Saturday, February 27, 2021

Apocrypha Central

As I've now read all the Shakespeare Apocrypha plays (I hope) it seems like a good idea to draw a little line under things by creating a page linking to all the blog posts. (I was going to do posts reviewing the other Shakespeare plays I've yet to read, but I think that would be overkill. So I'll just make notes as I read those and then do a few overview posts if I have anything worth relating.)

I've also been slowly knocking up an image of Shakespeare based on the one I used a month or so ago. I've been considering penning a book, so it'll be handy to have some type of image to use for a cover.


It's a work in progress lol

Monday, February 22, 2021

Shakespeare Apocrypha - Double Falsehood

I've just finished reading Double Falsehood. This is a play from 1727 by the writer Lewis Theobald. However, he claimed it was based upon a work originally penned by William Shakespeare.


It was a really enjoyable and quick read. I'm not quite sure what to make of it. The style of the writing wasn't like Shakespeare, but the general structure of the play fits the mould. Theobald claimed to have "revised and adapted" it, supposedly from three different manuscripts, so it would make sense that the text would be smoothed over and modernised a bit. Especially with it being performed on stage.

It's quite a bold claim though, and you'd have thought someone would have preserved the originals. If anything just to prove the claim, which was contested at the time. So doubt is probably the most sensible course of action.

Either way it now means I've read all these apocrypha works. I can now move on to the remaining works that were actually by Shakespeare. I've managed to keep this post short too for a change :)

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Shakespeare Apocrypha - A Knack to Know a Knave

This was the final play on my list, so I feel a sense of completion. (Though there is one more that I didn't have on there; a play titled Double Falsehood, which is said to be an adaptation of the lost play Cardenio. So I'll probably have to read that too, just to be thorough.)


This one was a morality play, and it was quite short. The title looks quite Shakespearean, but apart from that it's fairly far removed. The claim is that a few passages were reworked by Shakespeare. I guess it's possible, but to be honest I don't quite see it. The entire thing seemed a world away to me.

The title refers to a character in the play called Honesty. He's someone that literally has the knack of spotting knaves and ne'er-do-wells, and spends the play catching out immoral characters. Who all get their comeuppance at the play's end.

Like the play Thomas of Woodstock it's quite preachy and concerned with the common good. In fact, the term flatterer, which I liked so much, even pops up in it.

As I mentioned when I reviewed that play I really like the social conscience of these works, but at the same time they do tend to be quite stilted and one dimensional. It was also another play that was very easy to understand and digest. So I'm now beginning to wonder if this is because these plays are less arty. Rather than my original instinct; which was that they were perhaps misdated or forged in some way.

When we read Shakespeare at the age of fourteen at school for the first time it's often very difficult to grasp. Not only are many of the words unfamiliar, but even the use of the language can be hard to penetrate. We're left baffled and unimpressed. "What the hell is this?!". However, if someone handed this morality play to my fourteen year old self I'm sure it would have been much, much easier to fathom.

It's very plain and straightforward.

Again though, is this because it's closer to modern English. Or is it more a case that it's just more dull and basic. Just as the meaning in a wordy, sophisticated poem can be hard to decipher in comparison to a common limerick.

Anyhow, it's now ticked off the list. So once I get Double Falsehood ticked off as well I can then start ticking off the dozen or so plays from the Shakespeare cannon proper that I've still yet to read. I did try listening to a performance of King Lear last night, thinking I could take a little short cut and forego having to read every single one. I just couldn't stomach it though. It was an all star cast, but I just hate how overdramatic these performances of Shakespeare are.

This brings me back to where I first started all this in a way. With my contention that Shakespeare plays weren't originally performed in the way they're performed now. I think I probably mentioned this on one of my first blog posts a decade or so back. I think these plays should be performed with a much more natural and understated style.

I remember my first introduction to Shakespeare back at school, reading plays such as Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth. I didn't like it at all. Part of this was that I was just too young to understand most of it. However, a large part was also due to having to watch the various productions we were shown at school. The tights and the pretentiousness of it all. It just seemed horrendous.

This stood in stark contrast to everything else, where the film or TV version usually amplified my interest. The BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice that I gave a nod to not so long ago particularly made an impression on me. Though being a boy I feigned that I was completely unmoved and unimpressed. (I'm only watching it because I have to 😠). I had too much energy to sit and fully invest in books back then, so the screen versions were an easy and useful window into literature that might overwise have bypassed me.

Seeing Shakespeare performed though. That didn't win me over at all.

It was only a good few years later when I was about twenty that my attitude changed. I was forced to read a Shakespeare play thanks to a college course I was on (Much Ado About Nothing if I recall correctly). Though this time I had the fortune to read it as homework. On my own - on my own terms.

I remember reading it - far from the tights and the capes - and thinking; "Wow, this is just like a British sitcom." Stripped back that was how it read to me. Of course parts were a little opaque because of the language and the lack of reference points, but still, it had that same understated wit to it. It was to some extent the culture I'd grew up with. Carry On movies. British sitcoms with their earthy humour ..and at times pathos - but never too much. That wordy teasing and banter common in British culture. It was much more familiar than I ever would've imagined.

So gradually I started reading more works, whilst continuing to eschew any performances of them. (Though to be fair I have seen a few decent, bearable ones over the last eighteen years or so). Consequently even before I came across the apocrypha plays I had this sense that Shakespeare had been misrepresented somewhat.

As I mentioned in the Merry Wives post of last month, time has a way of misrepresenting things. There I used the example of the Beatles, and how they've went from being considered "pop" in the 60's to being considered "high taste" fifty years later. With people now dressing up and performing their back-catalogue, much like how people climb on stage to act out Shakespeare. In fact, Elvis impersonators would perhaps be an even better example.

Yes, they're dressed like Elvis. Yes, they're singing the same songs ..but they're not Elvis.

It's just not the same.

Returning to the sitcom comparison I imagine it would be much like someone performing a much loved TV show from our era in say a hundred years time. Let's take a classic like Only Fools and Horses. Imagine someone getting on stage and performing Del Boy's famous lines, but doing it in a very dramatic and over-expressive way. Without David Jason's down-to-earth relatable charm.


It would just be silly.

Also, finally, there are actually quite a lot of scenes in Shakespeare where characters comically mangle and mispronounce foreign languages. This is not at all unlike Del Boy with his famous French phrases. I imagine it was probably acted in much the same way at the time too, but people would never really make this comparison today. TV is common and lowbrow. Shakespeare is "highbrow". How can you compare these things?

And that is the problem.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

The Spanish Tragedy - Thomas Kyd

Another apocrypha play. Though this one is almost certainly the work of the playwright Thomas Kyd according to experts. The apocrypha claims are that Shakespeare maybe revised a few parts of the play. This is based on handwriting analysis.

With the links to Shakespeare seemingly being so small and tenuous I simply sat and read the play as a piece of entertainment. Not really looking to make any judgements upon it.


It was a really enjoyable read. Unlike the recent apocrypha plays I've read it was not at all stilted in any way. Having a very nice moseying flow to it. Had someone presented this to me and told me it was by Shakespeare I would not have suspected a lie. I'm guessing the similarity is simply down to the fact that it's from the same era. Which makes me suspect the recent plays I've read even more so. Though it could just be that this feels similar because, like Shakespeare, it's also very good.

It's a revenge tragedy, and at the end of the play almost everyone ends up dead (the similarities to the play Hamlet are particularly striking).

With the death and revenge taking place at the court of the Spanish king I couldn't help but imagine what it must have been like for English audiences watching at the time. Especially the final scenes. What with England being an enemy of Spain during this period. It would've been quite raucous I imagine.

On the Wikipedia page I notice that it states that English actors performed the play in Germany in 1601, and that Dutch and German adaptations were made. So I get the impression it played into Protestant sentiments quite strongly.

Finally, the lead female character in the play is called Bel-imperia. I only make note of this as I think it's a really attractive-sounding name. I would say it's a great name to christen a daughter, but would you want to name a child after a character that kills herself at the end of the play lol. Still, it would be very distinctive.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Thomas of Woodstock - Whisperers and Flatterers

I've chalked off another apocrypha play. This time Thomas of Woodstock, sometimes referred to as Richard II, Part One. I'll try to refrain from offering too much in the way of opinion on this one as the only full text I could find online was a modern print.


The original play only survives as an untitled and incomplete manuscript - the title page and ending both being missing. The above linked-to version has a new modern ending added (Act V, Scene 6). More about this, and the play in general can be found on the following site;


The original manuscript survives as part of the Egerton MS 1994 collection, now held by the British Library. The Wikipedia page states that this collection was "probably prepared by the actor William Cartwright around 1642". That "probably" not inspiring much confidence that there's solid evidence for this. The Wikipedia page for the play itself then also notes that this collection "was discovered by James Halliwell-Phillipps".

Halliwell-Phillipps was a 19th century antiquarian. The word "discovered" suggests that the work was unknown before this date. Likewise there is no record of the play being performed in Shakespeare's lifetime.

Incidentally, the surviving manuscript for the play Edmund Ironside also comes from this same collection.

My Thoughts

Having read the play my opinion is that it feels nothing like a work by Shakespeare. It's a little too formal and stilted. Again though, as I'm not totally sure how true the version I read is to the original manuscript I should probably hold fire a little.
 
It was another play that had a more modern feel. Much like the other two plays I've recently read, Edmund Ironside and Sir Thomas More. It was very easy to read, feeling much closer in time to me than the works of Shakespeare. Which sometimes feel foreign and difficult to comprehend, owing to how far removed from our era they are.

So this, combined with the lack of provenance, makes me wonder if the play was written much later. Perhaps a misdating, or even a forgery. Though I'm maybe heading out on a limb here. (Aren't I supposed to be refraining from "offering too much in the way of opinion" xD).

Enjoyment

Attributions aside the play was quite enjoyable though. The character of Woodstock is presented as a 'man of the people' type figure. Nicknamed "plain Thomas" he dresses in simple clothes and eschews the pomp and frivolity of court. Pleading to his nephew King Richard II that he should govern more stoic and frugally.

Richard however, under the influence of "flatterers", ignores this sage counsel and ruins the kingdom. Taxing his people in order to lavishly spend money on clothes and banquets. The ensuing conflict then resulting in Woodstock being apprehended and eventually murdered.

The play is quite moral in tone, and it sets out (with little subtlety) the way a realm should be governed. The commoner sort of people in the play very much the victims of the king's profligacy and tyrannous behaviour.

SHRIEVE OF KENT: My lord: I plead our ancient liberties,
Recorded and enroll’d in the king’s crown office,
Wherein the men of Kent are clear discharg’d
Of fines, fifteens, or any other taxes
For ever given them by the conqueror.

[...]

SHRIEVE OF NORTHUMBERLAND:
We are freeborn, my lord, yet do confess
Our lives and goods are at the king’s dispose.
But how, my lord? Like to a gentle prince
To take or borrow what we best may spare,
And not, like bondslaves, force it from our hands

[...]

SHRIEVE OF NORTHUMBERLAND:
Well, God forgive both you and us, my lord;
Your hard oppressions have undone the state
And made all England poor and desolate.

I love all this ancient liberty stuff. However, at the same time reading some of these more politicised works does make you appreciate the genius of Shakespeare. In his plays any moral lessons or observations are much more subtle and nuanced. Whereas with these it's a little bit like you're being given a sermon.

It's a bit like how rock songs that are overtly political tend to be a bit rubbish and preachy. It takes real talent to make a point, but at the same time be genuinely aesthetic and entertaining.

Also I liked how in this play the people who were disgruntled with the king were labelled "whisperers". As in conspirators. Their private and hushed conversations spied upon and taken as evidence of sedition. It's quite a good word. In fact, I think I'll subtitle this post "whisperers and flatterers".

There's a section in the play where normal folk (simply labelled farmer, butcher, schoolmaster, etc) are overheard badmouthing the king and his advisors. Following which they are then apprehended. This had a slight 1984 type vibe to it, so I couldn't help but think of how it mirrors today's politics slightly. Some things never change I guess.

Finally, another name I found quite aesthetically pleasing was that of Richard's queen (who dies of despair in the play as she watches the kingdom go to ruin). In the real world we know her as Anne of Bohemia, however in the play she's called Anne O'Beame, which I think has quite a charming quaintness to it.

(An illustration of Anne of Bohemia, or Anne O'Beame,
from 1906, by the artist Percy Anderson)

Monday, February 1, 2021

Shakespeare Apocrypha - Sir Thomas More

Firstly, let's quickly get the backstory of this play out the way. It's said to date from the Elizabethan era and only survives in manuscript form. In the manuscript there are several different handwriting styles. One of which is thought by some researchers to be the hand of William Shakespeare. If this is correct it's the only surviving evidence of Shakespeare's handwriting. Aside from records of his signature.

(Any eagle-eyed readers will immediately spot the first problem with this - they therefore have nothing to compare it with, except the signatures. So as they have no idea what Shakespeare's actual handwriting looked like, nor any contemporary accounts of Shakespeare's involvement, we're once again basing everything on; these few passages read like Shakespeare. --you can probably guess what my thoughts are on this one by now :)

(Sir Thomas Moore,
1911 printed edition, snippet)

Anyway, let's come to my thoughts proper. This was an odd one as it read very differently to all the other works I've read so far. It didn't feel like a work of Shakespeare at all. Of course, even those scholars suggesting he had a hand in it only state that it's those few Shakespeare-written pages that are his, but even those brief parts breezed past me. In fact, to me the entire work read as if it was written by a Victorian school headmaster attempting to write something in the style of Shakespeare.

It reminded me a bit of reading those 19th century journals you come across on Google Books. Gentleman correspondents, raised on Latin and Shakespeare, writing their staid, but perfectly rhyming poems. Each one fancying themselves a minor-master in the amateur dramatics they all no doubt performed in the church hall or village school play.

In the play the character of Thomas More very much has this vibe about him. He's educated and upstanding. Throws around the odd line of Latin. Fancies himself as a poet. Eagerly joins in with the little play within a play that's in the play. It all very much has that feel. As I was reading I actually kept picturing the clergyman from Pride and Prejudice, Mr Collins ..in particular the 90's BBC adaptation. Someone who presents themselves as cultured and knowledgeable, but who comes across as faintly ridiculous.

(Mr Collins)

I must admit, whilst reading I did at times wonder if the play had been penned much later, or even if it was an outright forgery because of this later feel. Again, at times it felt almost pastiche. For instance, some of the light comedy in the early part of the play comes from two characters called Doll and Clown. Now there's a Doll in Henry IV, Part 2 (and one in Sir John Oldcastle), and of course there are numerous Clown characters in Shakespeare. So these instantly reminded me of those characters, but the feel was completely different. Even though they were also comic.

Another part that felt slightly anachronistic was a passage where Sir Thomas More chides a ruffian for having long hair. Threatening him with three years prison unless he cuts it off. The implication being if he shortened and tidied his hair he would also tidy up his behaviour too.
MORE. [..] When were you last at barbers? how long time
Have you upon your head worn this shag hair?

[..] it is an odious sight
To see a man thus hairy, thou shalt lie
In Newgate till thy vow and thy three years
Be full expired.—Away with him!
Then after it's been cut.
MORE. Why, now thy face is like an honest man's
Perhaps this association of short hair with orderliness was common in the days of Elizabeth as well, but I couldn't help but ascribe it to the regimented primness of later British centuries.

It wasn't all bad though..

I'm being very harsh with this play aren't I 😄, but I should also state that I did enjoy reading it. As with all these works it was very interesting. Both the beginning and the ending especially so.

The beginning dealt with the Ill May Day riots of 1517 which took place in London, where locals attacked foreign residents. The play seems to deal with this in a fairly balanced way. In it the locals feel that they're suffering because of these "strangers", and that their grievances aren't being heard or addressed.
"LINCOLN. It is hard when Englishmen's patience must be thus jetted on by strangers, and they not dare to revenge their own wrongs."
With some women even being sexually assaulted by the newcomers;
DOLL. Purchase of me! away, ye rascal! I am an honest plain carpenters wife [..] hand off, then, when I bid thee!

BARDE [a foreign Lombard]. Go with me quietly, or I'll compel thee.
So in frustration they riot and attack the foreigners.

However, in the play Thomas More also presents the opposite side of the argument in his attempts to quell the passion.
MORE. [..] Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to th' ports and costs for transportation
[..]
[..should the King] banish you, whether would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbor? go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England,—
Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth
So this was all quite excellent. Assuming it is indeed from the 16th century it's a fascinating window into that period, and affords a great parallel with today's problems in many ways.

In fact, returning to the question of date, and quite coincidentally given our recent posts, another reference to Julius Caesar building the Tower of London popped up.
MORE. Oh, pardon me!
I will subscribe to go unto the Tower
With all submissive willingness, and thereto add
My bones to strengthen the foundation
Of Julius Caesar's palace.
So this little reference would indeed suggest an earlier dating. Contrariwise to all my previous instincts.

As for the ending of the play it concerned the death of Thomas More, as he headed to the scaffold for not bending his conscience to the will of the king. These parts felt quite well written. I especially liked the numerous little jokes More makes as he nonchalantly faces getting his head axed off.

MORE. [..] I come hither only to be let blood; my doctor here tells me it is good for the headache.

It was effortlessly silly, but also the fact that he was forfeiting his life for his values left its impression. Definitely not Mr Collins from Pride and Prejudice in these last scenes.

Well, not quite anyway.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Shakespeare Apocrypha - Edmund Ironside

Today I've read Edmund Ironside, subtitled War Hath Made All Friends. Some critics have suggested that this play is an early Shakespeare work, though all these claims are relatively modern. The play wasn't published and only survives in manuscript. Nor was it attributed to Shakespeare in any way before the modern era. So the links to him are tenuous.

It was a good quick read and I enjoyed it. However, it didn't feel especially Shakespearean. It was a bit blunt and plain speaking. In fact, it was really easy to understand. Often with Shakespeare there are parts that are quite opaque. Either because of the language itself, or because of the lack of context or reference points. This one was very clear though, apart from the odd word.

It felt like it was aimed at the public in general, rather than at an educated audience. Almost being like a morality play, with the duplicitous character Edricus being the hated pantomime villain. Setting out a clear illustration to the audience of how not to behave. It was also very pro-English. So in that regard it does fit neatly with the other history plays.

Again, personally I didn't get the feeling that this was from the same hand. Though I don't have a particularly strong opinion either way. The simple clunky-ness could indeed owe itself to the fact that this was an early work. So I'll leave the jury out.