THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

On literature and theatre collections from the 16th century to the present day

Introduction

From Shakespeare’s First Folio to live recordings of experimental theatre, from Charlotte Brontë’s love letters to Wendy Cope’s emails, our collections offer unique, fascinating and unexpected sources for your research. Discover more about our manuscript, printed, digital and audiovisual collections here. Follow us on Twitter: @BLEnglish_Drama. Read more

23 August 2016

Last chance to see Shakespeare in Ten Acts

There are just two weeks left to see our exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts which must close on the 6th of September. If you haven’t yet got round to seeing it, here’s why you don’t want to miss out on what the TLS called a ‘dazzling show of shows’.

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Items on display from Peter Brook's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1970 © Richard Eaton

Many of the items on display won’t be seen again for a long time, so this could be your one chance to see the manuscript of Sir Thomas More, the only surviving play-script in Shakespeare’s hand, as well as the Library’s only Shakespeare signature. The fragile first quarto edition of Hamlet – one of only two copies in the world – is also on display giving you a rare opportunity to see this alternative version of the play, oddly different from the one we’re so familiar with. Oh, and there are a couple of First Folios on display too of course.

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A rare opportunity to see the scene written by Shakespeare for the play Sir Thomas More. © Richard Eaton

The exhibition begins by telling the story of Shakespeare’s early career, with early printed books showing how he went from being regarded as an ‘upstart crow’ to ‘honey-tongued Shakespeare’ in a mere six years. The Library’s collections also give a glimpse into Shakespeare’s reputation outside of the professional sphere, with a diary from 1602 recording contemporary gossip about Shakespeare getting one over on his friend Richard Burbage by bedding an admirer of his and wittily proclaiming his triumph with the line ‘William the Conqueror came before Richard III’.

While Shakespeare’s changing reputation is a thread that runs through the whole exhibition, performance is its main theme and we lead off our Ten Acts by exploring the contexts in which Hamlet and The Tempest were first performed by Shakespeare’s company. Hamlet would have premiered in London at the recently built Globe theatre, which can be seen at the centre of Visscher’s famous two-metre-long panorama of London in the year 1600 which you really need to see in person to appreciate its scale and attention to detail (the heads of traitors mounted on spikes on the south side of London Bridge add a gruesome touch to the scene). Another favourite map from our collections sets the scene for The Tempest section by showing the site of what later became the Blackfriars Playhouse amidst some charming details of 16th century London life, from the tilt yard at Whitehall Palace to cattle paddling in the Thames.

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Looking at 'A view of London about the Year 1560', London, 1737. The British Library Maps Crace Port.1.8. © Richard Eaton

Researching the history of the Blackfriars Playhouse, where we believe The Tempest was performed around about 1610-11, was one of the most interesting aspects of the exhibition preparations. What emerged from my reading was an area of London that was a melting pot of Puritans and religious refugees, aristocrats and artisans. Of all the historic performances featured, I most wanted to transport myself back in time to this one. I like to imagine myself entering the narrow streets of Blackfriars, buying a feather to adorn my best theatre-going attire and joining the crowd climbing the winding staircase of the former monastery, following the strains of lute music to reach the candlelit chamber in which some of Shakespeare’s greatest plays were performed.

While this slightly later engraving of an indoor theatre (see below) gives an idea of what the Blackfriars may have looked like, other items in this section convey a sense of the theatre’s reputation as the destination of choice for the wealthy elite (Queen Henrietta Maria even attended plays there in the 1630s). You can also see the Privy Council’s copy of a petition against the opening of the theatre, on loan from The National Archives, which astonishingly lists the names of Shakespeare’s patron and his publisher as supporters of the cause.

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Frontispiece to The Wits, 1673. The British Library C.71.h.23.

If part of what appeals about Shakespeare is the glamour and intrigue of the Jacobethan world, there are other treats in store that go beyond Shakespeare and his canon: the infamous accusations against Christopher Marlowe made by the spy Richard Baines shortly before Marlowe’s murder, theatre designs by Inigo Jones on loan from the Devonshire collection at Chatsworth, and Ben Jonson’s presentation copy of ‘The Masque of Queens’, written out in his best handwriting as a gift for James I following its performance at court in 1609.

Meanwhile, the practical business of staging plays in Shakespeare’s time is perhaps most powerfully confronted when you see a ‘stage plot’ which once hung backstage to remind Richard Burbage and his fellow cast members when to make their entrances. There are only six surviving documents like this in the world and the plot for The Dead Man’s Fortune is the best preserved example. Or you might prefer the cannonball on loan from the Museum of London which was dug up in the excavations of the Rose Theatre and may once have been used to create thunder sound effects.

The rest of the exhibition goes beyond Shakespeare’s own time to look at how his plays have been re-interpreted by subsequent generations. You can see how Shakespeare’s works have been reinvented by the likes of genius theatre director Peter Brook, cult film-maker Derek Jarman and composer of West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein. There are stunning costumes born from the imaginations of Jenny Tiramani, Oliver Messel, Sally Jacobs and London College of Fashion. The work of numerous visual artists is represented including François Boitard’s contributions to the earliest illustrated edition of Shakespeare, the enchanting engravings produced from the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery, and a video of Davy and Kristin McGuire’s Ophelia’s Ghost.

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Looking at film adaptations of The Tempest by Derek Jarman and Peter Greenaway. © Richard Eaton

There’s also a strong social history aspect to the exhibition, with two ‘Acts’ that explore widening participation in Shakespeare through the years with women taking to the professional stage in 1660 and the first British performance by the black Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge in 1825. Some of my favourite items from these sections include the trinkets depicting gutsy 17th century actresses Dora Jordan and George Anne Bellamy (on loan from the Folger Shakespeare Library), the beautiful and hilarious playbills from our 200,000 strong collection, and James Northcote’s painting of Othello, identified as a portrait of Ira Aldridge in the 1980s (on loan from Manchester City Art Galleries).

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Othello, the Moor of Venice by James Northcote, 1826, on loan from Manchester City Art Galleries. © Richard Eaton

There is all this to see plus film and video clips of performances and interviews with leading Shakespearean actors Simon Russell Beale, Samuel West, Harriet Walter, Maxine Peake, Hugh Quarshie and Sara Kestelman. While you’re there, look out for some of the quirky oddities we’ve planted here and there: a morris-dancing stunt, a play-writing pig, Shakespeare forgeries and the skull that Sarah Bernhardt used when she played Hamlet in 1899. Come prepared for a couple of hours packed with things to see and listen to, and be warned that it’s somewhat chilly in the gallery to protect the items so don’t forget your cardigan - or make like this Blackfriars play-goer, get yourself a new cloak, throw it closer about your shoulders and enjoy the show.

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The Life of a Satirical Puppy Called Nim (1657) by Thomas May. The British Library G.1042.

 

Shakespeare in Ten Acts runs until the 6th of September and tickets can be booked online via the British Library Box Office.

19 August 2016

William Shakespeare and The Learned Pig

There have been many learned pigs in history but only one, to the best of my knowledge, that has claimed credit for writing the plays of William Shakespeare. Indeed by 1786, when The Story of the Learned Pig, by an officer of the Royal Navy was published, complete with its claim regarding the authorship of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and certain other plays knowledgeable animals of one kind or another were in danger of becoming somewhat passé. ‘Marocco the thinking horse’, for example, had made his appearance in the late 16th century and was able to follow the commands of his owner William Bankes with uncanny ability. Marocco could play dead, walk on his hind legs, urinate on command and even, apparently, separate and indicate the innocent maids in the audience from the disreputable harlots. Clever, certainly, but not as clever as writing The Tempest.

The first performing pig didn’t arrive on the scene for almost another 100 years later. Trained by a Scotsman, Samuel Bisset, the original learned pig used cards printed with individual letters and numbers to answer questions - indicating particular cards with its snout to respond to enquiries about the number of people in the audience, the time of day and even on occasions enquiries about what certain ladies in the audience were thinking at any given time. The show was a great success, and after Bisset’s death the pig went into new management with a Mr Nicholson who exhibited the pig in Nottingham in 1784 and then in London in 1785. Tours of provincial towns and a trip to Europe swiftly followed. The interest aroused by this trail-blazing learned pig caused considerable debate regarding how the pig had been trained and the extent of its cognitive abilities. Was the pig really answering questions, or was it simply responding to certain sounds or movements made by its owner in order to give pre-determined answers? Whatever the truth of the performance the idea of pigs as intelligent creatures took hold in the popular imagination. One only has to think of the pigs Snowball and Napoleon being the driving intellectual forces in George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) for a modern literary example.

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(Above: The Downfall of Taste and Genius, or, The World as it Goes by Samuel Collings – a satirical print from 1784 lampooning the public’s taste for performing animals. Here a learned pig leads the charge against the arts with a copy of Shakespeare’s plays lying abandoned in the assault)

Further learned pigs soon followed, including William Frederick Pinchbeck’s ‘Pig of Knowledge’, which was displayed in America in 1798 and even met President John Adams. Curiously Pinchbeck’s pig inspired considerable discussion, some of which took a fairly dark tone with many believing Pinchbeck had used witchcraft to control the animal while others claimed the pig’s ability to answer questions was evidence of reincarnation – the pig being inhabited by a soul that must once have animated a human being. Later, in the early 19th century, ‘Toby the Sapient Pig’ was exhibited in London by the illusionist Nicholas Hoare. Indeed such was the interest in Toby that in around 1817 he even published his autobiography – The life and adventures of Toby, the sapient pig: with his opinions on men and manners. Written by himself – although interestingly this was not the first time a learned pig had seen his memoirs appear in print, something which takes us back to 1786, The Story of the Learned Pig, by an officer of the Royal Navy and, perhaps even more strangely (if that’s possible) to William Shakespeare.

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(Above: The Story of the Learned Pig by an Officer of the Royal Navy. London, 1786.)

In the Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition The Story of the Learned Pig is displayed in a section exploring 'bardolatry' – the word used to describe the often uncritical fascination that accompanies all things Shakespearean, and how sometimes that fascination takes a turn towards the bizarre. In The Story of the Learned Pig a soul describes how he has successively migrated through various humans and animals before finally ending up in the body of a pig. Earlier incarnations had included Romulus, one of the mythical founders of Rome and Brutus, the murderer of Julius Caesar.  At one point the soul was reincarnated as a man called ‘Pimping Billy’, who worked as a horse-holder at a playhouse (where Shakespeare was regularly in attendance) and was the real author of the plays – the Immortal Bard having simply stolen Pimping Billy’s ideas and words. Finally the soul moves into the body of a pig, who then presents his personal reminiscences to the author. As the pig remarks Shakespeare ‘has been fathered with many spurious dramatic pieces: Hamlet, Othello, As You Like It, The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ of ‘which I confess myself to be the author’.

Although humorous, and a satire upon how our fascination with performing animals, circus tricks and the seemingly magical often exceeds our fascination with great art, the book plays profoundly upon our interest in all things relating to Shakespeare. After all, a pig that claimed to have written the works of John Fletcher or Francis Beaumont would be one thing, but a pig that claimed to have written the works of Shakespeare? Now that’s a whole different level of porcine achievement and greatness.

Shakespeare in Ten Acts runs until September 6th 2016.

16 August 2016

Celebrating poetry pamphlets: new readings online

by Ian Cooke, Head of Contemporary British Published Collections

The call for entries to the Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets 2016 is now live. Each year, the awards celebrate publishers, illustrators and authors of new poetry pamphlets. For the 2015 awards, we invited our shortlisted poets to record readings from their pamphlets at the British Library. These recordings are now available on Soundcloud. Here are more details on the poets and readings:

Gill McEvoy, our award winner for 2015, reads from her pamphlet ‘The First Telling’, published by HappenStance press. The poems relate an experience of rape, the ‘tellings’ being sessions with a counsellor. In this recording, Gill McEvoy reads, ‘The First Telling’, ‘There’s a grey parrot’, ‘I touch the cigarette’, ‘Magpie’, and ‘In the bathroom, scrub skin’. The judges for the 2015 award commented, ‘we admired the way this pamphlet deals not just with trauma and its aftermath, but with the difficulty of articulating what has happened, the challenge of finding the right words. Form and content mesh together perfectly in poems that use the power of silence as well as the power of language’.

Anja Konig, was shortlisted for her first poetry pamphlet collection, ‘Advice for an Only Child’, published by Flipped Eye press. Anja reads ‘Not the Last Chapter’, ‘Triple Negative’, ‘She’s Good with her Hands’, and ’We are the Bees of the Invisible’. In shortlisting this pamphlet, the judges commented, ‘Anja Konig’s debut pamphlet is witty and inventive. There’s a surprise on every page – her short poems look slantwise at relationships, the female body and what it means to write. We found these poems unsparing, yet lifted by a light touch’.

Peter Riley’s ‘The Ascent of Kinder Scout’ is a pamphlet-length poem that refers to the Kinder Trespass of 1932; a protest against the permanent enclosure of land for the purposes of grouse shooting. Published by Longbarrow Press, this is the eleventh section of a work provisionally entitled North. Describing this work, the 2015 judges said: ‘Evoking the Dark Peak in Derbyshire with startling clarity, we felt this pamphlet brilliantly captured what it’s like to look to landscapes for resolution, only to be humbled by the scale of them. Expansive but exact, it takes in the history of a trespass, the ghost of a lost friend and the future of a broken nation’.

Alan Jenkins reads two poems from ‘Clutag Five Poems Series No 2’, published by Clutag. The poems in this pamphlet are all linked by the Thames and places close to it in South West London, and the memories and personal associations that these places hold. In this recording, Jenkins reads ‘Beckett’s Wharf’, and ‘Upper Mall’. Our 2015 judges wrote, ‘Set against the backdrop of the Thames, these are haunting, understated elegies that often find the narrator challenging his own grief, trying to explain the source of it, trace it beyond the immediacy of loss. Assured and elegant, these poems moved us deeply’. In addition to these poets, the judges also shortlisted David Tait’s ‘Three Dragon Day’ for the 2015 award. David, who works as a teacher in China, was unable to attend the 2015 awards. The title of his collection refers to a Chinese phrase for describing heavy fog. The awards, supported by the Michael Marks Charitable Trust, celebrate the vitality, diversity and sheer talent of poets and poetry publishers in the UK. The shortlisted poets for 2015 demonstrated the range and power of contemporary poetry. As the entries start to come in for 2016, we are looking forward to an equally rich, exciting and moving collection of pamphlets.