Updating Shakepeare

On Saturday I went to Stratford to see the Tempest. I went thinking it was not my favourite play by a long way. I was amazed at the stunning performance, which brought the magic to life and made some sense of Prospero’s ramblings. The Director used African magic on the enchanted island, vibrant with colour, dance and music. It was an astonishing spectacle. Prospero’s use of the spirits to straighten out his corrupted and broken world was masterful. The act of forgiveness as they put legitimate authority back in charge at the end seemed appropriate rather than naïve. If only Ariel were still for hire!

Before the play I visited the Shakespeare properties, which I had last been inside in my youth. How different they are. It reminded me just how interpretations of the past change to reflect modern preoccupations and understandings.

The Birthplace has been bedecked with wall hangings. An older cot is lined with cloth to avoid splinters we are told, and the bed displays a child’s bed extension where before there was an orderly scene of a made up adult bed and a child’s cot without lining beneath the white walls. We are now advised that people slept upright, so the old pillows have been replaced.

Bigger changes have occurred at Mary Arden’s House. The House I visited before has been downgraded to John Palmer’s house. Mary Arden’s house is now a red brick house (concealing an older house beneath ) set out with Victorian range and laundry. The house proud domesticity of the Great Hall to the old Mary Arden’s House has been banished. That house has been converted into an untidy centre for displaying a range of different Tudor crafts.

I wondered about conjuring and con tricks. The misrepresentation of Mary Arden’s house was a genuine mistake. The different treatment of the Birthplace was their best guess at the time. Who knows how these properties will be presented in fifty years time, and who knows what more may be discovered about how they once were?

At Dr Hall’s house the interesting question was his medical approach. The few case notes on display reminded us that he was like all Tudor and Stuart Doctors a herbalist. Doubtless many modern Doctors would say he got some of his diagnoses wrong, and woudl argue that many of his remedies would have had little if any effect. They often seem to treat herbalist predecessors as unwitting charlatans. Dr Hall did praise Harvey for his assertion of the circulation of the blood, at a time when most Doctors condemned the radical idea that the heart is a large pump to push blood around in circles. What was clear from the property was that Dr Hall was shrewd businessman, who knew his medical market well and made a good living from his practise. I wonder how modern medicine will be viewed in some future century?


  1. Frugal Dougal
    March 1, 2009

    I think much of modern medicine will be regarded as we regarded that of Shakespeare’s time, ie trying one’s best for the patient in the light of the information avaliable at the time. However, I predict a sound condemnation of the way some large pharmaceutical industries market vaccines, like the flu one, to pupulations it was not intended for; also the way the HPV vaccine is intended to protect against a sexually-transmitted disease which is spontaneously cleared from the systems of 90% of those women and girls who contract it, often through the misbehaviour of their men.

  2. subrosa
    March 1, 2009

    John I’m surprised you were duped by the tactics of the English Tourist Board. Many years ago when I worked in Stratford it was common knowledge that Shakespeare’s birthplace and Ann Hathaway’s cottage had been ‘relocated’, to the amusement of the locals I must say.

    If I remember correctly, Ann Hathaway’s original cottage forms part of the foundations of Tesco’s carpark.

    That’s perhaps why I prefer to visit castles and churches. Not so easy to reinvent.

  3. DBC Reed
    March 1, 2009

    Quite alot of serious herbalism in Shakespeare.Friar Laurence in R&J is able to put Juliet into a death-like coma .
    Shakespeare seems to have twigged that the blood circulated in Falstaff’s sherris-sack speech in Henry 4th part 2 and also in Coriolanus, he has the “rivers of the blood” going to the heart and the brain and thence to “The strongest nerves and inferior veins”.

    March 1, 2009

    Well it’s reassuring that you don’t spend EVERY weekend blogging for our benefit!

    Our English master used to remind us frequently that “if all the year were playing holidays to sport would be as tedious as to work..but when they seldom come they wished for come, for nothing pleaseth like rare accidents!”

    Nobody would confuse you for Falstaff in any respect, John, so do keep up the social life midst the gloom – perhaps a timely warning for all we driven bloggers before Mr Brown succeeds in sending even us sane ones as nuts as him and his government!

  5. mike stallard
    March 1, 2009

    I am so glad that there is just one politician who loves Shakespeare. I wish there were many, many more!

  6. Lola
    March 1, 2009

    o/t but please will someone in your party point out to Brown and his henchmen that changing pensions law to confiscate Fred’s pension will mean that all of our pensions then become vulnerable to the whim of a bureaucrat. And I am not at all happy about that, as neither should you be.

    1. Stuart Fairney
      March 2, 2009

      Yes, indeed. The lesson was learned sometime ago, it seems we are determined to re-learn it. If you will permit me:

      William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

      Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

      William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

      Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

      Sir Thomas was right, Labour are not.

  7. bill
    March 2, 2009

    As has been said before

    Shakespeare was a true genius – totally outstanding…….

    What a pity that he wasted it writing rubbish plays

  8. Stuart Fairney
    March 2, 2009

    I really can’t share your enthusiasm for the RSC doing “updates” I sat through half of ‘Don John’ just before Christmas and for the first time in my life, I envied my feet.

    They were asleep.

  9. BrianSJ
    March 2, 2009

    I have the pleasure of occasional working in ‘House for an Art Lover’ in Bellahouston Park in Glasgow. It is a recent building based on drawings done by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Its construction helped a number of specialist crafts from disappearing. When I am there, it really gets me thinking as to what is real and what is fake. Windsor Castle looks ancient and timeless, but what we see today is to quite an extent faked up. The quest for ‘authenticity’ is worthwhile, but as a quest – there is no authentic pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Anything that really has not changed in centuries is dead. To a small extent, our visit to it would make some small change.
    Similar considerations apply to Shakespeare performances, performances of ‘early music’ etc. Authenticity is in hearts and minds, not costumes.

  10. Pete Wass
    March 2, 2009

    I’m not a big fan of updating the settings for Shakespeare, as there is rarely a good fit. On this occasion it worked quite impressively however, as surprisingly did the RSC’s Godfather style Romeo and Juliet.

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