You are browsing the archive for Shakespeare.

Annotations Sprint III: Hamlet: Aftermath

James Harriman-Smith - July 19, 2011 in Community, Shakespeare

See where this is going: a ground-breaking edition of Hamlet

 

 

Thursday 14th July saw our third annotation sprint, which pushed our annotation count up to 649 from 440. This means an average of over 200 comments per sprint, but, as previous sprints lasted for two days, this also suggests that this sprint had the highest level of participation yet.

The participants themselves, to judge from the analytics, were comprised of our regulars and 60 unique new visitors, many of whom must have stayed a little while in order to push the average time spent on the website up to five minutes for that day. As regards the provenance of these newcomers, thirty-seven were from the UK, fourteen from the States and the rest from all over the world, with five from India. Chrome was, surprisingly perhaps, the most popular browser, followed by Firefox, IE and then Safari.

Enough statistics. It was great to see the number of annotations shoot up, and I feel that we are almost at the point where we can produce at least a prototype edition of Hamlet!

Word of the Day: Quondam

James Harriman-Smith - July 15, 2011 in Shakespeare, Word of the Day

The word “quondam”, as any latinist will tell you, means “formerly”. It, like “i.e.” (‘id est’, or ‘that is’), “vice versa” and other Latin terms, was current in the English of Shakespeare’s time. It occurs twice, for example, in Henry VI part III: first, the keeper spots the “quondam King” (deposed Henry VI) and an opportunity to make a quick buck; whilst, later in the play, Warwick describes Henry’s wife as “our quondam queen”. Being a Latin (and legal) term, it also occurs in the overblown language of Nathaniel in Love’s Labour’s Lost, who talks of how he met “this quondam day with a companion of the king’s who is intituled, nominated, or called, Don Adriano de Armado.”

The sense that “quondam” is a rather formal way of saying “erstwhile” or “formerly” can be traced in every one of Shakespeare’s uses of the word. However, the three other passages to be treated here also all link “quondam” with sex. Pistol promises that “I have, and will hold the quondam Quickly” in a rather physical riff on the marriage vows in Henry V; Hector, in Troilus and Cressida, bates Menelaus by telling him that Helen, his “quondam wife swears still by Venus’ glove / She’s well, but bade me not commend her to you”; and Benedick describes former ladies’ men as “quondam carpet-mongers” in Much Ado About Nothing.

This relation between “quondam” and sexual mores has been explored elsewhere. Some, for example, point to the obvious sexual reference when Chaucer’s Wife of Bath describes how men have always loved her “quoniam” to elaborate a theory about “qu-” words and their relation bawdiness (cf. the Elizabethan “quean”, for a prostitute). Elsewhere, and perhaps most interestingly, research suggests that “quondam” may lie behind the modern word ‘condom’: eighteenth-century Scots routinely replaced a “C-” at the start of English words formerly beginning with “Qu-” (thus ‘corter’ for ‘quarter’), and so could be found giving advice about birth control through the use of a “quondam”. Quite whether this can be extended back to Shakespeare’s time is still a matter of debate, although Hector’s comments about “Venus’ glove” do make for tempting evidence…

Word of the Day: Neapolitan

James Harriman-Smith - July 14, 2011 in Shakespeare, Word of the Day

“Neapolitan” describes someone or something from Naples. The difference between the adjective and the noun is the result of the latter having evolved much more rapidly than the former. from its original Greek ‘neapolis’ (‘new city’) to modern Napoli or Naples. The city, despite a name that proclaims its newness, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, with its most famous resident being the Roman poet Virgil, much beloved by Shakespeare. Little of this storied history makes it into Shakespeare’s plays, however, which tend to focus on more general stereotypes about Neapolitans.

In the Merchant of Venice, a Neapolitan prince is amongst Portia’s unsuccessful suitors, not least because he “doth nothing but talk of his horse”, leading Portia to quip that she is “much afeard my lady his mother play’d false with a smith”. Neapolitan ancestry comes up in much more serious terms in Henry VI part II, when York, captured by Margaret and her Lancastrian forces, curses her in defiance as the “Outcast of Naples, England’s bloody scourge”.

Portia’s wit about sexual infidelity, and York’s violent outburst come together in Thersites description of the “Neapolitan bone-ache” that he finds on the battlefield of Troy in Troilus and Cressida. The “bone-ache” is syphilis, and marks yet another less than flattering reference to Naples in Shakespeare’s works. When Lucentio suggests that he disguise himself as “Some Neapolitan” in The Taming of the Shrew in order to deceive his beloved’s father, Biondello, he must surely have got a laugh, given that such a choice of disguise inadvertantly implies sexual decadence and disease as much as Neapolitan wealth.

Despite all these ignominious Neapolitans, there is one character in Shakespeare’s works who goes some way to redeeming the city. That character is Gonzalo, the elderly councillor mocked by the other court members in The Tempest, but revealed to have been a friend to Propsero in exile, and thus, in the magician’s words, “A noble Neapolitan”, valued all the more for his contradiction of a stereotype:

PROSPERO By Providence divine.
Some food we had and some fresh water that
A noble Neapolitan, Gonzalo,
Out of his charity, – who being then appointed
Master of this design, / did give us, with
Rich garments, linens ,stuffs, and necessaries,
Which since have steaded much: so, of his gentleness.
Knowing I lov’d my books, he furnish’d me,
From mine own library with volumes that
I prize above my dukedom.

Word of the Day: Kated

James Harriman-Smith - July 13, 2011 in Shakespeare, Word of the Day

This word, which only occurs once in Shakespeare’s works, is a neologism, a new word invented by Shakespeare. Of course, it is far from being the only neologism in the bard’s works: we have Shakespeare to thank for the words “brittle”, “bump”, “countless”, “dwindle”, “eventful” and many more. “Kated”, though, is a rather special neologism since it is created from a proper noun, from Katherine, the shrew of The Taming of the Shrew. Thanks to the new Duchess of Cambridge, every British person and most of the world now knows, Kate is the familiar form of K/Catherine, and Shakespeare has taken this form, turning it first into a verb (to kate someone) before conjugating that verb as a past participle and inserting it into some banter between Kate’s sister, Bianca and her suitor, Gremio:

LUCENTIO Mistress, what’s your opinion of your sister?
BIANCA That, being mad herself, she’s madly mated.
GREMIO I wattant him, Petruchio is Kated.

This exchange occurs at the end of Act III, when Petruchio, declaring that Kate is “my good, my chattels … / My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything” takes off with his wife from their own marriage celebration, leaving Bianca and the others in some consternation behind them. Brian Morris, who edited the play in 1981, hears an echo of Much Ado About Nothing in the sentiment that “Petruchio is Kated”, imagining “Kate” to be taken as some kind of disease in the same way that Beatrice fears that Claudio has “caught the Benedick”. Another possibility, entirely of my own invention, is the similarity between ‘Kate’ and ‘cates’, the latter referring to a choice food or delicacy, with the punning sense here that Petruchio does not want a marriage feast, but would rather enjoy his Kate/cates elsewhere.

Either way, this single word is rich with meaning, and is perhaps best understood as a sly joke on the similarities between Kate and Petruchio, which ultimately lead to one of the warmest relationships in Shakespeare’s oeuvre. With this in mind, perhaps “kated” should, like some of the playwright’s better-known neologisms, take up its place in our everyday speech, describing the moment when someone meets their match in matrimony. Now is an apt time for such an undertaking: after all, an obvious example in 2011 would be “Prince William is Kated”.

Annotation Sprint III

James Harriman-Smith - July 12, 2011 in News, Publicity, Shakespeare

Date: Thursday 14th July

Time: 9am to 5pm BST

(thus UTC 8am-4pm, EDT 4am-12 noon, PDT 1am-9am)

You can also follow us online using the hashtag #annotation or make suggestions on the Open Literature etherpad.

How to Participate

Step 0: Check your browser

To participate in the annotation sprint, you will need a recent version of Firefox or Chrome or Safari.

Step One: Login to Open Shakespeare [optional]

[optional]: you don’t need to login — but if you don’t your contributions will be anonymous.

To login you’ll need to obtain an OpenID if you don’t have one. Here’s how:

  1. Visit https://www.myopenid.com/

  2. Click on the button ‘Sign up for an OpenID’

  3. Follow their instructions to create an OpenID by which you will be known when annotating

Now you’ve got an OpenID you can login:

  1. Go to our login page

  2. Click on the ‘OpenID’ button

  3. Copy and paste, or type out your OpenID, which looks like a web address

Step Two: Start Annotating!

  1. Go to Hamlet

  2. All the instructions are written on the side of the page in the ‘Annotation: Howto’ column

Word of the Day: Jump

openliterature - July 10, 2011 in Shakespeare, Word of the Day

There are two hundred and twenty five defintions of the word jump, as adjective, noun, and verb, in the OED, many of them now obsolete (compare Merriam-Webster’s three). Shakespeare only uses the word fourteen times, but the way in which he does shows a marked divergence between modern usage and his own. Personally, jump for me will always be associated with leaps and bounds. This is also true of the sonneteer Shakespeare, who writes that “If the dull substance of my flesh were thought, / Injurious distance should not stop my way; / … / For nimble thought can jump both sea and land”; and for Falstaff, describing how both Poins and the young Prince Hal both jump “upon joined stools” in Henry IV part II.

Rather less common nowadays than the sense of a jump over, away, or to something, is the meaning of “jumping” as “coinciding”. Shakespeare uses it frequently. In The Taming of the Shrew, the devious Trantio tells his fellow marriage-conspirator, Lucentio, that “Both our inventions meet and jump in one”; Viola, in Twelfth Night, recognises her brother because the elements of his story, “place, time, fortune, do cohere and jump / That I am Viola”; and the Prince of Arragon, suitor to Portio in Merchant of Venice, proves his egoism by choosing the golden cask and declaring that “I will not jump with common spirits”.

This sense of coincidence and similarity in “jump” is also found in its adjectival/adverbial usage, meaning “coinciding, exactly agreeing; even; exact, precise”. On the battlements of Elsinore, Marcellus tells Horatio that the Ghost has appeared “twice before, and jump at this dead hour”; and Iago plots to bring Othello “jump when he may Casio find / Soliciting his wife”.

Other uses of the word include: the sense of ‘chance’, as Caesar, facing down Antony’s Egyptian army, declares that “our fortune lies / Upon this jump”; and to surprise-attack, or set upon, as Coriolanus calls upon those in his public audience “That love the fundamental part of state / More than you doubt the change on’t; that prefer / A noble life before a long, and wish / To jump a body with dangerous physic / That’s sure of death without it.” However, perhaps the most memorable use of the word jump comes in what now passes as one of the bawdiest speeches in Shakespeare’s oeuvre: a rustic servant describing the not-so-innocent wares of Autolycus the courtier-peddlar in The Winter’s Tale, with a rhyme between “jump” and “thump”:

SERVANT He hath songs for man or woman of al sizes; no milliner can so fit his customers with gloves: he has the prettiest love-songs for maids; so without bawdry, which is strange; with such delicate burdens of ‘dildos’ and ‘fadings’, ‘jump her and thump her’ [...]

James Harriman-Smith, Shakespeare and the City: The Theatrical City

openliterature - July 8, 2011 in Essay, Shakespeare

Cheapside ran with wine, Cornhill was festooned with pageantry, and the Lord Mayor dressed in the most elaborate of costumes; 17th November was an important occasion in Elizabethan London, a time when, in Agnes Strickland’s words, “The city of London might…have been termed a stage.” [Ackroyd (2000), 157] 17th November, or Saint Hugh’s Day, was the Accession Day of Queen Elizabeth I, the official celebration and commemoration of her ascending to the throne of England. Not only did the festivities involve a transient, theatrical transformation of London redolent with neoclassical references to Astraea redux and the Golden Age of Ovid, but they also went down in art, preserved in such paintings as Roy Strong’s Eliza Triumphis and echoed throughout the plays of William Shakespeare. The form of the Accession Day pageant and celebrations can be clearly discerned behind one of Shakespeare’s most remarkable evocations of the city:

CHORUS…But now behold,
In the quick forge and working-house of thought,
How London doth pour out her citizens.
The mayor and all his brethren in best sort,
Like to the senators of th’antique Rome
With the plebeians swarming at their heels,
Go forth and fetch their conquering Caesar in;
As, by a lower but as loving likelihood,
Were now the General of our gracious Empress,
Bringing rebellion broached on his sword,
How many would the peaceful city quit
To welcome him! Much more, and much more cause,
Did they this Harry. Now in London place him.
(King Henry V, 5 Chorus 22-35)
[Note: a variety of critical editions have been used for the plays cited in this essay. Please refer to bibliography.]

Before its obvious contemporary political resonance is discussed, it is necessary to examine the language of this passage in detail. Despite the urgency and excitement of “now behold”, the Chorus delays the mention of “London” with a metaphorical description of the imaginative process. Like many of the Chorus’ speeches that beg the audience to “piece out our imperfections with your thoughts” (Prologue 23), the language of “quick forge and working-house of thought” suggests the constructedness of theatrical endeavour and, perhaps, of kingship itself. However, the metaphor “quick forge and working-house of thought” also takes for its vehicle the workshops and industries of Elizabethan London. Incidentally, so does “piece out” by calling up the work of a tailor.[cf. OED “piece out”: ‘To enlarge or complete by the addition of a piece; to eke out or extend with extra pieces’; and “piece”: 1. trans. a. ‘To mend, make whole, or complete by adding a piece or pieces; to patch.’] As in the labour spent constructing the triumphal arches, and fake scenery of the Accession Day pageant, so is this constructedness an urban effort. From this position things grow more complex: the first simile equates Elizabethan London with Rome, Henry V with Caesar. Such an equation is not uncommon: as the title of Roy Strong’s painting made clear, the Accession Day procession used the Roman military triumph as a model; London and Rome (and Troy) were habitually linked as part of the translatio imperii;[That is to say, the belief that imperial power moved westward through the ages.] and, furthermore, Henry V was written in the same year as Julius Caesar and it is not unreasonable to expect some cross pollination. The second simile is a rarity in Shakespeare’s opus: it is not only a contemporary reference, but a reference to a contemporary hope: that the Earl of Essex would return triumphant from his attempts to quash the Irish rebellions. The passage goes out of its way to avoid any hints of treason: Essex is “the General of our gracious Empress”, no Caesar nor Henry V; and the royal welcome of “this Harry” is with “much more cause”. Nevertheless, such blunt denial, as close to the edge of dramatic illusion as only a choric figure can be, suggests that such equation contained a risky contemporary political resonance that had to be avoided. But this chorus’ purpose is not to make a political statement anyway: the last sentence is as clear as it can be when it tells the audience to “Now in London place him”, and what is truly remarkable about this passage is the way in which a city is evoked as a constant across time. Or, more precisely, the relationship of a large group of people to a single figure, to a single piece of display, is considered as something unchanging in this presentation of the city.

“Now in London place him” is not the last sentence of the Chorus’ speech, though; by the end of the description Henry V is “back return again to France”, and the plot moves on from that position. The fact that the Chorus continues smoothly from such a resonant description of contemporary London helps to counteract the way in which a metatheatrical reference to the current urban milieu normally occurs at the conclusion of a play, and thus limits the ‘episodic’ feel of a play already sharply demarcated into acts. Much can be discerned about the relationship between drama and the city, which provided space for its theatre and the money of its audience, by examining a few of those moments at the end of the play when the theatre opens up to the city around it and the city folk watching it, where the world of the play and of the theatre appear to come into alignment. Perhaps the best example is the conclusion of Jonson’s Volpone:

1st AVVOCATO […] Away with them!
Let all that see these vices thus rewarded
Take heart, and love to study ’em. Mischiefs feed
Like beasts till they be fat, and then they bleed.

[Exeunt all. Volpone re-enters]

VOLPONE The seasoning of a play is the applause.
Now, though the fox be punished by the laws,
He yet doth hope there is no suffering due
For any fact which he hath done ’gainst you;
If there be, censure him – here he doubtful stands.
If not, fare jovially, and clap your hands.
(Volpone, 5xii148-57)

The stage direction is editorial, but, regardless of who is on stage, the effect is very clear indeed. The couplet of the 1st Avvocato, with its clear masculine endings, sounds like the conclusion to the play, and the applause may even have started when Volpone comes forward to speak. If so, this would add an extra level of irony to “The seasoning of the play is the applause” since this line already plays upon the animal imagery of the 1st Avvocato: once the lawyer has (metaphorically) slaughtered the “beast”, Volpone steps forward to ask the audience to “season” it. In a play infused with the influence of animal fables (Volpone himself owes no small debt to the French Reynard the Fox), a culinary conclusion is very apt. This may amuse the audience but the real force of the epilogue is the way in which Volpone makes an alternate tribunal out of the audience. The city of the play has condemned the wily Fox, but the character’s final trick is, as the Chorus of Henry V does, to walk the line between the place represented on stage and the place of the theatre to achieve a different kind of pardon. Volpone’s words tell his audience the meaning of their applause, and, perhaps, briefly offer a window into the dynamics of the city itself that, at tribunal, or at play, seeks and is validated by an audience. Of course, Jonson’s play is far from unique in this: the declaration of Face that he “puts myself / On you” (5.v.163-4) at the conclusion of the highly metatheatrical Alchemist has much the same effect. So too is the ending of Eastward Ho! a useful example: because the play parodies ‘city comedy’, its inclusion of such an ending helps to link an urban awareness and concluding metatheatre even more strongly; furthermore, the occasion it characters make reference to is none other than the Accession Day pageantry.

QUICKSILVER …See if the streets and the fronts of the houses be not stuck with people, and the windows filled with ladies, as on the solemn day of the pageant.
(Eastward Ho! Epilogue 5-6)

Shakespeare too, at the end of both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest also takes the opportunity an epilogue offers to collapse illusion to have characters beg “indulgence” or to “be friends”. But the best example of them all has to be the conclusion of King Henry VIII. Now known as a collaborative effort between Shakespeare and Fletcher, its last few scenes represent a sustained evocation of the city and its people that concludes with Cranmer’s famous ‘prophecy’ of both Elizabeth I, and he “Who from the sacred ashes of her honour/Shall star-like rise as great in fame as she was, /And so stand fixed” (5.iv.45-7), James I. The sequence of scenes is important: the action before Cranmer’s prophecy is focused on the Porter and his Man, and is filled with a sense of the city’s closeness. The Porter’s first line, “You’ll leave your noise anon, ye rascals. Do you take the court for Parish Garden? Ye rude slaves, leave your gaping” (5.iii.1-3) not only acts as an implicit stage direction for some off-stage noise to represent crowds outside the court, but actually makes reference to some other, more literally ‘off stage’ noises. A glance at a map of seventeenth century London shows the proximity of the Globe and Paris(h) Garden, both situated on the Bankside, and the latter’s bull- and bear-baiting drew crowds and noise easily audible at the Globe. Later references to “Paul’s” (14), “Moorfields” (31), “youths that thunder at a playhouse” (57), and the Porter’s order for “You i’th’chamblet, get up o’th’rail,” (86-7)["Chamblet" or 'camlet': expensive material made from silk and hair, worn by wealthier playgoers; “rail”: probably a low railing that went round the stage. – McMullan, 426] perpetuate the city’s presence and bring it even closer. Every time the city is articulated it is shaped: rhetorical magic creates the fiction on stage, but also reminds the audience of where they are. When Cranmer delivers the prophecy, he does so from this position so that he speaks both fictional, climactic revelation, and contemporary commentary and praise. This play, even more than the other conclusions open to the audience, offers a direct comment on contemporary theatre and society. The play’s own epilogue, probably Fletcher’s, that follows seems weak in comparison to this larger concluding movement.

So far, we have seen a few of those moments where the interface between Shakespeare and others’ plays and the city is at its clearest. At such points, the drama attempts to gloss the society, the city, or at least the audience of city folk, around it. This is only a small sample of Shakespeare’s approaches to the city; Anne Barton has written that the plays “are filled with evasions of the urban”, but, as should already be apparent, this is not quite right. The epilogues of The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and others would all be directly addressed to an audience of city-dwellers, be they groundlings or gallants (as well as to a court audience, and, if touring, a provincial one); the noise of the “Parish Garden” could be heard in a theatre built into the city; and even Henry V, which admittedly has a very limited portrayal of actual urban events, still approaches the city in its choruses and the reminiscing of the troops before Agincourt. What would be more accurate is to say that Shakespeare approaches the urban by a roundabout route, and thus does not ‘evade’ it. To return to my earlier references to the triumphal tradition behind the Accession Day parades or the penultimate chorus of Henry V, this roundabout route to the urban is present in several other similar descriptions, all to be found in Shakespeare’s Roman Plays.

Julius Caesar is known for its anachronistic mentioning of clocks and tunics, and there is the same mix of Elizabethan “chimney-tops” and Roman generals in Murellus’ chastising description of the citizens’ previous festivities:

MURELLUS …Knew you not Pompey? Many a time and oft
Have you climbed up to walls and battlements,
To towers and windows, yea, to chimney tops,
Your infants in your arms, and there have sat
The livelong day, with patient expectation,
To see great Pompey pass the streets of Rome.
(Julius Caesar 1.i.36-41)

Although this is quite a clear description, it should be noted that Murellus is describing something that happened in the past. Here the Rome of Pompey’s triumph is used to gloss the Rome of Caesar’s return; but, at the same time, the Rome of Caesar is seen through an Elizabethan overlay of “chimney tops”. This may result, as references to “cobblers”, and “base mechanicals” in this scene certainly do, from North’s Elizabethan translation of Plutarch. What is important, though, is the way in which Murellus’ strange, composite Rome is inextricably part of his argument, and of the play’s development. A similar use of the city occurs in Anthony and Cleopatra:

CLEOPATRA Now, Iras, what think’st thou?
Thou an Egyptian puppet shall be shown
In Rome as well as I. Mechanic slaves
With greasy aprons, rules and hammers shall
Uplift us to the view. In their thick breaths,
Rank of gross diet, shall we be enclouded
And forced to drink their vapour.
(Antony and Cleopatra 5.ii.206-12)

Once more, the city is presented hypothetically, and as part of an argument. It is also distinctly Elizabethan in flavour: Cleopatra goes on to say how “scald rhymers [will]/Ballad us out o’tune” and “quick comedians”, including “Some squeaking Cleopatra boy” (214-9), will portray her and Antony. Of course, this is exactly what the Elizabethan theatre has been doing for the last two hours. Rather like the peculiarly self-aware characters of Troilus and Cressida, Cleopatra sees her future and it is in a city: she can escape Rome, but London and the pervasive Elizabethan milieu can never be completely evaded. The (literal) distaste and contempt that inflects Cleopatra’s imagery of “gross diet” and being “forced to drink their vapour”, resembles Brutus’ withering description of Coriolanus’ triumphal return from Corioles:

BRUTUS […] Your prattling nurse
Into a rapture lets her baby cry
While she chats him. The kitchen malkin pins
Her richest lockram ’bout her reechy neck,
Clambering the walls to eye him. Stalls, bulks, windows
Are smothered up, leads filled, and ridges horsed
With variable complexions, all agreeing
In earnestness to see him.
(Coriolanus 2.i.179-87)

The triplet of “chats him”, “eye him”, “see him”, contributes as much as “reechy” and “smothered” to a sense of commonness that Brutus (rather ironically, given his being one of the people’s tribunes) seeks to attribute to Coriolanus. As in the other two examples, the “leads”, “lockram”, and “malkin” (a shortened version of Matilda, printed as a proper name, ‘Malkin’ in the First Folio) all create the same bifocal effect of Rome in Elizabethan terms. Or, rather, Jacobean, since passages of Brutus’ description echo two accounts of James I’s accession day parade: Dekker’s The Magnificent Entertainment and Jonson’s Ben Jonson His Part of King James his Royall and Magnificent Entertainement through his Honorable Cittie of London.[David George, Notes &Queries, 241 (June 1966): 164] The Tribune’s words also manage to find a middle ground between Cleopatra’s hypothetical experience and Murellus’ evocation of past triumph: for although Brutus is ostensibly describing something that just happened, the triumph that the audience has seen on stage consists only of Cominius, Lartius, Coriolanus, Captains, Soldiers, and a Herald (2.i.134SD). This is not to say Brutus is lying: he is simply telling Sicinius and the audience what has been going on offstage, elsewhere in Rome; alternatively, as with the Porter of Henry VIII, he could also be describing a rather different offstage. The “reechy” crowds so eager to see Coriolanus could have been present earlier in the play: they could have been the groundlings themselves.

It is hard to conceive the difference between the early modern theatres, especially amphitheatres like the Globe, and the modern stage. Andrew Gurr has pointed out several differences. The first of them is his distinction between “early audiences” and “modern spectators” [Gurr (2004), 1]; that is to say a collective mass of listeners, and a group of individual spectators. One reason for this difference is that, what with many gallants wearing elaborate headgear or smoking vast quantities of tobacco, the early modern theatregoer would not have been able to see very well at all. This was not for lack of trying: ‘auditors’ all but surrounded the stage so that, if you did manage to see past the plumes and puffs, the view would be both of actor and of the audience members behind him, along with itinerant tradesmen, prostitutes and thieves. An obvious result of this is that what Coleridge called the “willing suspension of disbelief” was exceptionally difficult in such a theatre. Not just sight, but touch, smell, hearing, and (should you have bought an apple as refreshment) taste constantly and intrusively reminded the auditor of where they were. There were also no on-site toilets. In such an environment, then, there was only one illusion that could be produced with ease, and that was the illusion of the city itself. Shakespeare’s plays do not evade the urban, instead their illusions must respond to and profit from the presence of city. The city is intrusive, and not just in the Roman plays, which, as has been noted, partake of a clear intellectual and traditional link between Rome and London, England and the world of Homer, Ovid, and Virgil. Anne Barton notes that even As You Like It has Duke Senior call deer the “native burghers of this desert city” (2.i.23), and Jaques (according to the First Lord) call cows “you fat and greasy citizens” (2.i.55) [Barton (1994), 331]. These intrusions are part of the chaos of the city, its novelty and uncertainty; and it can be said that the Accession Day pageant did not complicate the city by making it into a stage, but simplified it instead. The Chorus’, Brutus’, Cleopatra’s, and Marcellus’ conceptions of the city are all so clear as to be part of a wider expression, whether of the fear of shame, the sense of greatness, or otherwise. The city of the pageant and other special occasions was uncomplicated, but this is not to say that Shakespeare was unaware of the complexity and strangeness of the normal, everyday city in which he lived. It is to that city and Shakespeare’s relation to it that I will now turn.

Word of the Day: Ebony

openliterature - July 7, 2011 in Shakespeare, Word of the Day

Only three mentions of this rare wood occur in Shakespeare, twice in Love’s Labour’s Lost and once in Twelfth Night. The word itself could and still can refer to any of several different varieties of timber, found in India, Africa, and Indonesia. These valuable woods were extensively exported by the Dutch in the seventeenth century, but even by the end of the sixteenth century a rich trade in Ebony flourished in Antwerp and Paris. One legacy of this trade is the fact that French people still call cabinet-makers “ébéniste” to this day. As with ‘alabaster’, mention of ebony evokes rich blackness, ornament and beauty, as well as worldwide trade.

It is the blackness of ebony that most interests Shakespeare. In Twelfth Night Feste the clown (disguised as Sir Topas the priest) tortures the imprisoned Malvolio with a nonsensical description of the steward’s surroundings.

FESTE Say’st thou that the house is dark?
MALVOLIO As hell, Sir Topas.
FESTE Why it hath bay windows transparent as barricadoes, and the clerestories toward the north are as lustrous as ebony; and yet complain’st thou of obstruction?

The joke of course is that Feste accurately describes the “barricadoes” and ebon darkness of the prison, only to draw the conclusion that the “barricadoes” are “transparent” and the ebon “clerestories” (church windows) are “lustrous”. In reply to this, Malvolio can only insist that “I am not mad, Sir Topas. I say to you this house is dark.”

The uncomfortable comedy of Feste torturing Malvolio is far removed from the use made of “ebony” in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Here the word is used by the King of Navarre to describe Berowne’s beloved Rosaline.

KING By heaven, thy love is black as ebony!
BEROWNE Is ebony like her? O word divine!
A wife of such wood were felicity.
O, who can give an oath? Where is a book?
That I may swear beauty doth beauty lack
If that she learn not of her eye to look.
No face is fair that is not so full of black.

Whereas Feste was busy contorting his language to befuddle Malvolio, Berowne’s ornamental punning is aiming straight for courtly wit. To understand him, it is necessary to recall both the value of ebony and the fact that blackness might also be shameful (cf. Malvolio’s “[black] As hell” above, or Gertrude’s “black and grained spots” of guilt in Hamlet). Consequently, the King’s “black as ebony” pulls two ways: beautiful as ebony yet ugly as blackness. Berowne takes this doubleness as improvises upon it, emphasising the beauty of darkness, and particular of Rosaline’s dark eyes. Elsewhere in Shakespeare’s works similar reconstruction of blackness takes place: the dark lady of the Sonnets is praised, for example, with the comment that “now is black beauty’s successive heir”. Shakespeare’s near contemporary, Philip Sidney, also praised dark beauties, focussing like Berowne on the beloved’s eyes. Stella in Astrophil and Stella (1592) is thus possessed of eyes “in beamy black”.

Overall then, blackness is the dominate feature of ebony when it appears in Shakespeare’s works, with the added complexity occuring when Berowne uses its beautiful, ornamental properties to challenge (like Sidney) other preconceptions about blackness in the period. I should probably mention Othello at this point, but would rather avoid a lengthy article.

Word of the Day: Alabaster

openliterature - July 6, 2011 in Shakespeare, Word of the Day

The word “alabaster” is now part of an established style of poetic language, and has been since Shakespeare’s time. However, this does not mean that there is nothing to say here: for example, there are in fact two kinds of alabaster, gypsum and calcite. The former constitutes modern alabaster and the latter that of the ancients and Shakespeare. This calcite alabaster was an oriental material, widely used for ornament, and it is in this decorative aesthetic way that the word appears, for example, in Shakespeare’s description of Venus holding Adonis’ hand as “ivory in an alabaster band”. Similarly, Lucrece’s beauty is blazoned with the aid of the mineral.

What could he see but mightily he noted?
What did he note but strongly he desir’d?
What he beheld, on that he firmly doted,
And in his will his wilful eye he tir’d.
With more than admiration he admir’d
Her azure veins, her alabaster skin,
Her coral lips, her snow-white dimpled chin.

In contrast to Venus and Adonis, this portrayal of Lucrece is rather disturbing, made through the eyes of Tarquin, her future rapist. The reference to alabaster in the final line, along with coral and azure (originally another name for lapis lazuli), all contribute to render Lucrece an object and an ornament in Tarquin’s view, something to be possessed. Calcite alabaster has two specific properties that may also be relevant here: it resists water, but can be marked with a knife (Lucrece, of course, after many tears eventally commits suicide with just such an implement); and it was once used for windows. The translucent properties of alabaster are perhaps active here since a central theme of the poem is Lucrece’s sense of her own vulnerability, her feeling that her violation is plain for all those who “[pry] through my window” to see.

Sinking deeper into the menacing possibilities of alabaster, we come to Othello, who vows that “I’ll not shed [Desdemona’s] blood; / Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow, / And smooth as monumental alabaster”. He keeps his promise, but still suffocates his beloved at the play’s conclusion. The “monumental alabaster” differs from other uses of the mineral in relation to ornament, and is typical of Othello’s tendancy to aggrandise (see Wilson-Knight on “the Othello music” for a long description of this). Alabaster was used on monuments as well as ornaments, namely tombs and effigies, because of the ease with which it might be carved. When Othello speaks of “monumental alabaster”, a macabre note is sounded.

There is a darker appearance of the word, than even Othello’s, however: it comes in Richard III and Tyrrel’s soliloquy describing how the two young princes were murdered at the king’s orders. “Thus…girdling one another / Within their alabaster innoent arms / …We smothered / The most replenished sweer work of nature.” These lines unite the ornamental littleness of alabaster (the children’s fragility), its whiteness and translucency (their innocence), and its macabre usages (their murder).

To conclude, I turn to the fifth, final and cheeriest usage of alabaster in the canon. Gratiano’s speech to his friend Antonio about his passionate nature, and his subsequent rejection of alabaster and all that it represents in The Merchant of Venice. His lines set him apart in the play, distinct from Antonio’s anxieties and Shylock’s macabre plots, themselves the true analogues of alabaster. After all, Antonio’s ships may well have been carrying the precious mineral.

GRATIANO Let me play the fool;
With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come;
And let my liver rather heat with wine
Than my heart cool with mortifying groans.
Why should a man whose blood is warm within
Sit like his grandsire cut in alabaster,
Sleep when he wakes, and creep into the jaundice
By being peevish?

Word of the Day: Crow

openliterature - July 4, 2011 in Shakespeare, Word of the Day

In 1592, Robert Greene provided what many now take to be crucial evidence of Shakespeare’s rise to fame in the London theatre scene when he mentioned, in his Groats-worth of Witte that

…there is an upstart Crow, beautiful with our feathers, that his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke vierse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his owne conceite the onely Shake-scene in a countrey..”

There is much to be discussed here, but – noting only that “Johannes fac totum” means something like ‘Jack-of-all-trades’ (‘Johnny-do-it-all’) – I shall concentrate specifically on the now famous description of Shakespeare as an “upstart Crow”. In particular, I shall reveal how Shakespeare himself uses the word, both to illuminate Greene’s insult and, as ever, to explore the myriad-mindedness of our playwright.

There are fifty uses of the word “crow” in the plays and poems, but not all of them refer to the bird. For example, neither Friar Lawrence nor Antipholus of Ephesus make use of avian assistance to break down, respectively, the door of the Capulet monument or that of their own house, but rather demand what we now call a ‘crow-bar’, so named for its resemblance either to the bird’s beak or talons.

When the crow does appear in Shakespeare’s writing, it is not to its beak nor its talons but, as with Greene, to its feathers that reference is often made. Punning, for example, on the senses of crow as bird and bar, Dromio asks his master if he wants “A crow without feather” to break down the door of his house in Ephesus. Elsewhere, the blackness of the crows’ plumage is made to carry a whole range of meaning: its “sable” places it amongst the “mourners” of the Phoenix and the Turtle, and Autolycus sells “Cypreis black as e’er was crow” to the rustics of The Winter’s Tale. “Our feathers” that Greene accuses Shakespeare of stealing, are thus to be taken as something that covers a colouring strongly associated with not just death and mourning, but more nastily, both ugliness (for Romeo, Juliet is a beautiful dove amongst crows) and corruption (the rapist Tarquin is compared to a “crow” in Lucrece).

Corruption and blackness is not just limited to moral depravity, but also disease: the crow’s colour fits its larcenous activities, and Shakespeare repeatedly portrays the crow as a battlefield scavenger. York boasts that he has made Clifford “prey for carrion kites and crows” in Henry VI part II, Grandpré describes the birds hovering over the English forces at Agincourt in Henry V, and Pandarus invokes them on the battlefield of Troy in Troilus and Cressida. Although such a portrayal of the crow as scavenger fits Greene’s purposes in calling Shakespeare an “upstart Crow”, aligning him with both the repulsive and the unromantic elements of martial society, the fact that Greene claims that Shakespeare has stolen his and others’ feathers also portrays Greene as one of the crows’ habitual targets, namely carrion. Of course, this is not to Greene’s purpose, but the extension of the metaphor seems a neat defence of the bard if not the bird.

It is in The Merchant of Venice that Shakespeare uses the bird for more moral ends, illustrating this time Portia’s support for a judgment that takes into account all mitigating circumstances. Such a use of the crow, although dependent on less flattering representations for the power of its reversal, is nevertheless proof of Shakespeare’s inventiveness. These lines take the symbolism of the crow, evident elsewhere in the plays and poems, and viciously employed by Greene, and then add to it in a new and unexpected way: the point that the crow is only criticised when heard (“attended”) is, one is tempted to say, a response to Greene, whose angry slur is also praise of Shakespeare, since it proves his rise through the cultural echelons of his day.

PORTIA The crow doth sing as sweetly as the lark
When neither is attended; and I think
The nightingale, if she should sing by day,
When every goose is cackling, would be thought
No better a musician than the wren.
How many things by season season’d are
To their right praise and true perfection!