Midsummer Madness: Science, Social History, and Shakespeare

Today, those of us in the northern hemisphere observe the summer solstice. It’s a great time of year, finally warm enough for the beach and the pool, students are out for the holidays or will be soon, the fireflies are out, honeysuckle and roses are in bloom, and the long hours of sunlight mean you can stay out on the porch well into the evening. With such bounty and festivity, it’s no wonder that Shakespeare wrote a whole play set on this holiday: A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

But wait? Why Midsummer? Isn’t this the beginning of summer? Why the temporal-linguistic confusion? The answer to that has to do with two things: the difference between astronomical seasons and meteorological seasons, and the difference between how we reckon seasons now versus how folk from the classical period on up through the early modern period reckoned them.

Graphic representation of how axial tilt causes the seasons, from NOAA

Science first: Solstices and equinoxes are determined by the earth’s axial tilt — not, as is a common misconception, by the distance from the sun. The earth will actually be at its aphelion, the farthest point from the sun, around July 5th, and at its perihelion, its closest point, around January 3rd. On June 21st, though we are farther from the sun, the earth’s tilt means that the sun falls in line directly over the Tropic of Cancer at 23.5° north latitude. This means that the northern hemisphere gets more of the sun’s energy during this time, and the southern hemisphere gets less. Six months from now, all that will be reversed; the sun will be directly over the Tropic of Capricorn, at 23.5° south latitude. What I find really fascinating about all of this is that it tells us just what a fragile habitable zone the earth exists in. A little more or less distance, a little more or less axial tilt, and the earth or parts of it might not be able to sustain any kind of life.

Of course, the exact way in which axial tilt affects the weather in any given location is pretty complex. Areas closer to the equator have less difference from season to season, whereas areas closer to the poles see wide variations. Since water and land heat at different rates, proximity to oceans can determine how quickly or slowly an area heats up into summer weather. Those heating and cooling rates also affect how precipitation systems form and move, which is why we tend to get more thunderstorms — and, in the North Atlantic and much of the Pacific, more hurricanes — from mid-summer through early autumn. Queen Elizabeth might have had axial tilt to thank, at least in part, for the freak August storms that helped to finish off the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Thermal lag graphically explained by Accuweather

Because of these variations, meteorologists assign different seasonal designations based on, well, the weather. For temperate zones in the northern hemisphere — like the US and England — this means that meteorological summer begins June 1st, autumn on September 1st, winter December 1st, and spring on March 1st. These dates mark the transition point for each season. The hottest point of summer for these regions falls well afterwards, mid-July through early-August, because of something called “thermal lag” or “seasonal lag,” which has to do with the varying rates at which the earth’s land, water, and atmosphere absorb all of that solar radiation. Since it takes a while for all of that to reach equilibrium, we don’t feel the heat of being pointed right at the sun until a few weeks later.

So, we now call June 21/22 the “first day of summer” because our common lexicon has sort of split the difference between these concepts. It’s the day when we begin moving further away from the sun, axial-tilt-wise, but when our region is just starting to head towards the hottest and stormiest part of the year. The shifting of the weather seems to have influenced Shakespeare when he wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

TITANIA
Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which falling in the land
Have every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents:
The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard;
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
The nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
For lack of tread are undistinguishable:
The human mortals want their winter here;
No night is now with hymn or carol blest:
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound:
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which:

England was experiencing particularly nasty, wet summers in the mid-1590s, and Shakespeare has Titania describe how her quarrel with Oberon has disordered the seasons and caused storms and floods. Summer and winter have become mixed-up. Comparing Titania’s description to accounts of English weather from 1594-1597 is one way that scholars have worked to date the play’s composition.

And now, the social history: While earlier civilizations like the Sumerians and Egyptians tended to measure seasons by floods and harvests, European societies from the Greeks forward marked seasons by the passage of the sun and stars.  The beginnings of each season were actually on the cross-quarter days — February 1st, May 1st, August 1st, and November 1st. Many East Asian calendars also followed this distinction, and many continue to do so to this day. Those cross-quarter dates became important holidays for the Celts, and those festivals were later merged with Christian saints’ days and holy days — February 1st’s Imbolc became Candlemas, May 1st’s Beltane became May Day, August 1st’s Lughnasadh became Lammastide, and November 1st’s Samhain became All Hallows’ Day. Solstice and equinoctial holidays were not as important for Celtic and Germanic cultures, but various associations still bled over. The Christian calendar created quarter days on or around the 25th of those months: Lady Day in March, Midsummer in June, Michaelmas in September, and Christmas in December. Apart from being religious observations, these were also the days in England when taxes and rents were due. Moveable feasts like Easter and Pentecost tend to fall near some of these dates as well, though not in every year, thanks to the way in which the liturgical calendar calculates them.

St. John's WortFor Shakespeare, the strongest summer holiday correlation may have been to either St. John’s Eve, celebrated on June 23rd, or possibly St. Peter’s Eve, celebrated on June 28th. Both festivals frequently involved bonfires and feasting, while other rituals focused on purification of or by water, connecting to St. John’s role as a baptist. Many folk medicinal traditions collected around St. John’s Eve  and Day as well. It was considered the best time to collect certain kinds of plants, including St. John’s Wort (pictured at right), used to treat mild wounds, menstrual cramps, snakebites, among other things. St. John’s Wort was thought in the Middle Ages to be particularly good at driving out demons — and it is now used in the modern day as an anti-depression treatment. Exactly which other plants were associated with the holiday tends to vary by local tradition, but they were often those used in herbal remedies to ease pain — and perhaps for this reason, the holiday has often had a connotation with witchcraft and the supernatural. Jumping over the St John’s Eve bonfires was meant to prove virility in men and to help maids find their husbands, the ashes from those fires were thought to bring good luck to homes, and roots gathered on St. John’s Eve were said to be particularly powerful in love spells. Some of these customs continue to the modern day in certain Catholic populations, with notable celebrations in Ireland, Spain, France, Quebec, and New Orleans. These traditions of magic and fertility may resonate in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the “little western flower” and “Dian’s bud” that Oberon and Puck use to enchant Titania, Lysander, and Demetrius.

Midsummer also had theatrical connections long before Shakespeare: this was the favorite time of year for the mystery play cycles, local religious pageants put on by trade guilds in major cities and towns throughout England. Though mystery plays were officially banned by King Henry at the beginning of the Reformation, many continued to perform or were illegally revived through Elizabeth’s reign, and they likely influenced the earliest playwrights of the early modern era. We’re doing our bit to celebrate at the ASC by offering 20% off the Study Guide for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and tonight we officially open Romeo and Juliet, thought to be written at about the same time as Midsummer. You can see similar threads in the two plays, not only through language and the focus on courtship and romance, but also in the season. Romeo and Juliet takes place in mid-July, two weeks before Lammastide. Perhaps Friar Laurence’s fixation on herbal remedies has to do with the gathering that took place on St. John’s, just a few weeks earlier?

Book Review: Shakespeare’s London, by Stephen Porter

ShxLondonShakespeare’s London: Everyday Life in London 1580 to 1616 is a thorough and detailed look at the English metropolis during the early modern period. While other books have taken similar approaches, none have honed in quite so specifically on a particular place at a very particular time. Porter uses not just Shakespeare’s life but his time in London as his fenceposts, and this allows him to delve, as we like to say in ASC Education, deep and narrow into a moment in history.

Porter is nothing if not comprehensive. The book wends its way through many aspects of early modern life, particularly with regards to economic realities and social conventions of the common citizens of London. Porter devotes a lot of time to industry and mercantilism, and not unjustly, since trade formed the basis for London’s explosive growth in following centuries. He discusses the various neighborhoods and their relative statuses at length, and the pictorial sections of the books include a number of illustrative maps (though, since they are early modern in origin and scaled down to fit the page, these are not always easy to read). Throughout the book, Porter liberally mixes primary source accounts in with his narrative, adding valuable details to the picture he’s painting. I particularly appreciated that during the heavily economic sections of the book, since it gave the real human interest factor back to what would otherwise have been a rather dry summary of trade deals and market fluctuations.

Major events to do with monarchs and nobles only get coverage for how they affected the bulk of the populace. One of my favorite examples has to do with King James’s influence on the cloth industry. England had always done quite a lot of trade in both heavy broadcloths and lighter linens, but typically sold them overseas “in the white,” undyed. English dyers just weren’t as adept as those in other countries, nor could they dye as cheaply, so although finished cloth fetched a higher price, England had chosen to rely on its strengths and focus on creating a huge output of undyed cloth. In 1614, King James decided, on the advice of a wealthy alderman (who, coincidentally, lent the king money), that the country would, from then on, only export dyed cloth. The Dutch responded by banning imports of dyed cloth, since that was one of their major industries. James then banned the export of wool, the main raw material which the Dutch used. This trade war did not go well for the English, who did not have the expertise to turn out quality material in high enough quantities to match previous sales of undyed cloths. In 1617, with the entire industry in England threatening to collapse, James changed his mind, with the Privy Council declaring that it was ‘now his Majesty’s pleasure and resolution not to disturb the trade of whites with any further essay, but to leave the same to the train and course of trade now in practice and according to the use before the former alteration’ (116-117).

The book also does a great job of tying the social history into the world of the plays. Porter frequently refers to various plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, illustrating how the temporal reality of London found its way into so many stories on the early modern stage. Playwrights like Dekker and Middleton often put London itself right up onto the stage, and Dekker was also a pamphleteer, whose observations about the world around him tell us much about life in the era. Shakespeare may never have written a city comedy, but that definitely does not mean that his London was absent from his plays. Porter relates the conmen and petty criminals of London to Mistress Overdone’s customers in Measure for Measure, and he suggests that “Shakespeare’s metropolitan audience at The Winter’s Tale no doubt smiled at the pretentiousness of the newly-rich shepherd and his son’s shopping list for their sheep-shearing feast,” based on recognition of the produce and spices traded out of London to country burghers (120). He points out that the Boar’s Head tavern in Henry IV was likely the same as that in Great Eastcheap, near to where the Lord Chamberlain’s men then played in the winters. The diseases and pestilence mentioned in so many of his plays were those that the people of London lived with and feared spreading. Any Shakespearean reference to apprentices reflected the vast population of young men in the city who, while vital to the economic structure, were also apparently prone to lethargy and rioting. Shakespeare’s London clearly lives in his plays, no matter if they’re set in Italy, Egypt, or Bohemia.

My biggest criticism of Shakespeare’s London is that I think this book could have benefited from a different organizational structure — perhaps by sub-dividing chapters or by simply having more chapters. There are only eight in the 250-page book, and so each one has a lot of topical ground to cover. As a result, sometimes the sense of storytelling is rather haphazard. A few chapters get a little “info-dump”-y, while others seem to have a strong narrative which then gets derailed. The best example of that is when the section on printhouses and print culture comes in the middle of a chapter which is otherwise about demographics and the early modern life cycle. The information is both interesting and useful, but it sort of comes out of left field. Printing also doesn’t get a mention in the index (which seems to focus more on proper nouns than on broader topics), so if you picked this book up specifically looking for information on that subject, it would be difficult to suss out where to find it. Information about the playhouses and playgoing culture is also scattered through a few different chapters. On the whole, though, Shakespeare’s London is chock-full of fantastic, detailed information, much of it straight from the original sources. I think it’s most comparable to David Cressy’s Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England: a compendium of information, almost overwhelming at times, but providing a wonderful window into the lives of everyday citizens who just happened to live four centuries ago. Shakespeare’s London is one of the “suggested reading” texts for the upcoming No Kidding Shakespeare Camp, and I’m looking forward to taking its insights with me as we travel through London in a few weeks.

Dr. Ralph Presents: Twelfth Night (2013)

American Shakespeare Center Co-founder and Director of Mission, and Mary Baldwin College Professor Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen delivers a pre-show lecture on William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, with special input from eminent Shakespeare scholar Stephen Booth, before a live audience at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, VA, on April 10th, 2013.

Dr. Ralph Presents: Twelfth Night
File Size: 40.8 MB; Run Time: 42:23
Please note: This lecture was recorded on Ralph’s iPad; we apologize for any fuzziness.

Hit the cut for the text which Dr. Ralph used during this lecture.

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You Can’t Bop a Bop: Idiosyncrasies of Process and Personality in the Theatrical World

I’ve spent the past few weeks preparing a new Study Guide for this summer’s Class to Cast Seminar. It’s been an unusual challenge, not only because this Study Guide doesn’t follow the structural format I’ve established for all of our show-specific guides, but also because I frequently find myself trying to explain in written words things that I learned kinetically. The Class to Cast Guide will provide teachers with a start-to-finish model for producing a play with their students, either inside their classroom or as an extracurricular opportunity. Our goal is to cover everything that a teacher totally new to this concept would need to know: cutting the script, doubling, holding auditions and casting, the rehearsal process on the macro and micro level, dealing with text-based tablework, warm-up activities, guiding actors to make strong choices physically and vocally, dealing with particular staging challenges, audience contact, using dramaturgy, and finally dealing with the production concerns of costuming, props, stage combat, music and sound, marketing, and putting the whole thing on its feet for showtime.

Little Academe 2013; Photo by Pat Jarrett

Little Academe 2013; Photo by Pat Jarrett

What makes this process even stranger is that I am not, broadly, a kinetic learner. I’m a verbal learner — written or auditory. Yet the theatrical world is a place where kinetics seem to take over in a stronger way. Most of what we do for the stage, we learn by observation, instruction, and emulation. For a lot of us, it starts back in middle or high school, watching what the older students do, following in their footsteps, then passing the traditions on in our turn. I can easily write instructions for our usual activities — scansion, rhetoric, staging challenges, historical perspectives, textual variants — but when it comes to describing the procedures that shape a rehearsal process, I found myself having to engage entirely different writing muscles.

The oddity of attempting to put these things into words first struck me when I was scribing the instructions for Zip-Zap-Bop-Boing, the variation on Zip-Zap-Zop that we played at William & Mary. Staring at an empty bulleted list, I decided to try talking it out to myself. “Zips go to the side, zaps go across, bops rebound, and, of course, you can’t bop a bop.” Makes perfect sense, right? Well, no, unaccompanied by action, that’s total gibberish. While I’ll be able to demonstrate the actions to those teachers attending our Summer Seminar, I still have to make sure that the written guide is comprehensible to anyone else who might purchase it. Stretching routines and vocal exercises were also difficult to wrap language around. I’m coming to have a lot of respect for people who actually write whole books on those processes — but I also see very clearly why so many of them promote their workshop series and why more and more professionals are taking to YouTube for their demos.

Warm-ups and physical action aren’t the only difficult things to flatten onto the page: detailing the ins and outs of scheduling and structuring rehearsals takes some linguistic wrangling as well. This is something else I learned by mimesis: when I directed my first solo full-length show in college, it was after many years of exposure to other directors. Many start in assistant positions before taking on solo projects, in order to see the behind-the-scenes work and get a feel for the ebb and flow before diving in. And, of course, no two directors will run their rehearsal process in the same way, nor do all productions have the same needs. Cast size, rehearsal space, and actor availability are just some of the factors that can influence the scheduling, particularly for school productions rather than professional companies. So how to express something so nebulous? I’m giving a basic breakdown of how to think about those variables, but I’m also giving our teachers a few different examples: an ASCTC three-week schedule, the six-week format I used in college, a recent Ren Season schedule covering only three days. Hopefully this will give our teachers the information they need while still showing them the necessary flexibility of such a project.

What this is all really bringing home to me is just how important people are to the theatrical process. I know that might sound like a no-brainer, but I don’t think I’ve ever thought about it in exactly this context before. When I hear people talk — directors, actors, vocal coaches, etc — about their training and experience, they don’t tend to talk about what books they read. They talk about who they learned from. They talk about the amazing workshop they went to. They talk about summer immersion programs and the best course they ever had at school. They talk about the high school drama teacher who gave them a phrase that still rattles in their brains twenty years later. They talk about the first director who opened a door that let them feel like they were really doing something great on-stage.  That’s the sort of guidance I hope ASC Education can offer: a tangible and personal connection to the work, above and beyond the words on the page.

–Cass

Blackfriars Backstage Pass: Twelfth Night

In this edition of the Blackfriars Backstage Pass, ASC actors Lexie Helgerson, Jacob Daly, Seth McNeill, David Millstone, and Andrew Goldwasser discuss their work on William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night with ASC Co-founder and Director of Mission Ralph Alan Cohen. This podcast was recorded on May 3rd, 2013.

Blackfriars Backstage Pass: Twelfth Night
File Size: 48 MB; Run Time: 50:01

Dr. Ralph Presents: Love’s Labour’s Lost (2013)

American Shakespeare Center Co-founder and Director of Mission, and Mary Baldwin College Professor Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen delivers a pre-show lecture on William Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost before a live audience at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, VA, on April 24th, 2013.

Dr. Ralph Presents: Love’s Labour’s Lost
File Size: 36.2 MB; Run Time: 37:41

Hit the jump cut for the text which Ralph used during this lecture:

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“You were inspired to do those duties”: The Amazing Work of ASC Interns

At the American Shakespeare Center, we are fortunate to have a name that attracts people with talent.  Of course, anyone who sees our shows recognizes the talent onstage, and that of the costumers, perhaps even the props person. Some will credit the directors, a few will think about the other artistic staff members: our amazing Associate Artistic Director, the Stage and Tour managers.  What I appreciate more and more, though, as every summer arrives, are the talented interns who come to spend their summers with us.

2013 Intern Elizabeth Floyd (right) at the ASC offices with College Prep Director Kim Newton (left)

2013 Intern Elizabeth Floyd (right) at the ASC offices with College Prep Director Kim Newton (left)

Applications for positions in marketing, development, management, education, and artistic start rolling in as early as September, and our various department heads begin battling for the students most suited to their needs.  We have students from Pennsylvania and from the University of Nebraska, and we’ve welcomed Utahans and Ohioans and folks from as close as JMU.  Conversations in staff meetings turn from “I don’t really have time to take care of that immediately,” to “My intern arrives this week, we can has him/her to take on that project.”  We begin developing long lists of wishes — research, formatting, filing, blogging, tracking — and divvying up tasks amongst departments.  And then, blessedly, they arrive.

In education, we strive to give each intern an over-arching project that is their start-to-finish focus and that meets their career goals.  Then, we add the fateful clause at the tail end of their contract, “And other duties as required.” Oh, that clause. That clause can encompass the interns attending workshops to give us feedback, going to rehearsals to develop ideas for new programming, stuffing envelopes, writing instructions, checking digital text against folio text, and so much more.  That clause, that one clause, is what makes us look forward to the interns’ arrival.  Certainly, we are excited about their projects, about getting to know these smart and talented people who will be leaders in Shakespeare, theatre, arts management, business and elsewhere, but the relief that settles on our staff when we realize that we can actually check some dreams off the list is, as Mastercard says, priceless.

Given that this year is a Blackfriars Conference year, that clause is even more meaningful to me personally.  When we implemented a “blind” reading committee as part of our selection process in 2011, I knew there would be some work involved.  I could not have imagined just how much formatting, futzing, and focusing it would take to actually make this initiative run. But that year, I had Brenna.  She swooped in and took 24 hours worth of headaches off my hands.  This year, Sarah — a wonderful recommendation from our dear friend Carole Levin at UNebraska — is making it possible for me to focus on new initiatives like our Consortium, and on overdue edits for our Playhouse Insider and camp plays, with the knowledge that I will still be able to get the abstracts to my committee on schedule. Ah, breathing. What a thing it is!

Intern Jane Jongeward (right) at the 2011 Blackfriars Conference

Intern Jane Jongeward (rightmost) at the 2011 Blackfriars Conference

We’ve had some wonderful interns over the past several years, and I want to acknowledge each of their contributions and thank them for their work.  I take a great deal of pride in seeing them go on to become professors, run their own theatre companies, direct plays, and, even, intern for other theatres (though that last one is harder).  So, thanks to Kyle, Megan, Liz, Nuri, Carla, Sarah, Sara, Natalie, Amy, Rachel, Elizabeth, Mara, Grace, Maria, Kimberly, Abigail, Kendra, Jessica, Madeleine, Elena, Alex, Emily, Molly, Jane, Lia, Amy, Melissa and anyone I may have missed.  You have transformed our department with your work and we at the ASC are forever grateful to you for picking up those other duties, or, as Shakespeare puts in in Cymbeline, “You were inspired to do those duties…” And you inspired us in so doing.

Some of their comments:

  • Kelley McKinnon was a wonderful supervisor and always was available for questions or concerns. She made me feel welcome in the rehearsal space and welcomed any feedback that I had on what I was observing. The internship also provided a good opportunity to watch the ASC actors through an entire rehearsal process. I was also solicited by the director at times for my feedback on the actor’s character development, which I appreciated because it allowed me to think critically and creatively, as well as make me feel like I was actually a part of the process.
  • I was always treated with respect and support. Interning at the ASC really feels like you are a valued part of the company and that the work you do matters.
  • Everyone in the education department helped and supported me. I hope my own work helped them in some way.
  • I felt like I was a necessary part of the process, and wasn’t just doing busy work.
  • The department was helpful in creating a fun, lively environment. I never felt excluded or patronized, and was thanked every single day after work. I always felt like I was getting things done and making progress, and Jenny and Erin always made me feel like part of the ASC family.
  • I took the internship to see how a theatre ran and what a theatre degree could do for me outside of traditional roles. My time with the ASC has helped me focus on what it is I would like my theatre degree to turn into in the future.
  • The internship helped me develop research, communication, and management skills that will be useful in any field I pursue. When I entered the internship I had limited knowledge of the skills required to complete the internship but I acquired those skills quickly and can apply them to any job. The internship was a learning process that has set me up to succeed in any job I strive to attain.
  • This internship gave me some great experience working with great people that I hope will help me continue to learn how to make connections and pursue work in professional theatre.
  • Incredible opportunity to watch the process of one of the best Shakespeare companies in the country. Would recommend to anyone!
  • The ASC inspired my current career path. In the best of all worlds I will be working for a theatre with similar ideas and goals. Everything I did and/or learned to do I will most likely do again; from the more glamorous tasks, such as doing research or analyzing verse, to the mundane, such as archiving and office moving.

–Sarah

Book Giveaway: The Bookman’s Tale, by Charlie Lovett

BookmansTale

As promised, thanks to the generosity of Viking Press, ASC Education is pleased to host a giveaway contest for The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett. In case you missed my review, I will reiterate that this was a wonderful, creative, and scholastically responsible historical mystery novel, and I highly recommend it for Shakespeare enthusiasts — particularly of the breed that I know frequents the Blackfriars Playhouse. So, this is your chance to get a copy for free, straight from the publisher — just in time for the summer holidays!

All you have to do to enter is tell us: What show in our 25th Anniversary year, opening June 21st, are you most looking forward to, and why?

We will randomly select a winner from the submissions and make our announcement on Friday afternoon. Please note that due to the publisher’s restrictions, the winner must have a U.S. mailing address.