Midsummer Madness With Outdoor Shakespeare

outdoor-shakespeareWe’re back from our summer holiday – hot throughout Europe but, alas, as so often in England, summer’s lease hath all too short a date, and so it was this year. Nevertheless, the list of outdoor performances of Shakespeare’s plays is long and it grows longer every year. From The Globe on the Thames, to the Tea Lawn of Lauderdale House in suburban Hornsey, where tourists never penetrate, Shakespeare’s characters have enjoyed a great deal of summer basking in London.

You could have gone to Regent’s Park to see The Winter’s Tale, or you could have attended a free performance of Hamlet at Canary Warf in a park surrounded by glass fronted skyscrapers that form a modernistic backdrop to the Elizabethan dramas. Or you could have gone to see The Comedy of Errors in Coram’s Fields near Russell Square in the very heart of London. The Kensington Roof Gardens used only the stars as the setting for their Romeo and Juliet.

But there are also many famous, outdoor Shakespeare festivals beyond London. There are annual performances in both of the university cities of Oxford and Cambridge. The Royal Shakespeare Company stages performances in Stratford, on the banks of the Avon beside Shakespeare’s burial place, the Trinity Church. The Dell, as it’s called, hosts student and other amateur groups and this year they came from all around the world and offered The Tempest, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Coriolanus, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, Measure for Measure, Pericles, Cymbeline and Henry IV Part 1.

Towns across England enjoy Shakespeare in one of their parks or the gardens of their stately homes. They are usually staged by amateur groups but some towns, like Stamford in Lincolnshire, have performances staged by professional companies.

Shakespeare haunts America’s summers, too, with festivals, both metropolitan and local. The most famous and popular outdoor venue in New York is the Delacorte where Shakespeare in the Park stages first rate productions, but there are many other venues such as, Carroll Gardens in Riverside Park, on Rooseveld Island and in numerous other places in all five boroughs.

Wherever you are in an English or American summer you are within easy reach of an outdoor production of one of Shakespeare’s plays!

William Shakespeare & Robert Johnson – The Musical Collaboration


Portrait of Robert Johnson

I’m grateful to Ed Kliman, one of our readers, for drawing my attention to the composer, Robert Johnson, the son of John Johnson, lutenist to Elizabeth I , who had a long working relationship with Shakespeare. The two men worked together on several of the plays, like a Renaissance Rogers and Hammerstein.

We tend to concentrate on the drama, characters and language in Shakespeare’s work and lose sight of something as fundamental to Renaissance entertainment as music, which features strongly in his plays. For all Shakespeare’s genius in drama, poetry and business, he was probably not as skilled as many others in acting, although we do know that he was, in fact, an actor. There is no indication whatsoever, though, that he had any skill in music. But he wrote parts for great actors, both tragic and comic, and he used music as an expression of his themes and the action of his plays. It was for others to write the music.

When we think of the great roles like Hamlet, Lear, Othello, we know that Shakespeare was taking advantage of the presence in his company of some particularly skilled actors whom he knew could handle such roles. In the same way he had at his disposal a very interesting, prolific and talented composer for much of his writing career, with whom he became close friends, increasingly so towards the end of his career. And so we have the constant use of the musician, Robert Johnson, who supplied incidental music and settings of the songs for his plays, until the climax of Shakespeare’s career arrived with The Tempest, a masque play, which in modern terms would be regarded as a musical drama, or what we simply call a musical.

The Tempest is a huge and major drama that draws the threads of Shakespeare’s ideas and preoccupations together in a beautiful resolution. It’s a delightful play in which action and ideas are expressed in a balance of poetry and music. At the time he was writing the play his composer friend and collaborator was deeply interested and active in the new, fashionable form – the masque. The friendship was clearly very influential in the creation of The Tempest which is the most famous of all the masques produced in that era.

There have been so many English composers who have disappeared into obscurity. That would have happened to Robert Johnson, in spite of his having been employed by James I’s son, Prince Henry, and later by Charles I, as a lutenist, and having composed a great deal of music, most of which is lost. He has been immortalized  though, by the happy accident of his having met Shakespeare and having composed the original settings of several of the songs in Shakespeare’s plays. Other composers of the time – such as Thomas Morley – set Shakespearean lyrics to music, but Johnson is the only one who has been proved to have been connected to the original performances of the plays. And here’s Robert Johnson’s setting of Shakespeare’s song ‘Where the bee sucks there suck I’ from The Tempest.

>> Listen to MP3 of Robert Johnson’s “Where the bee sucks there suck I” <<

So many books and papers about Shakespeare begin with the declaration that we don’t know much about the dramatist, but information like the association of these two artists crops up from time to time and is explored by scholars and historians. Then we find that we actually do know quite a lot about him, although it’s oblique rather than direct knowledge.

Shakespeare & Venice

It’s almost certain that Shakespeare never left the shores of England but every year thousands of his contemporaries, wealthy young men, embarked on the ‘grand tour’ of European cities: it was an essential part of a gentleman’s education. Although Shakespeare never visited any European cities he set plays in many of them. He always had a reason for setting a particular action in a particular city. He knew a great deal about European cities as he was a prolific reader, keenly gleaning information about places – information that he subsequently used in his dramas. As a prominent cultural figure in London, he would also have met visitors from other European cities.

In the sixteenth century Venice was at the heart of the grand tour. It was, in a sense, the capitol of Europe. It was exciting and modern, a centre of art and music. It was a place of wealth and pleasure. It stood at the crossroads of the world, where all trade routes converged. It was a racial, religious and ethnic melting pot with diverse cultures living close together on a small group of little islands. Small as it was it was the gateway to Europe, with its army protecting Europe from the ever-threatening Turks on the one hand, and trading with them and its allies on the other. A young English gentleman on his grand tour would no more think of missing the pleasures of Venice than he would of omitting Rome from his tour.

Shakespeare uses Venice as a setting for two of his plays. In both Othello and The Merchant of Venice he’s exploring ethnic, racial and religious conflict and what better place to examine that than a small city where the pressures of those aspects of life are acute. Othello is a Black man in a traditional social environment. It’s most relevant to the twentieth century audiences in that he is valued for having a unique skill, needed by the establishment, but rejected on all other fronts, rather like the African American singers who were adored by everyone but banned from clubs, swimming pools and white suburbs. In The Merchant of Venice Shylock is a Jew, despised, because he is a Jew, by everyone. They associate with him in matters of business but will have nothing to do with him on any other level. In the cases both of Othello and Shylock Shakespeare chose Venice, honing in on one of the many Moors and one of the many Jews, to reveal something important about the way human beings relate to each other. Venice was the perfect setting for doing that. In The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare is also exploring the commercial tensions that ran through issues of race and religion then, as they do today.

Shakespeare’s attention to detail in constructing the worlds in which his plays exist shows an outstanding acquired knowledge of the places he chooses to use as settings. He’s aware of the Rialto as a place where news and gossip are exchanged; of the currency – ducats; the practice of elopement conducted by gondoliers, and even the use of the name ‘Gobbo,’ taken from the famous hunchback who frequented the Rialto and confronted tourists. Once again, Shakespeare, with his great genius, gets it absolutely right.

Those of us who live in modern Europe are lucky enough to be able to jump into a plane, car or train and be in Venice in a few short hours. It’s a great chance to see the city these plays were set in and will be rewarding for trip for any Shakespeare fan. Pre-plan your trip and book a hotel you think Shakespeare would have chosen, there’s a good selection on this site. However keep in mind you will see something very different from the Venice an Elizabethan gentleman experienced. Today, we see a rather shabby and decaying beauty – a city sinking into the sea. Everything about it rings of the past. Beautiful it may be, but it’s somewhat dead – more like a museum than a living city. It’s a truly wonderful place to visit but almost exclusively for its architectural treasures and the sense of its past glory.

If you want to check out some places to visit before you go there is a neat Google Earth Shakespeare plugin available at this site and an interesting description of a walk you can take through Shakespeare’s Venice ghetto.

Reasons We Know Shakespeare Wrote His Plays

“Daisies pied and violets blue and lady-smocks all silver-white”

The distinguished Shakespearean actor, Dame Janet Suzman has just  published a book entitled Not Hamlet,  about the treatment of women in theatre. One of the chapters addresses the Shakespeare conspiracy theory/authorship debate.  She takes the traditional scholarly view that it was one Master William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon who wrote the plays.

In her book Dame Janet has attacked two other distinguished Shakespearean actors, Mark Rylance and Sir Derek Jacoby for, as she puts it, ‘giving succour’ to conspiracy theories that someone else wrote the Shakespeare plays. Rylance has suggested that de Vere was the author because of his intimate knowledge of Italy, a country where several of the plays are set. Jacobi was more forthright, positively identifying de Vere as the author. The film, Anonymous, in which both Rylance and Jacobi appeared, presents the case for de Vere being the author. Dame Janet accuses the film’s producers of wasting their money in making it and calls the production ‘a far-fetched film …. with no facts to back it up.’

All this shows how fiercely the debate still rages.

We at NoSweatShakespeare agree with Dame Janet. Quite simply I accept all the arguments in favour of Shakespeare’s authorship and reject those opposing it (and the people put forward as writing Shakespeare’s plays). Two reasons, in addition to those arguments, convince me.

The first is somewhat oblique – not a reason for Shakespeare having written those incredible plays, but a reason why it’s not improbable. The argument has been made that Shakespeare came from an illiterate family, had an inadequate formal education, and that Stratford-upon-Avon was a cultural backwater, unable to germinate such wonderful literature. My reply is that genius is something we don’t understand: it’s something we just see from time to time and it springs up in unexpected places. Yes, Beethoven’s father was a musician, allowing his son to grow up in a musical environment, but he was small time, mediocre and never sober. But the genius of his son, Ludwig, is seriously unbelievable. Monet’s family had contempt for art – his father was a businessman, artistically illiterate – and he actually disowned his son because of his lack of interest in the world of business and his unsuitable marriage to a woman considered to be beneath him. Where did Monet’s artistic genius come from? We will never know.

One could cite geniuses forever but it wouldn’t help us to understand what genius is or where it comes from. One doesn’t usually find that the artists or writers or scientists who stand out in history as giants in their field come from fathers or mothers distinguished in the areas where their child becomes immortal. Moreover, it’s very rare for one of the giants’ children to become renowned as a genius. Geniuses of the Mozart, Michelangelo, Shakespeare kind are rare, unusual and inexplicable. That’s my first reason for dismissing the arguments against the Shakespeare authorship.

My second reason is more specific and, to my way of thinking, utterly convincing. To me it’s inconceivable that the plays could have been written by anyone growing up in an aristocratic environment, surrounded by tutors and classical books. It’s also inconceivable that they could have been written by anyone growing up in an urban environment. They could have been written only by someone who was surrounded by countryside and knew it intimately. And, more specifically, the Warwickshire countryside, where Shakespeare grew up.

Let us return to the subject of genius for a moment. There are two English geniuses who stand out above most of the others. They are William Shakespeare and Charles Darwin.

The two men have one distinctive mental quality in common. Darwin used his unusual powers of observation to tell us how life itself works: Shakespeare used those same powers of observation to create some of the most beautiful poetry ever written in the English language. As he was growing up the young William wandered around the Warwickshire countryside, taking note of plants, animals and insects, observing them closely, taking a detailed interest in  the way bushes, trees, fruit and flowers developed and grew, what they looked like and how human beings interacted with them. Like Darwin was to do, he observed birds and insects closely – how they flew and crawled, their colours and their behaviour.

Shakespeare’s sonnets, plays and, indeed, all his other poems, are full of poetry made from those observations. Notice the detail in such a passage as this one from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite overcanopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lulled in these flowers with dances and delight.”

The Bard seems to have particularly loved violets – Warwickshire is covered with them.  He drew on his love of the flower again and again throughout his work: “Daisies pied and violets blue and lady-smocks all silver-white;” “Like the sweet sound, that breathes upon a bank of violets;” “Welcome my son: who are the violets now that strew the green lap of the new come spring?” and “From her fair and unpolluted flesh may violets spring!” are just a few examples of the violets that infuse his verse.

He also encountered some of the less pleasant things that lived in the Warwickshire countryside.

“You spotted snakes with double tongue,
Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen;
Newts and blindworms, do no wrong,
Come not near our fairy Queen.”

The author of the plays was familiar with country sports:

“As wild geese that the creeping fowler eye, Or russet-pated choughs, many in sort, rising and cawing at the gun’s report, sever themselves and madly sweep the sky”

The insects that inhabit Warwickshire fill the poetry:  Such things as “the shard-born beetle with his drowsy hums” and the famous insult, “Thou art a saucy beetle-headed boar-pig!” are everywhere in Shakespeare’s poetry. And what would we do without the phrase “beetle-browed?”

Country people, too, fill Shakespeare’s pages, from the rural constabulary, gravediggers and ploughmen to the harvesters – “sun-burnt sicklemen and sedge-crowned nymphs.”

Not one of the other contenders for the authorship of the Shakespeare plays grew up in Warwickshire: they were all men who had enjoyed the more sophisticated pleasures of the educated and wealthy than the simple country wanderings of the boy who eventually grew up to write the plays.

So rather than go into the arguments for and against the Shakespeare authorship I ask you just one question – the author of the Shakespeare plays was someone who grew up in a village in the heart of Warwickshire. And which of the contenders was that?

Who Wrote Shakespeare? The Authorship Candidates

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World Shakespeare Festival in Pictures

As the summer-spanning Shakespeare extravaganza that is the World Shakespeare Festival comes to an end in the UK we’ve flicked through the NoSweatShakespeare facebook page to pull together a selection of our favourite moments from the festival. With over 70 productions and exhibitions, 50 theatre companies and thousands of international artists there was certainly plenty of choice, but the ten images below showcase the breadth and imagination of Shakespeare productions around the world.

Play 1 of 37 at the World Shakespeare Festival: New Zealand's Ngakau Toa theatre company perform the first ever 'haka' at London's Globe theatre.


A classic kiss - Miranda & Ferdinand in the RSC's World Shakespeare Festival production of The Tempest.


The Taming of The Shrew from Pakistani Theatre Wallay - KASHF. Rich colour and energy with live singers and musicians makes for an uplifting version of the first romcom!


A visually stunning Brazilian interpretation of Shakespeare’s Richard III for World Shakespeare Festival


A rolly-polly Falstaff spearheads a visually intoxicating Merry Wives of Windsor, performed in Swahili and brought to the Globe from Nairobi, Kenya, by the Bitter Pill company.


Yohangza Theatre Company represent South Korea in the World Shakespeare Festival's latest show - would you have guessed it's A MIdsummer Night's Dream?


Shakespeare in Hindi? The Company Theatre offer just that in their performance of Twelfth Night at the World Shakespeare Festival...


Gujurat Arpana theatre group mix live music, dance and acting in their first UK production at the World Shakespeare Festival - All's Welll That Ends Well


The South Sudanese Theatre Company - from the world's newest country - perform Shakespeare's Cymbeline, a play about Italian and Celts in Arabic.


The Gabriel Sundukyan National Academic Theatre of Armenia offer their take on King John on their first visit to the UK.



That’s your lot folks! Which was your favourite production from the World Shakespeare Festival?

Shakespeare & Elizabethan Stage Sets

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Shakespeare In Statistics: The Infographic

“Infographics” have been all the rage online for some time, so we thought we’d put together a Shakespeare infographic detailing lots of juicy Shakespeare statistics and information. And without further ado, here’s our shameless bandwagon-jumping “Shakespeare in statistics” infographic: If you want to embed the above Shakespeare infographic to your website simply copy and paste […]