Archive for May, 2015


South Wales: Shakespeare / Early Modern Plays this Summer

May 31, 2015

Just a heads up about some current, or forthcoming, productions of early modern plays

The Duchess of Malfi at RWCMD

John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi is currently playing at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff:

You can see Twelfth Night at Cardiff Castle, 26-27th June, 2015.

Taking Flight Theatre is touring The Winter’s Tale (in Cardiff 11-18th of June).

Everyman Theatre have a new website and a new production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, 22 July – 1 August:

And you can see The Tempest tonight in Llanhennock and a version of Henry IV on July 10th as part of the Caerleon Festival.

I’m sure I’ve missed a production or two, so please do let me know of others @DrJ_Gregory


Northern Broadsides’ King Lear: A Review

May 28, 2015


Northern Broadsides Production

King Lear, Dir. Jonathan Miller

Rose Theatre, Kingston

Friday, 22 May, 2015

A review by Lucy Menon (Cardiff University alumna)

On the evening of Friday 22nd May 2015, I attended the Northern Broadsides’ production of Shakespeare’s King Lear at the Rose Theatre in Kingston.

One of the striking features of this production of King Lear was the Northern accents of the cast; these accents served to reinforce the concept of familial bonds for me as it seemed the ‘down-to-earth’ intonations in the lilt transgressed the idea of it being a royal family and made it instantly more familiar and heightened the tragedy in the sense that it could easily be your own family undergoing such tensions. However, through a very strong cast and able direction from Jonathan Miller, the elevated nature of the play was still maintained and a sense of inner, as well as political, conflict was achieved.

They made good use of a minimal set: a wooden frame, reminiscent of an extremely large curtain rail, complete with deep red velvet curtain wound over the top pole on the left side; wooden tables and benches that were not always present or moved around the stage for various scene changes. The wooden frame literally, as well as metaphorically, served to frame and focus the action on stage. It also took on a more active use when Edgar (Jack Wilkinson), disguised as Tom, would kiss and hold the wooden pole which served to emphasise his disconnection from the others in his own madness. He also took on an almost Jesus-like figure through his nakedness, wounds and crown of thorns and adopting positions with his arms and legs around the wooden frame that almost paralleled a crucifixion stance.

Barrie Rutter gave a convincing performance of the proud king dwindling to a dishevelled old man. Lear’s madness is seemingly a result of his grief and inner turmoil rather than genuine insanity and so seems even more tragic as it reinforces the idea that he is aware of his misdeeds and ill treatment of others and is a fact he will have to bear. When eventually reunited with Cordelia, their interaction is incredibly touching and he becomes the doting father that he should have been from the start: the poignancy is not lost on the audience who realise that this is all too late. In his attempts to reassure her when they are taken to prison we are made to realise what Lear himself realises: this is quite possibly the outcome of his own actions and in some way is responsible for the death of his dutiful daughter. His distress and disbelief at her demise in the concluding moments of the play are highly charged and when he asks for his clothes to be loosened the physical reaction to his emotional grief is made obvious as his heart is literally breaking.

The Fool’s (Fine Time Fontayne) make-up of white face paint with black crosses over his eyes, in a stereotypical clown fashion, gave him an eerie quality and made him appear quite sinister when coupled with the dark replies and dead-pan humour he provides. Appearing after Cordelia leaves and disappearing when she returns, the Fool serves as her stage presence by continually commenting upon Lear’s foolishness and so becoming a disturbing reminder for Lear of his errors.

The three sisters were well cast with Helen Sheals, Nicola Sanderson and Catherine Kinsella playing Goneril, Regan and Cordelia respectively. The strength of the bond between the elder siblings was accentuated when contrasted with those they appeared to share with their father, which did not hold even when slightly tested. The pair are also united through similar body language as well as facial expressions, such as eye-rolling, they both managed to convey their irritation and true feelings about their father which was often quite humorous (after all, who hasn’t been frustrated by an aging parent?) as well as being a source of tension within the play. However, the true spiteful and vicious nature of the sisters, as pointed out by Cordelia in the opening scenes, is still overwhelmingly clear; it is not only their behaviour towards their father that reveals this, it is also the way they lust after Edmund. Eventually, it is the duplicitous Edmund that is the catalyst for the severing of their sisterly affection for each other.

Edmund (Al Bollands) was a suitably suave and simpering son and suitor. Testimony to his ability, it was as though his actions could be understood even if they were horrifically executed and his lies were presented as easily believable. The gulling of Gloucester seems to be done with ease and this poor judgement upon Edgar, with the heavy price upon it, seems to be too hastily accepted. With a commanding stage presence, it was made obvious how the characters Edmund sought to embroil in his plots were easily deceived. His exchanges with Edgar show him at once to be similar to his brother in terms of strength and speech style but also very different as his loyalty lies ultimately to himself. An interesting parallel was that both Edgar and Edmund cut their own left palm at different points in the play; symbolically it is as though they are blood brothers and they are of the same flesh, which is indeed the very bone of contention between them.

Strangely, there seemed to be a greater amount of laughter elicited from the lines throughout the whole production than I had initially expected. Having previously only read the text and examined it as a “tragedy” it is often easy to miss how instances, even though poignant, can also be humorous. I feel that Jos Vantyler deserves a particular mention: his Oswald seemed to have the air of an 80s pop icon which worked wonderfully and he seemed very at home on the stage. His camp attitude while acting as go-between and shrinking from his skirmish with Kent (Andrew Vincent) disguised as a servant provided the audience with light relief and also established a depth to his character.

The blinding of Gloucester (John Branwell) was well enacted and occurred at the back of the stage in a blinding bright light and shrouded in smoke so the audience were given the impression of being close and present but without actually witnessing anything which made it unsettling and effective. In fact, the production used explicit violence minimally (even the fight between Edgar and Edmund at the end was presented in slow motion and more of a choreographed exchange of blows) and this served to enhance the atmosphere as the horror was certainly obvious but not protracted.

Indeed, overall, for this interpretation, words spoke more than actions: considering the power of the language in this play it meant an even greater emotional impact was able to be wrought when the emphasis was not necessarily placed on the visual and the Northern accents helped to establish a very heartfelt portrayal of the destruction of relationships.


You can still catch the production in Newcastle-under-Lyme until mid-June:


Shakespeare and Waste Podcast

May 28, 2015

If you weren’t able to make ‘Shakespeare and Waste’ at the Rose in Kingston last weekend, you can now hear podcasts of the plenaries by Prof Scott Wilson and Dr Peter J. Smith:

The conference was part of the new Kingston Shakespeare Seminar in Theory (KiSSiT).


A Year in Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice

May 26, 2015

A Fool Grows Wise

IMG_0147After struggling through Love’s Labours Lost, it was a relief to put the heavy collected edition back on the shelf and borrow a pocket edition of The Merchant of Venice from the university library. It’s part of a Cambridge Shakespeare series from 1958, and it’s small, squarish, a rather pleasant faded blue colour, and blessedly lightweight. It’s not for every pocket – it would be hard to slip this inflexible hardback into the back pocket of my jeans, for example – but it turns out to slip very nicely into the large square pockets of my favourite denim jacket, where it swiftly found a place among the cycling gloves, notebooks and mint humbugs. As it was quick access, I read several scenes in the queue at the supermarket. The editor apparently has a quixotic fondness for preserving archaic spellings such as ‘piring’ for ‘peering’, ‘moe’ for ‘more’ and ‘roth’ for…

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‘The heavens are just’: Brian Vickers on Thomas Kyd and The True Chronicle History of King Leir.

May 18, 2015


by Darren Freebury-Jones

On Saturday 16th May I had the pleasure of attending a reading of the anonymous play The True Chronicle History of King Leir, in the Chapel at Somerville College, Oxford. It was a delight to see this old play come to life. The great Richard Proudfoot made for a superb Leir, and the bawdy character of Mumford simply stole the show. It was clear to the audience that, in performance, this is a very funny play, but it also has some poignant passages, such as Leir’s reunion with his daughter Cordella (although this ‘loving controversy’ is punctured by comedy). There are also some ludicrous moments that simply do not appeal to modern sensibilities, such as Perillus’ offering the King his blood as sustenance, to which Leir cries: ‘I am no cannibal’!

Much of the talk afterwards, during the symposium, revolved around how this somewhat archaic play influenced Shakespeare. Tiffany Stern argued that Shakespeare adapted/adopted some of the sentiments of the old play when he wrote his masterpiece, King Lear, but replicated little in the way of verbal details. There were also arguments that the nature of the few phrases replicated in King Lear suggests Shakespeare was recalling passages from the play; he did not have a copy to hand. I agree. I dare say he had acted in King Leir. His early plays in particular show a remarkable affinity, as has long been recorded by scholars such as Thomas H. McNeal.[1]

Martin Mueller has created a database consisting of 548 plays dated between 1552 and 1662 (‘Shakespeare His Contemporaries’), which lists n-grams of four or more words that occur in only two plays within this corpus. Mueller notes that ‘If we look more closely at shared dislegomena by same-author play pairs, we discover that on average plays by the same author share five dislegomena, and the median is four. Roughly speaking, plays by the same author are likely to share twice as many dislegomena as plays by different authors’.[2] So it is somewhat striking that Leir shares 10 n-grams with Henry VI Part Three; 8 with Richard III; 8 with King John; 8 with Henry IV Part One and 7 with Much Ado About Nothing. Shakespeare seems to have had a much more intimate knowledge of the play than was articulated at the symposium. One wonders just how easy it might be for a misguided attribution scholar to assign parts of this old play to Shakespeare himself, on the basis of his exceptional familiarity with the play’s verbal details. If Shakespeare did not have a copy of the play to hand, it says something for his capacious memory. It is a pity that, as Ann Thompson has noted, scholars ‘often seem reluctant to accuse’ Shakespeare ‘of being the borrower but prefer to assume that the other dramatist borrowed from him’.[3] Given that Martin Wiggins (surely one of the most brilliant academics on the planet; it was a real pleasure to be in his company at the event) dates the play around 1589, we can be confident that this proliferation of unique matches is the result of Shakespeare’s borrowing.

I myself have had a fairly intimate relationship with this text in the last few years. I must have read it at least a dozen times; thrice in the week running up to the symposium. I have analysed both rare and common word sequences; synonym preferences; feminine endings; pause patterns; dissyllabic suffixes; rhyme schemes; dramaturgy; characterisation etc. and I know that Martin Mueller has applied Discriminant Analysis to the play with some very interesting results. I shan’t present my data until the allotted time (I shall be giving a preliminary account of my findings regards the authorship of King Leir at Cardiff University in July, for the conference Magic and the Supernatural in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods), but needless to say I found Brian Vickers’ talk on the authorship question very interesting. He lists 96 unique collocations shared between the play and Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. I am most interested in verbal parallels as a means of learning about an author’s individual thought processes and his verse formation. Quantitative arguments can be tricky. For example, having analysed Shakespeare’s early plays in comparison to Kyd’s accepted plays, I have compiled quantitative data that, at times, makes Shakespeare look more Kydian than Kyd himself! A quick look at Mueller’s spreadsheet (I have replicated some of his results in a table below) will tell you that Shakespeare was still borrowing from Kyd right up until the end of his career, irrespective of genre. I would contend that more research needs to be done concerning the relationship between Kyd and Shakespeare’s drama. As Lukas Erne puts it, ‘More than anyone else, Kyd appears to have paved the way for Shakespeare’s dramaturgy’.[4]

A real strength in Vickers’ employment of anti-plagiarism software is that it often picks up sequences one would not even consider. These low-level formations constitute what we might call an author’s idiolect. MacDonald P. Jackson prefers to give all candidates an equal chance, and this is certainly a sensible/fair notion, but he uses ‘Literature Online’ to check the rarity of self-determined utterances.[5] For my own methodology, I utilise the software program ‘Info Rapid Search and Replace’[6] to check matches – highlighted by ‘WCopyfind’[7] – against a corpus of 134 plays first performed in London between the decades 1580-1600 (these are old spelling versions of the texts drawn from ‘ProQuest’). I double-check the rarity of these matches using ‘LION’,[8] and then triple-check results using the database ‘Early English Books Online’, or ‘EEBO’,[9] for variant spellings. In this respect I have attempted to consolidate the approaches of eminent attribution scholars such as Vickers and Jackson towards verbal parallels. I have long found the sole use of ‘LION’ to be quite inadequate for ensuring that every instance of a distinct parallel is recorded…

The cumulative evidence Vickers provided for Kyd’s authorship was impressive. Many of the points raised afterwards concerned verbal parallels, but Vickers also cited evidence drawn from the likes of Ants Oras, Philip Timberlake and James E. Routh Jr. It would perhaps be helpful if someone could also apply function-word and lexical-word tests to the play. However, there has been much misuse of computational stylistics in early modern authorship attribution studies of late. Unfortunately, certain judgements, reached with the aid of small sample sizes, without acknowledgement of inherent subjectivity, have been treated as gospel. But a proper review of these findings is forthcoming.

In summary, it was a great day, and Vickers’ talk, chaired by Wiggins, who offered some excellent points, was enlightening. It seems to me that Vickers’ Kyd ascriptions have been largely dismissed, before his evidence has been properly elaborated. One is reminded of reactions to E.H.C. Oliphant’s Middleton attribution. There are, however, reasons to suspect that antagonism towards Vickers’ methodology and results is largely on the basis of personal antagonism towards Vickers himself, and his previous scholarly critiques of other methodologies and results. The proper course would be to listen to all the evidence presented by the scholars in question (who each have their strengths and weaknesses), and then make an objective evaluation. The boundaries of early modern dramatists’ canons seem to be fluctuating, but one hopes that editors will pause before hastening to add plays to modern anthologies, when all the relevant data has yet to be presented. I shall say no more, for fear my words are carried with the wind and conveyed amongst unfriendly ears. Needless to say, just as in both Leir and Lear plays, there is a storm brewing in attribution studies. It is, alas, unlikely that those involved will forget old quarrels…

Relationship between Shakespeare plays and plays Brian Vickers attributes to Thomas Kyd, according to ‘Shakespeare His Contemporaries’. These are the totals for unique tetragrams (four-word sequences and/or more) shared between electronic texts, within a corpus of 548 plays:

Spanish Tragedy Soliman King Leir Arden
Richard III 7 8 8
Verona 7 7
3HVI 10 9 10
Titus 7
1HIV 8
King John 8
Much Ado 7
Merchant 7
Troilus 7
Cymbeline 7
Henry VIII 7

[1] Thomas H. McNeal, ‘Margaret of Anjou: Romantic Princess and Troubled Queen’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 9 (1958), 1-10.


[3] Ann Thompson, ‘The Taming of the Shrew and The Spanish Tragedy’, Notes and Queries, 31 (1984), 182-84 (p.182).

[4] Lukas Erne, Beyond the Spanish Tragedy: A Study of the Works of Thomas Kyd (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), p.4.

[5] MacDonald P. Jackson, Determining the Shakespeare Canon: Arden of Faversham and A Lover’s Complaint (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).





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