The Year 2016 will be long remembered as the annus mirabilis for Shakespeare aficionados in Santa Fe. During this 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death, our city was fortunate to be selected as a stop for the Folger Shakespeare Library’s touring exhibition of copies of the First Folio, the original “collected works” compilation published in 1623, seven years after the writer’s passing. Displayed at the New Mexico Museum of Art, it served as the centerpiece for a spate of ancillary exhibitions, lectures, and performances that surely represented the greatest concentration of Shakespearean activities this town has ever seen.
The international Shakespeare industry went into high gear for the memorial year. As 2016 creeps toward its end, we thought we could clear the desk by noting a few items that might keep the Shakespearean flame alive as we turn the page to another year. Among the many books about the Bard published this year, the most curious may be The Poet of Them All: William Shakespeare and Miniature Designer Bindings from the Collection of Neale and Margaret Albert by Elizabeth R. Fairman (Yale Center for British Art, distributed by Yale University Press). Neale Albert, a prominent mergers-and-acquisitions attorney, collects many things, but — as James Reid-Cunningham tells us in an essay on the art of contemporary designer bookbinding — “Above all else, [Albert] collects miniature books. … He claims that his passion for miniatures is a result of living in a two-bedroom co-op apartment in New York City; that is, space constraints limit his collecting to small objects and paintings that fit onto his walls. Miniature-book enthusiasts often cannot articulate the attraction, perhaps because some things worthy of infatuation transcend explanation.”
Albert is no dilettante; he has served two terms as president of the Miniature Book Society and been elected an honorary fellow of Designer Bookbinders, Great Britain’s most notable organization for artistic bookbinding. He was originally a generalist when it came to miniature bindings, but after building a substantial collection, he donated it to the Grolier Club of New York, the country’s “oldest society for book lovers & graphic arts fans.” Over the past decade or so he created another collection, this time devoted to Shakespeare-related miniature books that he commissioned from leading book artists. These will be going into the collection of the Yale Center for British Art, after about a hundred of the books have been shown there and at the Grolier Club in the exhibition documented by this book.
The elegant color photography and design of this volume is at a level one would expect, given that it was born into the realm of book art to begin with. You can almost smell the tooled leather as you page through. Many of the tiny volumes Albert commissioned relate to Shakespeare via Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate, the famous Broadway adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew. (Musical notes and dancing gangsters are favorite motifs in this portion of the collection, which is called “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” after a song from the Porter show.) Another group involves modern, artistic rebindings of volumes from miniature Shakespeare editions originally published in 1825 by the London firm of William Pickering, and around 1910 by the Knickerbocker Leather & Novelty Company of New York. Examples of the latter group range creatively through Paul Delrue’s rainbow-hued Romeo and Juliet (2005), on the cover of which the lovers seem to emerge out of a stage curtain; Mia Leijonstedt’s Antony and Cleopatra (2005), which incorporates painted papyrus and a band of snakeskin — though perhaps not asp skin, strictly speaking; and George Kirkpatrick’s King Henry IV, Part 1 (2007), of which the artist explains, “I decided to make a replica of the tomb, which, instead of the remains of King Henry, contains the hidden treasure of Shakespeare’s play.”
Many books through the years have been devoted to Shakespeare’s flowers, as one might expect, given how often he refers to them in his plays and poems. An unusually fine one appeared this year courtesy of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust: Shakespeare’s Gardens by Jackie Bennett, with gorgeous photographs by Andrew Lawson (Frances Lincoln Limited). The volume is peppered with thought-provoking floral quotations, including “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin” (Troilus and Cressida), or “The strawberry grows underneath the nettle,/And wholesome berries thrive and ripen best/Neighbored by fruit of baser quality” (Henry V). Page-long sidebars examine specific plants to which Shakespeare refers, accompanied by detailed photographs that are sure to delight the horticulturally inclined. Chapters are given over to Tudor gardens in general, and to the gardens of London in the playwright’s day, including the Inns of Court and the mania for “pleasure gardens.” But the heart of the book is its comprehensive consideration of five gardens that relate directly to Shakespeare and his family.
Archaeology gets us close to some of these as they were in or around Shakespeare’s time, but a good deal of the discussion involves the history and design of these spaces since his lifetime. The starting point was a home on Henley Street in Stratford-upon Avon, where baby William was born in 1564 to John Shakespeare and Mary Arden. The story of the place is interlaced with a well-told account of the family and of their child’s early years. Bennett imagines how the outdoor spaces must have functioned, being attached to the father’s glove-making business: how hides were stripped, how leather was tanned and cured, what happened to the refuse, and how the family nourished itself from what grew in the gardens and orchards mentioned in contemporary documents. “The interest in visiting the house where Shakespeare was born,” Bennett writes, “began in the 1750s and was fuelled, in part, by David Garrick’s revival of the plays in London theatres and his total obsession with everything Shakespearean.” She traces how the property was excavated and how the gardens were developed to reflect the horticultural aesthetics of ensuing generations, right through to the decisions that inform how the principal garden appears today. “The High Victorian formality,” she writes, “while being light years away from the muddied yard and simple beds of John Shakespeare’s time, is a successful choice for a garden that has close to a million pairs of feet walking through it every year.”
Our tour continues with a visit to Mary Arden’s farm: “Shakespeare’s affinity for botany came not from his education and reading but from his upbringing in Warwickshire, and especially from time he spent at his mother’s home.” Here he became familiar not just with plants but also with actual farming practices at this ancestral home, where the house has been dated precisely to 1514. We then look in at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage — a farm then called Hewlands — in the village of Shottery, just west of Stratford-upon-Avon; that is where Shakespeare’s wife grew up and where he courted her prior to their marriage in 1582. We observe its transformation into a respected tourist destination in the mid-19th century and the development of its garden in the 1920s under the direction of Ellen Willmott. She is still recalled by today’s gardeners, as her name became attached to many species and cultivars, including popular forms of rose, zinnia, potentilla, and eryngium. Among the plants growing at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage today is Lathyrus odoratus ‘Miss Willmott’, a sweet pea of pink-apricot hue.
Bennett also explores the garden at Hall’s Croft, which Shakespeare bought in 1602 in Old Stratford and gave to his daughter Susanna and her husband, John Hall, on their marriage in 1607; an ancient mulberry tree is particularly revered there, perhaps dating to the 18th century. A final visit takes us to New Place, the home in Stratford-upon-Avon that Shakespeare bought in 1597, at the age of thirty-three, and where he died in 1616, at the age of fifty-two. He paid £60 for it. “A murder had been committed in the family of the people selling it (the Underhills). This, added to the fact that it was a ruin, suggests he was buying a house that no one else wanted.” It was renovated into something lovely, but in 1753 it was bought by a Rev. Francis Gastrell, who was annoyed by the stream of visitors who arrived asking to see Shakespeare’s mulberry tree. “In 1758, the Gastrells cut down the mulberry — out of spite. The townspeople were naturally outraged, because visitors spent money in their inns and shops. A year later, in 1759, after a violent dispute with the Stratford-upon-Avon Corporation, the Gastrells had the house itself demolished. The shocked townspeople hounded him out of the town, and the site of New Place has been ‘house-less’ ever since.” Bennett’s writing, clear and elegant, combines with Lawson’s stunning documentary photographs, plus many historical images, to yield one of the most beautiful Shakespeare books to emerge out of this quadricentennial year.
One of the Shakespeare symposia last February had to do with whether one gets closer to seizing the true flavor of his oeuvre by reading his words on the page or seeing his plays performed on the stage. (No easy answer was forthcoming.) There is a third possibility; one might neither read nor view, but rather listen. The dramatist and critic Harley Granville-Barker, famous for his Prefaces (“thoughtful analyses,” he might have called them) about Shakespeare’s plays, felt it might be best to approach the works as a sort of speech-music. “All poets, presumably, test their lines by ear as they write them, if not by speech,” he wrote. “But with Shakespeare dramatic writing was for convenience of record merely; his verse was not only conceived as speech, it was to be so born and only meant to exist. He provided music for an orchestra of living individual voices that he knew. As nearly as might be, he spoke through his actors. It is the mere notation of this once-living music which remains.”
George Bernard Shaw, a figure with certain bona fides in theatrical matters, hummed a similar tune in a “Shakespear” review he penned for The Saturday Review in 1895: “It is the score not the libretto that keeps the work alive and fresh: and this is why only musical critics should be allowed to meddle with Shakespear — especially early Shakespear.”
If you are wanting to conquer a Shakespearean’s heart by way of his or her ears, you will find a worthy weapon in the form of a 9¼-pound boxed set titled Shakespeare: The Complete Works: The Complete Plays, Sonnets, and Poems, 100 CDs of the Greatest Literary Work of All Time, published by the Argo label and selling for approximately $182. This is a re-release of historically important recordings issued between 1958 and 1964 as a project of the Marlowe Dramatic Society at Cambridge University. The enterprise was underwritten by the British Society, a governmental agency concerned with promoting its nation’s language and culture internationally. Other recordings of Shakespeare plays appeared on its heels — the Shakespeare Recording Society on Caedmon Records, the “Living Shakespeare” series on the Odham label — but the Argo LPs were the first to appear, and they set the standard for their day.
The Marlowe Dramatic Society was (and still is) a student group at Cambridge. It was directed at that time by George Rylands, who wrote of their Shakespeare project, “This undertaking is academic rather than theatrical; it is concerned with the interpretation and the proper speaking of Shakespeare.” Student members make up the bulk of the casts, but you would never guess from their accomplished performances that they were not more seasoned. Some were just embarking on pathways that would lead to fame — Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Prunella Scales, Diana Rigg, and Trevor Nunn, among others who show up playing minor parts. A number of more established stage notables were brought in as well, perhaps to add luster — although, one suspects, also to provide a standard of professionalism as a model for the students. Curiously, these famous names are not always the finest thing about the recordings. Irene Worth, for example, provides a model of declamation in Venus and Adonis, and Geraldine McEwan is great fun as Mistress Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor, but John Gielgud makes a rather slight, not very ingratiating impression in the leading role of Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing (against a far more compelling Peggy Ashcroft as Beatrice).
One is struck by the homogeneity of style that runs through these discs. The set documents a classic way of delivering Shakespeare’s words — a mode of stage speech that is emulated less frequently today, when actors are as likely to express their lines with blunt naturalism. On the whole, the more lyrical works are the most thoroughly captivating in these renditions — Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream — although I was also taken with these performances of Julius Caesar and Hamlet (with the character actor Miles Malleson as a splendid Polonius).
The 224-page book that comes with the set reproduces the thoughtful essays that appeared with the original LPs, but it nonetheless leaves listeners on their own when it comes to sorting out just who is speaking or what stage action is taking place in any given scene. As a result, this set does not serve on its own as a “beginner’s Shakespeare.” One might profitably supplement it with a published copy of the plays, not necessarily to encourage reading along but rather as a reference to clarify the narrative. Without that, I fear most of us would be hopelessly lost in the histories as well as in the lesser known comedies and tragedies. A boon of these recordings is that they employ the complete text of all the works, as defined by the scholarly editions employed. That is something one would rarely encounter in a staged performance, where directors tend to omit scenes and passages selectively to make the plays more approachable for modern audiences. For the serious Shakespeareans of Santa Fe, this set promises to amply repay the shelf space it will occupy — and it may not often remain on the shelf. ◀
“The Poet of Them All: William Shakespeare and Miniature Designer Bindings from the Collection of Neale and Margaret Albert” is published by the Yale Center for British Art.
“Shakespeare’s Gardens” by Jackie Bennett, photographs by Andrew Lawson, is published by Frances Lincoln Limited.
“Shakespeare: The Complete Works: The Complete Plays, Sonnets, and Poems, 100 CDs of the Greatest Literary Work of All Time” is available from Argo.