Friday, June 28, 2019

Book Note: Shakespeare's Library

Kells, Stuart. Shakespeare's Library: Unlocking the Greatest Mystery in Literature. Berkley: Counterpoint, 2019.

After one more "Book Note," we'll get back to some Shakespeare and film—part of what a Shakespeare and film microblog ought to be doing.

I'm still a bit puzzled by Shakespeare's Library. I thought it was going to be another authorship tome: the man from Stratford's library can't be found—it wasn't mentioned in his will—therefore, the man from Stratford never had a library—therefore, someone else wrote the plays attributed to the man from Stratford.

But it isn't that. Well, not exactly.

It's clear that the author was, during his education, surrounded by those advocating the case for Henry Neville as the author of the works attributed to William Shakespeare, and it's also clear that he's attracted to the proposition. But it's also clear that he understands the limitations (i.e., the basic untruth) of that claim. Still . . .

The work itself is more anecdotal than scholarly, and, apart from the bizarre Neville ramblings, it tells an interesting story about books and collections of books in Shakespeare's day and after.

Here's a quick sample—an account of Rev. James Wilmot's eighteenth-century search for Shakespeare's library:

As something of a side note, there are so many assumptions in this kind of argument that it becomes silly. Shakespeare must have had a large collection of books. They must have been at Stratford. They must have been sold upon his death. They must have had bookplates reading "From the Library of William Shakespeare, Famous Author of Plays, Poems, and Miscellanea." None of those are necessarily true, and that's one reason why an absence of information about Shakespeare's books doesn't bother me or make me question his authorship.

Two other reasons derive from my knowledge of some modern poets. I knew a brilliant poet during my time in college. He had an astonishingly retentive memory and an appalling inability to keep track of most of his books. When he did keep track of them, he read them to pieces. They weren't books that you could sell at a garage sale—or even donate to Goodwill. 

I know it's dangerous to apply modern habits to early modern persons, but it doesn't stretch my imagination too much to think Shakespeare had a retentive mind, read the books he owned to pieces (probably mostly in London), read other books he didn't own (browsing the stacks of books for sale or borrowing them from people who didn't yet know that he would read them to pieces and then lose them), and failed to keep his books in pristine condition.

In any case, the book is fairly interesting, but it needs to be read with a grain of salt. That might particularly be the case with the last two pages (295-96), in which the author drops something of a bombshell:

What's that? The Littlewood Letter? Never heard of it. A letter written to Shakespeare that was delivered to Shakespeare (unlike the Quiney letter, for which, q.v.)? Has anyone else heard of this? HS anyone else seen it? How would you prove it was actually delivered rather than just written to him? What's the Folger have to say about it?

In any case, the summary of my review would be "Interesting—but be skeptical."

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Thursday, June 27, 2019

Book Note: The True Story of Mrs. Shakespeare's Life

The True Story of Mrs. Shakespeare's Life. Boston: Loring, n.d. [1870.]

In addition to more standard Shakespeare fare, I've read a few bizarre things over the past semester and into the summer.

One of those was The True Story of Mrs. Shakespeare's Life, a book mentioned in Imagining Shakespeare's Wife (for which, q.v.) as being "likely written by American Harriet Beecher Stowe" (110).

All I knew about the work before I started reading it came from page 110 of Imagining Shakespeare's Wife. Here's what that work says:

I found a copy on Amazon (only later realizing that it was one of those "bound copies of freely available .pdf versions of out-of-print, out-of-copyright" books), discovered it was, at twenty-three large-print pages, more of a pamphlet than a major work, and settled down to read it.

Then I discovered that it was a rambling narrative, incoherent at times, about the writer's "venerable ancestor and namesake, Mistress H— B. Cherstow" (17) and her knowledge of the relationship between Anne and William Shakespeare. It's the sort of thing you might hear from the guy at the end of the bar who has clearly had one or two over the eight and who holds some unorthodox views on Shakespeare (or perhaps from someone who corners you at the end of the reception on the opening night of the Shakespeare Association of America Convention).

I didn't understand it at all. Shakespeare was a mass murderer?  He lured rival playwrights to Stratford, killed them, and buried them under the famous Mulberry tree? And not just metaphorically but literally?  And the evidence is drawn from (1) the writer's ancestor's conversation with Anne Shakespeare shortly before her (Anne's) death and (2) various quotes from Shakespeare about blood and death and murder?

Before we go forward, here's a representative sample of the work:

The author has some very bizarre ideas and is inclined to take every word of Shakespeare as autobiographical (including the great letter from Will to Anne that later makes its way into Hamlet).

Was this Harriet Beecher Stowe having flipped her lid? Was she humorously imagining or seriously imagining an ancestor named H— B. Cherstow (say it fast--you'll get it)? Or was there something else going on of which I was in no wise aware?

After a bit more research, I discovered that what I was reading was actually a parody of a work by Harriet Beecher Stowe, not a work by Harriet Beecher Stowe herself.

In a work published in The Atlantic in 1868 (and, later, in a full-length work entitled Lady Byron Vindicated), Stowe had tried to argue that Lady Byron's estrangement from George Gordon, Lord Byron was predicated on the scandalous behavior of her husband and that she was the patient, long-suffering wife. 

A chapter called "Stowe, Byron, and the Art of Scandal" in Susan M. Ryan's The Moral Economies of American Authorship: Reputation, Scandal, and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Marketplace is one of the clearest accounts of the work:

With that information in mind, the bizarre arguments of The True Story of Mrs. Shakespeare's Life fall into place. No one is seriously attempting to create an Anne Shakespeare who is an accessory to her husband's multiple mulberry murders. Someone is parodying Stowe's attempt to re-read the character of Lady Byron through the works of Lord Byron and through unverified conversations.

I'm glad to have gone through the process of confusion, disbelief, denial, bargaining, and acceptance to figure out exactly what this work was all about. Without the knowledge that we're dealing with a parody, it would be the equivalent of taking Allan Sherman's "Automation" as the definitive work on computer development in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Click below to purchase the book from
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Or click here just to download a .pdf for yourself at no charge.

Works Cited

Ryan, Susan M. The Moral Economies of American Authorship: Reputation, Scandal, and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Marketplace. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Scheil, Katherine West. Imagining Shakespeare's Wife: The Afterlife of Anne Hathaway. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

The True Story of Mrs. Shakespeare's Life. Boston: Loring, n.d. [1870.] 

Monday, June 24, 2019

Book Note: Year of the Mad King

Sher, Antony. Year of the Mad King: The Lear Diaries. Illus. Antony Sher. London: Nick Hern, 2018.

And now we have the latest (please note that I didn't say "last") of the Antony Sher acting diaries: Year of the Mad King. We've seen Year of the King (for which, q.v.)—the not-mad-but-possibly-psychotic-or-sociopathic king, and we've had Year of the Fat Knight (for which, q.v.). Now it's time for one of the leading Shakespearean actors to tell us his journey to King Lear.

As is the case with all of these—they're diaries, after all—the book has a rambling, unpolished quality, but (as with all of these) it also offers some good insight into the play itself, the role itself, and a leading actor's way of approaching the role itself.

We also get some insight into the director's thought processes—and a greater understanding of just how much a director of the caliber of Gregory Doran has to keep in his mind. And how much a Shakespearean actor of the caliber of Antony Sher has to keep in his mind as well. Can you imagine playing Falstaff while trying to get the lines from Lear memory perfect?

We also have Sher's sketches, including this one of Lear cursing:

It's a good read for the actor, the Shakespearean actor, the Shakespearean aficionado, and the general theatergoer.

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Friday, June 21, 2019

Book Note: Year of the Fat Knight

Sher, Antony Year of the Fat Knight: The Falstaff Diaries. Illus. Antony Sher. London: Nick Hern Books, 2016.

Some time ago, I wrote about Antony Sher's Year of the King (for which, q.v.). Reading Patterson Joseph's Julius Caesar and Me reminded me of Sher's work—perhaps especially because I was in the middle of reading Year of the Fat Knight. I had intended to read it some time ago, but copies of the book—even used copies—are not inexpensive, so I kept putting off getting one.

Like Year of the King, Year of the Fat Knight is a diary with sketches (and paintings) related to getting the role of Falstaff, rehearsing the role of Falstaff, and playing the role of Falstaff.

The opening line is pretty compelling:
It's all Ian McKellen's fault.
Here's more of the story:

The work, as you might expect, rambles a bit, but it offers good insight into the life of an actor and the role of Falstaff.

Bonus Image: "My Falstaff."

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Additional Bonus Image (I couldn't resist Sher's sketch of Orson Welles as Falstaff)

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Book Note: Julius Caesar and Me: Exploring Shakespeare's African Play

Joseph, Patterson. Julius Caesar and Me: Exploring Shakespeare's African Play. London: Methuen Drama (Bloomsbury), 2018.

I wrote briefly on the Julius Caesar with a modern African setting that was directed by Gregory Doran (for which, q.v.). Since then, I've taught the film, written about it elsewhere, and used it as part of a few presentations.

And now, Patterson Joseph, the Brutus from that stage play and film, has written something of a memoir, autobiography, biography of that production, and critical work called Julius Caesar and Me: Exploring Shakespeare's African Play, and it's fascinating.

The first section is autobiographical—how Joseph became an actor. The second part provides a reading of the play itself—together with some historical context for the play in Africa.  And the third (and longest) section provides a detailed history of Doran's production and Joseph's participation in it.

I'm giving you chapter four as a sample—it will provide a good flavor of the rest of the book.

The book is centered on a production history, but there are also many insights into the play—and, particularly, into the character of Brutus.  I was particularly struck by these thoughts about Brutus' second scene (from page 63):

All in all, this was a fabulous book to read. It's very helpful in understanding Doran's production in depth, but that's not all it offers.

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Bardfilm is normally written as one word, though it can also be found under a search for "Bard Film Blog." Bardfilm is a Shakespeare blog (admittedly, one of many Shakespeare blogs), and it is dedicated to commentary on films (Shakespeare movies, The Shakespeare Movie, Shakespeare on television, Shakespeare at the cinema), plays, and other matter related to Shakespeare (allusions to Shakespeare in pop culture, quotes from Shakespeare in popular culture, quotations that come from Shakespeare, et cetera).

Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare's works are from the following edition:
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
All material original to this blog is copyrighted: Copyright 2008-2039 (and into perpetuity thereafter) by Keith Jones.

The very instant that I saw you did / My heart fly to your service; there resides, / To make me slave to it; and, for your sake, / Am I this patient [b]log-man.

—The Tempest