12 Days of Christmas in Early Modern England

It’s the 6th of January, and if you’re reading this you probably don’t think there’s any consequence to this day in the calendar. However, if you had lived in London or rural UK during the 1500’s, it would have been known as ‘Twelfth Night’, or the twelfth day of Christmas. What is the significance of Shakespeare’s play with this title, I hear you ask? Well, there is actually an account that survives from an audience member from 1601 who allegedly saw the play on the 6th of Jan, actual Twelfth Night. In his account, this man says that perhaps the season was the reason for the title of the play. If you are familiar with Twelfth Night, you’ll know that it has a subtitle in the First Folio printed in 1623 ‘Twelfth Night or what you will’, presumably so the play could be performed on Twelfth Night or any other suitable day.

The title of Shakespeare’s play in the 1623 Folio.

The title of Shakespeare’s play in the 1623 Folio.

So, what was Twelfth Night in Early Modern England and why did Shakespeare write a play for the occasion? The short answer is that in Shakespeare’s time, Christmas wasn’t just a single day of festivity, but was an extended time of drinking and eating that lasted until the 6th of January. After the fasting of Advent, this was a time to let go and enjoy the season of festivity.

Wassailing and The Lord of Misrule

Twelfth Night was a season in the dead of winter, but it was an important time for looking to the coming harvest in spring and summer. In rural communities, the future harvest was ushered in through a festival called Wassailing, where people would poor cider on apple trees and sing together to chase evil spirits away from the fruit-bearing branches (you can read about my experience wassailing in Jan 2018 here). In wealthy households, wassailing was celebrated simply by passing around a bowl of communal wine in a ‘wassailing bowl’ and singing together. A scene just like this is in fact in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (Act 2, Scene 3) and is a lengthy scene full of drunkenness and singing snatches of popular early modern songs together.

Image credit: The Tudors Wiki

Image credit: The Tudors Wiki

The twelve days of Christmas also involved appointing a public figure to the ‘Lord of Misrule’ to preside over the feast. This is a kind of winter version of Robin Hood, and was famously explored in relation to Shakespeare’s plays by Cesar Lombardi Barber in his book, Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy. The Lord of Misrule also crops up in Twelfth Night. Barber suggests that Feste is acting as the Lord of Misrule int he play. This is a great window into the early moderns. Read Act 2 for a window into this cultural tradition as Shakespeare’s audience knew it. Enjoy!

Spontaneous Shakespeare – Improvising the Bard in Melbourne

As soon as I tell anyone that the Soothplayers improvise Shakespeare plays, I find their reactions eerily similar to those people have when I tell them I’m from Mississippi. They are usually on a continuum between these two:

Given the demigodly status assigned to Shakespeare and his works by centuries of tradition, it comes as a surprise that we might dare to attempt such transcendent genius on the spot with no scripts, plans, or rewrites. People who love the Bard might well question the possibility of an “authentic” improvised Shakespeare play.

Likewise, given Bill’s canonical status, many of us have slept through or at least viciously side-eyed some truly dull Shakespeare work at some point, either in classrooms or at theatres. At best, we left those experiences resentful, and at worst we were positively demoralised by our own inability to understand what we are told is “great literature.” 

Three of the Soothplayers (from left): Nathan Carter, Dana McMillan, and Stephanie Crowe.

Three of the Soothplayers (from left): Nathan Carter, Dana McMillan, and Stephanie Crowe.

Enter Soothplayers. If you watched the video above, you know we promise to make up a play using a title provided by the audience: all on-the-spot, all using the language and themes of Mr Shakespeare. Previous titles include the likes of Donald Trump the First, Part 1 (played LAST April...), The Bald and the Beautiful, and The Ginger of Norway. Yes, it's really all made up. No, we won't do Hamlet.

The feedback we are most proud of after two years of performing in Melbourne? “That was the first time I felt like I understood Shakespeare.” “That was hilarious” works as a close second.

We perform a few key values, we hope, wherever we play. First: what we do is for everyone. Even when we play the darkest tragedy, our show will make you laugh. We’ll refund you if not (really). We accomplish this by full commitment to characters’ desires and emotional realities, no matter how absurd those might be.

Second, “authenticity” can follow “originality” straight to the bin, as far as we are concerned. We really do play comedy, tragedy, or history. We really drop rhyming couplets, character asides to the audience, and soliloquies at critical moments. We “thee” and “thou” when it suits, and we love the mouthfeel of a succulent metaphor. But if you want a night of theatre “as the Bard intended,” then you must enjoy the taste of disappointment by now.

Finally, the truth of what we do is in our name. Literally. “Soothplayers,” in addition to its deep cut on the Ides of March, indicates that we play the truth. In improvised theatre, that’s not a deep philosophical question. The truth is what happens. The Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) improvisation school motto poses the question: “If this is true, what else is true?” Each improviser can’t know the full implications of what they say and do in the moment. That depends on the whole troupe’s ability to accept those actions and to honour them later. You thought someone saying ‘groble’ instead of ‘noble’ was an actor’s mistake under pressure. You will soon learn, however, that everyone in this play describes the ‘grobility’ as groble.

Completely Improvised Shakespeare will perform twenty-two new plays at this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival: 30 March to 23 April (yes…the Bard’s birthday!). We will follow that up with a trip to Stratford (Victoria!) for the Shakespeare on the River Festival, running shows and improvised Shakespeare.

Summer of Shakespeare in Sydney

We've come to the end of the year of #Shakespeare400 and Sydney has lots on offer for those who would like to incorporate an experience of the Bard into their summer holiday plans. Below are my picks for the silly season.

1. Sport For Jove's Shakespeare in the Park

Sport For Jove's summer series is a must for any Shakespeare lover who would like to experience their favourite plays in an outdoor setting on the beautiful grounds of Bella Vista Farm. This summer Sport For Jove are playing Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. For more information you can visit their website.

Sport For Jove's Shakespeare in the Park festival is held at the historic Bella Vista Farm until the 10th of January, 2017.  Image: thesavannahbananas.com

Sport For Jove's Shakespeare in the Park festival is held at the historic Bella Vista Farm until the 10th of January, 2017. Image: thesavannahbananas.com

2. Measure for Measure with Cheek by Jowl at Sydney Festival

I saw this production during its UK tour in 2015 and it is a great pick for anyone but especially if you would like to see a Shakespeare production in another language. Cheek by Jowl have teamed up with Moscow's Pushkin Theatre to present a wonderful and daring production of this late Shakespearean play. Definitely worth seeing. Ticket purchases are via the Sydney Festival Website.

Cheek By Jowl bring their unique, physical theatre style to Measure for Measure in January 2017.  Image: cheekbyjowl.com

Cheek By Jowl bring their unique, physical theatre style to Measure for Measure in January 2017. Image: cheekbyjowl.com

3. Richard III with Bell Shakespeare at Sydney Opera House

Bell Shakespeare are opening the year with an experimental production of my favourite Shakespearean history play, Richard III. With Kate Mulvany playing the role of Richard, I can't wait to see how a female chooses to play this character. Head to Bell Shakespeare's Website for more.

Richard III with Bell Shakespeare opens on February 25.  Image: bellshakespeare.com.au

Richard III with Bell Shakespeare opens on February 25. Image: bellshakespeare.com.au

Shakespeare and the Idea of Authenticity

This year has been incredibly eventful in the realm of Shakespeare studies and performance. As the quaternary year of #Shakespeare400, we have been celebrating the legacy of Shakespeare as a playwright and re-evaluating his place in 21st theatre.

Amongst this period of reflection and examination, we had the appointment of Emma Rice to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, where she began experimenting with amplified sound and dynamic lighting in their summer season of 2016 in the outdoor replica of Shakespeare’s own amphitheatre. Rice’s movement toward high production value shows in the Globe-style space received a mixed response, with some mourning the journey away from Sam Wanamaker and Mark Rylance’s ‘Original Practices’ toward something closer to our contemporary theatre style. As the summer season came to an end, the Board of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre announced that Emma Rice would be moving on from her new appointment as Artistic Director to another arts organisation in 2017. The board cited reasons of wanting to ‘stay true’ to Wanamaker’s ideal of an ‘authentic’ Globe experience, and foreseeable disparity between Rice and this model of performance.[1]

Rice’s dismissal received a similar level of mixed reaction to her summer productions. Some of the early pioneers of the Globe’s early style appeared to let out a sigh of relief on the Twitterverse, while others mourned the lost potential in Rice’s leadership of the Globe into a new era.[2]

Emma Rice will not be continuing at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre on London's Bankside in 2017.  Image: The Guardian UK

Emma Rice will not be continuing at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre on London's Bankside in 2017. Image: The Guardian UK

This move by the Globe board opens several questions: where does our value in Shakespeare’s theatre lie for audiences in the 21st century? Does a space like Shakespeare’s Globe in London deserve a special platform for staging a more ‘authentic’ Shakespearean style? Or is the pursuit of authenticity in performance a futile or perhaps an irrelevant/disengaging practice for modern-day audiences?

My thought about the latter two questions is that both have a ‘yes’ element and it is the navigation between these two truths that results in captivating performances for audiences in a replica Globe space.

On the one hand, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on London’s bankside serves as a major tourist attraction and educational centre, focused on connecting audiences with early modern drama in a space that replicates the original performance conditions. As Penelope Woods writes in her case studies of Globe audiences, people respond to their first experience of a performance in Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre with comments like, ‘quote’ and ‘quote’. This demonstrates that whatever misgivings academics may have about finding a truly ‘authentic’ experience of Shakespearean performance, audiences often see it this way.

So the question remains, where does our value in Shakespearean performance lie in the 21st century, or more importantly, what do our audiences value? Do we require the Globe in London to remain as a bastion of historical representation or do we need to strike a balance between this and a more modern performance style?

Perhaps only time can tell the answer.

Did you see a production at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in the summer season of 2016? If so I'd love to hear from you. Send me an email to info@bardology.com.au


[1] To read the full BBC Article on Emma Rice’s dismissal, go to http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-37761530

[2] For an example of the kinds of conversations that followed on Twitter, see https://twitter.com/andykesson/status/790856512616931328

The Curtain Playhouse and the 'Aura' of Historical Spaces

May has been a big month for theatre and archeaology in London. The Curtain playhouse, which opened in 1577, is one of the oldest known theatres from the time of Shakespeare and Marlowe. The site has been slowly excavated by experts from the Museum of London over the past few weeks and has provided historians with valuable information on the nature of early modern playhouses.

There are a few unique qualitites to the Curtain playhouse. Most intriguingly, it has a rectagonal shape rather than the polygons that characterise the Rose and the Globe playhouses on the south bank of the Thames. The Curtain was operated by James Burbage, a famous actor from Shakespeare's company,  The Lord Chamberlain's men, who operated out of this playhouse from 1577 until the first Globe playhouse was built in 1597. This is the site where Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Henry V premiered, and since neither the Globe or the Rose have been fully excavated, there is a lot of potential in this historical site.

Image of the bird whistle found at the Curtain site which may have been used for sound effects.  Image :  Museum of London .

Image of the bird whistle found at the Curtain site which may have been used for sound effects. Image: Museum of London.

If you have been following the BBC updates, artefacts that have so far been uncovered on the site include a bird whistle (possibly used for sound effects), a token and a comb. Examination of the walls has also suggested to archaeologists that they were reused from earlier buildings, which might explain the shape of the structure.

Theatre sites hold an intrinsic value for lovers of Shakespeare's plays. There are many reasons for this, but a common value for enthusiasts is the fact that Shakespeare, is that they are the very sites where their favourite plays and actors actually did perform. Take a tour of the historic site of the Rose Playhouse and you will be doing well if you aren't drawn in by the ethereal L.E.D archaeology lights marking the original site, where Shakespeare himself performed in some of his earliest plays. Likewise the replica Shakespeare's Globe Theatre elicits powerful experiences for many who attend, and many report feeling like they know what it was like to 'be there' as one of Shakespeare's first audiences.[1]

Why is it that we are so drawn to these historical sites? Walter Benjamin writes of the appeal of historical objects in having an 'aura' which is caused by their "presence in time and space", and in the case of historical sites, their "unique existence at the place where it happens to be".[2]

Gesturing back to a time that has precious little documentation of live performances, the historical theatre sites in London all provide us with a physical experience and understanding of structural factors that affected the original performance conditions. For this reason, these sites lend themselves to a level of authenticity that has immense appeal for lovers of theatre. Shakespeare and his contemporaries were creating theatre at a time that would become the foundation for scripted performance in the English language. As the Curtain and soon also the Rose is revealed, we will have more pieces of the puzzle to analyse against the many ideas we have formed about the earliest performances in permanent playhouses.

The Curtain playhouse site is open to the public until the 24th of June. The Rose site is also open to the public every saturday.

This edition of BROADSIDE is by Kathryn Parker (PhD student, University of Sydney)

[1] Dr. Penelope Woods has been researching this topic. You can read about her work here.

[2] Benjmain, Walter. 1936. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in Hannah Arendt (ed). 1970. Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. London: Cape.


Shakespeare and the Anzacs

Today is a significant day of commemoration in Australia and New Zealand. For these nations, the memory of the Anzac’s - their sacrifice and loyalty to each other and their countries - has become legendary, and has come to be a part of the fabric of national identity.

In 1916, the year of the first Anzacs, England was celebrating the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death. Though the British Empire was at war, the English were keen to commemorate their most enduring playwright. It was this year that the Shakespeare Hut was built in Bloomsbury, London; a tudor-style building intended to provide a place of rest and entertainment for Anzac soldiers before heading to the battlefield.

Advertisement for the opening of Shakespeare Hut in August 1916

Advertisement for the opening of Shakespeare Hut in August 1916

The Shakespeare Hut became a place of commemoration and memory, for a group of soldiers from the other side of the globe who would in turn be commemorated and become part of the national memory of Australia and New Zealand. In the words of Shakespeare that were performed in this comfortable space, the Anzac’s found and expressed their patriotism to Britain. History plays, tragedies and comedies alike all represented the nation from which their colonies had sprung, and gave them a fresh sense of what it meant to be part of the Commonwealth.

The influence of the Shakespeare Hut on the Anzacs might best be seen in an account from an evening in 1919, when 400 Anzacs were returned to England and gathered to see a production of Shakespeare’s Henry V. One account describes this large group of men cheering on the immortal words of King Henry (during the show), “God for Harry, England and Saint George!”[1] as though they too, were back on the line of duty, cheering on their mates.

This account shows how over the years of the Anzac involvement in the first World War, the Shakespeare Hut and the plays that were performed there came to be a vehicle for remembrance of the soldiers who were killed in battle, paralleled on the stage in the plays that were then already more than 300 years old. You can read more about this in Alisa Ferguson’s article from 2014 on the Shakespeare Hut, located here (with academic journal access).

The words and actions of Shakespeare’s characters have become immortalised in the English language, and the constant reproduction of his plays on the stages of the English speaking world indicate their enduring relevance in many contexts through our history. This instance of the Anzac’s finding respite in the words of Henry V is just one such occasion. The Shakespeare Hut is now being commemorated in a project to resurrect its memory.

It brings to mind the question of memorial today in 2016, when we are now celebrating the quaternary of Shakespeare’s death and the 100 year legacy of the Anzacs. Shakespeare’s plays continue to have the ability to transcend time and place in the world of representation. As we continue to experience new performances together, we can reflect on people who died in wars such as those being represented on stage. Wars continue to happen and affect many nations today, but theatre will always bring people together.

Photograph of Shakespeare Hut, c. 1917

Photograph of Shakespeare Hut, c. 1917

[1] Fabia Drake in Alisa Ferguson (2014), “When Wasteful War Shall Statues Overturn”: Forgetting the Shakespeare Hut’, Shakespeare 10(3), p. 277.

Easter in 1603 and the End of Elizabeth I's Queendom

Lately there has been some discussion around securing the date for Easter around the world. This could sound logical for those of us who are thrown by the early Easter this year in 2016 - In the Christian calendar,  Easter traditionally occurs on the Sunday of the first moon after the the astronomical spring Equinox on the 21st of March.

In the year 1603, Easter was also significantly close to the Equinox, on March 30. In Shakespeare's England, just 6 days before Easter Sunday, the whole country was thrown into mourning. Queen Elizabeth I was dead.. What's more, according to the Gregorian calendar, the Queen's death on the 24th of March actually occured on the last day of the year 1602. The following day, March 25 was celebrated annually with the festival of the annunciation, or the proclamation of the angel Gabriel to Mary that she would give birth to Jesus the Messiah.

Samuel Clarke,  The history of the glorious life, reign, and death, of the illustrious Queen Elizabeth  published in 1683.

Samuel Clarke, The history of the glorious life, reign, and death, of the illustrious Queen Elizabeth published in 1683.

The Queen's death at such a time would have been a cause for some commotion as the country prepared for Easter. Samuel Clarke tells us that on the day of her death, the Queen had reigned 44 years, 4 months and 7 days. It is hard to imagine then, how the minister at Westminster Abbey was able to prepare his Easter sermon without referring to the nation's long-serving and beloved Queen. In fact a sermon that was sold in print in 1603 - a publication of a sermon given in 1593 at 'St Paul's crosse in the Easter terme' - indicates the kind of messages being passed on to the people following Elizabeth's death. Titled Heart's Delight, Thomas Playfere's sermon opens with Psalm 37,  asking the reader to 'delight thyself in the Lord', and 'delight not in the things of this world'.

What the death of Elizabeth I meant for Shakespeare and his company at the newly constructed Globe theatre is anyone's guess, but they would certainly have had some reason to delight in the world. Though Elizabeth was an advocate for the theatre and regularly fought for the legality of the London city players against the Mayor of London and antitheatrical puritans, she also instated a rigorous process of review for each new play before it was staged in London, which had playwrights constantly subject to censorship. The death of the Queen and succession of James I was very likely opening an opportunity for change in the fast-growing London theatre scene.

The Queen's body was finally brought by boat along the Thames to Westminster to be laid to rest, nearly a whole month after Easter on the 28th of April, 1603. John Stow observed that thousands of people came out to see her funeral barge: there was 'such a general sighing, groaning, and weeping, as the like has not been seen or known in the memory of man'. Interestingly, Shakespeare was one of the few notable poets of the time who did not write an elegy for the Queen in her passing. What this tells us about his relationship (or lack of) with Elizabeth is open for interpretation.

                Memorial stone unveiled in 1977 in Westminster Abbey

                Memorial stone unveiled in 1977 in Westminster Abbey

Shakespeare 400

2016 is an exciting year in Shakespeare studies and performance, as we commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death.

Now is the perfect time to think of taking yourself or your students to one of the many events that are taking place in Sydney and other parts of Australia as part of the global Shakespeare 400 festival. Below is our pick of what is scheduled:

CULTURE CLUB at Sydney Opera House - March 16

In March the culture club gathers to ask the question: if Shakespeare were alive today, what would he write about, and for whom?

Join Bell Shakespeare's new Artistic Director, Peter Evans, as well as Sport For Jove's Damien Ryan and actor Michelle Doake as they discuss a series of 'what if's in the world of the Bard:
- What would Shakespeare make of the 21st century?
- What can modern-day audiences get out of his plays?
- If Shakespeare were alive today, what would he be writing, and who would be his desired audience?

For more information visit the culture club website: http://www.sydneyoperahouse.com/whatson/culture_club_if_shakespeare_were_alive_today.aspx


During Term 2, Sport for Jove are hosting a competition across all schools in NSW, with opportunity to submit works in the categories of duologues, group scenes, dance or movement pieces, music, costumes and set designs to represent your school. Relevant to a wide range of subject areas from English and Drama through to Music and Visual Arts, there is sure to be something for all of your students to take part in.

You can find out more on Sport for Jove's website: http://www.sportforjove.com.au/education/the-shakespeare-carnival


Take your Preliminary students or recommend them to the cinema for a great experience of Shakespeare's fabulous comedy, As You Like It, being played by London's National Theatre for the first time in 30 years with Rosalie Craig as Rosalind. The show is screening during March in a range of locations including Circular Quay, Newtown, Parramatta and Cremorne.

Book tickets here: http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/productions/52844-as-you-like-it


As part of the British Shakespeare 400 festival Guardian UK has commissioned a series of short videos of renowned British actors performing famous soliloquies and speeches from Shakespeare's plays. This is a fantastic resource to introduce to your students and includes speeches from HSC set texts, such as Hamlet's soliloquy number 4, 'to be or not to be'

You can check it out here: http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/feb/01/leading-actors-film-new-shakespeare-solos-series-for-the-guardian


Shakespeare's Globe in London has recently made some of their recent productions available on The Globe On Demand player, including The Tempest, Macbeth and A Midsummer Night's Dream. This is a fantastic resource for you to watch or show to your students to expose them to a style of performance designed to work in the replica Globe theatre space.

Have a look for yourself (note: subscription required): https://globeplayer.tv/


There are many great shows happening in Sydney during 2016, and here is our pick of the highlights:

Hamlet directed by Damien Ryan, playing as part of Sport For Jove's Education Season in May
   Parramatta Riverside Theatre: https://riversideparramatta.com.au/show/hamlet-8/
   The Seymour Centre: http://www.seymourcentre.com/events/event/hamlet-2/

Twelfth Night directed by Eamon Flack, playing at Belvoir from 23 July - 4 September
Bookings: http://belvoir.com.au/productions/twelfth-night/

Othello directed by Peter Evans, playing as part of Bell Shakespeare's 2016 Season in October. See Bell Shakespeare's website for regional touring dates: https://www.bellshakespeare.com.au/whats-on/othello-1/?parent=buy-tickets

Much Dell'Arte About Nothing is a hilarious mash-up of Shakespearean commedy in the style of Commedia Dell'Arte playing at Monkey Baa Theatre in Darling Harbour, as well as Parramatta Riverside Theatre and Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre. Performed by Matriark Theatre, this is sure to be a blast and will be informative of the style of comedy that influenced Shakespeare's work. See Monkey Baa's Website for more information: http://monkeybaa.com.au/show/much-dellarte-about-nothing/


What a great year it is shaping up to be! If you have any other ideas of the best Shakespearean performances going on this year in Sydney, feel free to add to the comments.