The popular film “Shakespeare in Love” seemed to unleash a wave of fictional imaginings of the English writer: the plays “Equivocation” and “The Beard of Avon,” the films “Anonymous” and “All Is True,” the short-lived TV series “Will.” But 1999’s frothy Best Picture winner was hardly the first rendering of Shakespeare as a fictional character.
The Bard of Avon made periodic appearances in novels throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, from a trilogy by Robert Folkestone Williams in the 1840s to Anthony Burgess’s 1964 book Nothing Like the Sun. And his first recorded stage appearance as a character is from 1679, some 60 years after the playwright’s death, when “the Ghost of Shakespeare” emerged to give a prologue to Thomas Dryden’s version of “Troilus and Cressida.”
There is nothing ghostly about the Shakespeare we meet in “Upstart Crow,” a delightfully cheeky BBC sitcom comprising three short seasons, available in the United States through the on-demand service Britbox as well as via Amazon. As played by the acerbic David Mitchell, one half of the comedy duo Mitchell and Webb, this Will Shakespeare is a mildly schlubby and insecure if well-intentioned striver, dividing his time between a bustling family hearth in Stratford and a rooming house in London from which he is building his playwriting career. The show’s title comes from an epithet hurled at Shakespeare in 1592 by a jealous poet, Robert Greene, in a pamphlet.
A fictional Greene is on hand as the show’s mustache-twirling villain to pound home the familiar theme of Shakespeare’s low birth and insufficiently fancy education. In a typical pithy putdown, he dismisses Shakespeare as “a country bum-snot, an oik of Avon, a town-school spotty-grotty.” The show’s Greene also functions as a literal nemesis, positioned (ahistorically) as the Master of the Revels, the impresario and censor through whom all staged entertainment must pass muster [ . . . ]
In this week’s books podcast my guest is Emma Smith, Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Hertford College, Oxford, who’s talking about her new book This Is Shakespeare. What is it that makes Shakespeare special — and is it defensible that, as even in university curricula, we talk about Shakespeare apart from and above the whole of the rest of literature? How did he think about genre? Why is Act Four always a bit boring? Is the Tempest an autumnal masterpiece or the thin work of a writer of dwindling powers? And how filthy is A Midsummer Night’s Dream?
Not long after the release of the film adaptation, Anthony Burgess embarked on an ambitious companion to his seminal novel. But it was never published, and the manuscript went unread — until now.
Gather round, my droogs. It’s time for a story.
Not long after the 1971 release of the film adaptation of A Clockwork Orange, the novel’s author, Anthony Burgess, received an offer from a publisher: Write a short follow-up to the novel, one that uses the word “Clockwork” in the title and brims with artwork, and we will make you a rich man.
So, according to Burgess scholar Andrew Biswell, the novelist got to work on a brief piece, which soon became a big piece, which eventually ballooned to 200 pages. Written under the name The Clockwork Condition, the work was to be a philosophical meditation on the very nature of modern life. But alas, it never was — the manuscript was never published, and despite rumors of the project, it was never found either.
Catherine Blake brought out of shadows in exhibition also featuring artist’s self-portrait
William Blake’s wife, Catherine, is to be brought out of the shadows and celebrated as a lifelong creative influence, in the largest exhibition in a generation devoted to an artist believed by many to be one of Britain’s greatest.
Tate Britain has announced details of its big autumn Blake show, bringing together more than 300 works. It will include the first UK display of a piece thought to be Blake’s only self-portrait, and the recreation of a solo exhibition he staged in 1809 that he hoped would bring him fame and fortune. Sadly, only a handful of people turned up.
There will also be watercolours from a hoard of 19 works lost for 165 years and found in 2001 in a Glasgow secondhand bookshop. Two book dealers bought them for £50 each; the set was later controversially broken up and sold for $7m.
Curators said Catherine, Blake’s lifelong companion, would feature heavily in the exhibition. “It is only in the last 15 years that Catherine as a huge stabilising, supporting and level-headed influence on Blake’s art and his domestic life has really come to the fore,” said Amy Concannon, a co-curator of the show.
On a practical level she made sure the family did not descend into poverty, always keeping a certain amount of money hidden in the house and occasionally serving her husband an empty dinner plate to buck his ideas up.
But she also coloured his prints and was a hugely important creative force in his life, said Martin Myrone, another co-curator.
Blake was an artist ahead of his time, unappreciated for much of his life. A pivotal moment came in 1809 when Blake staged a show of his own work in a drawing room above the family hosiery business in Soho. “This was Blake’s attempt to take control of the presentation of his work and to be taken seriously as a painter of historical subjects,” said Concannon.
He included fantastical paintings showing Lord Nelson directing a sea monster and the prime minister William Pitt as an angel guiding Behemoth. They would have baffled people at the time, and in any event hardly anyone came and not a single work was sold. Soon afterwards Blake retreated from the world.
Fortunately, he compiled a lengthy catalogue for the show, in which he talked about wanting people to recognise “real art”, and it will allow curators to recreate the domestic Georgian room in the Tate Britain show.
Folk band the Unthanks and Adrian McNally have made an audio soundtrack pairing music with the writer’s poems as the listener walks the landscape of West Yorkshire. What is it like?
It begins with a flock of birds taking raucous flight; and even though there are no crows to be seen above the heather-flecked moors around the Brontë Parsonage at Haworth, it’s difficult to discern whether this is reality, or a fantasy. I’m immersed in the latest heritage project dedicated to the literary family: a unique audio experience that combines Emily’s poetry, folk music and West Yorkshire’s grand landscape to produce something quite incredible.
The Emily Brontë Song Cycle, an audio production pairing Emily’s poems and music by folk group the Unthanks, was commissioned by the Brontë Society, which runs the sisters’ old family home the Parsonage as a hugely successful museum. The last couple of years has seen a number of Brontë bicentennial anniversaries; this year marked marked 200 years since the birth of Emily, best known for her only novel, Wuthering Heights. Continue reading →