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    Shakespeare 400

    Tomorrow marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death (and Miguel Cervantes's death, too). There are celebrations worldwide, and there will be ongoing Shakespeare events and celebrations throughout 2016. (If you don't believe me, believe twitter, and search the #SHX400 hashtag.)

    Let me recommend the Folger Shakespeare Library's 50-state First Folio tour, coming to someplace in your state. If you're near Cleveland, come see one (or more!) of the Cleveland Public Library's events and exhibits, and catch the Shakespeare Folio when it comes to town in June and July. And if you happen to see me around, say hello and ask a question or two.

    In the meantime, let's have a special bonus round of "Ask Me About Shakespeare" for any Dagbloggers who have questions.


    What did Shakespeare think about Cervantes? Did they fight like Michael Jackson & Prince, or Hilary Duff & LiLo?

    They never met, what with Cervantes being Spanish and all. But Shakespeare knew at least something about Cervantes's Don Quixote. There's a lost (co-written) Shakespeare play called Cardenio; the references we have to that play, which is why we know it used to exist, indicate that it adapted material from Don Quixote.

    We recently saw Trevor Nunn's Pericles and while we had a good time, I think we concluded it was too long for what it was, as a story and actually had a lot of crazy plot holes in it, including Pericles wrongly assuming his wife is dead and burying her at sea, only for her to survive, wash up ashore on some other island and then not kill him when he shows up later and is like "Wow, so glad you're alive?"

    My question for you is, what the heck did I watch?  I understand Shakes had a collaborator on this one.  Were they drunk when they wrote it?  Don't get me wrong, it has flashes of brilliance but it is still in many ways, worse than the Star Wars prequels. What gives with Pericles, Doc?

    Woah woah woah, it may not be pretty, but it's still *art*. And what's wrong with a bit of a tipple here and there to keep me going between "flashes of brilliance"? Who knows when a flash might be my last... wouldn't want to be a flash in the pan.

    It would have been better if he'd called it Peracles.  I mean Pericles?  Please.

    Well whatever - as long as they don't confuse me with that dude with the Lion. I mean, puh-leeze... (I think Perry Cleese was John Cleese's father, but dont have it on sound authority).

    I saw the same production at Theatre for a New Audience last month, and enjoyed it. But what did you watch? Here goes.

    First of all, you saw a Jacobean play, somewhere in the middle in terms of quality. (You're not the first one to dislike it; Ben Jonson makes more than one disparaging remark about Pericles, which is his example of a particular kind of "moldy tale" on the stage.) Like a lot of those plays (including some of the All-Time Greats, frankly) plot logic is not really the main thing. Also, at Theatre for a New Audience you got some extra material from a pamphlet version of the same story, which Nunn used to give Gower more chorus/plot exposition speeches.

    Pericles has been on the Shakespeare Authorship bubble for 350 years. It's variously been called Shakespeare's, not Shakespeare's, and a Shakespeare collaboration. (That last one is the most common story today, but is what I like to call an almost-fact. It gets talked about like a fact but can't quite be proved.) 

    It got printed with Shakespeare's name on the title-page in 1609, but got left out of the big Folio collection of his plays in 1623. It doesn't start being included in Shakespeare collections until 1663, when most institutional memory from Shakespeare's day had been disrupted. (Those forty years of English history are action-packed, including a civil war and changing their system of government twice.) Starting in 1663, seven extra plays that had been printed as Shakespeare's but left out of the 1623 Folio began showing up in collections, often as an appendix of some kind. Pericles is the only one of those seven that has made its way into the "official" Shakespeare canon. (If you think it was long for what it is, try one of the other six.)

    So, it is what it is. Maybe Shakespeare's play, maybe not. Not his best, if it's his, and even if it's his not as good as dozens of plays other poets wrote in his lifetime. I'm usually pleased to see it, because I like to see a wider rather than a narrower selection of early plays, but the downside of Shakespeare worship sometimes means you'll see Pericles before you get to see the other Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights' masterpieces.


    That's an interesting point about the downside of Shakespeare worship, given the very good plays out there from his era. I didn't know the play was a collaboration until we saw the program, and I wonder if the parts I did like were not William's, because writing is like that.j  I also kind of oddly think that the Polonski Center, which is a wonderful space, might have been the wrong spot for Pericles, given that they lacked wings and had to use the aisles and balconies to accommodate the mesmerizing costumes. Pacing was also off for us... set changes took a while, and I attribute that to the design of the theater.

    You aren't the first to imagine that the parts you don't like aren't Shakespeare's. When people say he had a collaborator, that's usually what they're saying: we don't like parts of this play, so those parts were written by someone else.

    The only Shakespeare favorite that people talk about as a possible collaboration is Macbeth, and then only because the one printed version is so messed up. We basically only talk about a collaborator when we feel like there's some problem. No one wants to talk about Shakespeare co-writing Hamlet or Lear or Much Ado.

    As for the Polonski: the space isn't designed for set changes and neither is the play, really. As always, Shakespeare's "sets" are characters saying things like, "Look! Here we are now!"

    The Polonski is a gorgeous space, no doubt.  But I am a little surprised that a new theater was built without wing space, given what they were going to do with it.  I do prefer more minimalist productions, though.  Maybe my problems with Pericles were really problems with Nunn.

    Doc, I was curious about your actual research project. Is that something you can or care to share?

    Also, aside from what's in those rare texts, do you ever have a visceral, as in an epiphany, reaction when you get so close physically to such antiquities?

    Two good questions, Oxy. Let me take the second one first.

    I'm a little inured to being around rare books, even though I sometimes go a long time between using them. (I use digital images more often.) So maybe I don't feel the thrill or novelty any more. But I feel the pull of those books. I never ignore them.

    Let me amend that: last month I happened to be at the Folger Shakespeare Library on Acquisitions Night, when they show off what they've bought over the last year for the donors. Like the other scholars in the room, I wanted to see those books and manuscripts. I wanted to see the signatures of various Elizabethan muckety-mucks. But the big emotional moment for me was when I looked down at an old printed book and instantly recognized the printer's emblem, an image I knew well from writing my first published Shakespeare article. So yeah, there are moments.

    As for my own research project:

    My first book was about Shakespeare and intellectual property (which means in practice about a lot of early printing history, early theater history, and the problem of Shakespeare plays that turn up in more than one early version).

    One book is an attempt to turn Freudian criticism of Shakespeare around and come at it from another direction, emphasizing paternal violence (like Laius's violence against his son Oedipus) and paternal fantasies about Oedipal sons.

    The other book in progress, which grows out of my first book in some ways, is about the acting scripts that Shakespeare's actors used (which were pretty limited, really just the actor's own lines) and about how many of the changes we see between different versions of Shakespeare plays can be explained by changes to those working scripts.

    Thanks for responding to the questions.  I didn't know about the first book, sounds fascinating.

    The second book, the changing scripts study is intriguing and sounds awfully complex. Do you think you might infer, from analyzing the changes, anything about the interaction between players and playwright? Could it ever rise to the level of "collaboration"? (wouldn't a certain group love this?) And what might the interaction have contributed to in the development of drama, including the modern stage and even modern practices?


    I'm wondering how popular Shakespeare was in his time. How many people knew about him? Without movies or recordings what percentage of the population actually saw or even read a Shakespeare play? Was he know much outside England, outside London?

    Good questions, o-k.

    Shakespeare was famous in London in his day, with lots of people mentioning him over the course of his career. He was about as famous as an actor/playwright could get, but as you suggest it's hard to know what that means. What percentage of the country knew about him is a hard question (we need to use different measures to guess the literacy rates, for example), but we can make some guesses.

    People in and around London knew who he was. The elites (not just the nobility but the level below them, the gentry), who were always cycling back and forth between London and the rest of the country, knew who he was. The students at Oxford and Cambridge knew who he was. But what about regular folk in the rest of England?

    His books did circulate out from London to the rest of the country. (The whole book trade was based in London, so all books started out there and radiated out to the rest of England.) His biggest publishing hits were the non-dramatic poems he published in 1593 and 1594, before his name had appeared on any plays. So those got read by some people out in the country.

    But you didn't have to come to London to see his plays. Those plays went on tour. Shakespeare himself presumably went out on tour in person, making a circuit through the countryside and performing a couple of days in each town. His company couldn't cover the whole country in one tour, but they could do some long loops that, over the course of a few years, would eventually cover a decent chunk of England. We also know that at least a few small-time acting groups would do Shakespeare's plays themselves (without permission). We know this because one of those companies gets busted on tour: they had King Lear, Pericles (Maiello's new favorite), and another play, not by Shakespeare, that got them arrested.

    So, these plays get out there.

    As for Europe: the elites who've visited London or the English court know about Shakespeare. Various foreign ambassadors and so on have seen English plays. And the English players do a thriving touring business in Holland and especially Germany, so ordinary Germans have seen Hamlet and Merchant of Venice. A lot of those plays eventually get turned into German-language versions which we still have records of.

    Since it's also a competition between entertainment choices (e.g. in the 20s movies were the huge status in-thing), any idea how huge theater was compared to music - popular and orchestra - and any other options in London and surrounds at the time? E.g. a visiting ambassador would likely go to X first, then Y, then maybe just maybe Z, aside from the usual banquets and receptions, and presuming public hangings not high on the list.

    Shakespeare was yuge.  The only more popular entertainment for Elizabethans was breaking up the banks.

    They spelled it "banque", and the Brits were always more attuned to breaking in than breaking up. Picture the Great Train Robbery.

    Believe me, breaking up the big banks was not a problem yet. When you go through the business documents from early theaters, everything is financed through personal loans: person-to-person. Sometimes I just long for them to get some banking infrastructure.

    As for popular music: people always sing. And the orchestras are smaller and simpler than what we see today. (Even a generous classical musical survey starts at least a century later; no Bach or Vivaldi yet.)

    Theater was a big draw for foreigners,  because it was something that the English were especially known for, and the London theaters (which only started being built in Shakespeare's lifetime) were a huge novelty, unique in Europe. I'm sure they wanted to hear some nice madrigals, too, but the plays were a tourist highlight.

    There's one Venetian ambassador, late in Shakespeare's life, who would just go off by himself to the playhouses all the time. (Not that he understood English; apparently he didn't need to.) And when a German prince comes to marry James I's daughter, he gets shown endless amounts of theater, at least two shows a week for months on end. And he doesn't speak English either, but seems to have had a good time.

    (Fun fact: the current British royalty family are all descended from that daughter of James and her German husband Frederick.)

    Anyway, really expensive one-time-only entertainments, like tilts and court masques, took precedence over plays. But plays seem to have taken precedence over other downscale entertainments, like fencing and bearbaiting. For a while plays are forbidden on Wedesdays so the bear-baiting can have a day to itself.

    And plays never competed with public executions, which were held on Sundays when plays were forbidden. Yes, executions on Sundays, because they were supposed to be morally instructive. If you're following along: Hamlet and Julius Caesar = morally suspect; public hanging = educational.


    One thing I left out of my answer to ocean-kat: versions of nearly all these plays also circulated as ballads, cheesy popular songs sung to standard tunes (so no one had to read music), whcih got printed up and sold widely.

    So there were people in England who might never have seen Romeo and Juliet, but might sing the Ballad of Romeo and Juliet off a printed sheet posted up on a tavern wall somewhere.

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