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Thursday, January 31, 2013

James Shapiro at the Folger Shakespeare Library

James Shapiro spoke at the Folger Shakespeare Library last Friday on the subject of the historical context in which Shakespeare wrote and performed his Henry V play, in 1599.



I had the great pleasure of hearing this speech, spoken from the stage in the Folger Library Theatre, where a production of Henry V is currently underway. It runs until March 3.

James Shapiro teaches Shakespeare at Columbia University, and he is the author of several books, including 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, Contested Will, and Shakespeare and the Jews.

If you haven't read any of them, I strongly recommend them all. You might want to start with 1599, since it perfectly puts you right into the life of Shakespeare as he lived it in that tumultuous year.

This same book makes a strong case for the fact that Shakespeare's Henry V play was written and performed to entertain and inspire the crowds in London who were fraught with doubt and fear over the continuing war in Ireland.

Shakespeare was trying to elevate Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex -- one of the country's greatest and most promising military figures -- as a great national hero in the tradition of King Henry V.

Professor Shapiro went into great detail to give us an sense of what it was like for Shakespeare's 1599 audiences to go see this play.

For one thing, if you were a man, there was a risk in going to any public place, a tavern or a brothel for example. Press Gangs were common in those days, and they would kidnap you and put you in the army, and send you off to Ireland to fight.

They could -- and did -- break into playhouses while a play was in progress, and kidnap you!

I actually included a scene like this in my version of Merchant of Venice.

In writing my versions of Hamlet, Richard III and Merchant of Venice, James Shapiro has been indispensable. His books are like portals into the Elizabethan era.

Professor Shapiro's speech was excellent, and I was not the only one in the packed house at the Folger who was excited to hear such an authority on Shakespeare talk.

He has been very busy lately.

You may have seen his excellent three-part documentary last year The King & The Playwright on BBC Four. It covers the reign of King James and the plays that Shakespeare wrote as a King's Man.

The series will be coming to American TV soon. Please check your listings.

He is currently at work on a new book about 1606, the year that Shakespeare wrote King Lear and Macbeth. He even mentioned that he had been doing some research at the Folger about the Gunpowder Plot, which influenced these plays.

And not long ago he was interviewed on the Charlie Rose Show, in the same episode as Kenneth Branagh.

It was around the same time that his book Contested Will came out, and he was strongly defending Shakespeare as the true author of the Shakespeare plays.

I hope you spend some time and learn more about James Shapiro's work, and the effort he is leading to bring us in touch with Shakespeare as he lived and worked in the Elizabethan era.

Cheers,

David Schajer


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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Happy Birthday Germaine Greer!

I have often written about Germaine Greer's remarkable book Shakespeare's Wife. I strongly recommend it, and I think it belongs to the list of essential books you should read if you want to understand Shakespeare, his wife and family, and his life in Stratford.



I once wanted to write a full review of the book, but I gave up. There is too much in the book to talk about and too much rich detail for me to capture in a mere review. So, I have written about it from time to time, and I strongly suspect that it will come up often in the future on this blog.



Here are four articles I have written that relate to her marvelous book:


Fifty Shades of Shakespeare -- did Shakespeare invent "mommy porn?"

Anne and William Shakespeare's Wedding -- what was it like on their big day?

Shakespeare's Last Days -- what happened at the end?


I hope you join me in wishing Germaine Greer a Happy Birthday today!


Cheers,

David Schajer

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Monday, January 28, 2013

Shakespeare and Henry VII and Henry VIII

How immensely strange that King Henry VII would have been born on 28 January 1457 -- the same day that his son King Henry VIII would die, on 28 January 1547.

It is also strange that Shakespeare's earliest plays feature Henry VII and arguably his last play is the story of Henry VIII.

Henry VII shows up in one of Shakespeare's earliest plays Henry VI, part 3 as a young Henry, Earl of Richmond. In the later Richard III play he has a much more substantial role, as he defeats the evil Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field, and becomes King Henry VII.

Battle of Bosworth Field

The full title of the play is The Tragedy of King Richard the Third. It is odd that Shakespeare would focus on the villainous Richard rather than the heroic Henry. Why didn't he title the play The Triumph over Richard the Third by Henry the Seventh or The Battle of Bosworth Field, or simply King Henry VII?

Why did Shakespeare want to tell the story of the villain and not the hero?

As I did research for my version of Richard III, which presents the play as it would have been performed in Elizabeth England, I came to some rather interesting conclusions.

The most important conclusion was that the play had been rewritten in order to make the story more vibrant. I think Shakespeare rewrote his own play, and the text that survives is a combination of both versions, weaved together.

The first version, which I think Shakespeare wrote around 1592, was a simple good versus evil story, where the good Henry VII vanquishes the evil Richard III.

But in order for Shakespeare to make it even more exciting for an audience, the character of Richard had to be even more villainous than in the previous version of the play. I think much of the first half of the play was rewritten, in 1593, in order to make Richard even more of a bad guy, a more three-dimensional character.

The only problem with this new version of Richard III is that the character of Henry VII comes off as rather dull by comparison. He has none of the complexity that Richard has, and I while I could find many cases where Richard's character was improved, I could not find any case where Henry may have been rewritten to make him more three-dimensional.

What then did Shakespeare think of Henry VII? Probably not much. He served a purpose only in making Richard III the amazing character he is.

Bust of Henry VII

The real historical Henry VII is not such a fascinating man. With his victory at Bosworth Field, he brought an end to the Wars of the Roses, and he ruled for 24 years in relative peace and harmony. In his later years, his reign was marked by a terrible excess in spending.

One such expense was the building of the Henry VII Chapel in Westminster Abbey, where his tomb, and the tombs of many of his ancestors remain, including Queen Elizabeth I and her successor, King James I.

The Chapel is an architectural marvel, and it cost a pretty penny, about 20,000 pounds.

So, for Shakespeare there may not have been much to say about King Henry VII, and he wrote his play Richard III to entertain, make money and perhaps perform for the Queen, who would have enjoyed the charismatic villain of Richard III.

I doubt that she would have enjoyed a flat and uninspiring story of her grandfather Henry VII.

When James succeeded Elizabeth, the story would have a different significance. James greatly admired Henry VII, especially since James's parents were BOTH descended from Henry.

I think that Shakespeare probably did not stage his Richard III play very often, or at all, during the reign of James. He very well could have offended James, who would not like a depiction of his ancestor as dull and two-dimensional.

If Shakespeare did perform it for James, then it would have probably been one in which Richard was flat, and Henry more of a hero. While there are recorded performances of Shakespeare's plays for King James, there is no record of a performance of Richard III.

What did Shakespeare think of King Henry VIII?



Well, there is a play Henry VIII, which was written around 1613 and believed to have been written by Shakespeare with help allegedly from John Fletcher, who would succeed Shakespeare as the top playwright of their company, the King's Men, when Shakespeare died in 1616.

The play is considered to be one of his very last efforts, if not the very last play he ever wrote.

I have a hard time believing that ANY of the play was written by Shakespeare. It is flat and dull in much the same way that the first version of Richard III was.

Why would Shakespeare write in such a listless fashion, twenty years after he had discovered how to write such vibrant plays as Richard III?

Harold Bloom, in his monumental and brilliant book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, states that Shakespeare wrote all of it, but also notes that "no one in the drama is endowed with any inwardness."

How could Shakespeare, whose writing constantly probes into the human psyche, write such lifeless characters?

If Shakespeare really did write this play, then there must be some reason why he wrote arguably the most un-Shakespearean play of his career -- perhaps political pressure -- and that reason unfortunately may never be known.

As far as the real historical Henry VIII, whose life was full of drama and excitement, I think that Shakespeare did not reveal his opinion of the man.

Even if Shakespeare did write the play, which I doubt, then he has given us a character in the play that is inscrutable and undecipherable. Bloom calls the character "ambiguous."

We are better off reading about him online, than watching a stage version of Henry VIII, if you can find one. It is hardly ever staged, for a multitude of reasons and excuses. 

I think the simplest reason it is hardly ever staged is because it is just not Shakespeare.


Cheers,

David Schajer


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Friday, January 25, 2013

Shakespeare and Edmund and Edmund

Saint Edmund Campion, the English Roman Catholic martyr and Jesuit priest, was born 24 January 1540, 24 years before Shakespeare was born.



While at Oxford University, Campion had met Queen Elizabeth, whom he apparently impressed so much that he earned the patronage of William Cecil and Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester -- two of the most powerful men in England.

But not long after, Campion had a crisis of conscience, and rejected the Queen's Anglican supremacy.

He fled, to Ireland, and eventually to Rome to join the Jesuits, and for many years he preached in Prague.

He returned to England in 1580, arriving in London on June 24. His mission was to preach behind enemy lines, as it were.

For about one whole year, he secretly preached all across England -- in Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Lancashire, Northamptonshire -- while the Queen's authorities were in hot pursuit.

He was finally caught, tried for treason and executed. His words upon hearing the sentence were: "In condemning us, you condemn all your own ancestors, all our ancient bishops and kings, all that was once the glory of England, the island of saints, and the most devoted child of the See of Peter."

These were strong words, and there were many people at the time who felt the same way that Campion did -- that England, which had been Catholic for over a thousand years, was being destroyed.

These people were the ones he came to England for, to preach to, and inspire that one day they might once again practice their Catholic faith freely, in an England that might never again be wholly Catholic, but at least would not persecute them for their faith.

These were the people in England who had helped him arrive in London, helped him escape the authorities for so many months, harbored him in farms and in basements and attics, fed him, and prayed for and with him.

Shakespeare's father John may have been one of those people.

There was a religious tract found in a house that belonged to John Shakespeare, with his name on it, which professed his Catholic faith.

There is some doubt about this tract, but it would not be surprising that John Shakespeare, who was born a Catholic, would have a hard time abandoning his faith.

It is also interesting that John and his wife Mary had a child baptized 3 May, 1580 -- only weeks before Edmund Campion arrived in London.

William Shakespeare, who was 16 at the time, had a new baby brother.

His name was Edmund Shakespeare.

This striking coincidence may mean nothing, but it might also suggest that John Shakespeare was so inspired by the arrival of Edmund Campion, the greatest hero for religious toleration at the time, that he named his new son after him.

I have written before that I do not think that William Shakespeare was a secret Catholic, nor do I think that he was an fervent Protestant.

But what and who was John Shakespeare? That is not so clear.

I think there were many moments in William Shakespeare's life that confused him, and scared him. The year that Edmund Campion arrived in London and stirred up the whole country, was one such moment in his life.

No doubt young Will heard all of the stories of Campion's outlaw escapades, and the pursuit of the authorities, and they excited him the same way stories of Jesse James, or Billy the Kid, or John Dillinger or Jack the Ripper excited other generations of young people.

What did young Will think of the capture, and execution of Campion? I think it scared him, and for the rest of his life he probably knew full well that, whatever his religious beliefs may be, he had to keep them to himself.

The most important lesson young Will Shakespeare probably learned the day that Campion died was that Queen Elizabeth was supreme, and you could not escape her wrath for long.

Cheers,

David Schajer


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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Shakespeare and Money

Queen Elizabeth officially opened the Royal Exchange on 23 January 1571.

It burned down in the Great Fire of London in 1666. It was rebuilt, but that also burned down. A third was built, which exists today.

Elizabeth at the inauguration of the Royal Exchange in 1571, built by Thomas Gresham

In the same year, the Queen enacted a statute to allow interest payments up to 10% on any loan. Any loan with higher interest was considered usury.

Her father Henry VIII had allowed such loans as early as 1545, but a subsequent Parliament had stopped them, considering all loans to be usury.

The original Royal Exchange

The Royal Exchange today. 

Usury is loaning money at abusively high interest rates. A person who loans at such high rates of interest is considered a predator, and other terms that are used commonly to describe such a person are loan shark, and a Shylock.

Shylock.

Shylock, ready to cut a pound of flesh

That's where Shakespeare comes in.

Shylock of course is the central character in Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice about Renaissance Venice, in which some Catholic citizens take a loan from the Jewish moneylender named Shylock, and problems ensue.

Shylock loans them money and when they can not pay him back, they get in trouble with the law, and Shylock demands that the penalty he had originally asked for be paid to him. He had asked for a pound of flesh, cut with a knife from the body of Antonio, the man who had taken the loan in the first place.

Strange, to be sure.

But it is important to note that when Shylock agrees to the loan which Antonio had requested, Shylock gives the loan without interest!

As Shylock says, he will "take no doit of usance for my moneys." "Doit" means bit or trifle -- so he is saying that he won't take even a little bit of interest on his loan to Antonio.

Shylock then is NOT a predatory lender, since he did not ask for any interest -- he only wanted the penalty for Antonio's failure to pay back the loan on time.

And let's keep in mind that while "a pound of flesh" may seem like a bizarre penalty, Antonio did agree to it.

What is this all about?

Shakespeare was 6 years old when Queen Elizabeth opened the Royal Exchange and allowed loans with interest.

She clearly did these things in order to jumpstart the economy. The Elizabethan era was famous for many things, including its booming economy.

It would be hard to imagine all of the overseas trade, and expeditions like those of Walter Raleigh, without a vibrant economy where people could take risk. And there are no such risks without loans.

If you want a one-page very quick read to learn about the history of money lending, this is a great site.

When Shakespeare was young, around this time, his father John was a successful man, and held local office. He was a glove-maker, and traded (probably illegally) in wool. He would have been at the center of most all commercial activity and opportunity in Stratford.

John Shakespeare prospered financially at this time, partly due to these events in 1571.

But John Shakespeare was taken to court twice in 1570 for moneylending. Even when there were no laws to allow or prohibit moneylending, loans were given and loans were taken, with interest rates as high sometimes as 25%.

Was John Shakespeare a predatory lender, a Shylock? I don't think so, but his son William would have seen how his father was treated by his accusers and other Stratfordians who didn't like such financial activities. It would not have been pleasant for John Shakespeare in trying to settle the matter and clear and preserve his good name. Young William undoubtedly would have been very confused by it all.

Was John Shakespeare a Shylock?

When you take into account that for much of history, in England and elsewhere, moneylenders and the charging interest on loans were not only considered illegal but sinful -- a sin against God -- that you start to understand and appreciate what an enormous change this was in 1571.

Englishmen, like John Shakespeare, were finally allowed by their Queen to loan and lend with interest, and they were not sinners for doing so.

Of course, to many people, moneylending was still bad, and those who did such things were risking their souls in the process.

This is why, in many places during history, only Jews were allowed to loan money with interest. It is sinful only for Christians to loan money, so they turn to the Jews for such a loan. In Shakespeare's play, the Catholic citizens like Antonio and Bassanio, do not and can not loan money to each other. That is why they need him, for his money.



So, for anyone in England after 1571, it was an exciting but incredibly confusing time. Fundamental changes such as these, to commerce and faith, touched the lives of everyone, but it also was unclear if these changes were good, or were going to last.

When you stop and consider that this was happening in the context of the English Reformation -- the end to one thousand years of Catholicism in England -- you can start to get an idea of how traumatic and tumultuous all of this was.

Imagine that you live in England in the late 1500's. You were probably born Catholic, and your parents were definitely born Catholic. But now you cannot practice your Catholic faith. You cannot perform Catholic traditions that you and your fellow Englishmen have been practicing for one thousand years.

In the course of your business (as a tavern-keeper, or a maker of carts, or a farmer, etc) you could not borrow money or loan money, as it was illegal and sinful. That means that you cannot take a loan to increase your business opportunities, nor can you give money to another who wants to take a risk -- even if that risk is worth taking.

All of a sudden, Queen Elizabeth allows moneylending. She opens an exchange.

Nothing is the same any more. What was illegal and sinful is now permissible and lawful -- and the Queen is encouraging you to do it!

Even if you wanted to believe that Queen Elizabeth was right, and righteous, you were a human being and human beings have a tendency to doubt.

You might doubt her, and the changes that were happening all around you. Sure, you might take a loan and increase your business, and make more money... but what if it is all wrong? What if it really is a sin? You might be risking your eternal soul.

These doubts might seem quaint now in 2013.

But in Elizabethan England, in 1596 for example, these are not silly doubts and mere misgivings.

Because these are the doubts and misgivings across all of England, and particularly in London, the center of it all.

Every last person in England is having these doubts.

Including William Shakespeare.

And it is because of these doubts that he wrote what I consider his greatest comedic masterpiece The Merchant of Venice.

In my version of the play, I discovered that, far from what you may have heard, Shylock is not the predator. He is not the villain of the play.

For 400 years he has been misunderstood and misrepresented as the villain of the play -- sometimes an evil, horrible, and awful villain, and more recently as a sympathetic villain -- a good man undone by his anger.

Nonsense. That's all wrong.

Shylock is not the villain.

He's the hero.

And that is why far from being thought of as a drama or as a tragedy, The Merchant of Venice is actually a very bawdy and politically incorrect comedy.

Cheers,

David Schajer


P.S.

If you want to read about this subject in fuller detail, I strongly recommend James Shapiro's brilliant book Shakespeare and the Jews.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Nicole Kidman and Shakespeare


Should Nicole Kidman do some Shakespeare?

Yes yes yes!






I think she would be great in a filmed adaptation of Shakespeare. She is such a consummate film actress, and has had experience on stage.

I think she would make a fantastic Lady Macbeth for example. She certainly has a regal bearing, she is no stranger to playing dark characters, and she does have Scottish ancestry after all.






As I look over her the course of her career, I am struck at how versatile she has been -- doing everything from thrillers like The Others, to her Academy Award winning performance as Virginia Woolf in The Hours, to one of my personal favorites Moulin Rouge!

I thought she gave incredibly courageous performance in Eyes Wide Shut.






Should she do some Solved Shakespeare?

Well, my versions of do include several significant roles for women.

Since my versions of Hamlet, Richard III and The Merchant of Venice are recreations of the plays as they were first performed on the London stages in the reign of Elizabeth, the actors are all men.

But there are several significant roles for women.

One of the most interesting characters I created is a woman who was one of the most famous and glamorous women of the age, and was acquainted with Shakespeare, and others at the time, like Christopher Marlowe, and who would have been a frequent member of the audience during these plays.

I would love to see an actress like Nicole Kidman in that Elizabethan world with Shakespeare and his contemporaries.





What do you think?


If you want to see her in this series of films, please show your support on facebookTwitterPinterestGoogle Plus or Tumblr.

Your support will really make a difference!

And your comments are always welcome!



Cheers,

David B. Schajer



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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Shakespeare and Francis Bacon and Walter Raleigh

Francis Bacon was born 22 January 1561, about 3 years before Shakespeare was born.

Francis Bacon

Bacon was a philosopher, and he is the father of the scientific method.

It has been proposed that Bacon was the true author of the Shakespeare plays.

I don't think he was, but it is apparent that Shakespeare and Bacon knew each other.

Bacon was friends with Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, and became his confidential advisor by 1591.

This would have been around the same period of time that Shakespeare was writing and acting in his earliest plays.

It would be around the same time that Shakespeare would have met Essex, and they would become friends. Essex, with the Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, were Shakespeare's greatest patrons.

Essex and Southampton were notorious for the addiction to seeing plays, and it is not hard to imagine that they would invite someone like Francis Bacon to join them, sitting in the best seats in the house, the Lords Rooms -- which were above and behind the stage, where they could hear the play's dialogue the best.

I think in these early days of Shakespeare's career, as he was writing and performing the Henry VI plays, Richard III and others he would have been excited to meet someone as educated and enlightened as Francis Bacon.

I like to think that they would have found much to talk about, and while Essex and Southampton would drink and have fun, Shakespeare and Bacon would have found a quiet corner and discuss anything and everything.

Here was Bacon, a rising star in politics, and a reformer and here was Shakespeare, a rising star on stage, who wanted change.

But sadly, within a few short years, the Queen's affection for Essex -- once her personal favorite at court -- was waning. Bacon made a political calculation and dissolved whatever relationship he had with Essex, and for this Bacon found more favor with the Queen.

I don't think Shakespeare would have appreciated this very much, and I have to think that whatever connection he had with Bacon came to an end.

In 1601, after Essex's failed Rebellion against the Queen, Francis Bacon wrote an official government report on the matter.

In 1603, Queen Elizabeth died and James became king.

Essex had supported the accession of King James, and now that James was king, Bacon had to change his political position. He wrote a public apology for having written the Essex report.

King James rewarded him with a knighthood.

I doubt that King James much trusted Bacon, who had in 1586 publicly called for the execution of James's mother, Mary, Queen of Scots.

I think that by this time, Shakespeare would have had nothing to do with Bacon.


22 January is also the birthday for Walter Raleigh.



He was born about 10 years before Shakespeare.

Raleigh is one of the most famous figures of the period, and really seems to embody the Elizabethan era -- he was a soldier, an explorer, a poet, etc.

It is hard to believe that one man lived such an eventful life.

He was a staunch enemy of the Catholic church, and that must have endeared him to Queen Elizabeth, who favored him and rewarded him greatly.

Much has been written, and movies have been made about their alleged love affair. I'm not sure I believe these stories, but I do enjoy them.

Whatever their relationship was, it must have been passionate, since almost immediately after Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, he allegedly plotted to assassinate King James.

I think King James wanted to kill Raleigh. But Raleigh's wife's family had once fought on the behalf of James's mother Mary, Queen of Scots -- and for this, I think James spared Raleigh's life.

Raleigh would be found guilty and he faced a lifetime in prison.

In fact, he was released thirteen years later, in1616 to go on yet another adventure to discover El Dorado -- a hidden "Lost City of Gold".

When that didn't work out, he was soon after executed, in 1618.

It would seem that his luck had run out.

In all of these years, I don't think that Shakespeare had much contact with Raleigh. They may have met from time to time, but I don't think they would have ever established anything like a relationship

During the reign of Elizabeth, it is likely that as a guest of the Queen, Raleigh would have watched Shakespeare perform at court with the Lord Chamberlain's Men.

I think that Shakespeare would have marveled at the exploits of this truly heroic adventurer, and would have been eager to hear about the New World, but I doubt they ever spent any significant time alone.

By the time that James became king, Shakespeare would have had little or nothing to do with Raleigh.

Once Raleigh was put in prison, I think Shakespeare would have considered him an object lesson in the absolute powers of the king, who could decide anyone's fate on a whim.

Shakespeare would not have done himself any favors in talking about or writing about Raleigh, who was sent to the Tower of London to rot.


Finally, with these two very different men, we can get a sense of the world in which Shakespeare lived.

While Shakespeare may not have been friends precisely with either of them, I do think that their accomplishments opened Shakespeare's eyes to the possibility that he too could achieve some sort of greatness in his lifetime, too.

I don't think that Shakespeare would have ever entertained the notion that he would be remembered more than either Bacon or Raleigh.

Shakespeare probably just wanted to keep writing and achieve a small place in the history of theatre.


Cheers,

David Schajer

Related Articles:

The Beginning and The End of the Elizabethan Era

Remember Remember the 5th of November

Clive Owen and Shakespeare



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Monday, January 21, 2013

Shakespeare in January 1601


This is Part One in a series of related stories about the Essex Rebellion.

The next Parts are:


2. Shakespeare's Richard II on 7 February 1601

3. Shakespeare's Hamlet and the Essex Rebellion

4. Shakespeare and the Essex Trial

5. Shakespeare and the Essex Execution





Part One:


It is early January, 1601.

Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, hears some disturbing news.


Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex

There will soon be an attempt on his life.

He must have thought that he had fallen so far from the favor of the Queen that she would prefer him dead.

Robert Cecil, her right hand man, and arguably the most powerful person in England -- more powerful than the Queen herself perhaps -- would gladly kill him, and be done with him forever.


Robert Cecil

Essex might have thought back to the time when he had been the Queen's favorite -- the courtier without equal in her court, and when she showered him with affection, money and power.

He was her first cousin twice removed. His mother's second marriage was to the Queen's former favorite at court -- Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester.

There had long been rumors that Dudley was his real father, and that the Queen's affection was transferred from father, to him, Dudley's son.

Why else would his mother name him Robert, like Robert Dudley, instead of Walter, after his father Walter Devereux?

But Essex, in early January 1601, didn't have time to dwell on this ancient history.

The Queen had withdrawn her affection, impoverished him and made him powerless.

He had to take action, and he started immediately. He started to fortify his Essex House (now called Essex Hall), on the Strand, which had formerly been Leicester House, and had passed to Essex when Dudley died.

Essex was not the only one in England that thought that the Queen and her corrupt councillors, like Cecil, were bringing the country to ruin. Essex had been cultivating others who might stand with him if the time came to protest to the Queen directly, and demand that their voices be heard.

Now was the time to gather them to Essex House, and the word went out. It didn't take long, and soon there were upwards of 300 men at Essex House.

They were some of the most powerful young men in the country, including Essex's closest friend and ally, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton.

They plotted day and night. They must have debated and argued over their strategy.

Someone proposed that they should inspire a popular uprising. It could increase their chances of success. If they could get the common people to join their fight, then they would have even more leverage against the Queen and her councillors.


Essex and his fellow plotters thought that the common people of London were as sick and tired of the failures of Queen Elizabeth's regime as they were.

All it would take perhaps for the commoners to follow them would be a clear call to arms. A signal.
But how could they get a message out to the people so quickly?


What kind of signal?

It may have been Essex who thought of it first.

Or perhaps Southampton.

Both of them were close personal friends, and patrons to the most powerful and successful playwright in London, whose Globe was the hottest ticket in town.

What if Shakespeare performed a play... a play that would signal that a rebellion was beginning?

There was no greater voice heard louder or more easily in all of London.

But would Shakespeare do it?

Could he be convinced?

It is early January, 1601.

And William Shakespeare is about to be asked a very fateful request, that would put him right between Essex and Robert Cecil.

Would he be willing to perform a play that would signal the Essex Rebellion?





I have written about these events in my version of Hamlet, and I hope you visit this blog in the next few weeks as I tell you about some of these moments.

Cheers,

David Schajer



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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Liam Neeson and Shakespeare

Should Liam Neeson do some Shakespeare?

Absolutely!

The mystery for me is that I looked over the films he has done over the years -- I have personally seen almost every last one of them -- and yet he has not done any Shakespeare on screen!

There are some years where he has three, four, even five films released!

So why no Shakespeare?

With all due respect to actors everywhere, is Liam Neeson not the most Shakespearean looking actor on the planet?


There are any number of roles I can see him in, and at the top of that list would be King Lear.

He did Shakespeare on stage, as a member of the Dublin Shakespeare Theatre Festival, in Hamlet, Richard II and All's Well That Ends Well. During the 1990's he was very active with the Royal National Theatre in London, performing a wide range of roles.

But nothing on film?


Should he do some Solved Shakespeare?

I think he would be perfect!

I don't have a hard time imagining him as an Elizabethan, and I think he would be perfect as one of Shakespeare's fellow actors, in the Lord Chamberlain's Men, and later the King's Men under King James.


Liam Neeson is arguably the hardest working man in film, and he has played an incredible range of characters. It is uncommon to find an actor with such range.

So the idea of him as an Elizabethan actor performing sometimes more than one role in any given play would be very exciting.

I'm not sure I would want to see him in a female role with a wig, but you never know!


He has worked with some of the greatest actors today -- Ralph Fiennes, Daniel Day-Lewis, Christian Bale, Ewan McGregor and so many more.

But what if he could act together with all of them in the same series of films?

That would be Shakespeare unlike we have ever known.


What do you think?

Cheers,

David Schajer


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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Shakespeare and his Reformation Fight

Shakespeare lived during one of the most tumultuous times in world history, and the single greatest issue in his lifetime was the Protestant Reformation.

It had begun before Shakespeare was born.

It lasted during his entire life.

It continued after his death.

We still live with it, in some ways, even today.

16 January is significant in three different but related ways.

From 16 January to 10 February 1537 there was the Bigod's Rebellion.

It was an armed Catholic rebellion against King Henry VIII, who was dragging the people of England into a Reformation. In the case of Sir Francis Bigod and many others from northern England, it was against their will and without their consent.

This was not long after the Pilgrimage of Grace, another uprising which began in York.




The Bigod Rebellion was a failure, and all of the plotters were convicted of treason and executed.

Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk helped to stop the Rebellion and was involved with the brutal retribution which followed.


Shakespeare was not born yet, but his father John Shakespeare would have been about 6 years old -- old enough to have heard about it, and understand what was happening across the country.

On 16 January 1571, when Shakespeare was 7 years old, Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk was tried for treason, for his part in the Ridolfi Plot.

He was the grandson of the same Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk who put down the Bigod Rebellion.

Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk

The Queen had him tried for plotting to remove her and replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots, whom he would marry.

He and Mary, as Queen of England, planned to restore England to the Catholic faith.

I am sure that young William Shakespeare, like any Englishman, was fascinated by the events and waited every day for further news and developments in the trial.

Spoiler alert -- Howard was executed.

Death Mask of Mary, Queen of Scots

On 16 January 1581 the Parliament passed the Act against Reconciliation to Rome.

This Act prohibited attending a Catholic Mass and subjected people to heavy fines for being recusant, for not attending Anglican services.

William Shakespeare, 17 years old at the time, was all too familiar with these kinds of Acts and fines.

His father John was listed as a recusant.

It is around this same time that his father John was fined 20 pounds, which was a crushing financial blow to a man who by that time was already having money troubles.

This fine may have been part of another matter, or it may have been a fine for his refusal to give up his family's Catholic faith.

The financial situation was so bleak for the Shakespeare family that William could not afford to go to Oxford, as he most likely had planned.


The Reformation had an effect on every last person in England, and it touched the lives of every person in different ways.

Some fought the change that was happening, and many paid the ultimate price with their lives in that fight.

William Shakespeare fought his own kind of fight. He didn't pick up a sword. He picked up a quill pen.



I don't think Shakespeare fought for the Catholics and I don't think he fought for the Protestants.

I think he fought for toleration and for peace, an end to these kinds of rebellions, executions, penalties and imprisonments.

But unlike so many of the rebels and plotters of the age, he actually came face to face with Queen Elizabeth and King James.

But instead of trying to kill them, he tried to plead and communicate to them with his plays.

His job was to entertain, but he also knew that he was in a rare and privileged position to have the attention of a monarch for an hour or more.

In my versions of Hamlet, Richard III and The Merchant of Venice, I found many messages that Shakespeare was trying to communicate not only to Elizabeth, but also to spread among the thousands of people who came to see his plays on the London stages.

Some messages were rather bold, and some are breathtakingly brave -- for a man living in a time where life was rather cheap and death was all around him. He could have been executed for some of the things he said.

The miracle is that he was not, and he survived.

As you probably know from what I have written before, I think it is of the greatest importance that we understand Shakespeare in his original historical context.

If we don't understand that, then it is all but impossible to truly understand his plays.

And 16 January happens to be a perfect day to help us understand what kind of world Shakespeare lived in.

Cheers,

David Schajer


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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Shakespeare's Last Days

Shakespeare must have known that he didn't have very long to live, when a lawyer was called to his house in Stratford on 15 January 1616 to draft his will.






It is good that he did, since Shakespeare would indeed pass away three months later.

Germaine Greer, in her excellent book Shakespeare's Wife points out that his family were not in the habit of drawing up wills. But Shakespeare's wife Anne's family was, so it is likely that she called the lawyer, Francis Collins.

I won't go through everything in the will, but there has been much written about the fact that Shakespeare only left his wife his "second best bed."

I don't think that this means that Shakespeare did not love his wife, as it has been written by some.

I think that he was more interested in giving his children, especially his daughter Susanna and her husband John Hall, as much as possible in order to preserve the Shakespeare family name, and ensure his legacy.

I think that he knew that his children would take care of their mother, who was 60 at the time he died.

Also, Germaine Greer makes a great point that a bed was the greatest possession in any house, and the finer ones (with carved wood and such) were worth as much as an entire house!

So, if Shakespeare was unhappy with his marriage, then he had a strange way of showing it.



Elizabethan period bed


Shakespeare made his daughter Susanna and her husband John Hall the executors of his will.

No mention of any papers or books were mentioned in the will. Perhaps Shakespeare had none of his plays with him in Stratford, or if he did, then they were left to Susanna and John in New Place, the main property he lived in, and which he left to them in his will.

Many years later, in 1635, John Hall wrote his own will right before he died, and he mentioned a "study of books" which could have included Shakespeare's papers.

In 1637, a Stratford official named Baldwin Brooks was trying to collect a payment from the widowed Susanna, who still lived at New Place.



New Place


Brooks got some bailiffs and an undersheriff together and broke into New Place. They seized some books and "other goods of great value".

I hate to think that they might have taken Shakespeare's papers, but it certainly is possible.

This could very well explain the lack of letters and personal papers belonging to Shakespeare.

It boggles the mind to think of what a treasure trove of information was seized from New Place that day. It may have been the very greatest collection of words that Shakespeare wrote, besides the plays and poetry.


If Shakespeare was calling a lawyer in January, then he was sick for some time. It indicates that his death was not sudden.

Germaine Greer has found that most people who died in the Warwickshire area in April 1616 were "bowled over by a catastrophic infection."

Besides Germaine Greer's theories about what killed him, I have not found much research on the cause of his death, or what he could have been suffering from.

He was 54 years old, which was neither very old nor quite young.

He had been in Stratford, and out of London entirely, since about at least 1613.

I don't like to speculate about what disease or ailment brought on his death.

But I do think that being away from the London stage, even for a year and definitely for three years, would have accelerated his demise.

His whole life was dedicated to creating characters, dialogue, plots to delight monarchs and entertain English audiences -- from the most powerful to the most humble.

I think that he would fall apart as soon as his days as a playwright were no more.

I don't think he had any intention of ever retiring from the stage.

I think his life was the stage, and when he could no longer walk on stage, he could not live.

What he didn't know, and what he couldn't have anticipated is that all of the years of hard work, all of the endless days and nights of writing, writing and more writing (with some re-writing thrown in!) would pay off beyond his wildest dreams.

His words, some of the finest words in the English language and the most fascinating characters the world has ever known, are his greatest legacy.







I often wonder how well he could see this future, the future of his plays.

I like to think that he would allow himself, for a moment or two, now and again, to dream that one day his plays and poetry might just possibly reach untold numbers of people in the decades and centuries after his death.

I could be wrong, but I like to think it anyway.

Cheers,

David B. Schajer


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Monday, January 14, 2013

Shakespeare and the Hampton Court Conference

On Monday 14 January 1604 a three-day conference began at Hampton Court between King James and representatives of the Church of England, and Puritans.






The conference was held to answer a letter signed by many Puritans. It was called the Millenary Petition, since it had 1000 signatures. The King could not ignore them since these signatures represented about 10% of the clergy in the entire country.

James had only been king for less than a year, and this was the first major conference to set a course for the future of the country and the Church.

Catholics were encouraged when James became king in March 1603. His mother had been a Catholic, and they believed that he would turn the tide against the Protestant and Puritan forces that were gaining ground in the English Reformation -- which had only begun about 70 years prior.

There were also rumors that James's wife, Anne of Denmark, had secretly converted to Catholicism not long before, and this might be an indication that the king himself was supportive of their cause.

The Protestants thought that since James had been raised a Protestant he would not change the course the country was heading, a course that was established by the late Queen Elizabeth.

The more fundamentalist Puritans wanted less Catholic influence in the Church.




King James



When James finally met with these representatives for three days, there was a great deal of arguing. It would seem that nothing was really accomplished.

King James neither satisfied anyone's demands, nor did he create any new causes for arguments.

It would seem that he was charting a middle course, a Via Media, through all of these competing religious interests.

This might have satisfied some, but it would have terrible consequences, like the Catholic-led Gunpowder Plot in November 1605, less than two years later.

However, there was one decision that was made at the Hampton Court Conference that would have a profound impact for the future not only of England but of the world.

It was decided that a new English language version of the Bible would be made. King James did not like the Geneva Bible, which was most widely in use at the time and he commissioned a new translation, one that he would supervise.

This new translation of the Bible into English would take several years of work, and finally be published in 1611. It would be known as the King James Bible. It is hard to estimate the profound effect this Bible had, and continues to have, on the world.



King James Bible


What would Shakespeare have thought of this conference?

Like any Englishman of the time, he would have been very curious to see where the king was taking the country as far as religion was concerned.

After all, religion at the time was not just any issue of the day. It was THE issue of the day.

Shakespeare, like any Englishman, would know that the results of this conference could shape the future not just for a few years, but for decades.

He was also now a King's Man, working in the court itself, and for the entertainment of the King personally.

He may have felt some sense of responsibility to address this Conference in his plays.



Hampton Court



On a personal level, Shakespeare, like many Englishmen, was very confused, anxious and not at all certain where the country was headed, as the Conference came to a close on 16 January 1604, without much having been accomplished.

This anxiety, and the new direction the country was taking under King James seem to have found its way into Shakespeare's next several plays. The problem play Measure for Measure  shows the corrupting influence of government on faith, and Macbeth is a nightmarish apocalyptic vision of evil.

The great irony of course is that, despite the religious and political turmoil of at the time, the King James Bible, finally published in 1611, and Shakespeare's First Folio, published in 1623, would go on to become two of the most influential books in the history of the world.

So, at this moment in history, 410 years ago today, the creation of the King James Bible and the First Folio began.

Cheers,

David Schajer

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