Titus Andronicus

Most people today think of Shakespeare’s plays as the sort of thing that only the refined, intellectual highbrows could appreciate. They forget that Shakespeare was wildly popular with all classes of Elizabethan England. The Elizabethan audiences loved violence and gore as much as any modern audience and Shakespeare was always happy to give the theater goers what they wanted. Sometimes his plays are every bit as gory as anything made by Quentin Tarantino with bloody battles, eyes being gouged out, maidens raped, and worse. Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus is really in a class by itself as far as blood and gore on stage goes, as some patrons of the Globe Theater discovered recently, according to this account in the Telegraph.

With 14 deaths, brutal rape scenes, mutilation and cannibalism, Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus has never been one for the fainthearted.
But the gruesome scenes at the Globe Theatre’s latest revival have proved too much for even the most daring of theatre-goers.
Members of the audience have been fainting during the play’s most violent scenes, with others reporting feeling sick and warning of sleepless nights.
The play, a revival of Lucy Bailey’s 2006 production, is publicised with a warning that it is “grotesquely violent and daringly experimental”, with a “terrible cycle of mutilation, rape and murder”.
The play’s most famous scene sees Titus murder the sons of his rival Tamora, Queen of the Goths, later feeding their remains to her in a pie. A spokesman for the Globe confirmed five members of the audience fainted in a particularly gory five-minute scene, adding front of house staff are “very well trained to look after people”. It is understood all five fell while watching Lavinia emerge from being brutally raped, with her tongue cut out and holding bloodied stumps for arms. “Shakespeare definitely didn’t pull any punches when he was writing Titus – it is a brutally violent play and Lucy’s production is a bloody, exhilarating, incense-laden feast for the senses,” the spokesman added. “But not one for the squeamish!” One theatre-goer, who watched the show’s opening night, said there had been “quite a few droppers” in the audience, who fainted upon seeing so much blood. Another reported he had “almost puked” by the interval, while a third warned: “You will definitely need a strong stomach”. Others praised the “Brilliantly staged and flawlessly acted” production, but warned of “blood and violence galore”. “Can’t fall asleep after watching a great but gory performance of Titus Andronicus,” one ticket-holder wrote on Twitter. Sources at Shakespeare’s Globe confirmed trained first aiders were present for the show. The theatre is well-versed in fainting audience members, after visitors blanched at the blood and gore in the original 2006 production.
And you thought Shakespeare was boring. Titus Andronicus is one of the best known examples of a revenge play along with Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. A revenge play is a tragedy in which the protagonist seeks revenge for some wrong committed by the villain, generally the murder of a kinsman. The genre was very popular in Shakespeare’s time but curiously, Shakespeare didn’t really use it much. Of his plays only Titus Andronicus and Hamlet could really be considered revenge plays, though there were elements in some of his other plays, such as Julius Caesar and Macbeth. Titus Andronicus was one of his earlier plays, his first tragedy,  and may have been a collaboration with George Peele. Perhaps as Shakespeare became more established and popular, he was less inclined to follow trends. After all, at the height of his career, he was the one setting the fashion in drama. I hope the promise of blood and gore will encourage people to investigate Shakespeare. Shakespeare really doesn’t belong to the intellectuals and the literature professors. He belongs to all of us.
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Shakespeare the Businessman

William Shakespeare is considered by many to be the finest writer in the English language and perhaps one of the best in any language. His plays have been performed, read, studied and translated into every major language in the four hundred years since he wrote them. Shakespeare’s literary works and influences are well known. Less well known is his personal life and his business affairs. As a recent study from Aberystwyth University has shown, Shakespeare was a ruthless businessman and even a tax evader. I read the story in Yahoo News.

Hoarder, moneylender, tax dodger — it’s not how we usually think of William Shakespeare.

But we should, according to a group of academics who say the Bard was a ruthless businessman who grew wealthy dealing in grain during a time of famine.

Researchers from Aberystwyth University in Wales argue that we can’t fully understand Shakespeare unless we study his often-overlooked business savvy.

“Shakespeare the grain-hoarder has been redacted from history so that Shakespeare the creative genius could be born,” the researchers say in a paper due to be delivered at the Hay literary festival in Wales in May.

Jayne Archer, a lecturer in medieval and Renaissance literature at Aberystwyth, said that oversight is the product of “a willful ignorance on behalf of critics and scholars who I think — perhaps through snobbery — cannot countenance the idea of a creative genius also being motivated by self-interest.”

Archer and her colleagues Howard Thomas and Richard Marggraf Turley combed through historical archives to uncover details of the playwright’s parallel life as a grain merchant and property owner in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon whose practices sometimes brought him into conflict with the law.

Actually, none of this is much of a surprise to anyone who has read a decent biography of Shakespeare. He was well known, in his time for being a shrewd and wealthy man. We think of Shakespeare as a writer that writes in an archaic language and who only scholars would care to read. In fact, Shakespeare was popular with Elizabethan and Jacobin audiences. He was the Steven Spielberg of his day and audiences flocked to see plays put on by his company. Thus, he became a wealthy man.

Shakespeare did not actually make his fortune by writing plays. Except for pirated versions, his plays were not published until after his death. No theater company published their plays because publishing plays did not earn nearly as much money as performing them and they did not want their competitors profiting by their efforts. He made his fortune as a part owner of his theatrical company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men or later the King’s Men. Shakespeare was not trying to create great art which would last the ages. Writing plays was a matter of business for him.

This was long thought to be the only portrait ...
Is this the face of a hoarder and tax-evader? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shakespeare led a rather frugal life in London and used most of his earnings to buy property and investments in his home town of

Strafford upon Avon. His wife and children stayed behind as he made his living at London and although he did visit his home, Shakespeare spent much of his life away from his family. Perhaps they felt the living he was able to provide for them was adequate compensation for an absent husband and father. Because Shakespeare was careful with his money, he died a wealthy man, unlike many of his contemporaries in the literary scene, and he was able to give his family a generous inheritance when he died.

I notice that many of the news reports on the Aberystwyth University study are fairly critical of Shakespeare’s business dealings. They shouldn’t be. Shakespeare was trying to do the best he could to get ahead in a hard world.

Archer said the idea of Shakespeare as a hardheaded businessman may not fit with romantic notions of the sensitive artist, but we shouldn’t judge him too harshly. Hoarding grain was his way of ensuring that his family and neighbors would not go hungry if a harvest failed.

“Remembering Shakespeare as a man of hunger makes him much more human, much more understandable, much more complex,” she said.

“He would not have thought of himself first and foremost as a writer. Possibly as an actor — but first and foremost as a good father, a good husband and a good citizen to the people of Stratford.”

After all, a poor, struggling Shakespeare might not have given the world his marvelous plays.

Richard III Rehabilitated

Yorkist king Richard III grew up at Middleham....
Villain, or not?

One of the greatest villains in English history is King Richard III. Richard III reigned from 1483 until 1485, and his death ended the War of the Roses, fought between the Lancaster and York branches of the Plantagenet dynasty. His brother, Edward IV had largely won the war with a Yorkist victory and the near extermination of the Lancaster family by 1470. Edward died in 1483 at the age of forty, leaving behind his twelve year old son to rule as Edward V.

Richard was named Lord Protector and acted as regent to the young king. He kept the family of Edward IV’s queen, Elizabeth Woodville out of power and had her brother, Anthony Woodville, and other supporters arrested and eventually executed on a charge of plotting to assassinate him. He also took the young king and his brother to the Tower of London, ostensibly for their safety. Before Edward V could be crowned, the Bishop of Wells and Bath told Richard that Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was invalid because of a previous secret marriage. This made Edward V illegitimate and Richard the rightful king. The young princes in the Tower disappeared and it was widely believed that Richard III had them murdered. Historians are not certain whether Richard did indeed order their death or even if they were murdered at all. Despite his later reputation as an evil, treacherous man, he served his brother loyally and was entrusted with the government of northern England. It is not really clear that he intended to usurp the throne. He may have believed himself to be the rightful king if Edward IV’s sons were really illegitimate. He may also have felt that a minor on the throne in a time of continuing political unrest would be harmful to the country.

Richard III does not appear to have been a bad king. He had a reputation for defending the commoners against the oppression of the nobility both under the rule of his brother and as king. He was actually quite popular in some quarters, especially in the north where he had ruled. On the other hand, the disappearance of the princes and the suspicion that he had murdered them turned people against him. There was also another contender for the throne, Henry Tudor who was living in exile in France.

Henry Tudor was descended, on his mother’s side, from the Lancasters. He tried to invade England in 1483, but the attempt was unsuccessful. He had more luck in 1485 when he led an army into his ancestral home in Wales. He fought and killed Richard III at the battle of Bosworth Field and then became King Henry VII, founding the Tudor Dynasty, finally ending the War of the Roses.

Naturally, the Tudors wished to present Richard III in the most unfavorable manner possible. He was depicted as a power-hungry and treacherous king, the villain who usurped the throne and murdered children. Henry VII was the hero who freed England from the tyrant. William Shakespeare followed the Tudor party line in his play Richard III. He could scarcely do otherwise since Henry VII’s grand-daughter Elizabeth I was queen for most of his career. Shakespeare depicted Richard III as a deformed hunchback, dishonest, immoral, and being evil just for the sake of being evil. As Shakespeare has Richard say in the beginning of the play.

And therefore since I cannot prove a lover

To entertain these fair well-spoken days

I am determined to prove a villain

And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

Plots have I laid…

But, now, Richard III may be due for a rehabilitation of his reputation, according to a story I read in USA Today.

The discovery under a parking lot of a battle-scarred skeleton may restore the reputation of arguably Britain’s most maligned king and lead to a royal burial five centuries late.

“There has been a lot of debate on almost every aspect of Richard III’s life, appearance, personality and death,” said historian John Ashdown Hill, whose book, “The Last Days of Richard III,” explores the final 150 days of the king’s life before he was killed in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.

“The remains won’t clarify everything, but they will be part of the process of getting back to original, authentic, documentary evidence rather than being misled by the propaganda that spread after his death,” he said.

“Tudor sources say he had a withered arm but when I went to look at the skeleton the other day I couldn’t see much difference in the length of the arms,” he said. Historians also say there is proof that he wasn’t a hunchback.

The remains were dug up this month by archaeologists looking for the ruins of a medieval monastery under a parking lot in Leicester. They found a skeleton with a metal arrow in its back and what appeared to be a severe battle injury to the skull, injuries that are consistent with the historical accounts of how Richard III was killed defending the ruling House of York against Henry Tudor’s House of Lancaster.

The skeleton also shows curvature of the spine, consistent with reports of Richard’s appearance that say he had one shoulder higher than the other. His death brought about the end of 300 years of Plantagenet rule and the start of the Tudor dynasty, which governed England and Wales for 117 years. But history is written by the victors and few, if any, monarchs have been cast more malignantly than Richard III.

There is actually a society dedicated to restoring Richard’s reputation.

The Richard III Society, a 3,500-strong group of academics and others dedicated to challenging negative portrayals of him, the medieval king, say Richard was a victim of Tudor propaganda.

“Henry Tudor had to discredit Richard in order to justify his taking the throne,” said Lynda Pidgeon, research officer with the society.

She hopes the discovery will spark an upsurge in interest and lead to a more objective writing of history.

“We’re not looking to whitewash Richard III, but we want a less black-and-white picture,” she said. “Shakespeare’s story is good, but it’s very one-sided.”

Meanwhile, a British parliamentarian says if the remains are indeed the king’s, they must be given a state funeral with all the pageantry that entails.

“If it turns out that these bones are Richard III’s, this will be one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of at least the last 50 years,” said Chris Skidmore.’

In order to learn whether or not the skeleton is Richard’s  they will have to compare its DNA, if it can be extracted, with a descendant of Richard’s family. They have found one in Canada.

First, though, the remains must be positively identified, and the responsibility for this rests with one man.

Michael Ibsen, 55, is a 17th-generation descendant of Anne of York, Richard III’s sister. Originally from London, Ontario, he has lived in London, England, for nearly 30 years, and if DNA can be extracted from the skeleton, it will be compared to Ibsen’s to see whether there is a match.

The first that Ibsen heard about his royal heritage was from Ashdown Hill, whose quest to discover Richard’s descendants led him to Canada and Ibsen’s mother, Joy, in 2004.

“At first, it was quite surreal to find out we had this connection to royalty, not only to a king of England but to someone so controversial,” Ibsen said. “But now, quite apart from the personal connection, to stand in front of the hole in the ground looking down on the remains, well, it makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck. But the personal connection makes that feeling even more profound.”

Joy Ibsen died in 2008. Michael and his siblings are the last living descendants able to provide the type of DNA that has the best chance of proving whether the remains are Richard III’s or not.

The results are expected in 10-12 weeks. They could prove to be a very welcome Yuletide present to those who want to get to the truth about this controversial king, and possibly restore his maligned reputation.

It will be interesting to see how this turns out. Meanwhile, I can think of several other great historical villains who perhaps do not deserve their reputation.


My Secret Vice

I have a confession to make, something that I have never told anyone before, but I feel it’s time to come out of the closet.


Okay, maybe not quite that shocking. Here it is. I like to read Shakespeare’s plays, for pleasure.

The problem with Shakespeare is that over the centuries, the literary critics and the intellectuals have gotten hold of him. They have given the impression that the only way to read Shakespeare is with furrowed brow, studying the great themes he put in his plays, etc. Shakespeare himself, if he came back from the grave, would probably laugh at all of the interpretations of his plays, and explain that Hamlet was a rush job, or that the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet was written while he was drunk. Isaac Asimov actually wrote a short story, The Immortal Bard,  in which a scientist brings Shakespeare to our time. He is amused by all of the commentary his plays had produced and takes a college course on his own plays. The scientist has to send him back in humiliation when he flunks out.

Shakespeare was not writing for the ages. He wrote his plays for his audience. And, they are good, really good. They are full of action, romance, even humor. The language is a bit difficult but not insurmountable. The meanings of most of the more archaic words can be deduced from context. The blank verse takes a little getting used to but it’s not so hard. After a while you get to actually enjoy the rhythms.

Shakespeare’s characters talk more than is usually the case in modern plays and movies. This is because he did not have the advantage of modern technology to create special effects. Nor could he use such camera techniques as close-ups or various angle shots. He couldn’t usually show a battle with hundreds of soldiers on stage. A lot of the action had to take place off stage with the actors describing what was happening. He couldn’t show a flashback. An actor had to say what had happened before the events of the play. The soliloquys were the best technique he had for telling the audience what was on the character’s minds.

When you take into account the limitations that Shakespeare had to work with, his genius is all the more incredible. I can’t help but wonder what he would have made with all the technology of modern Hollywood, and why there are no contemporary Shakespeares.

Anyway, try reading and watching his plays. You’ll like them, trust me.

Oh, and if you want to insult someone and don’t want to use the usual stand-bys, there’s the Shakespearean insulter, thou weedy, common-kissing pignut!

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