Court Masques and the Illustrated Component of Performace




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I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about court masques
this week, specifically about the style Ben Jonson worked to form. For those of
you who don’t know, court masques were theatrical productions for British
nobles containing music, dance, songs, and poetry in varying degrees. In
addition to the dancing, performance, and revels, they included elaborate set
designs and special effects.

Now, I know Jonson isn’t Shakespeare, but they were
contemporaries, and in many ways, the masques were like plays of the time.
Though the two inhabited different spheres, private versus public, and dealt
with different notions of fiction and reality within the space of the
performance, both may be read as literature. By that, I mean that the play
remained isolated, whereas the masque could blur the line between fiction and
reality because many times, nobles themselves would act in the performances.
Other times, the masquers would dance with members of the audience, uniting the
actors and observers in an in-between space of active entertainment. Such an
amalgamation between fictional characters and real life persons sets the tone
for further combinations of different realities.

Why, you ask, have I been looking at something that is
definitively not Shakespeare? Well,
it’s because I’ve been finding several items in the Special Collections that
fall into the category of masque using Shakespeare’s plots and/or characters. And
on the note of combining different realities, one in particular performs a sort
of literary mash-up or crossover, making characters from Macbeth and Henry IV
interact with Greek Gods, such as Apollo and Minerva, and even muses, like
Comedy and Tragedy.


cast list.JPG

Not only does this masque mix the different worlds of
Shakespeare’s plays, it also combines them with classical mythology. Not only
does this fall into the masque tradition of using Classical figures to augment
the performance, but it sets up Shakespeare as worthy of such comparison. In a
way, the masque suggests that Shakespeare’s characters are as powerful and
everlasting as the Greco-Roman gods.

The court masque, in a way, lives on through printed
editions of Shakespeare’s plays by drawing on the concepts of spectacle,
design, and illustration as accompaniments to the text of a performance. A few
examples show colorful scenes from
and Macbeth.


tempest pic.JPG

macbeth pic.JPG 

Both place the characters in a fictional world, choosing
instead to make the scenes they depict works of literature rather than theatre.
Through these pieces (including the masques), we see a form of genre
manipulation taking place, showing the versatility of Shakespeare’s works. 

That’s just another reason to appreciate Shakespeare. And for further genre manipulation, watch The Lion King (a version of Hamlet), or even take a gander at a graphic novel based on the Bard and his characters (called Kill Shakespeare, and you can find it here through the library).

Hamlet: A Fellow of Infinite Jest

This week’s SpeCol (Special Collections) Scoop comes from the Philbrick Collection, which is a massive collection of drama-related media donated to the school by the Philbrick family. One of these boxes is a collection of sets for toy theaters, which were somewhat like dollhouses with removable backgrounds and paper dolls. From what I can tell, toy theater companies chose short plays, gave plot synopses, usually in one act, provided the backgrounds for each scene, and gave the characters in various necessary positions for the play.

Some of these date back as far as the 1700s, which is, as always, incredible to see. The subject of this blog post, however, is from much more recently – 1948. In 1948 Sir Laurence Olivier did a highly-praised film version of Hamlet, which although an excellent play, is not exactly what I would call kid-friendly. When I was a wee one I enjoyed my fair share of dramatic sword fights, escaping from pirate ships, and even the occasional painful “death,” but, although this play has all these things and more, there are no real winners in Hamlet, except for maybe Fortinbras, who is often deleted from the play. The good guy exists in a morally gray area. This play is predominately about a man questioning himself and those around him, going on an emotional and physical journey that ends in death and sadness. 
There seems to me to be something strange about explaining the trauma of the end of the play in a way that will be most easily actable and accessible for a group of young children. In the plot synopsis: “Finally, while picking flowers alone at the river’s edge, she falls in and is drowned.” It sounds like Ophelia tripped and fell (note the passive “is drowned,” removing all agency for her death!), rather than committing suicide thanks to the betrayal of those she loves and the murder of her father by her lover. Maybe it’s just the judgmental 1950s housewife in me speaking, but I can’t imagine that these emotionally challenging themes would be good play fodder for young children.
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Laertes jousts jauntily with his two swords, preceded by Laertes dying painfully in Osric’s arms
This version of Hamlet brings up some questions for me about what it means to experience the play in this child-friendly way. Is there an age too young for Shakespeare, or is it good to let children know about this classic play from an early age? The criteria for being “old enough” can’t just be that the reader understands Shakespeare, whatever that means; if so, then I don’t think anyone is really old enough for him. It is not possible to understand a work of art, exactly; even if Shakespeare had one interpretation in mind, we can’t know what that was and it isn’t important, because interpretations hold weight regardless of their Elizabethan relevancy. Is it possible that, as my reaction suggests, this and other similar interpretations are “missing the point” if no one can really say what the point is?
Looking at my earlier blog posts, I would have to say yes; just as with that Romeo and Juliet burlesque, my immediate reaction is a shade of disgust that belies a specific expectation for what it means to play Shakespeare. However, I plan with the rest of this summer to dig deeper into my expectations for Shakespeare, and in general, what it means to expect anything from a subjective performance. It isn’t necessarily fair that liberal adaptations have my mistrust, and I want to research how that and other expectations affect the experiences one can have in experiencing his work. Stay tuned for more personal and academic revelations on this theme!

The Fool

I’ve spent a good chunk of my time with King Lear pondering (or maybe just being weirded out by) the king’s Fool. I’m not the first reader to feel the Fool is a bit off. Nahum Tate’s infamous “happy ending” Lear left the character out entirely. The Irving Shakespeare, the same series from which I posted images when I wrote on Measure for Measure, tells us that the Fool was nearly kept out of the revival of Shakespeare’s original plot in 1836. Illustrations of the Fool from that edition, housed in Special Collections, are below:
The Fool is often described as a prophetic voice, one that speaks for the play to the audience. I think this plays into what makes the Fool unsettling, at least for myself: the Fool functions in a variety of ways on stage, but it is difficult to ascribe him personal motives at all (whereas other characters certainly have some motive, disputable though it may be). And it isn’t clear that the Fool has emotional responses to what takes place on stage, instead simply providing commentary. 
The Arden Shakespeare’s introductory comments on the Fool, for example, characterize the Fool as “shrewd, witty, and very much a conscious entertainer.” These are, on the one hand, descriptive of a human personality; on the other hand, they do not indicate at all what the Fool cares about, and the Arden commentary does nothing to attempt to answer this. A more emotive description says he “breaks out of every category in which might be fixed. Young or old, humble or aggressive, sad or merry, sensitive or acerbic, most representations of the Fool tend to emphasize his strangeness, his difference from others…”
The “difference” between the Fool and the other characters is that the Fool is performing–not merely is he played by an actor, but he is of course an actor, and his job is to play a part while the other characters go about their “real” lives. What disturbs me, then, is that we never see him break character. But I use “see” in the sense of the reader, and perhaps the Fool on stage is a different experience–can he really be played as constantly in jest? The above illustration shows a Fool fearful of the looming storm,perhaps suggesting the answer is no.
Is the Fool really “strange” then? It’s difficult to say. Since he’s always acting, we never know how he really acts on his own time. His behavior is strange in the sense that, as Cavell discusses so enjoyably, theater is rather strange behavior. To make an analogy of it, someone might observe and find us to be creatures with emotional depth. But when we went to the theater, that person might wonder why the actors on stage created such an unsettling effect, why they were producing such strange and inaccessible renditions of our own behavior. So it is with us and the Fool; we come to expect a certain kind of theatrical model in which characters, particularly in tragedies, have clear desires and schemes. When one character simply wants to play-act and editorialize, we feel strange indeed.

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The Unscripted Kiss

Early this week I happened upon Special Collections’ Windsor Shakespeare collection, a series of four books with 2-3 plays each inside. This collection is exciting, different from the countless others (people just loooove collecting Shakespeare’s plays), for the performance-based scribblings all up and down the margins of the book, written by Baliol Holloway (1883-1967), a fairly popular Shakespearean actor. In 1921, he performed the role of Bottom/Director in 1921 in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Stratford-upon-Avon. 
His handwriting is not incredible, unlike some of the beautiful calligraphy I’ve seen in other promptbooks and various letters. Unfortunately, a lot of the likely fascinating production notes in this copy remain a mystery to me. However one note, about the scene in which Hermia finds out that Lysander has deserted her, and confronts Helena, is quite legible, and provides some interesting possibilities for interpretation of the play and the production.
Luckily for many directors, Shakespeare’s in-text stage directions are minimal, which adds a lot of variability to the way actors and directors can take a scene. There are many emotions likely running through at least the non-addled characters in this scene, and the movements directors choose to emphasize create a different feeling for the scene.
The line that this stage direction goes to belongs to Hermia, the woman whose lover has just inexplicably changed affections: “O me!-you juggler! you canker-blossom! / You thief of love! what, have you come by night / And stol’n my love’s heart from him?” (III.ii) Unfortunately, I can’t know what the production was really like, but even based on these minimal notes it is possible to conjecture some ways the scene played out. The notes seem to say that, after the line “thief of love,” Hermia kisses Lysander, Lysander holds her (probably holds her back from running at Helena, but it could mean anything), and Helena hides behind Demetrius. 
This line is directed at Helena, but the manner of its delivery is up in the air. Is she talking directly to Helena, full eye contact, taking the time to turn and kiss her lover and then yelling once again? Early in the play, Helena is bitter about Hermia’s happiness with her lover; could Hermia be trying futilely to inspire that old bitterness again, by speaking of love and then kissing her man? The kiss could be angry, spiteful, despairing, or pleading. She could be caught up in her memories of love, originally wanting simply to yell at Helena and then seeing her lover and needing to kiss him one more time. Her fire and rage can be interrupted, losing potency, or she could be channeling her feelings towards everyone into the kiss. This one stage direction adds a world of subtle but useful interpretive tools, on top of the inexhaustible possibilities of Shakespeare’s words. 
There is no information about how Lysander (or Hermia!) react to the kiss, nor how entirely Lysander and Demetrius are slaves to the spell, which can be shown through body language and subtle cues. That sort of decision can only be made in the play, for those watching and those acting, but I believe that unpredictability and potential for interpretation both as actor and audience are essential parts of Shakespeare performance and scholarly study. The possibilities are endless.

The Third and Final SURP/CCEP Researcher Chimes In

I’m Alana, a rising Senior, English major, and Writing Fellow at Pomona College. Just two weeks ago, I returned home to sunny SoCal after 6 months in Cambridge, UK. Currently, I’m part-time (but that may change; we’ll see). Anyway, in addition to curating exhibits and working in CCEPs with Emma and Pieter, I’m also going to use this library time to get started on my thesis examining magical language in Shakespeare’s plays. 

When I’ve told people that I’ll be writing about Shakespeare (and will possibly be pursuing a Master’s in it as well), I’ve gotten two reactions. 1) That’s awesome! or 2) Ew, Shakespeare is no fun. Well, part of what my aim for this blog is to make the latter group see is that Shakespeare is fun. For example, take a look at this picture of an actor portraying Richard III.

Sassy Richard III.jpeg

Just look at his facial expression and body position and try to tell me that he’s boring. There’s so much sass. 

More that just this picture, though, I’ve come across a few cool illustrations while searching for a direction for my research. One (see below) is from The Tempest, one of the magic plays and one of Shakespeare’s last plays. In this one, Prospero commands certain natural forces and spirits of this abandoned island, and we can see the extent of his power in this image from a 1871 decorative edition of Shakespeare’s works.

Tempest Illustrated.jpeg

 This same edition contains this image (see below), featuring the Bard himself (again, look at that body position and tell me this is serious). As the creator, Shakespeare sits with some of his characters, including the transformed Bottom (he’s the donkey) from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The banner at the top asserts something we have seen come true: Shakespeare has endured for all time (so far).

Illustrated Title for Shakes.jpg

There’s a whimsical feel to this picture and places Shakespeare in the same plane as his characters, possibly suggesting that they exist in the same world. Considering how writer had come to be “our immortal Shakespeare,” it is no surprise to see him placed in the same plane as his characters (from the Proem of F.G. Waldron’s The Virgin Queen: A Drama in 5 Acts; Attempted as a Sequel to Shakespeare’s Tempest. 1797).

 Along these lines, I found a masque called Shakespeare’s Jubilee (1769) which places characters from plays like Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Tempest in one common setting, one which the bard eventually enters. Not only does this masque reflect trends of people imitating his works, it represents a fictionalization of the writer into an idea subject to creative manipulation rather than a static historical figure.

(The Bard, right there in the masque with characters he created.)

 I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty cool. If you do, too, please stick around for more posts to come. It’s nice to make your Internet acquaintance! 


Experiencing tragedy in King Lear and Luther’s writings

            “The play [King
],” writes philosopher Stanley Cavell in his essay on the play, ‘The
Avoidance of Love’, “can be said to be Christian–not because it shows us
redemption–it does not; but because it throws our redemption into question, and leaves it up to us.” What
is Cavell referring to, exactly? We see Lear take the Gods’ names in vain, to
no avail; it is Lear, not the Gods, that is responsible for throwing his world
into chaos through his cruelty to his subjects and the rejection of his
daughter Cordelia, who ultimately is killed as a result. Placing ownership of
wrongdoing in Lear’s hands, and giving Lear the opportunity, if he so chooses,
to be redeemed from this, is what one might view as a Christian setup.

            I said one might;
but another might find the label Christian here quite problematic. If it was
truly in Lear’s hands to choose, one way or the other, to redeem his kingdom or
to perish, we must essentially ‘blame’ Lear for having chosen the former.
Cavell asks: “And what room is there for blame? Is he to blame for being human?
For being subject to a cosmic anxiety and to fantasies which enclose him from
prefect compassion? Certainly blame is inappropriate, for certainly I do not
claim to know what else Lear might
do.” Which is to say that it is rather difficult to look at this play, and its
characterization of Lear’s suffering, and say that it was his ‘fault’ he acted
in this way, or that audience members would have acted differently. (As Cavell
notes, we are confident that we know what Lear should have done when Cordelia did not ‘heave her heart into her
mouth.’ But that does not mean that we would have acted more prudently than

            “And yet,” Cavell writes, I cannot deny that my pain at
Lear’s actions is not overcome by my knowledge of suffering.” The inability to
hold Lear accountable coupled with the “pain at Lear’s actions” leads to what
Cavell calls “unplaceable blame…like blaming heaven.”

            What I would like to do is play around with this in
theological terms. If we were to view
Lear’s failure as a theological illustration (which Cavell believes it ultimately
is not, despite the above discussion of redemption), what would we see? If we
agree that it is difficult to really blame Lear for his actions in light of his
suffering, but he nonetheless suffers for them greatly, we can view Lear’s
suffering as parallel to an important theological concept of the time, the
draconian determinism of Martin Luther’s writings. In 1525, Luther wrote The Bondage of the Will, in response to
criticism from Desiderius Erasmus: “with regard to things pertaining to
salvation and damnation, man has no free will, but is a captive, a bond-slave,
either to the will of God, or to the will of Satan.” I think here, too, our
reaction might be a feeling of “unplaceable blame.” Erasmus asked in 1524: “What
will be the origin of merits where there is perpetual necessity and where there
never was free will?” And without a method for assessing ‘merit,’ how can God
justly damn his subjects eternally? And in the same vein, how can we (or the
universe) damn Lear for actions that seem beyond his power to avoid?

            Cavell writes of this dilemma in Lear that the feeling of
“unplaceable blame” is “not inappropriate as an experience of tragedy, of what
it is for which tragedy provides catharsis.” I think we could say the same of
the story Luther writes for mankind; God and demons damning or saving people,
outside their own control, sounds indeed a bit like dramatic tragedy.

            As noted in Cavell’s essay, some have conceived of Lear,
when he is cast out from his daughter’s house and faces the storm, has arrived
at “the naked human condition.” Cavell wants to say that he is something
different–he is not “simply a man,” but is in fact a scapegoat for viewers. And
as Lear tells us the world is a “stage of fools,” Cavell says Lear insists that
it is routinely human to make scapegoats of one another, to throw around blame
(as one might do to Lear). Perhaps it is precisely when we don’t do this, when
blame is put aside, that we see tragedy–in Lear
or in Luther’s vision of predestined salvation.

Queen Mab Intervenes/How Much Artistic Liberty is Too Much?

I was browsing special collections two days ago and I found Romeo and Juliet Travestie: or, The Cup of Cold Poison, an 1873 version of the play with a surprising adaptation; this version is a burlesque, in one act. There are books that tell the stories of Shakespeare’s plays in condensed form, with modern language, and I have heard of plays (particularly Nahum Tate’s King Lear) that replace the ends of the plays with happier versions, or more family-friendly words and ideas (Thomas Bowdler’s The Family Shakespeare). 

This strange copy did both: the play wrapped up in only six scenes, with Paris and Romeo laughing and singing as Paris dumps Romeo into the crypt, only for Romeo to jump out again seconds later. Of course, all the dead characters, including Shakespeare himself, come back to life, love, and music thanks to the magic of Queen Mab, who takes a star turn. This classic Shakespeare tragedy ends with a nice group song.
At first, I found myself spluttering mentally, astounded at the liberties people will take. The nerve! To write such a short, irreverent version of a classic play! Romeo and Juliet is far from my favorite Shakespeare – I tend to think it is overrated – but a burlesque version of the play seems completely at odds with the original, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. This reaction got me thinking about how important the purity of “original” Shakespeare is. I am far from a Shakespeare purist; although I would love to see the plays in the way he wrote them, I have thoroughly enjoyed many adaptations that are liberal with the ideas or words. Obviously, this interpretation is not meant to replace the original, unlike Tate’s Lear, which presumably replaced Shakespeare’s for 150 years. The burlesque is a comic addition to the long tradition of adapting Shakespeare to modern ideas, times, or interpretations.

Even though this adaptation inspired disdain (in me), I think its existence is symptomatic of the fact that, at least as I see it, Shakespeare is no longer “just a playwright,” and hasn’t been “just a playwright” for a long time. The plays no longer mean the same thing they may have at the time of their creation; thinking about any of his works comes with the baggage of his name, what it means as a student or an actor to read/perform, any adaptations or even pop references one may have heard, and even the difficulty that can arise in trying to read such old English. His work is more of a jumping-off point than the end of the road. It inspires people, either to push harder with research, thought, or creative outpourings. Setting aside this burlesque, which still inspires in me a bit of hoity-toity attitude, I think this sort of movement is impossible to avoid, and, in many ways, is a really important piece of change and growth. 

Welcome, Emma/Faces of Shakespeare

Hello, all.

My name is Emma and I am a brand new SURP-CCEPS researcher. I am a rising junior at Pomona, studying English with a possible double major in French. 
My job this summer is multi-pronged. For part of each day, I scan and process letters from the Philbrick letter collection, mostly written (up to this point/as far as I can tell) by Dion Boucicault, an important man in entertainment in the 19th century. The rest of the day is focused on self-driven research about Shakespeare, completely freeform, with the end goal of curating three exhibits using the materials in Special Collections (one in Honnold/Mudd, one in Denison, and one online).
I just started on Wednesday, so the bulk of my time has been getting oriented: learning how to use the different computer systems, choosing books that could potentially be interesting, running back to my room for a sweater (it is SO COLD in the Reading Room). However, on Wednesday, Gale and I found a beautiful book of illustrations of scenes, actors,Shakespeare himself, and other Shakespeareana that brought up some questions for me.


Although I haven’t had the chance to explore all those questions, I have a nice long list of things to research. The subject that I am researching right now was inspired by those faces of Shakespeare; although of course portraits of Shakespeare naturally vary – he did live an awfully long time ago – the collection of pictures got me thinking about the various ways people perceive Shakespeare – a genius, an idol, or even a fraud.
The research I started is related to the fact that people have long disputed whether or not Shakespeare is the real author of all of his works; some people, like William Henry Ireland, wrote plays and pretended they were original works by Shakespeare. In the past, scholars have also suggested that Shakespeare is not the real author of his plays – they dispute how much Latin and Greek he knew, if he was literate, and even how much the plays we have resemble the originals, as they may be facsimiles created by editors, actors, or members of the audience writing in shorthand. I haven’t made a huge amount of headway yet but I’m excited to keep looking into this and other avenues of research. 

An introduction and some thoughts on “Measure for Measure”


My name is Pieter, and I’m part of this summer’s CCEPS-SURP program. (SURP stands for Summer Undergraduate Research Program, which is Pomona College’s primary summer research program for students). A little about me–I came to Claremont from the East Coast, and I’m a Religious Studies major with a particular interest in intersections of Christianity and political theory (and politics in general), out of which I will likely form a concentration.
I am one of three students spending the majority of our summers working in Special Collections’ vast expanse of Shakespeare materials, particularly in the Philbrick Collection. We could post about anything from major Shakespearean directors’ handwritten letters to curiously censored 19th-century editions of Shakespeare’s plays. 
I spent most of last week studying Measure for Measure and searching for any interesting materials housed in Special Collections that might shed some light on this play and its history. Today I want to share with you to some of the work of John Philip Kemble, an important 18th-century actor and manager. I found my way to Kemble’s work through an edition of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure that Kemble published in 1803. Kemble’s edition has his own cuts and changes for stage, as it was performed at Drury Lane in London in the 1790s. It allows a unique opportunity, then, to see just how this production handled what can be a rather opaque character, the Duke of Vienna. 
Measure for Measure centers on the impending execution of Claudio, who is guilty of fornication on something of a technicality. He has been condemned by Angelo, the Duke of Vienna’s deputy, as the Duke has supposedly left town. Claudio’s sister Isabella goes to Angelo to plead for Claudio’s life; he tells her that she can have her wish if she will give him her virginity. Isabella, a nun-to-be, decides to let her brother die rather than sacrifice her chastity. Angelo’s power over the situation, however, is a farce, as the Duke never left Vienna to begin with, and instead disguises as a friar and plays a few tricks to make sure the story comes to a happy end. 
Through the Duke’s machinations we learn that Angelo is even more a villain than we thought, and when the Duke returns in the final act and pretends to hear of the situation for the first time, he deigns it best that Angelo be executed for his wrongdoing. But Isabella and Angelo’s betrothed Mariana (to whom Angelo has done much wrong) plead for his life, and the Duke instead decides that Angelo will simply marry Mariana.
This easy way out for Angelo is surprising given the nature of Angelo’s offenses and the rather brief development of his repentance, and gives the play what some describe as a “disturbing effect.” Moreover, it is unclear at first glance why the Duke didn’t simply exert his powers as Duke from the start rather than using subterfuge.
How does this involve Kemble? I spent some time looking at a facsimile of Kemble’s own promptbook, which was a printing of his edition with handwritten notes giving stage directions and diagrams. Here, I found some stage directions that may have attempted to explain the Duke’s motives.  The Duke, in both the original text and Kemble’s, asks for Isabella’s hand in marriage at the end of the play, after Claudio is revealed alive and Angelo and Mariana renew their betrothal. But in Kemble’s edition, an early scene between the Duke (disguised as a friar) and Isabella are made to foreshadow this event. Kemble writes that the Duke is “much struck at the sight of Isabella” from the moment he first sees her. 
In this production, then, it is established from the beginning that the Duke is interested in Isabella. Perhaps the heightened drama that the Duke’s slow manipulation of events provides is not only to increase audience tension, but serves to swoon Isabella. This fits well with the Duke’s strategy in Shakespeare’s text: 
                              “I will keep her ignorant of her good [Claudio’s survival],
                               To make her heavenly comforts of despair
                               When it is least expected.” (Act IV Scene 3)
This plan has no romantic connotation, but if one wants to interpret the Duke as Isabella’s suitor all along, it would serve as an effective guiding principal for the Duke’s actions. The Duke’s advice to Isabella that she not “stain [her] gracious person” when Angelo makes his offer takes on a perhaps more selfish tone (though I would not suspect that is what Kemble intended), as the Duke is essentially asking Isabella to preserve her chastity for himself at Claudio’s mortal expense. Indeed when Isabella chastises Claudio for asking her to give herself up to Angelo, Kemble’s stage directions have the duke enter between them, as if shielding Isabella from her brother’s crude plea.
That’s all for this week! I leave you with the gorgeous 1889 cover of The Henry Irving Shakespeare, vol. V from which the above illustration was taken: