It may have been a frosty winter’s Sunday but on the RSC stage this January 13-year-old Jack Gouldbourne was warming things up. “O for a muse of fire”, he gamely piped, “that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention!” Jack was one of nine finalists in Off By Heart Shakespeare, a televised nationwide competition that had thousands of schoolchildren spouting off as Romeo, Macbeth or Portia. Anyone among the grumpy elders moaning about how the kids are slaves to the tweet would have been confounded by Jack and his peers, who had taken Shakespeare into their heads as well as their hearts. Even better they weren’t just declaiming; the teens had got to grips with the heady complications of Shakespeare’s language games.
Given the daunting assignment of leading off the nine performances, our pint-sized Chorus Jack knew exactly what Shakespeare was up to: the seduction of that new thing, an audience, at the even newer place, the Globe. The very first word out of his mouth, the one-letter tease “O” describes that venue, the “wooden O” in which they are gathered. Jack rounded his mouth as if he was blowing smoke-rings. “Pardon, gentles all,” he went on with just the right accent of mock apology; pretending that, for the duration of the performance at least, the groundlings were as good as the real gentles; that they were all in it together at Agincourt.
And when Jack asked permission for the actors, “ciphers to this great accompt, on your imaginary forces work”, I was transported back not to the vasty fields of France but the sooty streets of Waterloo in 1955. I was sitting, wide-eyed in the stalls of the Old Vic, next to my bardolater dad. Chorus, in the melodious notes of the late great John Neville, Mr Cheekbones, was swishing his scarlet cape in my direction, piecing out his imperfections (not that he seemed to have any) with my thoughts. It was the first Shakespeare I’d ever seen, though my father, the thespian manqué, was given to suddenly declaiming over breakfast while pointing to the silver tea strainer, “The quality of mercy is not strained.”
That evening in Waterloo, the king was an up and coming Welshman called Richard Burton whose versatile, slightly nasal baritone could do plummy and steely all within a single sentence. I inhaled deep what I thought was the dustymusty of the Elizabethan world, actually the mingy-dingy of the Old Vic wardrobe department. The price of this treat was my having to memorise one of the king’s speeches, so for days on end my sister had to endure me squawking for England, Harry and St George.
Shakespeare awakened the historian in me. He seemed to deliver a certain idea of England at a time when all that was left otherwise was tea and cricket. In 1955, just 10 years after the war, it was as though the Bard had scripted Churchill; that the original “happy few” were prototypes for the boys who flew in Spitfires. What now looks like the shamelessly chauvinistic film version made by Olivier in 1944 as a morale booster for D-Day made perfect sense to us even after the war had ended. Hadn’t we all been in it together, Exeter, Harry the King, George the King, Winston, Dunkirk, the Blitz, Normandy? “We band of brothers, for he who today sheds his blood with me shall be my brother”! We needed the pennants of Agincourt and the Crispin-St Georgery of it all, for London was still a sooty pea-soup fog-shrouded place; bombed out buildings in the city and East End sticking up like stumps of blackened teeth. Despite the brave face put on by the techno-driven, Comet-jet powered Festival of Britain in 1951, and the designation we all gave ourselves in honour of the graceful but unreachably impeccable young queen of “new Elizabethans”, we needed someone to tell us who we were as a country, even if that someone happened to have died three and a half centuries before. We were the winners weren’t we? So why was the Empire disappearing; why were we in hock to the Americans; why were the Hungarians beating us at football; what did the British do in the world now other than endlessly Troop the Colour?
A certain power endured but it was the power of English rather than England; and, when you went to hear and see Shakespeare, you drank deep on it and emerged heady with its elixir of confidence. If all the world really was a stage, no one could out-troupe us.
This peculiar sense of English belonging, kindled in the theatre and then projected on to the streets, fields and villages of the country, had begun in the time of the first Elizabeth, and Shakespeare was its great virtuoso. Just as Olivier had done his bit in a Plantagenet pudding-basin haircut at a time of military trial, so the Globe had staged Henry V in 1599, a time of unnerving crisis. There was a Papal fatwa out on Elizabeth I, commending for remission of sins anyone who would take the heretic queen out of this earthly world. The militant Catholic Counter-Reformation was closing in. The Earl of Essex had signally failed to defeat the Irish rebellion, and the rumours of a new Spanish Armada, launched by King Philip III, were serious enough for the militia to be mobilised. In the midst of this panicky atmosphere, the one figure needed to calm the national jitters – Gloriana herself – had gone missing, for whatever reason unable to do a repeat of the great Tilbury speech of 1588, when she had appeared in armour before the troops and promised to die, if need be, in the company of her dear countrymen. Almost certainly conscious of the charisma-vacuum, Shakespeare filled it with a pseudo-Elizabeth in the guise of Harry of Monmouth who, like her, was presented as having the common touch so when he promised to perish on the field of the battle among his “brothers” and “dear friends” they really believed it.
Shakespeare would not be the great poet-philosopher he is were he not to have spoken to the universal condition of humanity, but at the beginning he didn’t address himself to humanity at large but to the English. If his history plays fed off a need for national chronicle, ordained by the powerful and apparently craved by the powerless, they also brought that new sense of shared historical destiny to the public who thronged to the Rose and the Globe. Almost before there was a true political and institutional “England”, there was a theatre of England.
Sometimes we forget the startling fact that in the 16th century only the English had custom-built, site-specific commercial theatre. In Italy the peripatetic commedia dell’arte performed on the street; in Spain and the Netherlands plays were acted on decorated carts and wagons. The court and the church still summoned performances all over Europe. But the English had the Theatre, the Curtain, the Rose and the Globe, open to both the elite and ordinary for it cost just a penny to stand with the groundlings in the pit. In this way, the theatre filled the void left by the Reformation’s destruction of the old Catholic spectacle, enacted in churches and on village greens, that had also been one of the few places where lords and lads mingled, though not physically cheek by jowl.
Socially, this creation of the theatre as kind of profane national communion was a two-way process, both top-down and bottom-up, and that gave Elizabethan theatre its demotic, rough-and-tumble feel. Elizabeth, the ultimate drama-Queen, knew that her legitimacy depended on the magic of spectacle outside the court as well as in it, hence the royal progresses around the country. Impresarios of image such as the Earl of Leicester extended this sense of newly minted public spectacle by becoming patrons of travelling companies of players who performed in tavern yards in close proximity to popular entertainments like bear baiting. But in the 1560s and 1570s, in one of those mysterious transformational moments of cultural history that are ultimately impossible to pin down, what had been a royal and aristocratic entertainment took on a commercial life of its own. The first owner-manager to convert a tavern yard site into a true theatre was the grocer John Brayne who established one at the Red Lion in the rustic suburb of Whitechapel. Ultimately, the Red Lion was just too far from the punters to make a go of it, but Brayne’s brother-in-law, James Burbage, was a carpenter-joiner as well as an actor, and when they moved the enterprise to the more populous and buzzingly seedy area of Shoreditch, they took over the ruins of a Catholic convent for the new theatre. The symbolism of one kind of spectacle succeeding the other could not have been more eloquent. The Theatre in which Shakespeare found his place was a humming mix of hard business, rowdy spectacle, aristocratic slumming and – from the outset – English self-congratulation. For, although the early repertoire included comedy and blood-and-guts melodrama, what broke through to a mass public was history. Ten-thousand people were said to have come to the Rose to see Henry VI, written (though not entirely) by the actor-cum-script-fixer-upper William Shakespeare. History became the country’s new theology. There were, in fact, relics of the old Christian plays haunting the bloody chronicle of Henry VI: the mad and saintly king; the demonic Gloucester, the martyr-mystic Joan of Arc and the knight-valiant Talbot. But the generation that flocked to the theatre was also the first to be able to read English histories in their own language. These, written in the 1540s, like that by Edward Hall, were aggressively Protestant, insular, chest-beatingly Tudor. Reliable literacy figures are impossible to come by but the schoolmaster (of the kind that taught the young Shakespeare), was both the ally and the maker of this concerted attempt to forge a national, anti-Catholic common allegiance.
Under Elizabeth the mixed genre of “England” books – part antiquarian tradition, part topographical gazette, part history chronicle of kings and queens – suddenly flowered. Hall was reprinted, joined by William Harrison’s Description of England, and most famously Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles (especially in the cheaper 1587 quarto edition). Holinshed’s work was not just one damned king after another; it pulsed with a meaty sense of England: our food, costume, sports and after-hours pleasures. And much of this rudimentary ethnography of what it meant to be English becomes earthy poetry in Shakespeare’s history plays.
Though the scenes may have unfolded on the bare boards, they are very specific – from Eastcheap to the vale of Evesham – and countless groundlings who had immigrated from the hard-up countryside into the swarming shacks and tenements of London would have had no trouble in conjuring up the orchards and hedgerows. The plays smell of English cooking, too, especially in the verbal appetite of that incarnation of the national stomach, Falstaff, who describes a dullard as having a wit “as thick as Tewkesbury mustard”. The sense of a language made from different voices and accents; some of them beyond England – the Welsh of Owen Glendower, the (cod) Irish of McMorris in Henry V, or the macho Geordie of Hotspur – all fed into the pot of national relish that Shakespeare cooks up with juicy gusto.
In Shakespeare’s hands the cult of England is never a sentimental romance. It is easy to forget that John of Gaunt’s famous ecstatic catalogue of “this England’s” imperishable virtues is, in fact, a bitter rant against the fact that it has perished. The enduring power of the histories, written by someone who had dwelled in various social worlds – small-town glover’s boy, grammar-school swot, common thespian – lies in the comprehensiveness of their vision of how power is invented, manipulated, exploited; how it both panders to the cravings of those it rules and stamps ruthlessly on their frailties. No one was more daring in exposing the grinding machinery of politics (whoever plays Richard II has to work hard at making him so detestable as to merit his fate at the hands of the self-righteous puritan Bolingbroke). And in Henry IV Shakespeare makes sure that Bolingbroke’s victory in Richard II has turned out to be pyrrhic. In the miserable hours of his guilty insomnia, any shred of vainglorious deception collapses.
Prince Hal/Henry V deludes himself that he can inhabit both the world of those who live by the courtly code (honour) and Falstaff’s realm of disenchanted honesty (what is honour? A word. Air!): only to realise on assuming the crown that its first necessary victim is not just his old “tutor of riot” but the human truth. The most important scene in Henry V is not the battle itself but the encounter between the King and Michael Williams, a common soldier who warns that “if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads chopped off in a battle shall join together at the latter day and cry all, ‘We died at such a place.’” How that must have echoed with the groudlings recruited for the endless wars in Ireland across the Irish Sea.
The shock of the encounter moves Henry to soliloquise in the darkness, in the greatest speech of the play, on his moral burden: “Upon the king! Let us our lives, our souls, our debts, our careful wives, our children and our sins lay on the king! We must bear all. O hard condition.” What have kings that “privates hath not too,” he asks in this same sombre mood, “save ceremony, save general ceremony?” It is an extraordinary achievement, this conjuring both of the craving for royal magic and the chilling knowledge of its shortcomings.
The first time that the name of Shakespeare appears in print is on the impure 1598 version of Henry IV published as a stand-alone drama. The histories were not just the making of the Bard, they were in some mythic but also deeply astute way the making of the English too: our humour, our impatience with the pretentions of the mighty, our unforgiving insight into their deceptions, our perennially forgiving celebration of a sovereignty which shares the common sacrifice and mysteriously, irrationally somehow incarnates that otherwise formless collective thing that is us, our mostly and, in spite of everything, happy breed.
The two-part series ‘Simon Schama’s Shakespeare’ airs from 9pm on BBC2 on June 22; new BBC productions of Shakespeare’s history plays will follow later in the month
Elizabethan open-air theatres: Drawing back the Curtain
Behind a pub in Shoreditch, east London, the remains of the Curtain – believed to be the second purpose-built theatre in London – have recently been discovered by archaeologists from the Museum of London who believe the site is one of the best preserved examples of Elizabethan theatre in Britain, writes Mika Ross-Southall.
Discoveries at the site so far include the foundation walls of the tiered galleries and the yard which accommodated the standing audience within the playhouse itself.
Built in 1577, only a year after and a short walk from the Theatre, the Curtain is where Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (known from 1603 as the King’s Men), are believed to have performed between the ending of the lease on the Theatre in 1597 and the opening of the Globe in 1599.
Theatre (1576-1597): built by James Burbage, father of the actor Richard Burbage, it had a covered stage and three tiers of galleries. From 1594, the Theatre became the playhouse of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. When the lease expired in 1597, the Burbages dismantled, relocated and rebuilt the building in 1599 as the Globe.
Globe (1599 - present): located near the Rose, the Globe was built from the reused timbers of the Theatre. The first version burnt down in 1613, when its thatched roof caught fire during a performance of Shakespeare and Fletcher’s Henry VIII. A new Globe was built on the original foundations with an audience capacity of 3,000 and a tiled roof. In 1997 a reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe, championed by US-born actor Sam Wanamaker, opened with a production of Henry V.
Rose (1587-1606): built by Philip Henslowe in 1587, south of the River Thames on Bankside. It had three tiers of galleries and an audience capacity of about 2,000. Performances still take place at the site in Park Street; for more information visit www.rosetheatre.org.uk.
Swan (1595-1600s): Built in 1595 on Bankside, it was the largest of London’s playhouses and the only playhouse with a surviving pictorial record of its interior.