One of the good things about Shakespeare is that no matter what idiot messes about with him, you can’t really do him any harm.
So as 2016 was an anniversary of his death… there was so much Shakespeare stuff happening that even I got involved, for a gig at the Elizabethan House Museum, Great Yarmouth. With a delightful gang of other luvvies, I was Prospero from The Tempest for a day. With puffed sleeves and a magic walking stick, I messed about with a tragic Hamlet, a clever Malvolio and a beautiful Titania.
Having not given The Bard much thought since school, I discovered The Tempest is quite an interesting play. Its full of special effects which must have been pretty whizzy in it’s time (1610, a far as anybody knows). On a magical island, a powerful wizard called Prospero rules over a mass of faeries and other-world beings, and using their powers causes a fake storm one night, to shipwreck his enemies as they unwittingly sail past. It’s all illusion, no body actually dies, like in theatre itself…
To help me grasp the story, I was doing some drawings and sketches, and realised I could use them to help me explain The Plot to museum visitors. After all, its definitely true that a picture says a thousand words… So I put some into a folder to have with me – or perhaps I should call it a folio..? ho ho, boom boom.
The nobles who find them selves shipwrecked on the island would, I assumed, be dressed as the wealthy folk of Shakespeare’s day, with ruffs, cuffs, slashed leathers and fur. There’s only one female part, sweet young gal Miranda, but of course she would have been played by a boy in Shakespeare’s day.
So how did that go..? Dresses & skirts were full coverings back then, so hiding any manliness below the neck wouldn’t be too difficult , but did they also use wigs, jewellery, make-up? If you look at Queen Lizzie The First as an example of A Celebrity Woman of the time, then yeek, it could have been a pretty garish look…
Caliban was the tricky one. Apart from descriptions of him in the mouths of other characters (who basically all call him a mis-shapen monster), there are a couple of stage directions referring to his costume.
This is most unusual in Shakespeare, and unfortunately most unhelpful to an illustrator wondering what on earth his costume looked like.
All it says is that he is able to lie down and hide under his “gabardine”. Two people looking under either end think he is a two headed fish. See what I mean, not much help…
I concluded it must have been some sort of large, hooded cloak, with make up and garish colour.
These days, its hard not to imagine Prospero, the mighty wizard, as Ian Mc Kellen’s Gandalf, but there was no way I could afford such a great fake beard, so I had to rely mainly on the enormous sleeves.
However, my part in the continuing success of Shakespeare as the world’s most famous luvvy, ever, is not as intriguing as something which came to light roughly around the same time I was telling people all the world’s a stage, you know. (Yes, Prospero is the guy who says that one).
Thanks to a BBC documentary, we now all know that some fool can, and did, harm old Shakespeare, after all…
Missing: one head (used) Distraught Owner: Shakespeare, William.
The BBC decided that a proper archaeological investigation into the 19th century rumour that someone had snuck in one night and nicked Shakespeare’s head from his grave was long overdue.
They didn’t dig him up, or even lift up the overlying ledger slab of his grave in Stratford Church (they weren’t allowed, not even the BBC), but instead used Geophysics scans to see what was in there. And the scans indicated a nasty “empty space” where his head should be.
So its true – the story that A Gentleman had pilfered the most famous writer’s grave in Britain was A Fact instead of A Fiction. And quite apart from the fact that I’m not surprised, as the general public will nick anything, I can understand why as well. The daft notion of Phrenology was all the rage mid 1800’s : the study of cranial contours as a visual key to understanding personality. The lumps & bumps on yer bonce could be read like a book as to what sort of person you were, or so it was widely believed.
Worthy Gentlemen with an interest in history were busy studying ancient skulls dug from Bronze Age burial mounds, and eminent lawyers bought casts of the heads of hanged murderers.
Professors of learning were even floating the notion of streaming school children according to how their cranial features indicated intelligence, honesty, empathy and other traits!
Who wouldn’t want to trace their fingers around the head of Shakespeare?
The real skull would be a Holy Grail for literary academics, poets and playwrights. Casts made from it would sell by the thousand, across Europe and America.
So our dear Bard, having lived through a bit of British history still famous for it’s beheadings, now found himself about 200 years later joining a long line of headless Tudors.
Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, the Thomases More and Cromwell, Mary Queen of Scotts… even the odd dashing alpha male like Walter Raleigh, whose head, so they say, was lovingly kept in a velvet bag by his wife ever after.
Will would surely be amused, because thanks to Hamlet, the sure fire way to suggest “Shakespeare”, if you’re a cartoonist, is to draw someone talking to a skull. In fact, that image even just about does for saying “theatre” in general, a most useful, universally recognised visual cliche.
The lovely ironies continue: ‘t was A Gentleman who carried out the deed, of course. But being A Gentleman, (wether of Verona or anywhere else) there’s no way he would be getting down on his hands and knees in a midnight church and ruining his nails scrabbling under a stone slab in the earth.
He employed two fellas to do the slab-shifting & digging bit, so the story goes.
One can have guess at The Gentleman, just another privileged chap on the make, who suddenly sees a way to dig up a fortune… but what were the other two like?
If Shakespeare had been writing this himself, in one of his plays, the cast list would label these lower class roles as The Mechanicals. Think of Peter Quince and his friends in Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Shakespeare often uses his working class, ordinary folk, to provide the comedy moments : Dogberry, the bumbling constable of the Watch (Much Ado), Captain Fluellen, a fine son of Wales (the Henry plays).
Did our two lads have some wise cracks to make in the spooky, flickering lamp light, as they argued over which slab to lift?
Was one the crafty rogue, stroking his chin like the builder you’ve just asked for a price, and the other the unwitting clot, who always spoils his mate’s schemes at the last minute…
An empty church, one flickering candle in a horn lantern, in the dead of night…
But first of all, you have to get in. Its most likely Our Gentleman wanted a trouble free heist, so I’d guess breaking in was too risky. In those days every church had it’s Sexton, another character quite a few steps down the social ladder from Gentleman, and never as well paid as his master, The Rector.
Shakespeare-land is full of servants & maids who are easily persuaded to the skulduggery needed to make his plots work, so lets speculate that here again life mirrored art, in the grubby details of a little bribe.
Our miserable Sexton needn’t have known what the plan was, just to pass the church keys under the table in the tavern late one eve, in exchange for a guinea that would keep him in coal for that winter. Blame him not, good Gentles all, for I am sure Will never would.
Oh, and as to those keys, I’ve had a few keys to mediaeval church doors in my hand, and believe me, they generally are really that darn big. So here they are, then, the conspirators..
But the plot gets even better, because after the exciting “Night Scene: a church, enter The Mechanicals, with lantern” , The Gentleman couldn’t sell! It seems Will’s skull was just too hot to handle. So our tale then turns to another, much favoured dramatist’s cliche ; how to get rid of The Body, or parts there-of. Don’t scoff, this is a very old scene, long predating Alfred Hitchcock movies or Arsenic & Old Lace.
It was a very popular motif in mediaeval tales: wives trying to dump murdered husbands, husbands to hide their wives’ dead lovers, (after unintentionally fatal beatings delivered in a jealous passion), and other accidental deaths galore to cover up in sacks, chests, and cupboards. Its an old gag, and was great fun for storytellers, playwrights and players. There were no “actors” back then, remember – the makers of theatre & other live entertainment were still mere Mechanicals in the eyes of The Gentlemen classes.
Oh, how ’tis different now… Will’s headless body spins in it’s grave every time An Actorrrr gets a knighthood.
What did happen next? The BBC documentary went to a lot of trouble to examine a potential candidate, found in another church, but it turned out to be a lady.
So where Shakespeare’s skull ended up is still a mystery…
Pity, as that would leave plenty of room for further tales from this fascinating Fact. And the trouble is, there’s little chance of proving to whom a random skull may belong, so there’s little chance of ever returning it to Will’s grave.
It may well still be out there somewhere, anonymously floating about in the lives of antique dealers, obscure auctions, turning up in house clearances, causing an awkward moment on the Antiques Road Show, brought to school for a Show & Tell morning…
Could our disappointed Gent sell it today, do you think? Probably – people buy anything on eBay.