Friday, 5 August 2016

Did Shakespeare dine out? and other pressing questions.

All the best writings on Shakespeare - whether fact or fiction, articles, skits or imaginative recreations - should send you back to the text.  I have been reading novelist Angela Thirkell lately, and her light-hearted piece in the Cornhill Magazine from 1928*  certainly had me turning the pages of his plays.

She argues that from evidence in several plays, it is clear that Shakespeare did not dine in the best circles, as he shows little understanding of the proper way to entertain.  For example, the Capulets clearly cannot manage their servants - "We shall be much unfurnished for this time" (Act IV, sc.2), Timon of Athens keeps insulting his dinner guests, "trencher  friends"(Act III. sc. 6), and in Cymbeline (Act I, sc, 4),  Philario in Rome has no understanding of inviting compatible acquaintances, with two guests also hampered by language barriers.

In Macbeth, the noble guests politely ignore "the peculiar remarks of their host (never shake thy gory locks..., Act III sc. 4) and the obvious temper of their hostess", while in Hamlet  (Act III sc.2) the host Claudius rushes out shouting unintelligibly in the middle of the after-dinner entertainment.  Hamlet himself has rudely chattered all the way through the play, as Ophelia remarks: "You are a good chorus my lord".
As Angela Thirkell says, "Now can we suppose that any of Shakespeare's patrons would have given such outrageously improbable parties?"

Polite Tudor dining:  William Brooke, Lord Cobham and his family, 1567 
Longleat House Collection

It is the improbable "Ceremonial Boiling of the Potato" Party planned by Raleigh for Queen Elizabeth I and her court, which is one of the running jokes in No Bed for Bacon.  This comic novel by Caryl Brahms and S. J. Simon was a best-seller in 1941, and shares many popular jokes about Shakespeare with the Universal film of 1998,  Shakespeare in Love. 

Francis Bacon as Lord Chancellor, 1617 

In No Bed for Bacon -- which might have influenced Tom Stoppard, but was unknown (except by osmosis?) to the original writer of Shakespeare in Love, Marc Norman --  the stage-struck heroine Lady Viola falls in love with the Bard, with the rivalry of Henslowe and Burbage and their theatre companies as backdrop.

Geoffrey Rush as Philip Henslowe in the Universal  film

 Martin Clunes as Burbage in the Universal film

Shakespeare, however, is clearly only in love with himself : "a melancholy figure sat tracing its signature on a pad.  Shakesper, Shakespere, Shekspar.  He was always hoping that one of these days he would come to a firm decision upon which of them he liked the best."  
Still more precious is his current work-in-progress Lov's Labor Wunne.  He even risks his life to retrieve its title page (all he has yet written) from the flames of the Globe Theatre.  Writing another new play for a Royal Performance on 6th January, "'Call it what you will",  he mocks interfering Sir Francis Bacon, identifiable to all in the figure of Malvolio.
But Bacon plans his revenge:   "He would devise some dark revenge, something deep and literary to obscure Will's name to all posterity.  Bacon should deface the name of Shakespeare!  But how?  He concentrated."

This wonderful Elizabethan burlesque also features Raleigh, ordering ever more splendid but accident-prone cloaks for his 'Ceremonial Boiling of the Potato' before the Queen,  her sea-dog Drake's drunken analysis of the Armada, and poor Francis Bacon's abortive campaign to obtain a genuine Royal Progress bed.  Where has it gone: Shakespeare has queue jumped and sent Bacon's bed to Anne Hathaway, of course.

*included in Christmas at High Risings © the Estate of Angela Thirkell, Virago Publications 2013.

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