William Shakespeare – All The World’s a Stage, 400 Years On

William Shakespeare – All The World’s a Stage, 400 Years On

Flower Portrait of William Shakespeared, mid 19th century forgery inspired by the Droeshout engraving of the bard on the First Folio of his works produced posthumously

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) English dramatist and poet, born at Stratford-on-Avon is considered in the western world, the greatest playwright who ever lived. He certainly is the most controversial.

The bard from England’s Stratford on Avon, helped to shape not only England’s sense of national identity, but also that of the English-speaking world as he became the greatest dramatist of all time.

Everything about him including his portraits, are a puzzlement and part of the bigger mystery surrounding the poet, dramatist actor and his identity.

Since Shakespeare took the London world by storm with his plays, his sonnets, words of wisdom Shakespeare and his life’s journey, has been subjected to scrutiny on a monumental scale throughout the western world.

Who was he really? Speculation continues to be rife, despite many theories abounding.

The Royal Collection Trust program of exhibitions in 2016  at Windsor Castle will feature Shakespeare in the Library, presented by Queen Elizabeth II, whose ancestor Queen Elizabeth 1 enjoyed the bard’s sense of humour and drama. It will mark the 400 year anniversary since he died.

The Flower portrait of William Shakespeare is an image widely recognised as being of the literary hero.


Frontespiece, First Folio Shakespeare, courtesy Bodleian Library, Oxford

It seems to have been inspired by the engraving portrait of the bard that appeared on the title page of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s works produced posthumously.

Named for Sir Desmond Flower who donated it to the Shakespeare Museum in 1911, it is a work proven to have been painted in the 19th century not 1609 as marked, by its unknown painter.

It was acquired sometime around 1840 from a widow who sold it to a member of the Flower Family as authentic. They gave it to the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The image was drawn and engraved by Martin Droeshout in 1623 with the portrait from it painted somewhere between 1810 – 1840. (1810 – 15 seems likelier to me, leading up to his 200th anniversary).

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) said ‘we know what we are, but know not what we may become’ as he wrote about history, wrote about romance and tragedy. His ‘comedic’ plays featured morally dubious plots, certainly by the standards of our day.

Perhaps we will never know the truth of it all. What we do know is that whoever the man was behind the mask his words are evidence enough for scholars to declare that he was a true genius.

Muse of fire that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention;
A kingdom for a stage

800px-First_Folio_VANone of the original manuscripts for William Shakespeare’s plays survived so we must rely on printed texts as our earliest sources. The First Folio edition of his plays was published in late 1623, seven years after his death by two of his fellow actors.

Elizabeth 1 at Shakespeare

Detail from a painting of Queen Elizabeth at the Globe, David Scott, 1840 courtesy V & A Museum, London

The first collected edition of any English playwright, it prints a total of thirty-six plays, many of which would otherwise have been lost to future generations.

The Shakespeare Candidates, Edward de Vere top left, Christopher Marlowe bottom left, Francis Bacon, top right and the 6th Earl Derby bottom right with dear old Will in the middle

The Shakespeare Candidates, Edward de Vere top left, Christopher Marlowe bottom left, Francis Bacon, top right and the 6th Earl Derby bottom right with dear old Will in the middle

It includes all of the plays generally accepted to be Shakespeare’s, with the exception of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, Two Noble Kinsmen, and the two “lost plays”, Cardenio and Love’s Labour’s Won.

Its original price was one pound, the equivalent of about £95–£110 in 2006.

Like most books of that time the Folio was sold unbound and buyers would spend another pound or two to have it bound in leather, with their own various embellishments.

The Bodleian Library at Oxford has an original copy acquired shortly after publication, de-acquisitioned and re-acquired again in 1905.

Theatre in the Elizabeth age and the name of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) are inextricably bound together, yet there were others writing plays at the same time as the bard of Avon.

One of the most successful was Christopher Marlowe, who many contemporaries considered Shakespeare’s superior. Marlowe’s career, however, was cut short at a comparatively young age when he died in a tavern fight in Deptford, the victim of a knife in the eye.

It was during Shakespeare’s age that modern theatre was born and at first gained an unsavoury reputation.

London authorities refused to allow plays within the city, so theatres opened across the Thames in Southwark, outside the authority of the city administration.

Shakespeare playsThe first, as we know it, was the theatre built at Shoreditch in 1576. Before this time plays were performed in the courtyard of inns, or sometimes, in the houses of noblemen.

A noble had to be careful about which play he allowed to be performed within his home. Anything that was controversial or political was likely to get him in trouble with the crown!

Gradually other open-air playhouses opened in the London area, including the Rose (1587), and the Hope (1613). However the most famous playhouse was The Globe (1599), originally built by the company in which Shakespeare had a stake.

Attending a show at London’s Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, now recreated as it was in Elizabethan times, is a highlight of any Shakespearean experience in London today. Women were not allowed to perform in the plays, young boys generally performed female roles.

Shakespeares-Globe-TheatreThe most successful theatre company was Chamberlain’s King’s Men who worked alongside The Globe’s in-house dramatist William Shakespeare. They informed the general populace, persuaded, provided and provoked food for thought about love, humour, drama, romance, incest, hatred, secrecy and foul play.

King Lear on stage at The Globe, London

King Lear on stage at The Globe, London

Shakespeare helped by targeting the issues of the day on both the political and social scene, while shaping national identity by inspiring the opening up of international trade and diplomacy.

The Globe was originally only in use until 1613, when a canon fired during a performance of Henry VIII caught the roof on fire and the building burned to the ground.

The site of the theatre was rediscovered in the 20th century and a reconstruction built near the spot.

There has been a great deal of conjecture over Shakespeare again in recent years, including a movie about who he was, claiming that it was really the aristocratic Edward de Vere who wrote his works.

This was the noblest Roman of them all.
All the conspirators, save only he,
Did that they did in envy of Caesar;
He only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, “This was a man! **

Bearing the wordds "EID MAR" (Ides of March) Marcus Junius Brutus' name has become synonymous with treachery for the part he took in the assassination of Julius Caesar, his manufacture of this coin must be considered an astonishing act of hubris. We could say it was a confession as in the Senate he had opposed a coin bearing an image of a living Roman

The ‘Ides of March’ coin, a gold aureus commissioned by Marcus Brutus shortly after he led the assignation plot against Julius Caesar in 44BC.

Shakespeare’s play on the subject of Caesar’s death is one of his most powerful.

Bearing the wordds “EID MAR” (Ides of March) Marcus Junius Brutus’ name has become synonymous with treachery for the part he took in the assassination of Julius Caesar, his manufacture of this coin must be considered an astonishing act of hubris.

We could say it was a confession as in the Senate he had opposed a coin bearing an image of a living Roman.

There is a striking portrait of Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun at the University of Birmingham. He was Moroccan Ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I.

He came from Barbary to London in 1600 on a state visit, causing a great impact on the population of London at the time.

Copy of famous portrait of Abd el Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, Moorish Ambassador to Queen Elizabeth 1 University of Birmingham

The visitors were a source of fascination and of fear.

El-Ouahed and his men were in the city for six months and certainly would have been known to Shakespeare: they may have very well informed the character of Othello, the soldier and ‘noble moor’.

In Shakespeare’s time newly built playhouses in areas like Bankside had a dangerous and notorious reputation. They all had to attract large numbers of playgoers just to survive.

These theatres could hold several thousand people, most standing in the open pit before the stage, though rich nobles could watch the play from a chair set on the side of the stage itself.

Performers and their performances also had to appeal to a wide spectrum of society, from groundlings to courtiers they all came, saw, wept and went.

Theatre performances were held in the afternoon, because there was no artificial lighting. Women attended plays, although the prosperous woman would wear a mask to disguise her identity.

One 19th-century painting in the V & A at London depicts Elizabeth I watching a play at the Globe Theatre.

The reality is that Elizabeth never visited a public playhouse, if she wanted to see a play, the players would perform at one of her Royal residences

During Shakespeare’s age wit was celebrated above knowledge, and demonstrated by a quickness of repartee and an ingenuity of mind.

The basic aim of all Elizabethan design was that there would be ‘None other Such’* as it in existence’. Innovation was all, the aim to be unique not correct!  And this was part of the philosophy of life that Shakespeare subscribed to.

Will Shakespeare left a fittingly poetic epitaph: “Good frend for Jesus sake forbeare, to digg the dust encloased heare! blest be the man that spares thes stones, and curst be he that moves my bones.”

Reminds me, I am going to see the Michael Fassbender movie of Macbeth today…

“What’s done, is done”

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015

Watch a Video about The Bodleian Libraries First Folio of Shakespeare


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