Sydney Morning Herald
January 11, 2014
Following the Shakespeare trail across England, Ute Junker learns some lessons they never taught her at school.
He’s the most celebrated playwright of the English language, his works still performed around the globe almost 400 years after his death.
We can all pull out a quote or two, and we know the basics of his life – born in Stratford, moved to London and took to the stage, became a sensation.
But what about the stuff they didn’t teach us at school? In honour of the anniversary of his birth in April, we follow the Shakespeare trail across England to see if there’s anything new to learn.
If you’re looking to find traces of his private life – where he lived, roads he may have wandered, pubs he may have drank at – there’s little to be found. However, if we’re talking career, there’s plenty to discover over on the Southbank, where Shakespeare’s theatre, The Globe, originally stood. Since 1997, a recreation of the theatre has been performing the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries in conditions that are as close as possible to Elizabethan times.
That includes performing during the day (mimicking no electricity, daylight provided the only illumination) and with at least some of the audience standing: the so-called “cheap seats” were no seats at all.
There are no productions on during our winter-time visit (the open-air theatre sticks to summer; the new Sam Wanamaker Theatre, a candle-lit indoor Jacobean theatre, is opening this month), but we take a tour that offers unexpected insights.
Lesson 1: Shakespeare’s career was the result of good timing
Here’s a remarkable thought: if Shakespeare had been born 50 years later, he might never have written a single play. Shakespeare wrote during the golden years of Elizabethan drama, when theatres and bear pits stood side by side in London’s entertainment district, the Southbank.
According to our guide, a fleet of 40,000 small boats ferried passengers across the Thames – that’s more boats than there are black cabs in London today. The theatres were a huge attraction: in 1591, an edict made all theatres close on Thursdays, to ensure the bull and bear baiting could still draw an audience. Shakespeare had access to an audience hungry for new plays.
But the glory days were shortlived. In 1642, the Puritans closed the theatres and banned plays, a ban that remained in force until the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Had he been working during those days, Shakespeare would have had to find alternative employment.
Lesson 2: He wouldn’t have kicked you out of the theatre for heckling
Rapt attention may be the standard reception for Shakespeare’s plays today, but back then, audiences were different.
As our guide points out, several of Shakespeare’s plays include plays within plays (think Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and, in them, audiences are always commenting on the action, heckling the players, and otherwise being distracted.
It stands to reason that Shakespeare, who excelled at creating believable characters, was merely depicting the audiences he knew.
Lesson 3: He wasn’t averse to a bit of razzamatazz
The Elizabethans didn’t have much in the way of sets – the Globe Theatre is typical in having just a couple of columns. However, records show the original Globe burnt down on June 29, 1613, when the cannon used for special effects set fire to the thatched roof.
If London is where Shakespeare found fame, Stratford is where it all began. The pretty town has been attracting Bardophiles for centuries, and there’s plenty to see, from the house where he was born to his grave, not to mention the school he attended. On a walking tour with Stratford Town Walks, we discover illuminating facts.
Lesson 4: Shakespeare was a rich kid
Shakespeare’s father, John Shakespeare, was a man with an eye for the main chance.
Although he probably didn’t have much of an education (he always signed his name with a mark), he worked his way up from selling leather goods to lending money and held a series of municipal positions, including mayor. Thanks to his father’s job, Shakespeare was able to attend the local grammar school, learning to read and write English and Latin.
That King Edward VI school is still going, and students are still taught in the buildings Shakespeare would have learnt in.
Lesson 5: … but not a sensitive one
One of John Shakespeare’s many jobs was glove maker, a prestigious trade that had at least one unpleasant side effect: the leather had to be softened in vats of ammonia, which were basically big tubs of stale urine. You can see where these would have stood outside Shakespeare’s birthplace, the surprisingly large Stratford house where Shakespeare grew up, which is open for tours.
It’s unlikely Shakespeare grew any more delicate – it simply wasn’t that kind of century. Stand in the courtyard of the Globe and imagine the rank aroma of thousands of unwashed bodies packed closely together. That’s what would have greeted Shakespeare each time he set foot on stage.
Lesson 6: He probably loved his wife
Many of us were taught at school that Shakespeare had a troubled marriage: he spent most of his working life in London, while his wife stayed in Stratford, and in his will bequeathed her his “second-best bed”.
Many modern scholars, however, point out that the “second-best bed” would have been the marital bed (the best bed being reserved for guests), and that men have always worked away from home – many, including members for the armed forces, still do today. Our guide, David Gunnell, says although it’s impossible to know how Shakespeare felt, something always drew him back to Stratford.
“All of his considerable property purchases, apart from one, were made in the locality of Stratford-upon-Avon. He also lies buried next to his wife of 34 years, in Holy Trinity Church. (For more on Shakespeare loving his wife, read Germaine Greer’s fascinating book, Shakespeare’s Wife.)
Lesson 7: The closer to the action, the better
Perhaps Stratford’s biggest attraction is The Royal Shakespeare Company, known for its outstanding productions. After catching an extraordinary performance of Richard II with David Tennant – Dr Who fans may be surprised to learn he is one of the great Shakespearean actors – we book in for a backstage tour, to discover how the theatres work.
Both the company’s theatres use thrust stages, to bring audiences closer. Based on the idea that Shakespearean audiences interacted with the players, many productions bring actors on through the audience, rather than from the back of the stage. Sitting in the audience can be perilous. “In Coriolanus [a notoriously bloody play], the blood spurted out to row E,” our guide tells us happily.
Lesson 8: We nearly lost many of his plays
The magnificent John Rylands Library in Manchester is not only a gorgeous building, it’s also home to an impressive collection of rare books, including a first folio of Shakespeare.
Shakespeare’s plays were not written down in his lifetime – the theatre world was so competitive, no one would even issue actors with a complete script, in case a rival company got their hands on it.
The first folio of Shakespeare’s plays was put together by the surviving members of his company after his death.
We know of 38 works by Shakespeare; we’re just not sure how many more there were. But it’s only thanks to the first folio (of which around 230 copies survive) that we have Macbeth, As You Like It, Measure for Measure, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night and many others.
The writer travelled courtesy of Qantas and Visit Britain.
FIVE TO SEE LIVE
ADELAIDE, FEBRUARY 28 TO MARCH 1
Roman Tragedies by Toneelgroup Amsterdam: The audience is invited on stage during Adelaide Festival performances of Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra.
NEW YORK, MARCH 14 TO MAY 4
King Lear by Theatre for a New Audience: the pre-eminent US company dedicated to Shakespeare and the classics has a new home in Brooklyn. Michael Pennington stars as the tragic king.
STRATFORD-UPON-AVON, MARCH 18 TO SEPTEMBER 6
Henry IV Parts I and II by the Royal Shakespeare Company: Follow Prince Hal’s evolution from ne’er-do-well son to king.
SYDNEY, JULY 21 TO SEPTEMBER 27
Macbeth by the Sydney Theatre Company: Hugo Weaving stars as the ambitious Scots noble.
MELBOURNE, CANBERRA, WOLLONGONG, AUGUST 28 TO OCTOBER 11
The Dream by the Bell Shakespeare Company: A 90-minute, family-friendly version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Qantas offers 10 direct daily services from Australia to Dubai: four ex Melbourne, four ex Sydney and two ex Brisbane.
With its codeshare partner Emirates, Qantas continues to London with 10 daily services from Dubai operating on a mixture of A380s and B777s. Year-round fares from Australia through to London start at $2633 (ex Melbourne), $2648 (ex Sydney), $2665 (ex Brisbane). See Qantas.com.
Shakespeare’s Globe, see shakespearesglobe.com; Royal Shakespeare Company, see rsc.org.uk; John Rylands Library, see library.manchester.ac.uk/deansgate.