Amongst the Palladian architecture of Washington DC there lies a grey stone block, the Folger Institute. Its vaults house the largest single collection of Shakespeare First Folios anywhere in the world and it is a hub of scholarly activity. After a recent holiday to Washington, Sheldrake talks you through it.
Thanks to a couple of nearby anniversaries, we are hearing more than ever not only what great theatre Shakespeare is, but also what a positive influence he is. By and large, this is true. But the commemorative coin has another side, which is Shakespeare’s repeated mobilisation by fascists, racists and regimes we despise. Firstly, this is a story worth telling. Secondly, what does it mean for the plays today? Ahead of a talk on the subject in Oxford on 11th May, Sheldrake thinks aloud.
The Tempest is a difficult play to nail down. It is also the most reinterpreted and adapted of Shakespeare’s plays. In this episode, Sheldrake pursues three themes – Love, Power and Art – and examines how they have been reinterpreted over the centuries.
Ben Jonson. Rival or friend of Shakespeare? Grumpy old bore or stout moralist? In a typical cop-out, Sheldrake thinks both caricatures are true. Jonson is an awkward playwright at the best of times, but his plays are well worth the seeing. Sheldrake gives you his personal top three.
We seem to spend much of our lives asking whether things are worth it. Are they worth the money, the time, the effort? Are we getting value for money? Is something worth it? And everybody in The Merchant of Venice seems to be asking that kind of question too. Venice itself seems to be all about cost and Belmont seems to be all about value. But is it that simple?
A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to be leading a seminar at RADA on Measure for Measure. In preparing for that seminar I found myself disagreeing with much of what I said in my own podcast episode on the play. So here I rebut and refute many of my earlier claims. One of the great pleasures of working on Shakespeare is that one’s opinions are seldom allowed to stand still.
It’s difficult to know what, and particularly who, to talk about in Othello. Iago is a distraction, Othello likes to inflate his own sense of himself, whilst Desdemona can seem even less than she is. Which is odd, because the characters too find themselves not quite knowing how to interpret what they see in front of them. Or they misunderstand completely and interpret too easily. Their perspective is awry. And because Shakespeare wants to show us just how easy it is to do that, he makes audience after audience lose their perspective too.
Falstaff will exceed the bounds of whatever box you try to put him in, a truth I found out for myself in the last Short Sheldrake on Shakespeare. I return to complete some unfinished business on this occasion, finishing off some remarks about why Falstaff is so popular in the Henry IV plays and giving some thought to his influence after his off-stage death early in Henry V.
Twelfth Night seems to be everyone’s favourite Shakespeare play. Why is this the case? Could it be something to do with the fact that it is a play about playing? This play is a hymn to the pleasure and virtue of playing and play wins over anti-play, though of course the real motto is that it’s the taking part that counts.
Sir John Falstaff is a river who has burst his banks. He has taken on a life beyond Shakespeare’s plays and become a myth in his own right. Anybody who has a thirst for life is described as Falstaffian, he has had operas written for him, actors at the mature height of their comic powers have repeatedly enjoyed success as this embodiment of festivity and he remains an unassailable favourite with audiences. Is he just very entertaining, or is there more to it than that?
King Lear is a work of obvious genius, so what to say about it in fifteen minutes that can illuminate it? Using the historical idea of service, and the relationship between service and – believe it or not – love, we can get a handle on all sorts of relationships in the play. And Sheldrake thinks these handles can help us whether we are in a classroom, sitting room or rehearsal.
The BBC has had its ups and downs with Shakespeare. One insufficiently well-known up was its series of Shakespeare adaptations broadcast in 2005. In this episode, Sheldrake reviews the set of four ninety-minute adaptations featuring such actors as James McAvoy, Billie Piper, Damian Lewis, Keeley Hawes, Rufus Sewell, Imelda Staunton and Jonny Vegas that would coincidentally make a great Christmas present for the Shakespeare enthusiast.
Globe Education is launching its new season, a rich array of theatrical and academic events culminating in a two-day conference next April. Sheldrake went along to the Globe to interview Dr Will Tosh to talk about the theme of the season, namely Amity, and some of the upcoming events, including performances at the Inns of Court. Amity is the Renaissance ideal of friendship and if you know the magic of, in Cole Porter’s memorable phrase, a perfect blendship, then tune in for some reflection on the subject.
We all have an image in our mind’s eye of Shakespearean performance during Shakespeare’s lifetime, but what happened between then and now? Why didn’t the Restoration court like Shakespeare? Who is David Garrick? For answers to all these questions and more, seek no further.
In a new Book Review format designed to highlight a few critical classics to add to the shelves, Sheldrake outlines the relative merits of Professor Jonathan Bate’s acclaimed 1997 book The Genius of Shakespeare.
Shakespeare nicked stuff from everywhere; prose narratives, history books, other plays. Sheldrake rattles through a few of the old chestnuts and a few of the lesser-known borrowings, showing Shakespeare as a great adapter of stories.
In a resumption of normal service that is perhaps not quite the triumphant return he would like, Sheldrake confesses himself drawn more to the ideas of Measure for Measure than its drama. The discussions of Virtue and Justice in the play are strikingly front and centre, and the social aspects of these philosophical ideas form the matter of this episode. Dodging the comedy/dark comedy/tragicomedy/problem play debate, Sheldrake gives you Measure for Measure; a play about the nature of society.
A very great number of Shakespeare performances in Britain are conducted by amateur companies. People gathering together to do Shakespeare for fun. The open-air festival is a particularly popular brand of this. Sheldrake has been involved with the Pendley Shakespeare Festival for some time, and from this year’s Festival he uncovers the meanings of Shakespeare that emerge in these kinds of events.
Testing the patience of listeners once again by talking about someone who isn’t Shakespeare, Sheldrake investigates the peculiar career of John Marston; satirist, dramatist, tragicomedian. He had some great successes, then there was a bit of a lean patch, then he appears to have thrown in the towel. Why? In one word – tragicomedy.
The soliloquy is one of Shakespeare’s most recognisable and distinctive theatrical devices. It is in no small part responsible for his fame as a dramatist of human psychology. Was Julius Caesar the gateway in Shakespeare’s soliloquising art between the 1590s and the 1600s? Sheldrake takes a close look at a few speeches from the play.
How do we know when Shakespeare wrote each of his plays? Well, there are several methods of dating a play. Sheldrake rattles through them, taking in a couple of 1590s Michael Billingtons along the way.
For many years, Globe Education has been staging performances with scripts of the plays of Shakespeare’s contemporaries in a series called Read Not Dead. They have worked their way through over 200 plays, but the opening of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse means they now have a permanent and splendid home. To decide which play should be the jewel in the crown of the current season, they held a husting featuring four plays backed by four teams. Sheldrake was there.
Shakespeare’s Sonnets are things you nearly always read alone. But there is a rich seam of drama and conversation to be mined from them, as Sheldrake found recently when he saw them read aloud at the Royal Festival Hall.
Where did the magic happen? We’ve all heard of the Globe, but what did it mean for a play to be written for one playhouse rather than another? And what, for that matter, did it mean for Shakespeare to be attached to the Globe for most of his career? Sheldrake gallops through some answers.
As social politics continue to change with gathering speed, works of literature have to catch up or fall by the wayside. The plays of Shakespeare, written in a very different age from our own, must be scrutinised. Does this play, a notorious battle of the sexes, pass the test? Sheldrake thinks so.
The current production of Titus Andronicus at the Globe Theatre in London has the sort of theatrical courage that all Globe productions, indeed all Shakespeare productions, should have. Much like the play, this production takes risks, and they pay off big time.
Richard II has grown in fame in recent years, but is hounded by the fact that the central character is brilliant whilst the rest of the play is the usual run-of-the-mill History drama. But is it that simple? By paying closer attention, can we see that the true genius of this play is in its combination of genres in order to understand history? Sheldrake thinks so.
The scarcity of scenery on Shakespeare’s stage does not mean that there were no impressive visual effects. One way of awing an audience was with fine costume. As a primer to the full Henry VIII episode next week, Sheldrake describes the impact of costume in two scenes from that play.
We are so used to some of Shakespeare’s plays that it can be very difficult to see their shape with clear eyes. Fusing historical context with an analysis of dramatic structure, Sheldrake takes Macbeth apart and puts it back together again, arguing that Shakespeare’s structural courage is what makes this play so electrifying.
As You Like It is liked by audiences, disliked by academics. What then does this tell us about how crucial performance is to the success of the text? Consequently, Sheldrake argues, engaging with the performance of this play and others should be not only a pleasure for the serious Shakespearean, but also a duty.
Titus Andronicus is rarely read, seen, or heard, but it does not deserve this lack of reputation. Not only does it have much to recommend it artistically, it is also crucial to an understanding of Shakespeare’s development as a writer.