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February 2006

Update on the Shakespeare Industry

Ton Hoenselaars and Paul Franssen

On 19 July 2005, BBC Radio 4 reported on a new venture at the New Globe in London. The theatre, set up partly as a laboratory to do research in au­thentic stage practices of Shakespeare’s time, from playhouse architecture to the actors’ underwear, is to stage Troilus and Cressida in a reconstruction of the original pro­nunciation. All the original puns should be more comprehensible: Ajax’s name will be pronounced so as to bring out his intimate connection with a jakes (toi­let). The reconstructed pronunciation will be based on the evidence of puns themselves, but also on old spellings in the original editions, and even on early-modern phonetic tracts. A try-out of this method for Cockney kids had proved very successful; the audience had admired the way the actors had, a last, “talked just loi’e us.”

 

On 6 September 2005, the Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad reported that after 25 years of absence, Shakespeare had again been produced in Afghanistan. French director Corine Jaber had put together a production of Love’s Labour’s Lost with a group of Afghan players in Kabul. She explained, according to the paper, that a comedy had been chosen rather than a tragedy in view of the re­cent history of years of warfare. The same issue of NRC carried a report by Floris van Straaten, the paper’s correspondent in Britain, about British resis­tance to going metric. Not surprisingly, the Bard was enlisted in defence of the national heritage: The Observer mockingly quoted from The Merchant of Venice: “Take then thy bond, take thou thy 0,4536 kilogrammes of flesh.”

 

This autumn, as Kristine Steenbergh reports, the Swedish multi-national clothes store H&M launched a cinema commercial using Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to promote their new line of jeans. What is interesting about this com­mercial is not so much its rendering of Romeo and Juliet as the fact that H&M ap­propriate Shakespeare as a writer of soulful tragedy. The six-minute musical ver­sion of the tragedy, directed by Vogue and Vanity Fair photogra­pher David La­Chapelle, is set in a New York ghetto, and is heavily influ­enced by the musical West Side Story as well as by hip-hop gangster culture. It centres on a sin­gle tragic moment: underneath Juliet’s balcony, Romeo is shot by a rival gang member in a drive-by shooting. No, this commercial cannot be said to be faith­ful to the plot of Shakespeare’s tragedy, or to his text for that matter. “Oh my, oh my, that’s my dream,” Mary J. Blige sings when Juliet first sees Romeo at the ball. The major part of the short film shows Juliet soulfully mourning Romeo’s body in the street. The ending is nevertheless surprising since Juliet, after the ar­rival of the police, picks up her lover’s mobile phone and aims it at a police offi­cer, who shoots her in self-defence.

 

Singer Blige, the “Queen of hip-hop soul,” is described in her biography on H&M’s website as having lived a rough life that has left its scars. It is this com­bination of tragedy and soul that apparently drew the company’s mar­keting di­rector to Shakespeare. He comments: “There’s enough comedy in advertising today. And jeans are not about laughs, jeans are love and soul and tears. That’s what we’re trying to emphasize with this tragic and beautiful Ro­meo & Juliet story.” On the site, potential customers can dress the tragic he­roes in the jeans of their choice, and have a chance of winning Juliet’s jacket by guessing at Ro­meo’s very last text message to his love.

 

In October, the National Portrait Gallery reported that it had investigated the Grafton portrait, one of several apocryphal Shakespearean images, but had not turned up any evidence that it really did portray the man himself. Technical evi­dence did reveal that the portrait really dated from the late six­teenth century. In the absence of any strong likeness to other portraits, such as the uncontroversial Droeshout and the more disputed Chandos portrait, the strongest evidence for the Grafton had always been the inscription saying that it depicted the sitter at the age of 24, in the year 1588. As Shakespeare was also 24 in that year, identi­fying him as the sitter became a logical next step for anyone with a tendency to indulge in wishful thinking. The BBC re­ported that some of the experts of the NPG had uttered their doubts whether, at the age of 24, before becoming a suc­cessful playwright, Shake­speare could have afforded the costume made of ex­pensive cloth shown in the painting. Peter Ackroyd, by contrast, said he did be­lieve the portrait was a genuine Bardic likeness. If you want to make up your own mind, the NPG is organising a special exhibition of the Grafton, the Chan­dos, and the newly discredited Flower portrait, among other Shakespaereana, in­cluding pictures of his contemporaries and documents, under the title of Search­ing for Shake­speare, 2 March-29 May 2006. See the NPG website for more details: <http://www.npg.org.uk/live/prelgrafton.asp>

 

In November 2005, the BBC broadcast a new series of adaptations of Shake­speare plays, entitled ShakespeaRetold. The plots have been transferred to the pre­sent, and only occasionally preserve some of the original Shakespear­ean dia­logue. In the first of the series, an adaptation of Much Ado about Noth­ing, the Benedick character read out Shakespeare’s sonnet 116 to Beatrice, who was his co-presenter at a local TV station. Though this couple did get married in the end, Hero had (in modern eyes, quite deservedly) told Claude that she would not marry him in a million years. The fact that they were bridesmaid and best man at the wedding of their friends did leave open the possibility that she might yet have a change of heart, however. Macbeth was a celebrity chef, who took re­venge (with his kitchen knives) when the owner of the restaurant announced his decision to leave the business to his son rather than to the chef who had made it thrive. Comforted by three dustmen, who assured him that he would not get caught, or pigs might fly, Macbeth only lost his cool when he heard the sound of a police helicopter coming to arrest him. In the rewrite of The Taming of the Shrew, Kate was an aspiring Conserva­tive politician with a bad temper, who needed to be married for public rela­tions reasons; her honeymoon took her from England to Italy. Her attractive sister, meantime, turned out to be so promiscuous that she was temperamen­tally unsuited for marriage. The Dream was set in a holiday park, and featured a retired successful businessman (corresponding to Egeus and to Theseus at the same time) whose daughter refused to marry her father’s choice of part­ner. Although one cannot but admire the cleverness of the BBC scriptwriters in finding modern-day equivalents for Shakespeare’s plots, there was also a sense that much of this was gratuitous. The series managed to update Shake­speare, without making at all clear that today’s topical issues call for Shake­speare in particular to throw light on them. Very rarely did the project get be­yond an intertextual game with a celebrity author.

 

Also in November, Shakespeare featured in an article in Quest, a Dutch popu­lar science magazine aimed at young readers. Journalist Natascha Mijnhart sum­marised some of the issues surrounding Shakespeare’s life and works so as to render them comprehensible to the general public. Despite occasional lapses (Shakespeare is said to have had 8 children), it is a portrait that most Shake­speareans would recognize.

 

The printing presses seem to have worked overtime, and The Arden Shake­speare series, for example, has expanded considerably. The Arden Criti­cal Com­panion series published Andrew Hadfield’s Shakespeare and Renais­sance Politics (2004. ISBN 1-90343-617-6), a valuable guide to contextualizing the politics, po­litical thought and forms of government of Shake­speare’s plays, including the Histories, to which Hadfield devotes a long chapter. In the same series, one also welcomes Adrian Poole’s rich and well-documented Shakespeare and the Victorians (2004. ISBN 1-90343-671-0). Andrew Hadfield and Paul Hammond’s Shake­speare and Renaissance Europe (2005. ISBN 1-90427-146-4 PBK) must be recommended for its successful attempt to steer much of the variegated work done in this area during the 1990s and early 2000s into a largely new historicist direction. Finally, the Shakespeare and Language Se­ries of Arden has produced its second volume: Shakespeare, Language and the Stage, edited by Lynette Hunter and Peter Lichtenfels (1-90427-149-9). This collection, based on theatre workshops at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, is a serious attempt to break down the invisible barrier be­tween the Shakespear­ean scholar and the theatre practitioner. A review of the book is to appear in a future issue of Folio.

 

In France, Richard II was put on the national exam reading list of CAPES and the Agrégation anglais for 2004/5 and 2005/6. The choice of play always tends to trigger a series of international con­­ferences, and this year was no ex­ception. So far, this activity has resulted in two smart collections of essays about the play. Isabelle Schwartz-Gastine produced a special theme issue in the series put out by the Maison de la Recherche en Sciences Humaines (de Caen Basse-Nor­mandie), entitled “Richard II” de William Shakespeare: Une oeuvre en contexte (ISSN 1250-6419). It contains contributions from distinguished French scholars in the field (including Margaret Jones-Davies, Dominique Goy-Blanquet, François La­roque, Jacques Ramel, and Wendy Ribeyrol), as well as scholars from abroad (Charles Forker, Ruth Morse, and Richard Hill­man). Particularly attractive about this collection is the unusual French per­spective it gives on this English history play (see, for example, Hillman’s study of Richard II against Pierre Matthieu’s La Guisiade of 1589), and on the French theatre history of Richard II. The other col­lection to have emerged from the CAPES/Agrégation is Guillaume Winter’s Au­tour de “Richard II” de William Shakespeare (Arras: Artois Presses Université, 2005), ISBN 2-84832-034-6, ISSN 1269-9519. It has original contributions from Win­ter himself (exploring the notions of vision and visibility as these interrelate with the loss or gain of power), Richard Wilson (relating the play to Michel Fou­cault’s late US lecture series devoted to parrhesia, or “fearless speech”), Margaret Jones-Davies (on image and iconoclasm), and Dominique Goy-Blanquet (who ex­plores the status of Richard II and historical drama in a politically most unsta­ble nine­teenth-century France).

 

It is a measure of the burgeoning Shakespearean activity in France that, even during this Richard II year, on 4 and 5 March 2005 to be precise, Sarah Hatchuel and Nathalie Vienne-Guerrin of the University of Rouen also or­ganised a suc­cessful con­ference devoted to screen adaptations of Richard III. The printed re­sult of their labour is already out: Shake­speare on Screen: “Richard III,” edited by Sarah Hatchuel and Nathalie Vienne-Guerrin (Rouen: Publica­tions de l’Université de Rouen, 2005), 333 pp. (ISBN 2-87775-389-1). A re­view of this essay collection (including contributions by Ariane Hudelet, Mariangela Tem­pera, Mark Thornton Burnett, Michèle Willems, Michael Hattaway, Dominique Goy-Blanquet, Anthony Davies, Russell Jackson, and José Ramón Díaz Fernan­dez) will appear in the next issue of Folio (summer 2006).

 

Just over 20 years ago, the first play in The New Cambridge Shakespeare edi­tion was launched, with Philip Brockbank as General Editor (and Brian Gibbons and Robin Hood as Associate General Editors). Now, with most of the plays edited for the series, Brian Gibbons (as General Editor) and Robin Hood and A. R. Braun­­muller (as Associate General Editors), have been in­volved in getting the earliest editions in the series up­dated. This year saw the publication of the Up­dated Editions of Antony and Cleo­patra (edited by David Bevington, first pub­lished in 1990), King Henry V (edited by Andrew Gurr, first published in 1992), and The Tragedy of King Lear (edited by Jay L. Halio, first published in 1992). In the main, the updating concerns a section of the introduction de­voted to “Re­cent [...] interpretations” and these can be related to the stage, the screen, or the criticism. Halio chooses to devote more space to recent stage productions of the play than publications. He has the Shake­speare Survey issue on “King Lear and Its Afterlife” (volume 55, 2002) to fall back on, but also speaks generously of Har­old Bloom’s chapter on the play in Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human. In the case of Henry V, Andrew Gurr’s mere reference to the work of James Loeh­lin and Emma Smith on productions of this particular play sends the reader to the library, rather than inform­ing him about what has happened stagewise since the early 1990s when Gurr’s edition first appeared. Loehlin’s book for Man­chester University Press, though, dates from 1996, and Smith in the Shakespeare in Production series using the original Gurr version of the text (Cambridge Uni­versity Press, 2002) unduly limits herself geo­graphically. Here, Nicholas Grene’s book on Shake­speare’s Serial History Plays (Cambridge University Press, 2002) would have stood Gurr in good stead. On the other hand, Gurr’s well-informed discus­sion of the work of Lukas Erne about Shakespeare as a poet and/or play­wright is extremely valuable indeed. Gurr is lucidly opinionated (as ever) and like an olympic canoeing champion, manages to zigzag between the flags down­stream, on his way to the medals.

 

Easily one of the more intriguing books to have appeared in 2005 was James Shapiro’s 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (London: Faber & Faber, 2005), ISBN 0-571-21480-0 (£ 16.99). A Year in the Life is a serious and well-in­formed study that seeks to reconstruct the historical conditions that prevailed around the time when Shakespeare wrote Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Hamlet, but it also goes beyond the immediate con­texts in a bold and suc­cessful attempt to illustrate how Shakespeare became one of the greatest writers ever. Like Shapiro’s other books (including Shakespeare and the Jews and his fasci­nating study of the passion play at Oberammergau), this original blend of history and biography is very well-written, in a style that is most accessible to the general reader. It is also well documented with a “Bib­liographical Essay” that captures the state of the art. Nearly as a matter of course, James Shapiro also features in the new, 2005 issue of Shakespeare Sur­vey (volume 58 in the series), devoted to the theme of “Writing about Shake­speare” (ISBN 978-0-521-85074-2). It also con­tains a wealth of other mate­rial, including fine essays by R. A. Foakes (a histori­cal discussion of the ghost in Hamlet), Clara Calvo (on the remarkable and largely ignored interrelation between Cordelia in King Lear and Fanny Price in Mansfield Park), Julia Briggs (on Virginia Woolf’s Shakespeare), and Peter Holland on Shakespeare as a fictional character in subsequent drama.

 

In early October, the press and the media generally resounded with the an­nouncement of a new book: Brenda James and William Rubinstein’s The Truth Will Out: Unmasking the Real Shakespeare (Longman). On the cover, the main title is divided over two lines, so that it reads “The Truth: Will Out.” Its ar­gument as summarised by the media is that Shakespeare’s works should now be attributed to Sir Henry Neville (1562-1615), whose lifetime coincides enough with Shake­speare’s to avoid having to redate the canon. Evidence cited in the press in­cludes the fact that Neville, a diplomat, practiced Shake­speare’s signature; that he visited the Italian and French locations of many of the plays written shortly afterwards under Shakespeare’s name; that he knew French, which Shakespeare did not know but which is used in Henry V; and the re­sults of a stylistic analysis, which showed remarkable resemblances between Neville’s style and that of the works attributed to Shakespeare. The tragic turn in Shakespeare’s plays after about 1601 is explained by the fact that Neville was locked up in the Tower for having supported the Essex rebellion, along with his friend Southampton – one of the more prominent candidates for the Fair Friend of the Sonnets.

 

As in most theories of this kind, the plentiful evidence that Shakespeare’s works were written by none other than Shakespeare himself is explained as the result of a conspiracy. Shakespeare’s mother was related to Neville, so that Neville may have come into contact with him in that way; and he needed a cover for his own identity, as the plays might be politically sensitive. Ben Jonson, too, must have been in the plot, as he wrote a poem praising Shake­speare for his po­etic genius.

 

So much for the theory, as it was reported in the papers and the media. There was a surprising willingness among journalists and talk-show guests to accept the findings at face value, although Hans Oranje in Trouw (6 Oct. 2005) was a laud­able exception. Newpapers obviously select and sometimes distort, so that the summary may contain some misrepresentations, or the book itself may have far more convincing evidence to offer; but in view of the greediness of much of the press to publicise the theory, it seems likely that this is, in­deed, the gist of the case for Neville. As with all conspiracy theories, its at­traction is that it does not need to be proven. The plentiful evidence we have that Shakespeare did write the plays can be explained away as deliberate and successful obfuscation; and the absence of any real evidence that someone else did write the works is, obviously, another piece of evidence that plotters must have been at work to hide the truth.

 

Once the need to contend with real evidence has thus been done away with, even the flimsiest of factoids can be used to make the case for an alter­native candidate, such as the notion that Shakespeare did not speak French. The fact is that we have no real evidence that he ever learned French in regu­lar education – which is a different thing altogether. We do know that Shake­speare lived with a Huguenot family in London at some point, so it is far from impossible that he may have learned French from them. In a similar way, insider’s knowledge of Italian may have come to him by way of John Florio, who belonged to South­ampton’s household. The mere fact that we have no evidence that this is so does not mean that it is implausible. As for the settings of Shakespeare’s plays, again, though we do not know that he ever left England, we cannot be sure that he never did either; there would have been ample opportunity in the seven “lost years” when there is no documentary trace whatsoever of his activities. Besides, London was alive with information about foreign countries, from the mouths of travellers and émigrés, from their manuscripts, and ultimately from their pub­lished books. Comedies would customarily be set in Mediterranean climes, par­ticularly in Italy; and it would have been hard to write about recent English his­tory with­out including the many wars with France.

 

Resemblances between Shakespeare’s plays, their plots and settings, and the lives of this and other claimants, are so plentiful that one would seem to can­cel the other out. More fundamentally, in the vast majority of the cases, we know the chronicles, the Italian novellas, the older plays, where Shakespeare’s plots and settings came from; personal experience of the settings would not have done much harm, but it was by no means necessary.

 

If Shakespeare was really hired by Neville to be his frontman, it must have been a tremendously lucrative job, seeing that he could afford to buy up real es­tate in Stratford as well as in London. Besides, the conspiracy must have been incredibly successful at hoodwinking the public, for apart from Ben Jon­son, there were a whole host of contemporaries who evidently did regard Shake­speare as the author of the works attributed to him, from the “sugared sonnets” passed round among his friends to the plays he wrote, and the pub­lished Folio with dedications by not just Jonson but also Hemminge and Condell. Also the citizen’s wife who “entertained” him, instead of Burbage, in the anecdote re­counted about him by John Manningham would seem to have been a really sad and misguided groupie. Then again, Neville really went out of his way to make the story credible, as he even punned in his sonnets on his frontman’s first name (135, 136, 143), not to mention on his frontman’s wife’s maiden name (145)!

 

The remaining evidence, it seems, is based on stylistic analysis. This is a noto­riously difficult field, in which many claims have been made and subse­quently withdrawn. Obviously, one would need to see the raw data first to come to a de­finitive judgment. However, even the most convincing systems of stylistic analy­ses can go wrong. The computer-programme called Shaxicon, invented by the American Shakespearean Don Forster, was regarded as so re­liable by the Ameri­can authorities that they used it to prove the identity of the terrorist known as the Una-bomber on the basis of a comparison between his known writings and the anonymous letters sent by the Una-bomber. Yet even this system has been shown to go wrong in one case involving a claim of Shakespearean authorship, as Forster himself has admitted: an elegy Forster ascribed to Shakespeare is now widely believed to have been the work of John Ford.

 

Theories like this one, in which Shakespeare’s works are attributed to an aris­tocrat, typically underestimate the decent middle-class background that Shake­speare came from. His father, once the bailiff (or mayor) of Stratford, was by no means a local yokel, and the Stratford grammar school that Shake­speare proba­bly attended (though again we have no documentary evidence) was apparently quite a good one. Not that Shakespeare’s reputation rests on learning per se; that was actually the forte of his colleague Ben Jonson, the son of a bricklayer. A de­cent education and a fine insight into the human mind, which were by no means closed off to the middle classes, would have been quite enough to explain the phenomenon of Shakespeare.

 

An attractive book that has recently come to our attention, though it came out already in 2004, is Ros W. Duffin’s Shakespeare’s Songbook (New York: Nor­ton, 2004), ISBN 0-393-05889-1. It contains some 160 songs, in contem­porary settings, that feature in Shakespeare’s plays, ranging from brief allu­sions to actual performances as part of the plays. Each entry begins with the relevant quote(s) from Shakespeare, followed by the musical notation of the melody, and the full text of the song. Then there is an explanatory note, giv­ing the source of the song, setting out its relevance in the play(s), and occa­sionally giving alternative settings. The book comes with a CD, on which 81 of the songs are recorded, particularly those that are actually sung rather than merely alluded to in Shake­speare. A foreword by Stephen Orgel and a pro­logue by Ross Duffin himself provide a highly readable and informative in­troduction to the subject of music in Shakespeare.