A Heroic King Lear

Guest blogger, Perry Mills writes…

In 1993 Adrian Noble directed King Lear for the RSC for the second time. I had seen his previous assault on the play in 1982, a production which contained a truly memorable performance by Antony Sher as the Fool. Apparently Harley Granville-Barker suggested to John Gielgud as he prepared to play the title role on one occasion, “Get yourself a light Cordelia.” Perhaps Michael Gambon would advise Lears designate, “Get yourself a mediocre Fool” since most reviewers seemed to focus on Sher, which was understandable.

Noble certainly appeared to have taken similar advice 11 years later; this time the spotlight was well and truly on the throne – and those words are not a cliché.

I had seen King Lear several times by then and adored the play, but it had never moved me to tears. And I felt sure it should.

I had been impressed and harrowed and shocked and fascinated at various times; but never powerfully moved.

And then I saw Robert Stephens take the role in 1993. Indeed, I saw him three times and on each occasion – sometimes at different moments, but always in the final scene – the critical faculties fell away and I just felt. Just felt… overwhelming grief and loss and pity.

Expectations were high: Stephens had given an award-winning performance as Falstaff in the Henry IV plays two years earlier with the same director. There was the sense that the actor had been waiting for the role all of his career – or perhaps it was the other way round. And Stephens was an ill man; in fact, the understudy had to perform the early performances. By all accounts, he was very good. This only added to the pressure.

It wasn’t a uniformly great production. Although on the whole the RSC had pulled in the First Team – Simon Russell Beale, David Bradley, Jenny Quayle, Owen Teale, David Calder – nevertheless there were some unnecessary things going on with a map on the floor and a globe which expelled red sand high upstage centre. There was real water in the storm scene, and that was impressive.

Truly centre stage, however, was Robert Stephens. I cannot convey the power of his performance by specific examples, however well he met the challenges – the curses, his exchanges with the Fool, his disintegration into madness, the heartbreaking meeting with Gloucester in Act IV, the waking up to Cordelia, the folly of his false hope in “birds i’th’cage”, his final appearance with the dead Cordelia. (Some audiences claim that he carried her on. However, each time I saw it a group of soldiers did the business whilst Lear fussed around them. Stephens was too weak to lift even Abigail McKern.) On this occasion, the whole was far greater than the parts. Particular moments simply contributed to the complete characterisation.

Stephens was an heroic actor, technically awesome (although a minor detail such as line accuracy was not always a priority) and prepared to take thrilling risks. However, more than anything else it was his capacity for utter simplicity that opened the floodgates – and I’m not talking about the rain effects.

Shakespeare can do every kind of emotional effect, and he does. But what is so thrilling, so extraordinary, and so moving is that capacity to reduce it right down. “Never, never, never, never, never” (V, iii).

And Robert Stephens understood that.

Perry Mills
Teacher, King Edward VI School
Stratford-upon-Avon

Shakespeare Abroad

We’re grateful to Peter Parkinson for our second guest blog post. He writes…

A spectacular feature on the island of Cyprus is the restored Roman amphitheatre of Curium, some dozen miles west of Limassol. Carved out of the hillside and looking outwards high above the sea, its restoration was begun little more than half a century ago. The theatre is idyllic but, of an evening when the darkness falls and there is a performance, the effect is truly magical.

Some 50 years ago, a British sergeant working in the (UK-administered) Western Sovereign Base Area, spotted the potential of a theatre in ruins. And so began the annual production of Shakespeare. The first play was A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with the cast coming mainly from amateur companies associated with the British Forces. But because the venture was intended as a joint British/Cypriot affair, locals were also drafted in, and the proceeds went to Cypriot charities.

I was fortunate to have been in five productions, from 1973 to 1977. My first appearance was in Hamlet. I was new to the island and unused to acting. The director that year was a British schoolmaster and he it was who cajoled me into the part of Fortinbras. I was later promoted to Player King and I will never forget my first entrance. Not only was I a tiro who had some pretty dramatic stuff to deliver, but it was also before an audience of 2,000. My feelings were a mix of terror and bewilderment.

My daughter, not yet four, had already announced herself and amused the audience. When the Ghost coaxed Hamlet on to the battlements, her small but clear voice rang out: “Don’t go, Hamlet! Don’t go!”

Two other memories. One involved a large beetle lurching and scratching a path towards my ear as I lay on the stone stage. Hamlet, spotting the danger, put in an unscheduled move and crushed it beneath his heel. So decisive, I thought, and so uncharacteristic of Hamlet. Then there was the incident of the snake that decided to share the stage-side bunker with the lady prompt.

I remember too we had a Cypriot Laertes who addressed his adversary as “Noble Omelette” but very dramatically, as one would expect of a Greek. Another recollection is of our script discussion as to whether we should omit the potentially controversial line: “striking short at Greeks”.

In 1974 there was the failed coup against Makarios, followed by the Turkish invasion. These dramatic events occurred a month after our production of Twelfth Night. We did wonder, in all the confusion, whether the tradition could survive the island’s partition and the mass of real life tragedies all around us. But come the summer of 1975 we were up and running again with The Merry Wives of Windsor. Audience numbers were understandably down, but Makarios’s Vice President, Glavkos Clerides, honoured us with his presence, making us feel that the decision to carry on regardless had been right.

Last summer in Paris, I met a group of Cypriot tourists and asked whether the performances still happened. They hastened to assure me they did, and I discovered this year that the production was The Merchant of Venice, billed as the 49th in the sequence.

Peter Parkinson

Champions Visit

Today we were delighted to welcome great friends of Sprint for Shakespeare to the Bodleian’s Conservation Workshop. Vanessa Redgrave

Nicole Gilroy, Margo Annett, Thelma Holt and Vanessa Redgrave explore the First FolioVanessa Redgrave, Thelma Holt and Margo Annett visited the First Folio in its temporary home, accompanied by Richard Ovenden, Associate Director of the Bodleian. Nicole Gilroy and the team of conservators, Arthur Green, Andrew Honey, and Julie Sommerfeldt, explained details of the book’s history, and the work they are carrying out.

Maximilian Gill, Jessica Norman, Vanessa Redgrave, Jeremy Neumark Jones, Jordan Waller, and Ruby Thomas with the First FolioWe were lucky enough to be joined by the cast and creatives of Oxford University Dramatic Society‘s Much Ado About Nothing (produced by Thelma Holt). Aidan Grounds (Producer), Maximilian Gill (Director), Jordan Waller (Benedick), Ruby Thomas (Beatrice), Jeremy Neumark Jones (Claudio), and Jessica Norman (Hero) chatted to Vanessa Redgrave before filming part of Act 1, Scene 1 with the BBC Oxford television crew:

What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?

Vanessa Redgrave and Jeremy SternJeremy Stern conducted interviews with Richard Ovenden and Vanessa Redgrave: if you are local to the Oxford area, watch the 6.30 news on BBC1 tonight to see more!

We’re enormously grateful to Vanessa Redgrave and Thelma Holt for all the support they are lending our campaign. It was a joy to be able to show them and our other guests our work underway.

Much Ado About Nothing opens at the Bodleian on 7 August 2012, before going on tour to Stratford-upon-Avon (The Dell), London (Southwark Playhouse), Guildford (Mill Studio, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre), and Tokyo (Saitama Arts Theatre). Tickets for the Oxford run are available from the Oxford Playhouse.

King Lear in Quarto and Folio

Will Sharpe writes…

Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, the book that has come to be known more familiarly around the world as the First Folio of Shakespeare, was published in 1623 by the stationer Edward Blount, and printed by the father-and-son duo William and Isaac Jaggard. Its bringing to light, however, was down to an apparent labour of love on the part of two of the principal actors in Shakespeare’s theatre company, John Heminges and Henry Condell.

It is not beyond the realms of possibility that Shakespeare, sensing the approach of death, might himself have asked his friends to see his works into print, although arguments about Shakespeare’s attitude towards the printing of his works remain frustratingly opaque. Lukas Erne, among others, has argued, in his book Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist, that Shakespeare cared very much about his own presence in the London bookshops, while it has been a longstanding narrative attaching to Shakespeare, still upheld in many corners, that he virtually let the manuscript pages he had written flutter into the breeze behind him, such was his apparent indifference to posterity.

This is of course an offshoot of the Romantic vision of Shakespeare as genius, as unworldly creator, and the more usual view of him as a non-literary author in the modern sense has been, since the 1980s, to reemphasise his role as theatrical professional, writing scripts for a company that then held control of them as business assets (their business being live performance). The Folio is justly regarded as one of the most important books in the English language, not least because it ensured the survival of around half of Shakespeare’s plays. All of the following were first printed in, and therefore rendered to posterity by, this book:

  •  All’s Well That Ends Well
  • Antony and Cleopatra
  • As You Like It
  • The Comedy of Errors
  • Coriolanus
  • Cymbeline
  • 1 Henry VI
  • Henry VIII
  • Julius Caesar
  • King John
  • Macbeth
  • Measure for Measure
  • The Taming of the Shrew
  • The Tempest
  • Timon of Athens
  • Twelfth Night
  • The Two Gentlemen of Verona
  • The Winter’s Tale

The rest had already been individually printed in quarto format – small, flimsy books that were cheap to produce – though some of these differ quite dramatically from their Folio counterparts.

There are many reasons for this, and every Folio text has a different genetic history (the fullest and best account can be found in the Oxford University Press study, William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion).

To choose King Lear as probably the highest profile case, no other Shakespeare play that exists in multiple formats bears such strong evidence of revision from Quarto to Folio, apparently informed by attempts to perform it on stage, and this is just one of the ways in which the Folio can also tell us about Shakespeare’s work as both creative artist and pragmatic theatre professional.

The 1608 Quarto, called The True Chronicle History of King Lear lacks about 100 lines that are in the Folio text, which calls itself The Tragedy of King Lear, but notably contains about 300 that aren’t, including the ‘mock trial’ scene in the hovel on the heath during the storm.

Somewhere around 1610, Shakespeare almost certainly adapted his original text for a revival, making the aforementioned additions and cuts and altering many words and phrases within speeches.  There are thus many “substantive” differences (i.e. differences in individual words) between Quarto (Q) and Folio (F), which can be illustrated by comparing Lear’s opening line from each:

Q – ‘Meanwhile we will express our darker purposes.’

F – ‘Meanwhile we shall express our darker purpose.’ (I, i)

The Oxford Shakespeare prints the two texts separately, such are the complexities of the linguistic and structural differences between them, though the tradition in editing has been more towards conflation.

Painstaking studies show that the Quarto text bears strong linguistic parallels with the plays that chronologically precede it (All’s WellTimonOthello), while the language of the Folio text is more akin to Shakespeare’s late ‘Romance’ plays (The Winter’s TaleCymbeline and The Tempest), thus strengthening the claim for the date of revision being around 1610.

There is no evidence for performances of this revival, but we can say with near certainty, based on the Folio text, that they must have taken place. The substantive readings of F are perceived by many as superior to those of Q, while Q’s ‘mock trial’ scene has repeatedly proved an immensely powerful moment in performances of the play, speaking directly to twentieth-century audiences informed philosophically by the ‘theatre of the absurd’, pioneered by writers such as Samuel Beckett as a way of illustrating the desperate futility of man’s existence (a huge thematic concern in King Lear).

That the scene was cut from Shakespeare’s later adaptation may suggest that it didn’t have the same poignant resonance with Jacobean audiences, though whatever the case may have been, the Folio can nonetheless be seen by this example to be, among many other things, a valuable source of evidence for theatre historians as well as literary critics.

The Folio takes its soubriquet from the folio format in which it is printed, characterised by a single folding of the sheets of paper – very expensive at the time – that are to be bound together, hence bigger books, using more paper and at much greater cost to the publisher. It was mainly reserved for Bibles, as the publisher was certain of recovering costs on them.

Printing plays from the unsavoury public theatres in folio was virtually unheard of, though Ben Jonson’s much-derided Workes of 1616, the year of Shakespeare’s death, is the notable precedent. There was obvious financial gain to be had – the Folio cost 15 shillings unbound or a pound if it was bound, depending on the binding – yet it was also a risk. It clearly paid off, however, and were it not for the efforts of all those involved in the venture our knowledge of Shakespeare would, quite literally, be half of what it is today.

Some of the most global, inexhaustible artworks we have would have been – but for the careful mechanical labours of a group of men in a London printing house between 1621 and 1623 – lost within the great vault of history.

Images of the Folio already abound online, but the Bodleian’s copy still retains the cover in which it was bound in 1624 when the library took ownership of it, and the page damage shows the reading habits of a cohort of seventeenth-century students handling the book as utilitarian object not priceless cultural artefact. It made a long, partially mysterious journey away from the library, returning again in the early twentieth century, and is, in other words, more valuable as a material witness to its own reception and survival than as a conveyor of text (many “clean” copies of the Folio survive). The conservation team is therefore applying a minimal interference policy to preserve that record for bibliographic study. The book’s fragility means that it would be a story in which few could share; but this exciting online digitisation project will ensure that it is one that can potentially reach, and inspire, the whole world.

Will Sharpe

Many voices

The covers of the First Folio enclose many voices,” Dr Edmund King said, in passing.

The phrase has stuck in my mind. Edmund, whose research includes eighteenth-century editors of Shakespeare, was talking about dramatic production. Alongside Shakespeare’s voice are those of many collaborators: co-writers, revisers, and actors all contributed to Shakespeare’s play texts before they even reached a publisher.

Within the First Folio, some of these voices are named.

Ben Jonson’s beautiful poem ‘To the memory of my beloved, The AUTHOR’ sits next to others by Leonard Digges, Hugh Holland, and James Mabbe.

A letter of dedication is written by John Heminge and Henry Condell, friends and fellow actors of Shakespeare. Less formally, they also write a letter “To the great Variety of Readers.” The names of these two men, who speak so warmly of Shakespeare, are also listed among the “Principall Actors”.

Edward Blount, Isaac Jaggard, John Smethwick, and William Aspley are named as the publishers. Jaggard’s name also stands for his father, William, who died while the book was in production.

Your voice can be added to those of Aspley, Blount, Condell, Digges, Heminge, Holland, Jaggard, Jonson, Mabbe, Smethwick, and the many printing-house workers whose names are lost to us. By donating to the campaign, you will help open our copy of this book to the world, and your name will appear online, alongside it. You can name someone you would like your donation to be dedicated to, and their name will be added too.

There is another way to add your voice. We are looking for guest bloggers to write posts for us to publish here.

We want to hear what you think of Shakespeare — of the First Folio, of film or theatre productions you’ve seen, your favourite speech, your worst character, the first teacher who inspired love for Shakespeare, a character you acted, a play you directed, bits that make you laugh, and what makes you cry…

Post your thoughts on other people’s blogposts in the Comments below, or email us your own post to be published here: shakespeare@bodleian.ox.ac.uk.

The Team

In November 2011, Dr Emma Smith talked to the Friends of the Bodleian about her study of the history of the Bodleian’s First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays. With characteristic warmth and light touch, Emma translated rigorous research into an engaging tale of a book lost, found, and, through the generosity of 800 subscribers, returned to its first home.

Emma’s talk inspired the Sprint for Shakespeare campaign, aiming to raise funds to stabilize, digitize and publish the First Folio online to share with the world. You can see another lecture Emma gave on the Bodleian’s First Folio online.

The research is Emma’s, and she remains closely involved in the campaign, encouraging support and advising us, but the campaign could not have reached the public without the help and hard work of many colleagues, from Dr Sarah Thomas, Bodley’s Librarian, onwards.

The Bodleian’s Rare Book department has cared for the book since 1906. Dr Clive Hurst and Sarah Wheale have advised us on the First Folio since the first conversations about the campaign. Virginia Lladó-Buisàn and Nicole Gilroy, from Conservation and Collection Care, are charged with assessing the book’s state and carrying out the stabilization work needed. They are working with  Andrew Honey, Arthur Green and Julie Sommerfeldt. Once we reach our target, James AllanNick Cistone and John Barratt from Imaging Services will carry out the specialist photography.

Our Communications department has been central to work on the campaign. Oana Romocea is undertaking all our media communications. Sophie Durand designed the look of the campaign. Alison Prince and Dan Q set up and continue to provide support for this website.

Amy Trotter and Charlotte Paradise, from the University’s Development Office, guide and advise us on public fund-raising, and organized the giving website.

Dr Christine Madsen, working with Dr Matthew McGrattan and Matthew Wilcoxson, from Bodleian Digital Library Systems and Services, will co-ordinate the publication of the digital book online.

The lottery prizes — exquisite, hand-printed reproductions of Leonard Digges’s poem in praise of Shakespeare — are being created by Dr Paul Nash at the  Bodleian Hand-Printing Workshop at the Story Museum.

Caroline Astley, an English graduate working in the Bodleian’s Staff Development department, is kindly volunteering to edit some of the guest blog posts.

The project is overseen by Dr Wolfram Horstmann, and Pip Willcox is managing the work and this website.

If you’d like to get in touch, please email us: shakespeare@bodleian.ox.ac.uk.