Monday, 6 February 2017

WS ABC - The Two Helenas

Apologies to all who follow this blog for having to wait for over a week for this latest entry, but I was indisposed with a heavy cold and not feeling very inspired as a result.

MY FRIEND , Mr. SHAKESPEARE OBVIOUSLY LIKES THE NAME HELENA FOR HIS LADY CHARACTERS, well, for at least for two of them. There is a Helena in All's Well That Ends Well and another in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM. And if that's not enough, there is a HELEN who plays a minor role in Cymbeline, the lady who attends on Imogen and another HELEN in Troilus and Cressida. This last one is the daughter of Zeus and Leda. And to top it all, the son of Priam the Priest in Troilus is called HELENUS.
                            Frances Savidge playing Helena

However, today I'm just going to deal with the two lady Helenas. First, the Helena who appears in All's Well That Ends Well.

This Helena, " a sweet disaster" and "the most virtuous gentlewoman that ever Nature had praise for creating" is the orphan daughter of a famous doctor and is now the gentle-woman under the protection of the Countess of Rousillon. She goes to Paris to cure the sick king and soon becomes involved with Bertram, an allegedly charming youth. He unwillingly accepts her but soon abandons her, leaving her with a cruel letter. 
Katherine Kingsley as Helena, complete with ring and a lovely smile

As a result, she leaves Rousillon and disguised as a pilgrim, goes to Florence. There she sees Bertram who is now in love with Diana Capilet and persuades Diana's widowed mother to allow her (Helena) to slip into Bertram's bed instead of Diana. This is because that Bertram had told her in the past that he would only accept her if she could get a ring from his finger and conceive his child. The obviously myopic and insensitive Bertram does not know that he has slept with Helena instead of Diana but in the end, he accepts the pregnant Helena to be his wife when she produces his ring.
                       Helena as a pilgrim by John Wright

In my humble opinion, Helena sounds like a bit of a softie, to put it mildly, even though Coleridge thought that she was WS's "loveliest creature" and Hazlitt showered much praise on her as a " virgin and a wife: yet the most scrupulous nicety of female modesty is not once violated." (Thought: then how did she become pregnant?)
                             Helena in an Indian production

To me, who is often very unimpressed with the plots of our William's Comedies, this one seems a bit far-fetched, nay, incredible, especially if the nasty Bertram is not aware of the lady who is lying between the sheets with him is. I also think that our Helena is a bit soft in the head to still pine after him once she has received such a horribly harsh letter. However, Peter Quennel and Hamish Johnson in Who's Who in Shakespeare claim that Helena is not insipid as it is "the intensity of her passion for Bertram [that] is the mainspring of the play."

In contrast to the aforementioned Helena, the lady of the same name in A Midsummer Night's Dream is also love-struck, but this time with Demetrius, who in turn is in love with Hermia instead. Like Helena no. 1, our second heroine follows Demetrius, but this time into a magic wood and using Puck's misplaced magic, Helena ends up with her true love leaving Hermia to be united with Lysander.

Again, I am forced to say that I find this story-line a bit thin, even though MND has become one of the most popular plays that the Bard ever wrote. It is always being performed somewhere and it has been made into a film at least three times in 1935, 1968 and 1999. In the 1968 version, a very scantily clad Judy Dench appears as the Titania, the Fairy Queen, and Diana Rigg plays the lovelorn Helena.

Next time: Henry V
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(Left) Diana Rig as Helena
(Below) Judi Dench as Titania in    'MND'  

Saturday, 28 January 2017

WS ABC Hall & Holinshed

For those who don't know, HALL & HOLINSHED weren't a firm of lawyers in London, (with a branch in Stratford) who represented our William. They were the historians who supplied him with much of his material on which his historical plays were based.

EDWARD HALL or HALLE (1497-1547) was an MP, a lawyer and a historian who is best known for his history book, The Union of the two Noble and Illustre Houses of Lancaster and Yorke. Today this worthy tome is usually referred to as Hall's Chronicle. Unfortunately, Hall never lived to see the published version of his work as it was first printed in 1548, a year after he died.

Hall was born into a Protestant family in Shropshire and was educated at Eton and King's College where he studied law. He became an MP and wrote his famous history book which covered the period 1399-1532, in other words, the period which covered the reigns of Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, Edward IV, Henry VII and the first half of the reign of Henry VIII. This period also included the thirty-two year on-off War of the Roses from 1455-1487.

He wrote this book in order to glorify the Tudors and to show
that by discord greate thinges decaie and fall to ruine, so by the same by discord be revived and erected.' Hall's rather than the later Holinshed's history was Shakespeare's main sourrce for his earlier historical plays such as Richard II, Richard III, Henry IV and Henry V. Shakespeare also noted Hall's moral pattern of the discord that followed after any revolution, the Bard being a great believer in the importance of civil stability and order.

Hall shows Henry VIII in a very favourable light, either because that is what he really thought or because he wanted to keep his head on his shoulders. As a historian, he describes the later contemporary scene as it was during his own lifetime.

In June 1940, Alan Keen, an antiquarian book dealer found an annotated copy of Hall's Chronicle  and it is thought that the remarks in the margins re. Henry IV, V and Vi were made by Shakespeare. Today, this volume is to be found in the British Library, London.

In contrast to Hall, Raphael Holinshed's life bordered Shakespeare's own. He was born in 1529 and died in 1580 when Shakespeare was sixteen. We know very little about his private life except that he was thought to have been born in Shakespeare's own county, Warwickshire, although he may also have been born in Cheshire to the north.
                                      Raphael Holinshed

Holinshed worked for a printer called Reyner Wolf who commissioned him to write a history of the world from The Flood to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Holinshed never completed this enormous task, but in 1577, three years before he died, he published The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland. William Harrison, John Hooker and Richard Stanyhurst also contributed to this volume. 

This work was reprinted ten years later in 1587 and it is believed that Shakespeare based his later historical plays and Macbeth and parts of Cymbeline and King Lear on this edition. However, this second edition contained several parts that were offensive to the queen so the Privy Council ordered them to be removed. A complete reprint was finally made in 1807. It is also thought that Christopher Marlowe also based some of his own historical plays on Holinshed's work.
From Holinshed: Macbeth & Banquo meeting the Three Witches

In A Shakespeare Companion, 1564-1964, F.E. Halliday writes that Shakespeare may have met Holinshed when the historian came to the manor of Packwood (near Stratford) in Warwickshire.

Next time: Helena in "All's Well" & "Midsummer Night's Dream."
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Tuesday, 24 January 2017

WS ABC Hamlet # 3

If the plot in Hamlet appeared in a current newspaper, it would probably read something like this:

                        ON MURDEROUS UNCLE
                       Several Killed in Family Feud
In the famous scene at the end when Hamlet and Laertes have their fatal duel, John Waller, a well-known fight director, took fourteen days to film the ten minute duel that killed off both of these players.

The stronghold at Elsinor in Denmark where the play and this duel are set really exists. It is called Kronborg Castle and is in the Danish port, Helsingor, The Danish King Eric of Pomerania built it in 1423.  In 1589, about five years before our William wrote 'the Danish Play,' his future royal sponsor, King James I, married Princess Anne of Denmark here by proxy. 

Today, for obvious reasons, this Renaissance castle has become a 'tourist trap.' After 1785 its role changed from being a castle/royal residence to that of an army barracks. Then, 140 years later, in 1923 it was renovated to become a tourist site and thrown open to the public.

And how old was Hamlet when he was in Elsinor? According to the play, he was thirty years old (see Act V. sc. 1). However, if you look at the list below, only one of the actors, John Guilgud, was younger than thirty when he first played this role. He was 25 at the time. By the time he played Hamlet for the last time, Guilgud was 48!

                                           A young John Gielgud playing Hamlet. 

Sir Ian McKellan.........32
Mel Gibson....................34
Kenneth Brannagh........36
Henry Irving..................36
Richard Burton.............39
John Barrymore............40
Sir Laurence Olivier.....41
Sir Derek Jacobi...........42
Sarah Bernhardt...........56 !!!!!!
Statistics from: "The Shakespeare 
Companion," ed.Rhiannon Guy.

With regard to the many aspects of Hamlet that have been written about and debated, the following list from the index of Professor Stanley Wells' Shakespeare For All Time shows that this play has become one of the most, if not THE MOST analysed piece of writing ever. BTW, these analyses include the moral, political, psychological, historical, allegorical, logical, religious and philosophical aspects, as well as several others that I have not included here.

But to return to Prof. Wells' Index, he refers to:

the animated version of Hamlet,

Benson's 'eternity' version,
Berlioz's music
Sarah Bernhardt
Different characters,
Comic 'Hamlet'
Davenenant's version
Delacroix's lithographs
Dumas' version
the duel
female Hamlets
film versions
forgeries of the ms.
Freudian interpretations                                                                                   Richard Burton as Hamlet
Ghost role, Hamlet at the Globe,
the graveyard scene
influence in Germany
Irving's version
language & length of the play
Moscow Arts Theatre production
Old Vic production
Samuel Pepys' comments
Poel's production
Suckling portrait
supernatural in Hamlet
text & translations

and that's just from one general book about the Bard, not a book specifically about the Danish Prince and his problems!

Finally, I'm going to finish off these three blogs about Hamlet with the following paragraph from Shakespeare by Rob Graham, (2000).

Some academics have claimed that Hamlet probably reflects more of Shakespeare's own soul than any other character he created. Not his outward self - Hamlet talked where Shakespeare listened, Hamlet was a prince, WS, a glover's son: Hamlet is indecisive, Shakespeare seems to have been prudent and forthright in the conduct of his affairs. But both men were reflective, highly intelligent and concerned with moral choices. As Charles Clive has said, "Hamlet is what would happen if a great poet grew up to be a prince."

Next time: Halle & Holinshed (WS's Google for history)
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Thursday, 19 January 2017


Shakespeare in Denmark. Sculpture based on iconic portrait by Droeshout in the "First Folio."

Last time I dealt mainly with the sources and past productions of Hamlet. This time I wish to deal with the technical side of the play: no. of lines, quotations etc.

First of all, as a play, it is probably the most performed play since it was written - in c.1601-02, in English and in any other language and it is certainly the most quoted one of all of the Bard's works. The 1996 Revised Edition of The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations devotes 71 pages to Shakespeare, and of these, EIGHT!!! pages (about one-ninth) are quotations from Hamlet.

Examples of Hamlet's best lines:
O that this too too solid flesh would melt
Frailty, thy name is woman!
This above all; to thine own self be true.
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
The time is out of joint.
Brevity is the soul of wit.
What a piece of work is a man!
The play's the thing!
The lady protests too much, methinks.
There's a divinity that shapes our ends.
Now cracks a noble heart. Good night sweet prince: and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!

And (listen for the drum-roll!) the most well-known quotation in all of Shakespeare, nay in all of the world's literature:
To be, or not to be; that is the question...

In addition, Hamletit is the longest play that WS wrote and includes (depending on the edition you read) 4,042 lines, nearly 300 lines more than 'longest play #2,' Coriolanus which has 3,752. In comparison, the shortest play, The Comedy of Errors has a mere 1787 lines, while my favourite, Macbeth,  contains just over half of the length of the Danish play, i.e. 2,349 lines.

In addition, Michael LoMonico in Shakespeare 101, says that Hamlet is the second bloodiest play after Titus Andronicus. Richard The Third comes in third, Julius Caesar fourth and Macbeth completes the list of the Top Five Bloody WS Plays.
                        The sad and untimely end of Ophelia

In addition, Hamlet offers no great roles for female roles, although Hamlet and Ophelia are one of the most famous pairs of lovers and also dysfunctional couples in this play. This play also contains no songs and no suicides (as in Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra) but there is a 'missing mother,' i.e. we do not read about Mrs. Polonius, Ophelia and Laertes' mother. In contrast, it does contain one of the most thrilling sword-fights of all of WS's plays when Hamlet and Laertes fight each other in the closing scene. 
Hamlet (Brannagh) and Laertes fighting it out to and at the bitter end.

This play is also somewhat bawdy in parts, (#5 in LoMonico's list) and for more details on this subject, you are advised to consult Shakespeare's Bawdy by Eric Partridge and Naughty Shakespeare by Michael Macrone. According to this last book, our Hamlet is in the top five, together with Falstaff, Iago, Much Ado About Nothing and The Merry Wives of Windsor. In this last play,in which Falstaff makes his own serious contribution to the ribald nature of this comedy.
Hamlet and Ophelia appear in court in front of King Claudius

More on Hamlet next time.
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Saturday, 14 January 2017

WS ABC Hamlet (1)

What can you say about the play, HAMLET that hasn't been said already? Gallons of ink and thousands of megabytes, if not terabytes have been used to describe and analyse the plot, the characters, the significance etc. etc. of the play. Therefore I will not deal with any of these aforementioned topics but will concentrate on some of the more marginal aspects of this play.

Shakespeare may have used several different sources for this play but which one we cannot say definitely. He could have based his play on one of the following or a combination of Saxo Grammaticus' work, Historia Danica, or Gesta Danorum (Deeds of the Danes) c.1200, which told of the story of King Amleth or he may have referred to Histoires Tragiques, Extraicts des Oeuvres Italiennes de Bandel (1559-82) by Francois de Belleforest, or Timothy bright's play, Treatise of Melancholy. It is known that there was an earlier version of Hamlet in existence, this play now called Ur-Hamlet but it has been lost since it was acted in 1594. This last play may have been written by WS's fellow playwright, Thomas Kyd.  
   Hamlet as he appears in "Y is for Yorrick" by Jennifer Adams: "a young man who had a hard time making decisions...who killed his fiancee, future father-in-law, brother-in-law, stepfather and mother, all because he had a lot of trouble with follow-through"             
However, we do know that contemporary records show that Shakespeare was paid five pounds for this play (probably something equivalent to 3,500 pounds in today's money) and that the first actor to play this role was Richard Burbage, WS's friend, fellow-actor and business partner. 

Shakespeare's Hamlet was first performed by the King's Men at the Globe in 1601 or 1602 and then it was performed in Oxford and Cambridge in 1603. The next known performance took place on a boat - Captain Keeling's East Indiaman's merchant ship and then possibly, the next recorded performance took place in front of King James I at court. We also know that another performance at Hampton Court took place 'before the kinge (Charles I) and queene' (Henrietta Maria) on January 24th 1637.
                 Kenneth Brannagh playing Hamlet in 1996 

This play has attracted the most famous actors of the day to perform the leading role including David Garrick who, in 1772 produced a refined version at Drury Lane which excluded the graveyard scene. Edmund Kean (1787-1833) played this role two hundred years ago and Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir John Gielgud and David Warner played the Danish Prince in the 20th century. Olivier also acted this role in a filmed version in 1948 and Kenneth Brannagh followed suit in an impressive version in 1996. Nicol Williamson gave an energetic version of Hamlet in 1969 and Mel Gibson also played this part in 1990. Director Michael Almereyda had Ethan Hawke play the title role in 2000 in which the play is set against the backdrop of new York. 

Sarah Bernhardt playing Hamlet over one hundred years ago.
                 Sarah Siddons, the first actress to play Hamlet
But it was not only men who played this role; women did as well. The first actress who played Hamlet on the professional stage was Sarah Siddons (1755-1831) while Sarah Bernhardt played an unforgettable Hamlet one hundred years later.
A British Prince (Charles) playing a Danish Prince with Judi Dench

In Shakespeare 101, Michael LoMonico lists 101 actors/ actresses who have played Hamlet. Read this list carefully. Some of the names may surprise you. They include: Ian Bannen, Alan Bates John Barrymore, Simon Beale, Edwin Booth, Richard Burton, Richard Chamberlain, Tom Courtney, Daniel Day-Lewis, Maurice Evans, Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney Alec Guinness, Harry Hamlin, Leslie Howard, William Hurt, Henry Irving, Derek Jacobi, Charles Kean, Val Kilmer, Ben Kingsley, Kevin Kline, Raymond Massey, Ian McKellan, Siobhan McKenna, Burgess Meredith, Peter O'Toole, Ronald Pickup, Christopher Plummer, Michael Redgrave, Mark Rylance,Maximillian Schell, Paul Scofield, Martin Sheen, Robert Vaughan, Sam Waterston Orson Welles and Zapatka.      
                An American actor trumping Hamlet - 2016-17                                     

Next time: More on "Hamlet."
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Saturday, 7 January 2017

WS ABC Hall Family - Shakespeare's descendants

Shakespeare and his wife, **Anne Hathaway, (1555/6-1623) had three children: Susanna who was born in May 1583 and the twins, Judith and Hamnet who were born two years later in 1585. Unfortunately, Hamnet died aged eleven in 1596 and it is thought that the following lines from King John are the Bard's way of dealing with the loss of his only son.

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form:
Then have I reason to be fond of grief. 

The death of Hamnet also meant that this was the end of the use of Shakespeare as a surname, although his two daughters did marry and continue the family line.

Susanna (1583-1649) married John Hall, (1575-1635) a local physician in June 1607. Apparently he earned a good reputation as 'his advice was solicited in every direction' and he was summoned to attend cases involving the Earl and Countess of Northampton as far away as Ludlow Castle. He left a medical notebook in Latin but he never mentioned his father-in-law, WS. John Hall was said to have had Puritan leanings and so would not have approved of much of the Bard's plays and poems.
                             Hall's Croft in Stratford today.

Susanna is said to have been financially savvy but was also alleged to have been illiterate so that she couldn't have read her father's works. The Hall's lived in Hall's Croft in Stratford-upon-Avon, a Tudor-style house that still can be seen today.

Elizabeth Hall and John Nash
                                                                 Elizabeth Hall

John and Susanna had one child, Elizabeth who was the only grandchild that WS knew. She was eight years old when he died. In 1626 Elizabeth married John Nash who died in 1647. She then married John Barnard in June 1649 who outlived her. Both of her husbands were known for their pro-Royalist tendencies during the English Civil War (1642-49). Elizabeth's death in 1670 signified the end of WS's direct descendants.
                                 Crest of Doctor John Hall

Susanna's sister, Judith (1585-1662) married Thomas Quiney, a local vintner in February 1616, two months before WS died. It seems that WS did not approve of his son-in-law as he did not mention him in his famous will. The reason for this was that not long before Judith and Thomas' marriage, Thomas had impregnated a local girl who died soon after in childbirth. He was publicly humiliated for his 'bawdy' behaviour and so WS deleted his son-in-law's name from his will and substituted his daughter's name instead. Another reason for this may be that simply WS preferred Susanna over Judith. We'll never know.
          Idealised Victorian portrait of the Shakespeares at home.

Judith died in February 1662, aged 77 and was buried in the graveyard of Trinity Church as opposed to her father and several other members of the family who were buried inside the church. Today we do not know exactly where she was interred. 

The Quiney's had three children. The first-born, Shakespeare, was named after his grandfather who he never saw and died aged six months in 1616. His brothers, Richard and Thomas were born in 1618 and 1620 and both died in 1639 (due to plague?)

**Some literary historians doubt if WS's wife was really Anne Hathaway as the name mentioned on the marriage certificate was Anne Whately.

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Next time: Halle & Holinshed, WS's historical sources

Friday, 30 December 2016

WS ABC - Robert Greene, WS's PR man.

                                    Robert Greene (?)

ROBERT GREENE has gone down in literary history as the man who first let us know that a rustic scribbler from Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire was now in London and was doing quite well, thank you very much.

It all started when Robert Greene (1558-1592) who was a fellow dramatist in Elizabethan London published a pamphlet, A Groatsworth of Wit bought with a Million of Repentance as he lay dying in London. This pamphlet, edited by Henry Chettle, would probably have gone completely unnoticed had it not contained the following diatribe against his fellow writers and dramatists which said:

...for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tyger's hart wrapt in a Player's hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and beeing an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey.

Why is this important? Because it is absolute proof, literally black on white, that our William was already in London, happily and successfully writing plays for the London stage. In fact, in order to denigrate his more successful rival, Greene even paraphrased one of Shakespeare's speeches from Henry the Sixth, Part Three, (I.iv.137) in which WS describes the weak King Henry's tough, aggressive wife, Margaret of Anjou, who had a  tiger's heart wrapt in a woman's hide.

Who was Robert Greene? He was a moderately successful dramatist who led a very unhealthy life and it was a surfeit of wine and pickled herrings that finally brought about his untimely demise in September 1592, aged 34. Not only did he attack our William, but he also castigated three other contemporary  "University Wits" as they styled themselves (as opposed to WS who never had a university education,)  Christopher Marlowe, -'famous gracer of Tragedians,' Thomas Nashe and George Peele.
The iconic picture of Robert Greene in his goose-turd green coat.

Greene studied at Cambridge and then admitted in his writings that he had led a dissolute life in Italy and Spain before he returned to England. Even though he tried to reform himself and even married, he relapsed into his old ways and abandoned his wife and son before 1586  to live among London's lowlife. His mistress was the sister of a notorious thief, "Cutting Ball" who was later hanged at Tyburn (site of Marble Arch today).

He wrote romantic novels such as Menaphon (1589) and Pandosta (1588), the latter being the source for WS plot for Winter's Tale. He also Orlando Furioso and Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay which deals with the 'Faustus' theme, but with a touch of comedy and also James the Fourth, Alphonsus and A Looking Glass for London (with Thomas Lodge).

Greene died in great poverty in the company of his mistress and his landlady and left his unfortunately named son, Fortunatus, to face the world.

Final note: Some scholars think in fact that it was Henry Chettle who wrote the above about Shakespeare and not Robert Greene.

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Next time: The Harts - Shakespeare's descendants.