After attending the Shakespeare: Metamorphosis exhibition at Senate House Library, I waited around to go into the infamous Room 101 in order to attend a special event, Othello: The Curator’s Room. Here, I got to view Giraldi Cinthio’s Hecatommithi and other works relating particularly to Othello, as well as a Shakespeare First Folio. It was fascinating to see these texts and learn more about them.
On my day off I headed to Senate House Library for their contribution to the Shakespeare 400th anniversary celebrations: Shakespeare: Metamorphosis, an exhibition which uses the famous “Seven Ages” speech from As You Like It to explore how Shakespearean scholarship has changed over the years. As a librarian, Shakespeare-lover and bibliophile I was very happy to see that the exhibition consisted of several rare and beautiful volumes.
The entrance to Senate House Library has been transformed for the occasion, with a Shakespeare design adorning the steps. Before you even reach the exhibition, there are posters all around, each exploring a different aspect of the history of Shakespearean scholarship.
Once you get up to the exhibition, there are some fascinating works to see. Gallery One, ‘The Infant’, explores the influences on Shakespeare and features Holinshed’s Chronicles and the works of Chaucer. Gallery Two, ‘The Schoolboy’, features early quarto editions of some of the plays, including Othello. Other galleries explore the history of Shakespearean scholarship and performance, including the adaptations performed by actors such as David Garrick. In the search to create an authoritative text various sources were used and there were conflicts between scholars. The twentieth century was especially good for academic Shakespeare studies: the first Oxford Complete Works was produced in 1891 by William James Craig, a forerunner of the modern Oxford Shakespeare series edited by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor from 1986.
The final gallery, ‘The Superstar’, looks at Shakespeare in the digital world and invites exhibition attendees to make their own contribution, sharing on Instagram or Twitter.
Shakespeare: Metamorphosis runs until mid-September, but if you can’t get to London, or want to explore the topic further, you can view an online version. The University of London’s Shakespeare microsite will remain up for the foreseeable future, a valuable resource for fans and students of the Bard.
The other day I went to a talk at Guildhall Library given by by Dr Lucy Munro from King’s College London. The talk was about the London of Shakespeare and Beaumont, marking the 400th anniversary of the death of both writers. William Shakespeare of course died on 23 April 1616, but Francis Beaumont also died that year (on 6 March, aged only 31): he has been rather overshadowed by Shakespeare over the past four centuries, but his life is worth celebrating too.
Munro began her talk by showing us a 1572 map of London, revealing a much smaller-scale city than the one we are familiar with today. Playhouses were growing up all over London. One of the first such houses Shakespeare wrote for was “The Theatre” – not such an unimaginative name as it sounds, as the term “theatre” was usually used for private indoor spaces. The name harks back to the classical world of Greek and Roman drama.
Shakespeare lived on Silver Street for a time; he also, in 1613, bought a gatehouse on Blackfriars (the road on which another playhouse for which he wrote was located). Beaumont was born in Leicestershire in 1584, his father a judge, his mother a recusant Catholic. His wife may have been Roman Catholic too, which would have marked out Beaumont as an outsider. He entered the Inner Temple in 1600 after studying at Oxford, and began his collaboration with the writer John Fletcher in 1605.
The pair’s first play The Woman Hater was written for the Children of St Paul’s, though the pair also wrote for the Children of the Queen’s Revels at the Blackfriars Theatre. Beaumont and Fletcher lodged together on Bankside: an anecdote from John Aubrey, found in his Brief Lives, suggests the closeness of their relationship, as they lived together and shared everything. When Beaumont died he was buried in London, in Westminster Abbey.
Whereas Shakespeare set most of his plays in fairly exotic locations (excepting the histories, which mention such landmarks as the Tower of London, Westminster, and the Boar’s Head Tavern at Eastcheap), Francis Beaumont wrote regularly about specific London locations including the Mermaid Tavern (mentioned in a poem to Ben Jonson). A painting by the nineteenth-century artist John Ford imagines what poets’ meetings at the Mermaid might have looked like, although it is not particularly accurate: it is not known that Shakespeare was involved in these meetings, but he has a central place in Ford’s painting.
Beaumont’s writing makes reference to the London streets, their smells and sights; locations reflect the social, moral and economic circumstances of the characters. The Knight of the Burning Pestle, his significant solo play, mentions London locations, transforming them from real-life places into fantastical locations for his knight’s Quixotic journey.
I really enjoyed this talk: I think Beaumont is a vastly underrated writer (The Knight of the Burning Pestle, which I saw at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, is a masterpiece) and I enjoyed learning about how he uses London in his work and his relationship to the city.
This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, and as such there are several special events going on. One such event, Shakespeare’s London, taking place at the Museum of London Archaeological Archive in Hackney, is a tour of the archive which includes a look at artefacts discovered at London’s Elizabethan theatres. I booked this pretty much as soon as I heard about it, as I love both history and Shakespeare.
The Archive is held at Mortimer Wheeler House; I looked up how to find it and I’m glad that I did, as it isn’t the easiest building to find. It’s located in east London, north of Old Street, just below the canal. We waited in the foyer for the tour to begin; there were quite a few of us, so we were taken around in two separate groups. As we explored the Archive, we were able to learn more about it, as well as the history of theatres in Shakespeare’s day.
The Museum of London Archaeological Archive is part of the museum’s Department of Archaeological Collections and Archive. Over the past century, nearly 8,500 archaeological sites have been investigated in Greater London: this archive holds information relating to all of these, with full archives for over 3,500 of them. There is also an archaeological library collection. It has been officially recognised as the largest archaeological archive in the world.
The Archive is of international significance, the primary source of evidence for early London. As archaeology itself is a destructive process – accessing one layer usually involves removing another – the only evidence of its existence is in the archive. There is an online catalogue containing information about object collections and archive records, and the Archive can also be visited for research purposes. This is free, but you need to make an appointment.
Early in the tour we got to play “archive lottery” – choosing a number and taking the relevant box off the shelf to see what it contained. Our box wasn’t particularly exciting, containing bits of pottery – however, as our tour guide (one of the Archive’s volunteers) explained, pottery is actually a really valuable tool for dating a site. We were subsequently introduced to some very special artefacts relating to the theatre.
Theatres like the Globe, the Rose and the Curtain, popular in Shakespeare’s day, were actually known as playhouses: the term “theatre” tended to refer to indoor, private theatres located in houses (similar to the Globe’s new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse). However, for the purposes of the tour they were referred to as theatres. We saw a cannonball that was found on a theatre site, once used to help create the sound of thunder (a similar item from the Rose Theatre is about to go on display at the British Library as part of their Shakespeare exhibition). Some of the smaller artefacts that we got to handle included copper pins, seals for rolls of cloth, and fragments of tobacco pipes. We also saw – but because of its fragility, understandably weren’t allowed to touch – an almost complete leather boot from the Elizabethan period: an incredible sight.
Many of the small items recovered were things which could have been dropped easily in the tightly packed, busy atmosphere of the playhouse. Gambling dice and makeup brushes were also found, as were tokens used to gain admittance into the playhouse. Money boxes were used to collect payment; when they were full, they were smashed, and the contents counted. They were kept in the money box office – what would later become the box office.
The area around Southwark where most of the theatres were situated was also known for bear-baiting, and the skull and bones of a bear and of a dog, possible rivals in the ring, are testament to this. The bear bone that we saw had tooth marks on it – possibly chewed by a dog after the poor dead or dying bear was discarded.
In a small room with a table, we were able to look at newspaper cuttings and letters related to the discovery and excavation of the Rose Theatre in 1988. When an archaeological excavation began on this site, no one had any idea just what an incredible find would be unearthed. The discovery sparked a campaign to retain and restore the site (the original developers just wanted to cover it over), and inspired a change in the law, meaning that excavations are now required when developers take over a site in London.
It was once thought that the hazelnut shells found at the Rose site indicated that theatregoers ate hazelnuts during performances, in the same way we might eat sweets or popcorn today. However, it is now thought that the thick layer of hazelnut shells would have provided cheap and effective flooring – especially as, with long performances and no toilets, groundlings would often just go where they stood – it makes me cringe to imagine walking over a spongy, urine-soaked floor of shells, but I guess they would have been used to it!
Finally, we ended up in a ceramics room, looking at some of the Shakespeare-related items held in the Archive. These included whole, and nearly whole, money boxes (which were always green, seemingly), and a figurine of Othello and Iago. We got to have a look around the room for a while before leaving, at some of the impressive collections which ranged from Roman amphorae to Victorian hot water bottles.
I absolutely loved my trip to the Archive and would recommend it for all those interested in London’s history. The Shakespeare tours are taking place again on 16 April, so it’s not too late if you want to take part.