THE SWAN THEATRE DRAWING - A REVIEW

 

Johan Gerritsen

 

On the twenty-second of September, 1995, the Swan theatre drawing was reproduced, prominently, in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement. The occasion was remarkable, for a wholly new interpretation was placed on the scene represented. The interpreter was Eric Sams, and his claim was that the scene shows Burbage as Hamlet standing behind his seated mother, with the ghost of his father on the right.[1] And the ghost, of course, was acted by the play's author.

 

 

It is not my intention to analyse that claim here, though it may be instructive to compare what the first author to discuss the drawing, K.T. Gaedertz (Zur Kenntnis der altenglischen Bühne, 1888, p. 16), thought he saw. This is what he wrote: "Auf derselben sitzt eine Frau, deren undeutlich gezeichnete Kleidung für die Kostümkunde keinen Anhalt giebt, besser und korrekter ist die ihr zur Seite stehende weibliche Gestalt in der Tracht der Elisabethanischen Zeit mit Stuartkragen, Puffärmeln und Schneppe, in ihrer rechten Hand ein Taschentuch haltend. Es scheint die Königin und ihre Hofdame zu sein. Die Attitüde der Ersteren lässt es zweifelhaft, ob sie sich stützen oder erheben will. Beide wenden der Figur rechts im Vorder-grunde ihr Antlitz zu. Ein Eilbote nämlich naht, seiner Herrin eine offenbar wichtige Nachricht zu überbringen. Ihn ziert ein martialischer Henri quatre, und er trägt Pumphosen". But then Gaedertz had no axe to grind as to what the scene was: he wished he knew.[2]

What may be more instructive than a discussion of what is really a matter of "every man to his liking" is a review of the reasonable certainties. Gaedertz found the drawing where it still is, in manuscript 842 of the Utrecht University Library, transferred there from the Provincial Archives (which removed and retained a few leaves of diplomata). The MS was written up by Arendt van Buchell (1565-1641)[3] from 1592 (when he must have bought it as a blank quarto writing book) to 1628, and is known as his Adversaria. It contains a certain amount of older material, but though for certain entries their inscription can be more or less precisely dated, this is not the case with fols 131v-132v, which contain our drawing and its accompanying text headed Ex obseruationibus Londinensibus Iohannis De Witt. The latest date mentioned in the text, for the memorial tablet to Sir John Burgh then in Westminster Abbey, is 1596,[4] so it can hardly be earlier. The only further information we have on de Witt in these years is van Buchell's précis of a letter of 19 November 1596, when de Witt had something wrong with his feet. And for what it is worth, van Buchell's first recorded interest in things English (apart from a reference to English tails in 1586, and to a public document in late 1597), is in May 1598, when he met a Dutch embassy returned from England.

Dutch historians accordingly date the text after 1596 and assign it to the end of the century, but in fact 1596 itself should be a possibility. It is, indeed, the usual date given in English publications, though the more careful ones wisely add circa. Only internal evidence can help us further, and this is not plentiful. The text mentions St Paul's Cathedral (Old St Paul's) and Westminster Abbey, and also a local visit to Abraham der Kinderen, a Dutch merchant living in London. All that is said there allows of any date from 1596 to the end of the century (and beyond). But the theatres are a different matter. There are four, says de Witt: the Rose [1587] and the Swan [1595-7?] are on the South Bank, the other two are outside the city to the north, beyond Bishopsgate. So the third South Bank theatre, the Globe (1599), was not yet there, and the Curtain and the Theatre (1576) must both have been standing. The Theatre, however, was taken down in late 1598, so the original of our drawing should belong to 1596-8. The original, for the drawing we have is van Buchell's; de Witt's is in all probability lost.[5]

Does that mean that no more can be said about it? Well, almost, but not quite, for it was not the only drawing de Witt transmitted, and we can gain an idea of how he went to work. There is in Utrecht University Library another relevant de Witt manuscript, MS 1647, bought in 1906 at the Smissaert sale. Its text was published, in an edition of de Witt's letters, in 1939, and there we can read how at one time he had sent van Buchell a special booklet recording what he had noted in France and England. But alas, no date is given. To learn more we must look, not at the printed text, but at the manuscript itself. The first thing that strikes us then is its size: a small octavo, c. 169 x 109mm or less. On further examination it turns out to incorporate two separate booklets, both identifying themselves as de Witt's gift to van Buchell, and the cover of perhaps a third. The first of these, on Dutch monuments in Frisia, Groningen, Guelders and Holland, was apparently sent by de Witt in 1609 to accompany a copy of Lipsius' letters borrowed from van Buchell and now returned. The second reports on monuments at Antwerp, and would appear to have been transmitted, folded to 16mo format, inside an extant letter from Antwerp of 17 June 1611, when de Witt was on his way to Paris and ultimately Rome (where he died in 1622). Both are specially prepared booklets based on de Witt's (lost) originals. When, therefore, in the Dutch booklet, whose covering note is dated 21 May 1609, he says `Ea quæ in GALLIJS et ANGLIA adnotata, pecul. et designat. Libello conscripsimus', and states this in a planned headnote on the page where, further down, the notes on Frisia begin, this not only makes it clear that this booklet must itself be a copy, but also makes it antecedently probable that the booklet on France and England was such another, not an original. And if as early as October 1605 de Witt writes to van Buchell excusing himself for not yet having completed what is plainly our Dutch booklet of almost four years later, we may indeed guess that the French and English booklet, not mentioned in the letter, had already reached van Buchell, but we may well wonder how long after the event. In any case, there can be little doubt that that booklet was equally a digest from de Witt's originals, and was very probably done at the same format, octavo. (The Dutch booklet is in fact a single sheet so folded.) And if that is so, van Buchell's drawing, fitting into a smallest rectangle of 150 x 110mm, is almost bound to have been scaled up by him. The extant booklets do not, as a rule, use more than c.80mm width.[6]

It would appear, then, that the question how much of the drawing is van Buchell and how much de Witt is more than academic. De Witt was an excellent draughtsman: such examples of his work as remain make this evident. But van Buchell's make it equally evident that he was not. As long as small-scale impressionism is enough, his work can be quite attractive; as soon as he has to be precise he fails, particularly in architecture. His perspective is woeful, and he cannot turn corners. In considering the Swan drawing this seems highly relevant. And we may wonder, besides, if it is indeed a straight copy. For one thing, the text suggests that the inscriptions are his, not de Witt's: "Cuius quidem forma quod Romani operis vmbram videatur supra adpinxi". One might still consider this "I have drawn in" de Witt's if it were not followed immediately by a third-person reference to him: "Narrabat idem se vidisse in Brittannia ...". So what else did he add? The stage scene, perhaps? It has been regularly debated ever since Roderick L. Eagle, in 1931, claimed it was Twelfth Night III.4, but it has not to this day been convincingly identified. Was it a real scene, or simply a piece of staffage? Neither artist would have been above putting it in. And, of course, we have no certain knowledge at what size de Witt made his original sketches.[7]

 

NOTES

 

1 "The Ghost [...] would surely glide swiftly, with an unfamiliar gait. As the shade of a soldier, it might well wear a helmet, carry (and even shake) a spear, and be bearded like the Bard. But the body looks déshabillé, wrapped in a shroud, if clothed at all. [...] There are two other figures, 'one of whom, a woman, sits on a bench' (S. Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life, Oxford, 1975, p. 108). The other may well represent a close-cropped male in trunk hose, namely Richard Burbage as Hamlet pointedly denouncing the 'incestuous pleasure' of the bed on which Queen Gertrude (perhaps wearing a crown) is seated." &c; see "'My Name's Hamlet, Revenge': Why Two Dutchmen Have the Answer to the Riddle of Shakespeare's early Hamlet", in Times Literary Supplement, 22 September 1995, p. 18, col. 4. With respect to the date 1596 taken as certain by Dr Sams cf. the discussion below.

2 Van Buchell, though, clearly tried to draw one man and two women. Trunk hose are short full breeches, and have stockinged legs below them. But "Burbage" wears a full skirt (clearly on a farthingale), and van Buchell carefully shows its presence behind the bench by hatching. The "Ghost" wears a hat, not a helmet (compare three of the gentlemen in the boxes); and as to his being déshabillé, his doublet is marked by a collar-line and an extra line on his breast, he wears a belt, and he has a garter above his left knee. He is in fact better clothed than the trumpeter.

3 De Witt familiarly addressed him as Arendt; his baptismal name was Aernoudt.

4 Burgh died on 7 March 1594, and according to the text as recorded from the tablet by Camden (1600) and Crull (1742), it was erected the next year, 1595. Arabic numerals only seem to have been involved, both on the tablet and in our MS, and even a misread date ought to have been credible at the time of its recording. De Witt's ("old-style") 5 and 6, particularly when occurring together as in "1596", are distinctive enough to rule out a misreading by van Buchell. The tablet has long disappeared.

5 The Swan, like the other theatres, was closed on 28 July 1597, but this provides no good dating evidence for the drawing, as we know little of the theatre's subsequent history. There is similarly no certain record of it before February 1597, when Pembroke's Men contracted to play in it. If we should go by certainties, de Witt could only have visited it between the two dates here mentioned. Professor Glynne Wickham (Early English Stages 1300 to 1600, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963-1972, II.1, p. 134) has it opened as early as 1594 and leased to Pembroke's Men, but states no authority. The 1594 date recurs on p. 281, but pp. 170, 300 give 1596. Note that de Witt does not say it was new.

6 For a full analysis see Essays in Honour of Kristian Smidt, ed. Peter Bilton et al., Oslo: University of Oslo, Institute of English Studies, 1986, pp. 29-46.

7 Note that the actors could never have passed through the doors at the back, except on their knees.

 

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