and sweet face,” we are told. His salary when he started was £70 a year, with one week’s paid holiday annually; the monotony was only broken by an occasional visit to the theatre.

When life seemed too burdensome, Lamb resorted to alcohol. Many times he tried to break the habit, but he remained a hard drinker until he died. Yet out of all this, Charles Lamb fashioned an immortal name for himself in the literature of Britain.

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‘Romeo’ Coates – the worst actor in English theatrical history

Posted in Absurd, Actors, Historical articles, History, Shakespeare, Theatre on Friday, 1 November 2013

This edited article about theatre originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 445 published on 25 July 1970.

Haymarket theatre,  picture, image, illustration
The Haymarket Theatre, where thousands of people had to be turned away when Coates appeared there in 1811

It was 8th February, 1808, and a new production of Romeo and Juliet was opening at the Theatre Royal, Bath. Elegant figures thronged the narrow streets around the theatre as Regency beaux and their ladies flocked to attend the first night; for this was no ordinary production. Playbills had announced that the part of Romeo was to be taken by an amateur actor from the fashionable world, who would perform for one night only, and it was rumoured that his interpretation of the role was an unusual one.

Inside the theatre the gossiping and laughing died down, the orchestra struck up and the curtain rose. It rose on a spectacle that no-one who was present would ever forget. It rose on Robert “Romeo” Coates.

Coates was born in Antigua in 1772, the son of a rich planter. He was educated in England and, when he inherited his father’s immense fortune, made his home there, taking up residence in the York Hotel, Bath. It was then that his strange behaviour began. In an age of extraordinary fashions and follies, he became a byword. He rode in a carriage, shaped, some said, like a shell or, said others, like a kettle-drum. It was drawn by white horses and was surmounted by an enormous brass cockerel under which ran the motto, “Whilst I live I’ll crow.” Bath at once nicknamed him “Cock-a-doodle-doo Coates.”

If the equipage was unusual in appearance, still more so was its driver. No matter what the weather, Coates appeared in the daytime muffled in heavy furs. In the evenings, however, he cast them off to reveal gaudy costumes decorated with buttons and buckles made of diamonds. Bath thought again and dubbed him “Diamond Coates.”

His appearance might have been acceptable in a society that delighted in flamboyant people, had he been young or handsome. But above the huge collars and intricately-tied cravats peered a sallow, wrinkled face – the face of a fool.

It was Coates’ taste for dramatics that finally made him notorious. He was encouraged to take part in a public performance by some ladies of Bath who flattered him into thinking he was a second David Garrick, the great 18th century actor.

Promptly on his cue Romeo appeared. The house gasped. His costume was breathtaking. He wore a sky-blue cloak, covered with sequins, red pantaloons and a massive cravat, while on his head and spreading over his shoulders was a Restoration wig surmounted by an opera hat.

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Denmark’s castle Kronborg was immortalised as Elsinore by Shakespeare

Posted in Architecture, Castles, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History, Shakespeare on Tuesday, 22 October 2013

This edited article about Kronborg castle originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 434 published on 9 May 1970.

Elsinore, picture, image, illustration
A picture history of Elsinore, known in Denmark as Kronborg

Puffs of smoke suddenly appeared at the gun ports of the British warships as they sailed past the Castle of Kronborg. Cannon-balls whistled towards the fortification and the nearby Danish town of Elsinore.

On the wall of the castle a young artillery cadet, his eyes shining with excitement, shouted the order, “Fire!” A brass gun belched flame in reply to the bombarding ships.

“Young man, what do you think you are doing?” demanded the castle commandant.

“Why, sir, I . . . I . . .” stammered the cadet, suddenly afraid of the look of anger in his superior’s eye.

“You are wasting powder, young man, and I will not have it,” snapped the commandant. And so the British Fleet, under the command of Admirals Nelson and Parker, continued unopposed into the three-mile-wide Sound between Denmark and Sweden.

It was the year 1801. The British had requested permission to enter the Sound but would not state their destination. As a result, the commandant of Kronborg refused their request. Angered by this, Admiral Parker seized a favourable wind and sailed into the Sound, firing at the castle and the town as they passed. Ironically, they only scored one hit – on the house of the British Consul in Elsinore!

The whole affair had been caused by an obscure navigational dispute between England and Denmark. Following the entry into the Sound the British Fleet engaged the Danish navy inconclusively and later bombarded Copenhagen. No doubt the Danes wished the commandant of Kronborg had been less sparing with his gunpowder.

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Kempe and Tarlton – the two greatest clowns in Elizabethan England

Posted in Actors, English Literature, Historical articles, History, London, Shakespeare, Theatre on Wednesday, 9 October 2013

This edited article about clowns originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 421 published on 7 February 1970.

Willim Kempe, picture, image, illustration
William Kempe, the original performer of Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing; from a wooden cut prefixed to Kempes Nine Daies Wonder, 1600

Clowning is as old as Mankind. It was probably born when one of our remotest ancestors made his fellow sub-humans rock with laughter by pulling a funny face and falling flat on the floor of his cave. There were clowns in Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece and in Rome, and there are still clowns in the truest sense of the word in circuses today.

Unfortunately, the word “clown” is not as simple as it seems. The history of clowning is like an intricate jigsaw puzzle. The word really means “clod,” “clot” or “lump,” the poor clod being someone slightly superior to the village idiot! But it was soon established that, although clowns could not help playing the fool, they could be witty and cunning as well.

Clods or, more properly, simpletons go right through the history of clowning. Other famous types of clowns are the knaves, whose craftiness and naughtiness have always appealed to audiences, and also the professional jesters. The latter often appear in Shakespeare’s plays, and in real life entertained kings and nobles. They were licensed fools.

Then, in 16th and 17th century Italy a highly theatrical form of entertainment called the Commedia dell’ Arte produced yet another “strain” of clowns.

The Commedia dell’ Arte were comedies performed by troupes of actors who made up their lines as they went along, although they knew beforehand the basic plots of the stories they were to act. Each actor, who also had to be a singer, dancer, acrobat and comedian, always played the same traditional part. The parts included such famous characters as Harlequin, Pierrot, Pantaloon, Punchinello, the ancestor of Mr. Punch, and the girl, Columbine. All the actors were masked. Modern clowns are descended mainly from Harlequin and Pierrot, and from knaves and clods as well!

This marvellous mixture was welded together, as we shall see next week, by the greatest of all clowns, Joseph Grimaldi, who, in fact, turned the clown into a major character, Clown. He was knave and butt, cunning and stupid, all rolled into one.

Long before Grimaldi, however, there had been great clowns whose names have come down to us. In Elizabeth I’s day there were two immortals, Richard Tarlton and William Kempe.

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