Shakespeare’s England: A Land of Lords – Preview #7

In this edition of the NKSC preview, I’ll be talking about the idyllic beauty of the Cotswolds — Shakespeare’s home turf. The Cotswolds region stretches through five of England’s western counties: Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Warwickshire, Wiltshire, and Worcestershire. The area is best known for its rolling hillsides and picturesque beauty — in fact, it is the largest designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in England. Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon is just at the northern edge, and the region stretches all the way down to Bath in the south. Since medieval times, the area has largely been devoted to pastures, giving rise to the “Cotswold lion,” a particularly large and fluffy variety of sheep. It is probably from these sheep pastures that the word “Cotswolds” derives, though scholars have argued it might also be a derivation of an early British ruler’s name. The picture below is typical of the landscape throughout the Cotswolds:

Cotswolds

 

Shakespeare mentions the Cotswolds directly twice in his plays:

Richard II, 2.3
NORTHUMBERLAND:
I am a stranger here in Gloucestershire:
These high wild hills and rough uneven ways
Draws out our miles…
Yet your fair discourse hat been as sugar,
Making the hard way sweet and delectable.
But I bethink me what a wear way
From Ravenspurgh to Cotswold will be found
In Ross and Willoughby, wanting your company.

The Merry Wives of Windsor, 1.1
SLENDER
How does your fallow greyhound, sir? I heard say he was outrun on Cotswold.

Cotswolds2As you can see, many of the buildings in this region still look much as they would have hundreds of years ago, with thatched roofs and honey-colored stonework or distinctive Tudor-era half-timbered walls. The Cotswolds have become a popular location for the second homes of wealthy Londoners, but even new buildings in the area often retain this aesthetic. A special conservation board oversees the maintenance of the Cotswolds’ particular character.

Our home base will be the Lygon Arms in the town of Broadway, considered “the jewel of the Cotswolds.” Broadway is a place of ancient heritage, with evidence of habitation dating back to the Mesolithic era. After the Norman Conquest, it became an important market town. The Lygon Arms began life as The White Hart Inn as early as 1532, and the inn served as a meeting-place for both the Royalists and the Parliamentarians during the English Civil War of the 17th century. Though it retains its early modern aesthetic, its comforts are 21st-century, with rooms updated for modern technology.

hidcote_garden2_originalOur Cotswolds journey will also include a visit to the Hidcote Gardens. Colorful and verdant year-round, these gardens are designed as a series of themed “rooms” which get less formal and more untamed the farther you get from the Hidecote Manor House. American emigrant Lawrence Johnson began work on them before World War I and kept creating and expanding until the advent of World War II.

For those of us used to suburban sprawl or a tightly-packed urban lifestyle, the Cotswolds are sure to be a gentle respite. Strolling through the countryside will hopefully help everyone recuperate from their jet lag and relax into enjoying the character of the English countryside before we move on to Stratford!

“Admit me Chorus to this history” – A brief lesson in starting shows, by William Shakespeare, Stephen Sondheim, Will Smith, and Lin-Manuel Miranda

Over the past nearly-six years, I’ve developed a fascination with the opening scenes of Shakespeare’s plays. This is a direct result of my work on our Study Guides — in the Basics section of each one, I use the first 100 lines of the play as an example to teachers of how to work with embedded stage directions, scansion, paraphrasing, rhetoric, and audience contact. It means I get to know those opening five minutes quite intimately.

It’s occurred to me that there are some similarities that run not only across Shakespeare, but across the centuries, when it comes to starting a show. Obviously not every play follows the same pattern, even within Shakespeare, but a great many have certain characteristics in common, particularly when there’s an opening prologue of some sort.

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John Harrell as the Chorus in the ASC’s 2011 Henry V; photo by Tommy Thompson

The first few minutes of the play let the audience know what’s important and what to expect. I’ve talked about the importance before, in my Wandering through Wordles series, but on a basic story-telling level, those first moments set the scene, often quite literally. Within those first 100 lines (which are often but not always within the first scene), Shakespeare tells us where we are or soon will be:

The Two Gentlemen of Verona: “here in Verona”
2 Henry IV: “in a bloody field by Shrewsbury”
Henry V: “the vasty fields of France”
Troilus and Cressida: “In Troy, there lies the scene”
12th Night: “This is Illyria, lady”

He tells us who our important characters or factions are:

Henry V: “the warlike Harry”
Romeo and Juliet: “these two foes”
Richard II: “Henry Hereford… against the Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Mowbray”
Love’s Labour’s Lost: “You three, Biron, Dumaine, and Longueville”
Much Ado about Nothing: “Don Pedro of Aragon comes this night to Messina”
Richard III: “this son of York”

Sometimes he tells us what’s already happened, in the time before the play begins:

1 Henry VI: “King Henry the Fifth, too famous to live long. / England ne’er lost a king of so much worth”
Troilus and Cressida: “Six-and-ninety, that wore / Their coronets regal, from t’Athenian bay / Put forth toward Phrygia, and their vow is made / To ransack Troy”.

Very often, Shakespeare tells us what’s going to happen, either in the short term, as when Richard lets us know he means to “set my brother Clarence and the King in deadly hate, the one against the other”, or else over the whole course of the play, as with Romeo and Juliet‘s famously spoiler-iffic opening: “A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life.”

Sometimes the information doesn’t come from a separate prologue, but from the characters themselves, as when Orlando gives us his family history in As You Like It or as in Aegeon’s famously interminable info-dump at the start of The Comedy of Errors. Generally monologues, though sometimes with limited prompting by another character, these openings serve a similar function as the prologue-openings, but come from inside the world of the play rather than from an outside spectator. (This may have the effect of immediately bringing the audience in as well, making them eavesdroppers or confidantes, rather than casting the play as a pageant presented for their perusal.) Some plays also don’t have their famous prologues in their Quarto versions, but even then, the first five minutes still transmit much of the same information — the brawling Capulets and Montagues set up the conflict of Romeo and Juliet, and King Henry tells us about his warlike aims in Henry V, for example.

One purpose of the prologue or prologue-like opening, then, is biographical: either of the individual or of the setting. Shakespeare has to set his stage. The other purpose I’ve noticed is instructional: Many prologues conclude with some sort of “call to action” for the audience, much the same way that epilogues will often end by asking for applause. Romeo and Juliet asks the audience to watch “the two-hours’ traffic of our stage/The which if you with patient ears attend/What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend,” while Henry V requests that the audience “Admit me Chorus to this history,/Who prologue-like your humble patience pray/Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.” Both of those openings beg the audience’s indulgence for imperfection. The stage can never present things as they truly were, after all, but the actors are going to do their best.

So how do I connect this to more modern media? When I started thinking about biographical and instructional openings, one of the first things that popped into my head actually wasn’t from live theatre — it’s the opening theme of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Pretty much any child of the 90s can bust out these rhymes on command:

Smith not only starts with a great opening word — “Now”, the same as Shakespeare uses to start Richard III, excellent because it focuses the audience’s attention on the immediacy of the speaker’s words — but he also begins by contextualizing his speech as a story. Just as many of Shakespeare’s openings do. The instructional portion of the intro is brief: “Just sit right there; I’ll tell you how I became the prince of a town called Bel Air.” He moves quickly into the biographical purpose: He then moves on to a “story up to this point” retelling; it doesn’t give away the ending (impractical in an ongoing TV series), but it does set the scene, much like Rumour in Henry IV, Part 2 and the brothers of Henry V who begin Henry VI, Part I.

We also see in Smith an unreliable narrator. His narration does not always match the visuals. This made me think both of Rumour, who outright tells the audience his purpose is to mislead, and of the Chorus in Henry V, whose version of an ultra-glorious hero-king is not always borne out by the events of the play that Shakespeare gives us. The biographical purpose of the intro cannot be trusted.

Then I thought about the opening number of Into the Woods, which introduces us to all the characters we’re going to need to know about. Sondheim begins as traditionally as is possible: “Once upon a time, in a far-off kingdom, lived a fair maiden, a sad young lad, and a childless baker and his wife.” The audience quickly recognizes the fair maiden as Cinderella and the sad young lad as Jack of beanstalk fame; rapidly, all within the opening number, we also meet Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters, Jack’s mother (and his cow), Red Riding Hood, and the Witch.

Sondheim doesn’t really need to tell us how these stories end — we already know that. (Or do we? as the second act of the musical proceeds to explore — but then, his purpose is subversion of tropes, so it’s entirely fitting that he would give us an opening that lays out expectations, then waits til halfway through to break them). Critically, he does tell us what they all want. The theme of “I wish” runs through the entire play, and Sondheim seeds that in these first moments, as well as providing us with their first obstacles.

Since the play features an on-stage character called The Narrator, who begins with the famous “Once upon a time”, the musical quite obviously points at itself as a story, though in a slightly different way than Shakespeare and Smith. These stories are so well-known as to be ubiquitously understood in Western culture. By giving the audience the familiar opening, Sondheim makes us a promise, placing us in the comfortable realm of the bedtime story — and then almost immediately breaks that promise by showing us that these are not the stories we know, because they will interweave and affect each other.

The instruction in this opening is implicit, embedded in common culture. When we hear the words “Once upon a time,” we already know what to do. We don’t need to be told. But by including them, Sondheim is still pointing us in that direction. And then, he tricks us, pulling a bait-and-switch on the familiarity, to delightful effect.

The biographical purpose of the opening number of Hamilton is obvious: Lin-Manuel Miranda gives us a literal biography of Hamilton’s young life, up to the point where he arrives in New York. The first four words give us crucial information about his family background (“How does a bastard…”; a few lines later, we learn where he’s from (“a forgotten spot in the Caribbean”). And then we learn who he is and how extraordinary he is. It’s a little like the first five minutes of Henry V — not only the prologue, but the first scene between the bishops, where they discuss Henry’s earlier years. And like Romeo and Juliet, Miranda’s Hamilton takes the biographical purpose of the opening all the way through, giving away the ending when Burr states: “And me? I’m the damn fool that shot ‘im.”

Though delivered by Aaron Burr, this song’s purpose is really Hamilton’s self-contextualization. No one else gets a name in this song — we’ll properly meet Burr, Mulligan, Lafayette, and Laurens in “Aaron Burr, Sir”, Angelica and Eliza in “The Schuyler Sisters”, Washington in “Right Hand Man”, and other important figures as the play goes on. Here, they are defined only by their relationships to Hamilton:

MULLIGAN/MADISON AND LAFAYETTE/JEFFERSON:
We fought with him

LAURENS/PHILLIP:
Me? I died for him

WASHINGTON:
Me? I trusted him

ANGELICA SCHUYLER, ELIZA, MARIA REYNOLDS:
Me? I loved him

BURR:
And me? I’m the damn fool that shot him

The musical even presents most of the cast in stripped-down versions of the costumes we’ll see them in later, parchment-colored and almost ghostly; the ensemble presents scenes from Hamilton’s past in stylized dance, dumb-show like — a convention familiar to early modernists. Burr (who has the first lines) alone begins in a full-color costume, and Hamilton dons a jacket partway through. This presentation, with the context of the lines, seems to suggest that Hamilton will be the only character who “matters”, that we will see everything through his eyes and everyone through that lens. But, much like Shakespeare and Sondheim, Miranda subverts that expectation. We get nearly as much insight into Burr’s anti-hero as into Hamilton himself, and Eliza ultimately decides the course of her own narrative (as I’ve discussed before). Everyone’s story matters, even if the main focus of the musical is a single man.

Hamilton

(Click for link to video)

And, like Shakespeare and Smith, Miranda gives us unreliable narrators. Hamilton and Burr are telling their own stories, with their own biases, often at cross-purposes. One of the largest themes of the musical is that of self-determination: How do you create yourself? Is the self that you conceive the same self that the world witnesses? What do you do when the two don’t match?

The instructional component of Hamilton‘s intro is subtler, and it goes by fast. The only line that seems a direct appeal to the audience is Burr’s: “His ship is in the harbor now, see if you can spot ‘im.” I think there’s a larger appeal, though, in what Hamilton says upon his entrance and what the ensemble echoes later: “Just you wait.” He’s not just talking to the other figures on stage: he’s talking to us. And we will wait, of course. We’ll stay in our seats to see how the story plays out, even if we know the ending — as Shakespeare well knew we would, too.

The idea of storytelling weaves throughout the musical, in numerous references including the show’s tagline: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story”. Miranda seeds it here, though, in the very five minutes (The opening number runs about 4:25, and then the very first bars of “Aaron Burr, Sir” give us one last crucial bit of information: the year our story begins, 1776). Miranda is, like Shakespeare, cluing us in to something important — about self-determination, about choosing your narrative, about trying to control the story of your life.

Obviously not every play or musical falls into this pattern, and even fewer TV shows and movies do, but it makes me think, broadly, of how storytellers introduce information. How do they give us the background we need? How do they let the audience know what to expect? How and when might they subvert those expectations?

–Cass Morris
Academic Resources Manager

PS: Don’t worry, rhetoric geeks! I’m still working on some Shakespeare-to-Hamilton comparisons.

PPS: Also on posts about parallels regarding final lines, parodies, meta-theatre, doubling, costuming, and many more things. The more I explore this, the more solidly convinced I become that Lin-Manuel is one of our modern Shakespeares. Not an exaggeration. Just my analysis of how each writer uses his space, his actors, his audience, and above all, his language.

Shakespeare’s England: A Land of Lords – Preview #6

While in Northumberland, we’ll spend some time along the erstwhile borderland between Roman Britain and those people that the Romans considered barbaric, uncivilized, and uncouth in the extreme — the Scots. Or, more accurately, the Caledonians, as the Romans termed the people described as “red of hair and long of limb” by the historian Tacitus.

Rome endured uprisings from the conquered British tribes and raids and invasions from the northern Caledonians for most of the first century. Their territory in Britain reached its greatest bounds in 84 CE, when the general Agricola won a massive victory over the Caledonians in northern Scotland. A generation later, however, the Romans had to pull back to Northumberland — likely because Emperor Trajan was pulling legions from Britain to serve in his Dacian Wars. By the time Emperor Hadrian arrived in 120 CE, he determined that the Romans should build a defensive wall 80 miles long, demarcating the border between Rome and the wilds beyond. (Re-enactments of battles between the Romans and the Caledonians take place regularly along the wall today, as you can see below.)

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The exact purpose of the wall is questionable, however. In many places, it is not high enough to serve as a reliable defense, and though the Romans had small forts every five miles along the wall, the expense of patrolling all 80 miles would have been prohibitive. Some scholars have theorized that the wall’s purpose was more symbolic in nature, as Hadrian expressed an interest in defining Rome’s boundaries rather than continuing expansion — and indeed, the Empire began shrinking in size after his reign. Hadrian’s Wall may also have been a way of controlling trade for the purposes of taxation more than repelling invaders.

Hadrians-Wall-007The first major breach of the wall occurred in 180 CE, when the Picts crossed the border, murdered the Roman governor, and initiated the most serious war of the reign of Emperor Commodus. (Commodus is best known for the villainous role he plays in Gladiator, portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, but the film Centurion better depicts the war in Britain). By 410 CE, Roman rule in Britain was at an end.

Over the centuries, portions of the wall were lost to building projects and road construction — including a road built to put down another Scottish rebellion, the Jacobite insurrection of 1745. What remains of the wall owes its survival to a lawyer from Newcastle, who bought large sections of land in the 1830s and began restoration projects. In 1987, Hadrian’s Wall was declared a World Heritage Site.

When we visit Hadrian’s Wall, think of what Shakespeare has to say about the conflicts between the English and the Scots — a contentious relationship, even after the union of the countries under King James. In Henry IV, Part 1, Prince Hal imagines the life of Harry ‘Hotspur’ Percy, living on the border:

HAL: I am not yet of Percy’s mind, the Hotspur of the north; he that kills me some six or seven dozen of Scots at a breakfast, washes his hands, and says to his wife ‘Fie upon this quiet life! I want work.’ ‘O my sweet Harry,’ says she, ‘how many hast thou killed to-day?’ ‘Give my roan horse a drench,’ says he; and answers ‘Some fourteen,’ an hour after; ‘a trifle, a trifle.’

We’ll also visit Dunstanburgh Castle, an important outpost on the sea. In the 13th and 14th centuries, this castle served as a garrison both for Englishmen fighting the Scots and for Englishmen fighting each other. Possession of the castle switched sides several times during the Wars of the Roses, and by the late 15th and early 16th century, Dunstanburg was falling into disrepair. It was used as a haven for pirates for some time, and though many different owners made efforts at repair, the castle was never fully restored. By the 1800s, poets and artists found it an inspirational destination, representing natural beauty, romantic decay, and the wilds of Scotland.Dunstanburgh_Castle_-_geograph.org.uk_-_924510

In the 20th century, Dunstanburgh became unexpectedly important again, as the bays to its north were deemed vulnerable to amphibious assault during World War II. Sir Edmund Ironside oversaw the construction of defenses, including lines of barbed wire, slit trenches, and concrete pillboxes — which still stand north of the castle today.
Today, Dunstanburgh is owned by the National Trust and maintained by English Heritage. It has become a focus for archaeologists, who have discovered evidence of habitation on the site dating back to the Iron Age. It has also become an important site for conservationists, who advocate allowing the area to remain waterlogged to provide a habitat for numerous bird, amphibian, and insect species.

Next time on the NKSC Preview: the gentle beauty of the Cotswolds!

There’s still time for a few more intrepid travelers to join us on our trip, so if you or any of your friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, or coworkers are interested, learn more on our website — or ask me for more information!

–Cass Morris
Academic Resources Manager