British Museum blog

English perspectives on Ireland

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode Ireland: Failures in the Present looks at the great military crisis of the Elizabethan regime.

The woodcut Rorie Oge in the Forest from Derricke's Image of Ireland, 1581. © Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections Department


Andrew Hadfield, University of Sussex

The situation in Ireland represented two things; one is positive, as the English see it, a great opportunity to govern a nation and to make huge amounts of money through people going over and winning land confiscated from the Irish who have rebelled.

But the other side of this situation is England’s worst nightmare. The Irish are predominately Catholic, they are always threatening to unite with the Spanish and that is really what people are particularly afraid of; the fear of Irish savagery uniting with Spanish Catholicism to overthrow all civilised Protestant English values.

If Ireland was lost, there was a genuine fear that England, as an isolated Protestant country in predominantly Catholic Europe, would be destroyed and the Reformation would be still born. English independence would be engulfed by foreign powers. It is a terrifying prospect that is apocalyptic in the way that it is represented by many people.

A modern day comparison might be Cuba and the Cuban Missile Crisis. During the crisis you had the fear that there would actually be a destructive war that would engulf civilisation and you had the idea of Russian forces on America’s shores. I think that is exactly how the English felt about Ireland and the Spanish, that this was a back door into England that could result in the destruction of everything they had tried to build up over the years.

I think the comparison also holds because the Cuban crisis recedes relatively quickly. What’s so strange about history in this period is that after 1601 and the defeat of the Irish forces, Spanish power seems to collapse at the same time. By the time you get to 1607, 1608, things look very, very different and even the gunpowder plot doesn’t make the impact that it would have done a few years earlier.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme Ireland: Failures in the Present

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on, ,

The theatre of monarchy

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode Europe: Triumphs of the Past looks at displays of power.


Jonathan Bate, Shakespeare scholar

Ceremony is the thing that makes a monarchy happen. In Shakespeare’s Henry V, the King reflects on the importance of ceremony, but he refers to it as `idol’ ceremony.

The English have always done royal ceremony and pageantry very well and it is one of the main devices that keep the monarchy going. So in Shakespeare’s time, something like the funeral procession of Queen Elizabeth or the coronation procession of King James would have been huge public events, the streets of London would have been thronged and the elite would actually have been there in the Abbey, at the front when the coronation or the burial took place.

There is an interesting difference between the way that Queen Elizabeth and King James used ceremony. Elizabeth, perhaps because of her insecurity about her own position on the throne, as a woman, a woman without an heir, and a Protestant, relied a lot on public ceremony, processions through the streets and indeed through the nation; visitations to great aristocratic households. She also moved a lot from palace to palace; the court was mobile. One week they would be at the palace at Whitehall and another week they would be down river at Greenwich, another week up river at Nonesuch or Richmond. The public saw this extraordinary bejewelled figure of the Queen.

King James was reluctant to display himself in public in this way. He did make use of ceremony, in particular made use of theatrical entertainments with the court masks in which the royal family and the courtiers participated in theatre and music and dancing. But this was very much an enclosed thing aimed at the elite who were invited to attend, aimed at visiting royalty, visiting diplomats and so on. So there is an interesting contrast between the importance of public spectacle for Queen Elizabeth and this more private, enclosed sense of the court that King James had.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme Europe: Triumphs of the Past

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on, ,

Swords as symbols of status

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode Swordplay and Swagger: Rapier and Dagger looks at violence in Shakespeare’s plays and London’s streets.

An etching of The Fencing School of the University of Leiden, Holland, 1610.
© Trustees of the British Museum


Toby Capwell, Curator of Arms and Armour, The Wallace Collection

When we think of rapiers we usually imagine the ‘flashing blades’ of Errol Flynn, Douglas Fairbanks, and other Hollywood swashbucklers. The modern understanding of swords is however littered with misconceptions.

Medieval swords are usually stereotyped as heavy and cumbersome while rapiers are thought of as feather-light and lightning-fast. But actually it is just the reverse: medieval swords tend to be very light and agile while real rapiers, at least in the 16th century, tended to be quite heavy and, to an untutored hand, often seem very ungainly.

The proper use of any weapon depends on the user being trained in the specific fighting technique which relates to it. A sword is inseparable from the movement style that has been developed for it. Most members of the sword-carrying classes in Elizabethan England would have studied with a fencing master. A Tudor gentleman would go to his fight master on a regular basis, every day if he could afford it, in order to improve and refine his sword-fighting abilities.

This was quite an exclusive thing to do. You had to have the luxury of free time, and you had to be able to pay for it. So the ability to use a rapier to a high standard is an immediate and obvious demonstration of status. It’s something that many in Tudor society aspired to. Many actors – Shakespeare and his contemporaries – were all familiar with swords and sword-fighting to varying degrees.

The rapier was literally a ‘dress sword’ (Sp. espada ropera; ‘sword of the robe’) designed for non-military combat, in duels, street-fights, and street-wise self-defence. It was the very long, thrusting sword of the fashionable urban swordsman (the length of the blade is what made it much blade-heavier than a medieval sword). It was one of the icons of the High Renaissance.

A performance of virtuoso metalworking, a fine rapier was the mark of a cultured sophisticate. It was the work of art than showed him to be an connoisseur, the jewellery object that proclaimed him to be a man of honour, and the weapon with which he would defend that honour, to the death.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme Swordplay and Swagger: Rapier and Dagger

Find out more:
Royal Armouries
Top ten objects from the Royal Armouries
The Wallace Collection
Exhibition: The Noble Art of the Sword
The Noble Art of the Sword exhibition catalogue
Arms and Armour: Renaissance Rulers, Patrons and Warriors

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on, ,

Why was a picture like this made?

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode Life Without Elizabeth: Portrait of the Tudor Dynasty examines the hot topic of who would be next on the throne.


Susan Doran, University of Oxford

In 1571 or 1572 when this painting was made, the question of Queen Elizabeth’s marriage was still alive. There were negotiations for her to marry in the French Royal House; there were the two young princes so candidates for marriage were possible, even though in many ways marriage was unlikely. Of course, Elizabeth could also have married Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. She was young enough still, despite being in her late thirties, to have children and that would have resolved the question of the succession.

At this time there were considerable problems about the succession because there wasn’t only the danger that Elizabeth might die naturally and Mary Queen of Scots, a Catholic, would gain the throne, but that she would actually be assassinated. There had been a Papal bull that called for her deposition and there had been a plot, the Ridolfi plot, which was an international conspiracy designed to supplant Elizabeth and put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne.

A painting by Lucas de Heere,The Family of Henry VII: Allegory of the Tudor Succession, 1571-2.
© National Museum of Wales

Everyone knew that there was an international conspiracy, that there had been a rebellion in 1569 designed to put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne and that Philip II of Spain was behind the Ridolfi plot, so those people looking at the painting would have been aware of the threat to Elizabeth’s own life and therefore the problem with the succession.

In 1571, the Treasons Act was passed which made it treason to discuss the succession, particularly the title of any potential successors to Elizabeth. Another policy was passed in 1581 which reinforced that need for silence on the succession.

The issue of the succession was evident not just in Shakespeare’s plays but in other plays as well, in masques and entertainments. Questions about what kind of succession there should be, whether it should be an elective or hereditary succession are present in Titus Andronicus. They’re there in chronicles, they’re there in plays and they would have been easily read by audiences of Shakespeare’s plays.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme Life Without Elizabeth: Portrait of the Tudor Dynasty

Find out more:
National Museum of Wales
Allegory of the Tudor Succession

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Archaeological findings at Shakespearean playhouses

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode Snacking Through Shakespeare: A Theatre Goer’s Fork looks at what it would have been like inside Southwark’s playhouses.

Fruit seeds and nutshells from the Rose Theatre © Museum of London


Julian Bowsher, Senior Archaeologist, Museum of London Archaeology

Excavations have been carried out at the sites of quite a range of Shakespearean playhouses, including from the site of the Theatre built by James Burbage in 1576, the Rose built in1587. We’ve also found a small area of the Globe built in 1599 and another small area of the Hope built in 1614.

The excavation at the Rose playhouse in 1988-90 was certainly the largest excavation and has produced the greatest amount of evidence about the construction of these types of buildings. It was the first time we’d seen one of these playhouses for 400 years. Being able to understand the layout of these buildings and the position of the stage and the galleries have been very important discoveries.

But we’ve also recovered many artefacts that enable us to look at the average Elizabethan theatre-goer in terms of foodstuffs, clothing and personal items.

There are a number of contemporary accounts saying that you could buy food and drink within these theatres. Amongst the groundlings standing in front of the stage, people would have sold their wares, rather like the old cinema usherettes with a tray on a strap around their neck. The theatres didn’t have any room for a bar or foyer in a modern sense so things like nuts, apples, fruit, beer, or wine, or water could all be bought inside.

We know that people were eating shellfish; oysters, muscles, periwinkles, whelks, we even found a cuttlefish. The groundlings would have just dropped the shells on the ground, although they would have been swept up at the end of the day – most of the shells we’ve found are in the dumps at the back of the building.

In contrast, the richer members of the audience sitting up in the galleries would have probably brought their own food, drink, glasses and cutlery. Everybody had their own set of cutlery, although that usually meant a spoon and a knife because forks were very rare at this time.

A plan of the excavation at the Rose playhouse. The fork featured in today's programme was found in the top left corner of the stage. Click on image to enlarge. © Museum of London

The fork that features in today’s programme was found in a layer underneath the stage area of the Rose. We know it was buried there in 1592 because, like many buildings, the Rose underwent a series of alterations and enhancements and a new second stage was built at that date. Amongst the debris, in between the two stages, was this fork.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme Snacking Through Shakespeare:
A Theatre Goer’s Fork

Find out more:
Museum of London Archaeology
Excavations at the Rose

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on, , ,

The Protestant state under Elizabeth I

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode Communion and Conscience: The Stratford Chalice explores religion in Elizabethan England.

A communion cup from Holy Trinity Church, Stratford, which features in today's episode.
© Inspired Images


Eamon Duffy, University of Cambridge

Everybody in 16th-century England took religion for granted as a fundamental part of life. In the Protestant state under Elizabeth I, attendance at church and the reception of communion were increasingly enforced. It became, in a way, a test of citizenship.

Catholics would have been required to receive the Protestant communion at least once a year, and Catholics who stayed away from services would have been fined.

For everybody, these were changes that affected fundamental views of the meaning of life and of the afterlife. The Mass was no longer in Latin, but in English. We tend to see this as a move towards intelligibility. Some people were thrilled by it, the arrival of the English Bible. For many, it was a revelation and an empowerment.

But for others, it was tiresome gobbledegook. When the English communion service was first introduced in 1549, most of the people in the west of England were outraged. They felt this was some bizarre game that was being imposed on them and rebelled against it, which led to a horrendous siege at Exeter. The rebels denounced the new service as a sort of Christmas game and demanded the return of the Latin Mass.

So it took people time to accustom themselves to these changes, and the date on this communion cup – 1571 – is one indicator of the time it takes simply to change material culture. When we look at this cup, we are looking at a whole culture in movement, adjusting itself. By 1571 it’s becoming clear to everybody that there is not going to be a return to Catholicism in the near future.

In the late 1560s, even before the sterner [religious] enforcement began, communities all over England are beginning to say, oh well stuff this for a game of soldiers, we better do it. Here in Cambridge in the late 1560s, the church wardens of the main town churches begin to sell off the Catholic vestments, they were beginning to equip themselves properly for Protestantism.

This doesn’t mean to say that Catholicism disappeared. Catholic beliefs remained current in one form or another, especially around things like funerals, for a very long time. When Shakespeare was young, there would still have been old people saying the rosary, crossing themselves when there was thunder, using holy water.

Shakespeare couldn’t have avoided knowing about Catholicism, it’s probable that every family in England had Catholic relatives. Shakespeare himself had a second cousin, Robert Saville, who became a Jesuit priest. Saville was executed at Tyburn and is a Catholic saint.

What is certain is that every literate person in England in the 1590s and early 1600s had some acquaintance with Catholicism, even if it was so that they knew the enemy.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme Communion and Conscience:
The Stratford Chalice

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on, ,

The role of maps in Shakespeare’s England


Peter Barber, Head of Map Collections, British Library

The most obvious place a person in Shakespeare’s England would have encountered a map would have been in a Bible. Protestant Bibles in particular contained maps to prove the veracity of the scriptures, and this tells us a lot about the role of maps in society. Maps were used sometimes (but not often) to get from A to B, and from about the 1520s onwards for administration purposes, but most of all they were regarded, quite consciously, as stages for human history.

If you were lucky enough, you might have been invited into the home of a merchant. It’s quite likely you would have seen wall maps adorning his parlour and his dining room. The most common maps would have shown the Holy Land as well as maps of the continents of the world. These maps were not there to show where his ships were travelling – their purpose was to show that its owner was a man who knew about the world.

Most wall maps served propagandas purposes. On the whole maps, whatever their size, were much more useful for merchants than for seamen. The merchant could use them for planning purposes but, as English sailors told the authorities repeatedly in the 16th century, charts weren’t much use once you were actually at sea because in the northern Atlantic it was usually so misty you couldn’t see any coastlines: it was far more practical to navigate using a plumb line to measure the depth of the sea, rather like a mole on land.

So rather than maps being navigational tools, maps – when not being used for practical purposes on land – tended to be symbolic, and educational. In 1570 the first modern atlas of printed maps was published, called The Theatre of the Lands of the World. This idea of the world as a stage, picked up by Shakespeare, was around long beforehand.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme England Goes Global:
Drake’s Circumnavigation Medal

Find out more:
The unveiling of Britain – maps of the British Isles
Maps at the British Library
Maps at the National Maritime Museum
British Library

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on, ,

What is the city but the people?


Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum

In 2012, as the world’s gaze turns on London in this Olympic year, the British Museum will be exploring this capital city from a slightly different viewpoint – by trying to get inside the heads of the people who lived here over 400 years ago.

In Shakespeare’s Restless World, a series starting on BBC Radio 4 next week, we will explore the stories of 20 objects – some grand, some everyday things – that help us imagine what the world looked like to the groundlings inside the Globe theatre around 1600.

I’ll be talking to Shakespeare scholars, historians and experts on the fascinating issues these 20 objects raise – everything from exploration and discovery abroad to entertainment, monarchy and even the deadly threat of plague closer to home.

Detail of London ('The Long View'), Wencelaus Hollar, 1647, showing the Globe Theatre.

Detail of London ('The Long View'), Wencelaus Hollar, 1647, showing the Globe Theatre.

As well as objects from the British Museum, many are from collections across the UK. I have been travelling across Britain to get a closer look at what these objects, such as a fork found on the site of the Rose Theatre, a book of royal murder plots, and sunken treasure from Morocco, can reveal to us about daily life, national politics and global economics at the turn of the 16th century.

Throughout the series there is something else that allows us to picture these turbulent times so vividly: the works of William Shakespeare himself. In the programmes, we delve into his plots and characters, his speeches and soliloquies, to seek glimpses of the uncertain times in which he lived.

Later in the year, the British Museum will open its doors to Shakespeare: staging the world, bringing together a vast and eclectic array of Elizabethan and Jacobean objects, including the 20 featured in the radio series. This exhibition will provide a unique insight into the emerging role of London as a world city four hundred years ago, interpreted through the innovative perspective of Shakespeare’s plays. Featured alongside these objects will be digital media and performance created in collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and soon you will be able to follow the work that’s going on behind the scenes here on this blog.

From next week on the blog, to coincide with the series broadcast on BBC Radio 4, we will be featuring contributions from some of the many people I’ve spoken to in the making of Shakespeare’s Restless World.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is broadcast on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 on weekdays.

Shakespeare: staging the world opens at the British Museum on 19 July 2012.
Supported by BP
In collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company
Part of the World Shakespeare Festival and London 2012 Festival

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on, , ,

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