Happy 451st Birthday Shakespeare!

By Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg

“With Shakespeare’s depth of humanity as our touchstone, we build character and community through authentic, inclusive and joyful theater experiences.” This is Cal Shakes’ mission, and today we celebrate the 451st birthday (399th death day) of our bard. William was born in 1564 to John Shakespeare (leather merchant turned prominent alderman and town bailiff – equivalent to town mayor) and Mary Arden (local heiress). No birth records exist for William, but the records of the local church in Stratford-Upon-Avon indicate that a “William Shakespeare” was baptized on April 26 of that year. From this we deduce that he was born on or about April 23: infant mortality at that time was very high (25% of children died before the age of 2, and, indeed, three of Shakespeare’s siblings died in early childhood), which meant that children were baptized a few days after their birth.

William was the third of eight children. The very sketchy records of his early life have caused endless speculation as to how he obtained the immense breadth of education demonstrated in his plays. Historians surmise that William was able to till his naturally gifted mind by virtue of being a public official’s child, entitled to attend the King’s New School in Stratford, which afforded a classical education. As was the case in all Elizabethan grammar schools, Latin was the primary language for learning. Although Shakespeare likely had some lessons in English, Latin composition and the study of Latin authors like Seneca, Cicero, Ovid, Virgil, and Horace would have been the focus of his literary training. (Just as an extra point of interest, during the years that Shakespeare attended the school, at least one and possibly three headmasters stepped down because of their devotion to the Catholic religion proscribed by Queen Elizabeth.) William’s father’s fortunes declined when young William was about 14, however, and he never got to go to university.

In 1582, when William was 18, Anne Hathaway, a 26 year-old woman of some family means, became pregnant with his child. They married late in that year, before the birth of their first daughter, Susannah. William soon deposited his wife and family in Stratford – including the couple’s twins, Hamnet and Judith, born in 1585 – and the playwright went to London to build his theater company and pursue his craft, returning to Stratford only when onslaughts of the plague forced the closure of the theaters in London. It was in these fallow years that he wrote most of his sonnets as well as his longer poems. Shakespeare’s son Hamnet died at the age of eleven, and, given that it took three days to get a message from Stratford to London, and the contagion of the plague so great that by the time Shakespeare received news of his death, his son had already been buried.  Judith and her father were not close, and Susannah remained William’s favored child until the end of his life.

Over a period of 18 years, Shakespeare wrote 37 plays (give or take two recently discovered and believed to be his and a couple of collaborations) and 154 sonnets. He stopped writing about three years before his death in 1616. Some scholars have speculated that this was because he had nothing left to say: however, I think this theory is highly unlikely when applied to a man of 47 who wrote a late play as gifted as The Tempest. It’s much more likely that he developed Scrivener’s Palsy, a degenerative disease that impeded his capacity to write. If you look at the range of his signatures, they markedly change as his physical state deteriorates. He could barely sign his final will, made in March 1616 (altered to convey his displeasure at his daughter Judith’s marriage to a man who had at the same time got another woman pregnant).

Shakespeare, registered as “Will Shakespeare gent”, was buried on 26 April 1616 at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford Upon Avon. His tombstone is inscribed with the unlikely quatrain said to have been prepared by him:

Good Friend for Jesus sake forbear

To dig the dust enclosed here.

Blest be the man that spares these stones,

And curst be he that moves my bones.

FUN FACTS:

  • Vegetables discovered in Shakespeare’s day: cabbage and carrots
  • Households made their own beer and ale
  • Flush toilets were a long time coming: families deposited their waste matter in mounds outside the house.

 

 

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Shakespeare’s Settings

Elizabethan Europe

By Tess Brumwell-Gaze

With only a modest Stratford upbringing, Shakespeare’s knowledge of foreign cultures is an intriguing aspect of his works. Plays ensue with backdrops of rural Italy and monarchical Denmark, but very rarely Shakespeare’s English home ground. Whether this was to spur Elizabethan imaginings of exotic landmarks, or to avoid political controversy, there is also the question of how Shakespeare managed to accurately portray his oversea settings.

Why overseas?

A first explanation for overseas settings is bound in the political climate of Shakespeare’s time. Directly portraying English politics in the Elizabethan era was a risk. Perhaps to avoid this controversy, Shakespeare could reflect his own monarchy without controversy by relocating and renaming them as foreign rulers. Macbeth exemplifies Shakespeare’s careful political balance—representing the Scottish monarch as a tyrant and the English as the righteous power.

Though a factor, this does not entirely explain why Shakespeare chose the settings that he did; stereotypes of foreign countries can to some extent explain this. For English Elizabethans, Italy was a country excelling in “the fields of art, music and literature, as well as banking, fencing and political science” explains Professoressa Laura Tosi, of Ca’Foscari University in Venice. In the same light, Italy’s culture was imagined as “the cradle of political, religious and sexual corruption.” On hearing that a play was set in Italy, audiences would expect certain characteristics. Most notable of these, Warren King discusses, are “heat, extreme emotion and violence.” What better setting for a desperate romance or bitter rivalry?

A similar account stands for Shakespeare’s Greek settings. Ancient Greece spurred associations of darkness, magic, and myth. This spiritual dimension was taken advantage of in The Comedy of Errors, as themes of witchery and immorality surface in the ancient city.

Less romantically, Shakespeare’s settings were often poached. Hamlet, for example, could hardly be taken from its original Denmark setting without being wildly reworked. This point is also especially poignant in Shakespeare’s classic plays.

A villa in Verona's countryside, close to the Capulets' imagined mansion.

 

How could Shakespeare articulate these settings?

Being from a modest background, the diverse history and language used in Shakespeare’s works suggests a much more fulfilled education. How did he educate himself on such specific times and places, especially if he would have been unable to visit?

Professoressa Tosi supposes that Shakespeare could have “read political treatises, novellas, tourist books, published traveler’s reports or unpublished ones in manuscript” as a way of informing his Italian works. Equally, oral sources could have aided the writer, with “Italian merchants living in London, scholars, musicians, and cultural mediators like John Florio.” Professore Valerio di Scarpis (Ca’Foscari University, Venice) added: “there were so many travel guides on Venice scattered around Northern Europe at that time, Shakespeare could have easily gathered all the necessary information from London.”  There is still a tiny possibility that he reached Italy—both aristocrats and companies of English players on tour moved across the continent at the time. His precise descriptions of Italian villas, locations and even plants are often cited as evidence that he must have toured the country.

Shakespeare’s grasp of language

Only fairly recently have historians supposed that Shakespeare had a fairly good grasp of Latin. This is most likely as a result of grammar school in Stratford. At this time, grammar institutions would demand pupils learn prominent texts by heart. Most prominently, Ovid’s Metamorphoses would have been mandatory, which Shakespeare references in his poem “Venus and Adonis.”

It is largely assumed that Shakespeare did not have an equivalent knowledge of Greek. Instead, works such as Plutarch’s Lives, translated by Sir Thomas North in 1579, would have informed Shakespeare’s own work. An exception may be The Comedy of Errors, which it is thought Shakespeare would have directly based on the original Menaechmi by Plautus.

The Comedy of Errors also notably opens with Virgil’s words;

“A heavier task could not have been imposed
Than I to speak my griefs unspeakable” (1,1.32-33)

Translations were a key source for a number of plays. Julius CaesarAnthony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus were written with the aid of Sir Thomas North’s translations, though there are a number of further sources expanded his classical knowledge and use of language, as Professor Panos Karagiorgos discusses.

Shakespeare’s settings can be explained by a mix of political controversy, Elizabethan romanticism and education. The Bard’s reading shaped both his choices in setting and linguistic experimentation, formed by revised translations and a disciplined schooling.

Tess Brumwell-Gaze is based in the UK and writes for Italian Villa company, Tuscany Now. She is interested in all areas of Italian culture, though is especially fond of arts and literature.

Interested in seeing how director Aaron Posner depicts Ephesus, Greece? Buy your ticket for Cal Shakes’ The Comedy of Errors, opening June 25.

 

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It’s our 40th anniversary: Tell us a story.

The Tempest at John Hinkel 1980

Jane Macfie as Ariel and Julian Lopez-Morillas as Prospero in THE TEMPEST at John Hinkel Park, 1980

As you may have heard or seen us mention, 2014 is our 40th anniversary season. Yes, we’ve come a long way since our first show, of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on May 10, 1974 at the Unitarian Fellowship Hall in Berkeley. For one thing, we’ve had a lot of names: Emeryville Shakespeare Company (which is what we were called for that production of Midsummer, at least), Berkeley Shakespeare Festival, California Shakespeare Festival, California Shakespeare Theater/Cal Shakes, and probably a couple more in between. For another, we’ve performed a lot of places: the Unitarian Hall, John  Hinkel Park, our current Bruns Amphitheater, and now—for the special production of Twelfth Night coming together in our rehearsal hall as I type this—at the intimate performance space of our co-presenters, Intersection for the Arts.

Howard Swain as Puck and Dan Hiatt as Bottom in MIDSUMMER

Howard Swain as Puck and Dan Hiatt as Bottom in MIDSUMMER, the first production at the Bruns, 1991; photo by David Allen.

Did I forget some names and locations? If so, I’m hoping someone will let me know. Because there are scores of folks who have been with us, if not from the very beginning, then at least for decades. Nancy Carlin, for example, was in As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream our first summer in John Hinkel Park, 1975; and she’s portraying Malvolio and Valentine in Twelfth Night next month! There are patrons who had first dates at John Hinkel, and whose children or grandchildren now attend our Summer Shakespeare Conservatories. There are generations for whom an evening or afternoon at the Bruns is a family tradition. There are actors, staff, and volunteers who have been with us for 20 or more years. Are you one of them? Because we would love to hear from you. As the year unfurls, we’ll be rolling out new initiatives, celebrating special events, and publishing historical articles in our Main Stage show programs—all honoring our decades of history, and the bright future yet to come. And we want to hear your story.

Did you meet your lifelong best friend in one of our youth programs? Were you at that first performance, in the audience or backstage? Do you remember John Hinkel Park fondly? Have you been subscribing since the Bruns opened in 1991? Have you seen every production we’ve ever done?We’re hoping to collect your stories throughout the year, for a variety of uses. If you have one, you can share it in nearly as many ways as there are Shakespeare plays:

We’re really looking forward to hearing from you, and to honoring our four decades with you all year long.

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