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Book review 318: The Shakespeare Legacy

May 9, 2014 - Harry Eagar
THE SHAKESPEARE LEGACY: The Material Legacy of Shakespeare’s Theatre, by Jean Wilson. 211 pages, illustrated. Bramley. £19.99

When I was taught Elizabethan and Jacobean theater practices in the ‘60s, hardly any of the evidence had been found since around 1900. The Victorians had ransacked England for documents and “reliques,” and since hardly anything had been found since then, it was thought that everything that had survived had been found.

So we confidently reconstructed the vanished Globe and what went on inside it, on hardly any evidence. Professor Jean Wilson reminds us that all of the many reconstructions of the Globe’s “wooden O” are conjectural, including Sam Wanamaker’s full-size version built around 1989.

In that year, though, excavators came upon the foundations of the Rose theater, waterlogged, and a great surprise. Then followed a “debacle,” during which competing scholarly interests wrangled over what to do with them; while the government, since it was the era of Thatcher, was content to see them destroyed.

It is always so with rightwingers. They bleat endlessly about the superior ways of the past, but when there is a chance to study them, they flee in fear. That is because their past is even more of a fiction than the honest attempts of Kittredge and Chambers; real knowledge is always potentially a threat to their political superstructure, so they are careful to avoid or destroy it.

Nevertheless, though done in a less than proper manner, some evidence was recovered from the Rose and from a subsequent deliberate search for foundations of the Globe.

Wilson argues, however, that all along there has been hiding in plain sight a lot of evidence about what the theaters were probably like. This is important beyond the texts of the Renaissance plays; “The Shakespeare Legacy” is about theater management and technique, not about what the players declaimed.

There has been a more or less unacknowledged assumption that plays and players were outlaws of a sort (despite having a king as a sponsor), so that their status was outlaw, too. Wilson contends that they partook of most of the styles and attitudes of their time:

“We will learn far more by looking at structures such as Hunsdon’s tomb than by looking at Anne Hathaway’s cottage.”

Most of the book, therefore, examines tombs, builders’ books, furniture and the like.

Wilson is diffident, rarely asserting that anything she has found conclusively settles such old questions as, did the tiring-house facade project onto the stage or was it flush with the back wall?

One of her few flat statements is to knock down the idea that hall screens was used as convenient backwalls when players went to great halls for temporary playhouses. It seems to make perfect sense that they would, and when surviving halls are used nowadays, that’s what modern players do.

But an interesting thing about ancestors is that what seems simple and obvious to us did not always seem so to them.

The rescue archaeologists discovered that the muddy arena of the Rose was treated with ash and clinker (from the abundant sea-coal fires), and then mixed with hazelnut shells dropped by groundlings, forming a pavement that after 400 years was still “like rock.”

But that raises a question. Did each groundling bring a nutcracker? It seems unlikely they had enough teeth to crack them that way. Or was it like my teenage years (long ago before self-opening beer cans) when not everybody carried a church key but in any group of three or more, you could count on at least one person who had one to share.

In my mind, at least, the picture of the ‘prentices listening to Shakespeare’s lines from Shakespeare’s mouth is changed by imagining them interrupting the delivery of Hamlet’s soliloquy to ask someone to pass the cracker.

Or perhaps it wasn’t that way. We don’t know. But we know more thanks to Professor Wilson.

 
 

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