Ten Live Tweeting Commandments: Part Two

This is going to make a lot more sense if you read Part One. I think I can only number it 1-5, but we all know it’s 6-10, right?


  1. Another historical experience live-tweeting might allow us better to imagine is the role played the early modern repertory company. Some of the pleasure of the Marathons involves an increasing identification between certain readers and a certain kind of role, which is reinforced by the ongoing Twitter commentary about the aptness (or otherwise) of the casting. Over three years of play-readings, I have found myself repeatedly given the parts of flustered young gallants and thundering kings: our esteemed organiser, Dr Martin Wiggins, is by this point indelibly associated with sorcerers, clowns and Welshmen.

    It’s possible that this is only relevant to those present in the room, but given that many tweeting in from afar have some personal familiarity with the performers, they are also often responding on the basis of accumulated associations. Seeing readers play related parts in quick succession allows links to be made and theories to be expounded with regard to the original casting: it also helps us vividly understand the joke of Polonius playing Julius Caesar. Something of the necessarily reactive, improvisatory quality of early modern acting — reading cold, delivering your lines with the motivation of a genuine response to a cue you might have never heard before — also comes across in this method of engagement.



  2. Live-tweeting is a lot of fun for those involved in it, but also potentially alienating for those who want to engage with the reading process in a different way. Though I heard no explicit complaints during the #dekkerthon, it was clear that not everyone reading the text was comfortable or interested in engaging with the Twitter feed, and of course, nor should they have to be. Does this imply any kind of gap opening up between digital and non-digital approaches to the humanities? If so, does it point to any deeper divides which contemporary scholars who work heavily with digital and social media ought to be aware of, and what are the possibilities for bridging the gap between these different varieties of engagement?


  3. Following on from the above, it’s clear that live-tweeting tends to prioritise certain experiences of the play over others. Not everything we get in the room from reading the play is summarisable; not every line is equally quotable without its context. Put bluntly, knob and fart jokes play better on Twitter than abstruse Latin references, and as such they’re correspondingly more visible in what becomes the digital record of the play.

    The more obscure the play, the more problematic this might seem: the impression that we give of any text we read is undeniably a skewed and a reduced one, however hard we might try to offer more traditionally scholarly material. That said, is anyone going to read a bunch of live-tweets about The Welsh Ambassador who isn’t also more than averagely likely to go away and read The Welsh Ambassador? And if not, does this pose any ethical problems?

    On the other hand, it does mean this happens:


  4. As Eoin Price has noted in his great post about reading the tweets without participating in the room, there is a marked resemblance between live-tweeting the early modern practice of commonplacing. When we tweet these texts, perhaps we should be asking ourselves what we’re doing, and who it’s for: the audience in the room, or beyond it? Are these tweets our own records of the text, a kind of intellectual crib of the lines we enjoyed or wanted to remember for own research, or are they a way of enticing potential readers? Should we aim to tweet in a way that clarifies the throughline of the play, giving a flavour of every scene and plot development, so that a reader can follow the entire narrative? Or should we (as in practice, I think we mostly do) tweet at particular flashpoints, underscoring the lines or moments that have had the most comic or dramatic impact? (As a side-note, it’s obvious that the plays that have the most people tweeting about them produce the greatest amount of content, and that the most popular plays to attend are probably the ones of which readers already have a background awareness: is this self-reinforcing, and is this a problem?)

    It’s worth reflecting on whether we tweet primarily to summarise, to offer commentary, or – and this is no small thing – to express and share the pleasures of discovery these unfamiliar texts produce. And it’s probably worth asking if going about this task with any kind of self-consciousness about its academic value or otherwise is likely to stymie the fluidity and surprise which makes it so exciting to be a part of, even if that might make it somewhat less edifying to read at home.

  5. A final point which underlies much of the above: comedy is easier to live-tweet than tragedy. As such, when we do live-tweet a primarily tragic narrative (as, for instance, Shirley’s The Cardinal), the questions above might be especially pertinent: what are we hoping to convey? Will we inevitably focus on the comic elements of the tragedy, or does the absence of obvious jokes make it easier to foreground the dramatic poetry (something I sometimes fear is a casualty of the pithy format)? On the one hand, this suggests some plays aren’t going to benefit from live-tweeting as a method of response. On the other, it’s an endemic problem that early modern comedy is far less highly valorised in academia than its tragic counterpart. A lot of what we turn to Twitter for is making people laugh. If that’s what these plays are doing to, and the medium helps us to rediscover that, perhaps it’s no bad thing to put them centre stage. That said, I’m looking forward to a time when my own timeline is no longer filled with the word ‘whoremonger’. In that respect, I’m glad this comes but once a year.



I’d love to know what anyone else, involved in the Marathons or otherwise, thinks about the pleasures and perils of live-tweeting early modern drama: do comment below if there’s something you’d like to add. You can find all of the #dekkerthon tweets here yourself, and all the Shirley Marathon entries on this much more clumsily-integrated website which I cobbled together last year, when I refused to simply lie down and take WordPress’s refusal to play nice with Storify, with predictable consequences. I haven’t gone as far back as the Heywood Marathon for most of these points, largely because it doesn’t have its own site, but you can find everything posted under that hashtag here. Martin’s blog on this year’s marathon is here. See you all next year?


Ten Live Tweeting Commandments: Part One

Last month marked the third iteration of an annual exercise in which I alienate a substantial proportion of my Twitter followers by posting a multi-day string of quotes from and riffs on the corpus of an early modern English playwright. Every year the Shakespeare Institute, under the direction of Dr Martin Wiggins, organises a marathon reading of the known (or strongly suspected) members of the dramatic canon of one such dramatist: this year’s chosen specimen was Thomas Dekker. Every year, a subset of the marathon’s participants offer a running commentary on the likes of James Shirley’s The Bird in a Cage or Thomas Heywood’s The Four Prentices of London in the form of a lively and scurrilous Twitter feed. Every year, we find that a growing number of people outside the room are listening in. Why do we do this? And what can we learn from the exercise?

Often little-known even within academia, and floating free of context into the wider world, in a sense these plays – old, complicated, ornery documents – are the opposite of traditional Twitter fodder: too niche to trend, too sprawling and involuted to lend themselves to a neat and snappy 140-characterisation. But there are clearly benefits to responding to these unfamiliar texts in this particular, instantly reactive way, as well as potential downsides which raise the question of how this method sits alongside conventional scholarship. In the spirit of Hamilton, I’m going to attempt to summarise my instincts about what happens when we live-tweet early modern drama in the form of ten live-tweeting commandments. These are all provisional and quite possibly largely wrong, and I’d love to hear from my fellow Dekkathletes, and from anybody brave enough to follow along at home, how true or otherwise they feel to your experience.

  1. Live-tweeting is inherently presentist. It can’t help responding to current affairs, and to the mood in the room, and making quickfire transhistorical comparison: it is still Twitter, after all. In its simplest form, this means the #dekkerthon live-stream fills up with gifs from Game of Thrones and Hamilton, offering flagging readers a quick, amusing hit of unexpected intertextuality.

    More seriously, it leads to original and unconventional political readings. If It Be Not Good, the Devil is In It is not a play about Brexit, or about the nation’s attitude to refugees and migrants. On June 24th, however, with its exploration of a divided state in which a place of sanctuary rejects a group of travellers as ‘idle vagabonds’, it seemed wholly pertinent to those two things to almost everybody taking part. Are we imposing modern interpretations? Maybe: but the material within the text is there for the asking, and finding new political purposes within these works creates a powerful sense of Dekker, our contemporary.



  2. Nonetheless, live-tweeting as a form of response is capable of supporting serious scholarship. In recent weeks, Holger Syme’s #1Lear experiment has drawn into question the appropriateness of Twitter as a space for intellectual engagement, including in this article which (spoiler alert) quotes me at the very end saying it can be. The readers in the room, and those engaged from a distance, keep up an ongoing dialogue about sources, similarities between the work in question and the author’s other plays, as well as references to texts with which the play we’re reading is in dialogue. This places the current moment in a larger frame, and allows for some pretty rapid-fire connections. At its best, these kinds of exchanges can assist the work of scholarly editors, operating as a kind of continuous open-source concordance.


  3. Live-tweeting leads to a certain sense of temporal disjunct. Where readers are taking on multiple parts, their tweets sometimes appear minutes after the lines or scenes to which they were referring; the interactive whiteboard takes time to catch up, and often while the main action of the plot is moving forward chronologically, there is a secondary dialogue going on in the background, where scenes within a play are linked, backwards and forwards, to each other and to other plays by Dekker, Shirley, Shakespeare, etc. This disrupts the sense of a play as a single-focus, linear narrative, creating eddies and cross-currents, and chimes with much recent scholarship on the complicated life of early modern playworlds. More practically, it means you often miss your cue.


  4. A more obvious kind of temporal dissonance while live-tweeting comes in the form of anachronism. Joanne Tompkins, taking a cue from Foucault, has explored the idea of theatre as a heterotopic space, where different time-zones are multiply present. In this case, it can be a source of humour, where the meaning of a word or phrase has obviously changed, or of surprise: finding the conditions of the present perfectly expressed in the language of the past. Live-tweeting these 17th century texts, we find ourselves both ‘here’ and ‘there’ at once: or less charitably, we find ourselves ‘here’ with a here-inflected mental image of ‘there’ simultaneously in mind.

  5. It is impossible to recapture the experience of an ‘original’ Jacobean audience, but our response to these plays as live-tweeters presents an interesting analogue to that experience. By and large, we don’t know the texts, we don’t know the lines, the rhymes, the stories. We experience in real-time, the twists, the revelations, the transitions: when we read Epicoene, we already know the deal. But when we read Northward Ho, or almost any Shirley play turning on the question of potential cuckoldry, we are genuinely (if not necessarily pleasantly) surprised to discover that
    it’s all a test. Of course – it’s all a test.

    If we want to think about early modern plays not just as literature, but as dramaturgical constructions which have effects on their audiences, moment by moment, we could do a lot worse than watching the immediate, unscripted reactions to this material unfold on the #dekkerthon or #shirleymarathon Twitter feeds. Like an early modern audience, we are also cross-comparing to the plays we’ve seen the previous week, the previous day. Unlike that audience, we’re also comparing to plays we know that were published later, bearing in mind the ‘after’ as well as the ‘before’: we’re reading Dekker and anticipating Jonson, and the experience of an audience who knows one before the other — who sees The Whore of Babylon before King Lear — is what’s truly irrecoverable.


    Go here for Part Two!

Fresh Meat’s Poetry Problem

VOD: Oggs. More poetry for you.

OREGON: Right. I’ll get the wheelbarrow.

— Fresh Meat. Series 4, Episode 4.

On Thursday night, I went to the London launch of Magma, a poetry magazine with a rotating editorship which devotes each issue to a chosen theme. The theme of Issue 64 was ‘Risk’, and guest editors Jon Stone and Dom Bury raised an interesting question: to what extent can any poetic technique or manoeuvre in the Arts Council-cosseted, privileged, decadent West be considered risky? On the other hand, doesn’t writing in a genre as maligned and mocked as contemporary poetry bring with it the inherent risk that no one gives a fuck what you have to say?

I’ve been thinking recently about something Jon wrote in response to a snide, belittling article the Sunday Times published on T. S. Eliot winner Sarah Howe, and the backlash it inspired from poets and feminists:

The crux of the problem with Oliver Thring’s condescending profile of Sarah Howe in the Sunday Times is that journalists don’t know how to approach poetry. They struggle to say anything intelligent or intelligible about it, so they mostly talk *around* it, rooting around for journalistic cliches in the life of the poet or the decor of their flat. The poetry itself has to fit a superimposed narrative template, of which there are very few: ‘Old, oblique sage-poet is national treasure’, ‘Young/black poet is introducing new generation to poetry’, ‘Young/black/female poet tackles political/personal issues’. If you’re young/black/female and aren’t transparently addressing (to the point of name-checking) personal and political issues in your poems, the journalist is all but rudderless.

And I’ve been thinking, especially, about Fresh Meat, the Channel 4 dramedy about the intellectual and emotional growing pains of six students at Manchester Medlock University whose fourth and final season is about to come to an end. A running thread of season 4 sees the establishment of the Oregon Shawcross Poetry Prize. Like the Student Union President herself, played by Charlotte Ritchie, the Shawcross Prize is a mix of blatant egotism and misguided good intentions. But it also allows Fresh Meat, much more perceptively than Oliver Thring, to talk *around* poetry for a variety of other storytelling purposes. In so doing, the Shawcross plotline is extremely revealing about the contested cultural position of poetry today.

Oregon (Charlotte Ritchie) defends her investment

Oregon initially turns to poetry, and the funding of a major prize for contemporary work, as something that will look good on a Fulbright application, making the candidate’s CV ‘basically bomb-proof.’ What kind of poetry the prize might favour or encourage isn’t clear at this stage, except that it will ‘inspire and energise all of us’: this is poetry as prestige project. This kind of blanket assertion of the value of poetry, David Clarke suggests, is what makes it so culturally suspect:

Poetry never lost its place on the school curriculum, despite a decline in its public profile, a situation which some poets have benefited from in terms of royalties and paid work with schools. However, when school is the only forum in which young people encounter poetry, the individual poem becomes a kind of test, a sort of overly-complex crossword clue which has to be decoded in order (literally) to make the grade.

The second episode of the series, scripted by Tom Basden, declares the £20,000 Shawcross prize ‘the most lucrative poetry prize in the UK.’ This is technically at least half-true: the Edwin Morgan Award also gifts its winner a cool £20,000, but this is awarded on the basis of a full collection and only Scottish writers are eligible; the T S Eliot has also recently risen to £20,000. As such, the Shawcross represents the richest pickings a single poem from the UK as a whole can reasonably hope for. This particular cash bonanza is apparently instrumental in reviving a dead form. ‘I’m bringing poetry back. Hard,’ says Oregon proudly: poetry as good cause; poetry as charity case.

Rosa (Ayda Field) is unimpressed

When the financial implications of this are revealed, however, the response of university administrator Nas is a resounding ‘Oh fuck.’ Not only can the University not fund poetry to this extent, it’s not even something it ought to countenance. Doing so would entail cuts to areas of investment which are, it is heavily implied, of far greater worth, either due to their popularity or their necessity to quality of life: these include both mainstream and disability sports, and the campus’s Nightline service. Former colleague Rosa lays out the choice in Penelope Skinner’s third episode:

You took away their special minibus. The one that takes them from the outreach programme to the disadvantaged youth centre. And you used the money to fund poems for a prize named after yourself.

Poetry is worth less than any of these things. If poetry requires defunding these activities, it undermines Oregon’s claims to be a socially progressive president: she associates rugby with ‘loaded landed toffs’, but ignores its contribution to the lives of students with disabilities. The high cultural worth of poetry, as suggested by its appeal to the Fulbright judges, does not translate into any comparable monetary value. Investing in it is self-evidently the wrong financial priority for a modern university: poetry as billionaires’ budget; poetry as elitist and reactionary; poetry as land-grab.

The situation isn’t helped by Oregon’s choice to name the prize after herself, nor by the reference to Christ (‘I won’t be the first person to be crucified for trying to do something good’) she argues is an allusion, not a comparison: ‘It’s a subtle difference, and one that, if you read more poetry, you’d understand.’ This is poetry as vanity project; poetry as snobbery; poetry in the service of a messiah complex.

Ultimately, the outrage over this misappropriation of funds leads to impeachment. ‘A majority of the student body’ are involved in a vote of no confidence in Oregon’s presidency. They’re up in arms not least over the reimbursements claimed by Tony Shales, English Literature Professor and turbot obsessive: poetry as expenses scandal. Justifying the measure she’s taken to balance the books, Oregon channels George Osborne: ‘we – I – have had a lot of tough decisions to make, and we – I – have always had the best interests of the student body at heart.’ Poetry is identified with the unjust exercise of power: it sparks a revolution, not by energising the populace as Oregon wishes, but by being exactly the last thing the students of Medlock want or need. It’s a waste of money, and one that brings about the leader’s downfall. This is poetry as political football; poetry as huge, trumpeting white elephant.

Professor Tony Shales (Tony Gardner) — would you trust this man to judge your poetry prize?

And perhaps that’s the end of the story. Oregon’s presidency is, after all, at an end, and the series has only one more episode to go. But although it seems unlikely, I’d like to hope to think this isn’t the end of the Shawcross Prize. Firstly, there are genuine plot reasons for it to play out: two housemates, Vod and JP (Zawe Ashton and Jack Whitehall) are in financial trouble £20,000 would do a lot to resolve, and both have shown some interest in poetry in previous episodes. Vod’s friend on the hippie commune in episode 3 is a ‘sand-poet’, who has written ‘over 1,000 poems in the sand’; in Jon Brown’s fourth instalment, JP attempts to enter the competition with a series of limericks which Oregon instantly rejects.

These glimpses of what poetry might mean in the Fresh Meat universe bring me to my final point, which links to Jon Stone’s question of approach. The plotline circles around and around the potential prize-winner – we see wheelbarrows full of unread entries being cremated in the house’s garden – but at no point has the show what kind of poem might win, except by negative example. JP’s limericks are too frivolous, however well-crafted (I liked the ‘Stowe/blow’ rhyme), for what seems to be an inherently weighty matter: ‘You’re not going to win with a limerick’, Oregon bluntly declares. Paz’s sand-poems, with their inbuilt transience, receive a sceptical response: ‘and that’s… good, is it?’ By the standards of the prize’s founder, we can assume that a worthy winner would offer something both serious and lasting, but beyond that, we don’t get any closer to what the show or its characters consider ‘good poetry’ to be. To get structural for a moment, ‘poetry’, and especially the implied term ‘good poetry’ becomes a shifting signifier whose signified is endlessly deferred. This allows for all of the plot points details above, but also suggests a fundamental uncertainty over what value poetry actually has in this narrative: whether ‘good poetry’ exists in this world at all, or the whole art form is only there to be mocked.

Asking Tony to sift the entries, Oregon tells the lecturer she needs someone to ‘shovel through the shit and find the gold’. So if there is gold out there, what does it look like? Presenting a poem as worthy in its own terms is something the series consistently avoids, like staring directly at the sun. Having trailered Jeanette Winterson as a judge, it would be fascinating to see Fresh Meat nail its colours to the mast and have her cameo in episode six. Would the scriptwriters commission a real poet to provide the winning entry, or put something together themselves that stays true to the voice of a familiar character? If the latter, will the poem be merely revealing of that character’s inner struggles, or presented within the world of the show as a work of actual literary value? And will we, at home, be expected to agree?

One answer might be offered by the end of Skinner’s episode three, where Josie, Vod and Oregon read through the entries on a car trip back to Manchester. In turn, the three friends dismiss as ‘Shit!’ and throw out of the window three poems: one with a run of sing-song rhymes (‘said/dead/Maidenhead’), one which is cut off almost immediately after the sentimental trigger-word ‘alone’, and one which begins ‘Whose woods these are I think I know./His house is in the village, though.’ This is, of course, the opening of Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening’, and is proclaimed unanimously ‘Shit!’ by all three students. Reading it with the same inflexion as the first shit entry, Kimberley Nixon’s Josie seems to be conveying that this, too, is doggerel.

For the viewer who doesn’t know the original, this might seem pretty accurate: the final entry in a terrible triumvirate. For one who does, it’s a fun in-joke, but also poses an interesting problem: what do the show’s creators think of this poem, and how does it fit within Fresh Meat’s discourse on the place of poetry? Assuming they don’t also think it’s shit, is this a comment on the callowness of youth, and how much less these characters know than they believe they do? While in-keeping with some of the show’s more recent developments, this seems too harsh. I wonder it’s more a comment on the fact that no poem, however powerful or canonical, can adequately convey its pleasures in a speeding car as the latest in a long, dull pile. Read in the context of the competition, Frost’s opening does sound like doggerel. But if we accept it isn’t, we also have to accept that poetry requires time to yield its benefits; that it can’t be judged at speed, and at face value. We have to accept that there is some value to poetry, even some need for it, given the right circumstances — even if the framework of cultural associations built up around it makes it very hard to know exactly what that is.

It’s hard to be the Bard – but why?

Judging by the songs available on YouTube, the Broadway musical Something Rotten strikes an interesting balance between propagating familiar pop-cultural myths about the early modern period and unpicking some of those assumptions through playful anachronism. The opening number, for example, welcomes us to ‘the Renaissance/Where everything is new’: far from a transitional period still processing and remaking its medieval heritage, the 16th century is presented as a new broom. ‘Our mugs are made of pewter,/Our houses all are Tudor’: the Middle Ages are banished entirely, and one writer is securely ‘the top’. Can you guess who it is yet?

When William Shakespeare first appears, according to at least one dodgy video (mea culpa – the show’s UK transfer is yet to be confirmed), he’s far above us, at an open window. Fans crowd around on the lower stage, behind a Hollywood-style red rope. This visual elevation is notable partly because the fellow writers who we have just heard about, in a fairly comprehensive roll-call, all pranced about on that lower level. Shakespeare isn’t alone, after all – the lyrics, by Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick, go so far as to include a ‘Woo!’ for Thomas Dekker – he’s just higher. Better.

This introduction is based around the very post-Renaissance concept of Shakespearean exceptionalism, where all roads lead to the Bard. Other early modern authors get their moment in the sun on condition that they endorse, and help to create, the Shakespeare myth (here, as in other posts, I’m channeling the great article by Peter Kirwan footnoted below.) Rather than one among many, Shakespeare is the One who crowds literally kneel and worship – his celebrity, his popularity, and what he himself (not in this play…) refers to as ‘vile participation’ (Henry IV Part 1, 3.2.87), all feed into this sense of a democratically-elected superiority. As the character announces in a moment which sits between the mass market Shakespeare of Victorian cheap print and the modern dictator’s personality cult, ‘I am the will of the people now.’

In this context, even the repudiation of Shakespeare is a kind of naughty thrill that re-affirms his centrality. To sing along with fictional rival playwright Nick Bottom’s ‘I Hate Shakespeare‘ – the song released, complete with lyric video, as a kind of promotional digital single – you have to say the name ‘Shakespeare’ itself no less than fourteen times. And though Bottom’s attack makes points that seem fair from a twenty-first-century focus on clarity and originality – ‘He’s a hack with a knack for stealing anything he can’, who makes the audience ‘feel so dumb’ – these things are enjoyable because we know we’re not really supposed to say them. If Shakespeare is the will of the people, joining in these admissions of antipathy has a transgressive quality – we’re watching a musical about Shakespeare, after all.

So what impact does the desire to reclaim Shakespeare as an essentially modern celebrity – a figure set apart from his Renaissance context, even as that context is made to feel more distinctly modern by virtue of his position as its leader – have on Something Rotten’s depiction of Shakespeare himself? Well, in simple terms, it goes to his head. Christian Borle’s Bard is arrogant, preening – ‘a rock star in a leather jacket’, as one interviewer addresses him. He also, intriguingly, suffers from writer’s block.

By being acclaimed ‘the soul of age’ in his own lifetime (not after his death, as in Jonson’s poem), Shakespeare leaves the age behind, becoming defined instead by notions of authorship which not only post-date Shakespeare but which also arguably arose in response to his daunting influence. When Borle laments how his busy schedule and the ‘trappings of fame’ prevent him sitting down to compose, he’s referring to a way of treating authors as public property which is justified by the sense of the author as unique genius, a biographical figure whose life is celebrated as the source of the ‘inspired’ work.

Jonathan Bate has argued that ‘Shakespeare was the first writer in Western high culture to be praised specifically for his supposed artlessness’, for ‘genius in the sense of ‘native endowment’ as opposed to ‘the art which could be achieved by study’. Through Shakespeare, genius becomes associated with a model vision of authorship, which from the Romantic period onwards has increasingly foregrounded authors as figures worthy of public fame. In the promotional video, we see Borle’s Shakespeare trying and failing to exercise the native genius expected of him:

and you’re trying to find
an opening line
or a brilliant idea
and you’re pacing the floor
and hoping for uh
just a bit of divine intervention

so you write down a word
but it’s not the right word
so you try a new word
but you hate the new word

Shakespeare here is swamped by expectations, by the pressure of a whole culture looking in at his window, constantly aware of ‘This bar that I’m raising/To be this amazing.’ He has become subject to the anxiety of his own influence: ‘Hard to alleviate, the pressure to create!/(It’s hard)/Hard to do something as good as the last thing I did that was already great!’ In other words, he is blocked by what are essentially modern assumptions about how good Shakespeare should be. This is a far cry from the inherited idea of Shakespeare’s genius which relies directly on his lack of creative inhibition: Milton praised his ‘easy numbers’, and Jonson carped that ‘hee flow’d with that facility, that sometime it was necessary he should be stop’d’. While Shakespeare as presented by Jonson ‘never blotted out line’, Borle (like Joseph Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love) is practically throwing reams of unsatisfying drafts out of the window.

In emphasising how exceptional Shakespeare’s writing is, Something Rotten thus paradoxically makes him seem a lot more like us. There is an image, and there is a person onstage struggling with his own creative process who might not be able to quite live up to it. Kirkpatrick’s lyrics don’t tell us it’s hard to be Shakespeare – they announce ‘it’s hard to be the Bard’, a version of ‘Shakespeare’ that audiences like us have created. Shakespeare holds the cultural prestige of the untouchable literary superstar partly because of the old narrative of his artlessness, his facility – one that survives in part because, as Richard Burt argues, ‘mass culture narratives rely on dated scholarship.’ Here, however, this is precisely the version of himself that Borle’s Bard – because of his hyperinflation as a cultural symbol – is conspicuously failing to deliver. Everything is new in Something Rotten’s Renaissance – except for the difficulty of finding anything new to say. This is a cultural problem which the narrative of Shakespeare’s pre-eminence, his ease, has done a great deal to create; so much that it now finds its way back into narratives of Shakespeare himself at work.



— Peter Kirwan. “‘You Have No Voice!’: Constructing Reputation through Contemporaries in the Shakespeare Biopic.”Shakespeare Bulletin 32.1 (2014): 11–26.

— Richard Burt. “Shakespeare in Love and the End of the Shakespearean: Academic and Mass Culture Constructions of Literary Authorship” in Shakespeare, Film, Fin de Siècle, eds. Mark Thornton Burnett and Ramona Wray (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000), 215.

— Jonathan Bate. The Genius of Shakespeare. 2nd ed. London: Picador, 2008.

— https://theatrelyrics.wordpress.com/2015/06/09/something-rotten-hard-to-be-the-bard-lyrics/ & https://theatrelyrics.wordpress.com/2015/06/09/something-rotten-i-hate-shakespeare-lyrics/ & https://theatrelyrics.wordpress.com/2015/06/18/something-rotten-welcome-to-the-renaissance-lyrics/ & https://theatrelyrics.wordpress.com/2015/10/23/something-rotten-will-power-lyrics/

Found Poem

The lines of the following poem are all subheadings introducing quotes for the term ‘Love’ in an 1884 book: The Student’s Topical Shakespeare: Thirty-Seven Plays, Analyzed and Topically Arranged for the Use of Clergymen, Lawyers, Students, Etc.


Its absurd Vows
Its Avowal Desired
Its bewildering Power
Its bewitching Tyranny
Its Conquests
Its contradictory Character
Its Dart not invisible
Its Difficulties
Its Effect on Time
Its Infatuation
Its Jealousy
Its Messengers should be swift
Its monstrous Promises
Its own Dowry
Its pacifying Power
Its Reason no Reason
Its Shadows
Its Treasures

Henry V – A hard play to love?

I have a confession to make: I’ve never really read Henry V. I’ve seen it, yes, in the Olivier and recent Hollow Crown film versions, and I know the most famous passages, but I’ve never properly sat with the text, and last night’s RSC production, starring Alex Hassell, was my first encounter with the play onstage. One reason for this absence might be this: I thought I knew Henry V, and I didn’t like it. My friend Hannah once memorably described the whole histories cycle as ‘Men making speeches’, and I had a sense in my mind of the shape of the play which went roughly like this:

  • Muse of Fire
  • Bollocking on about Salic law
  • Tennis balls
  • Once more unto the breach
  • Terrifying Harfleur speech
  • Disguised King wanders camp, gets into arguments
  • St Crispin’s Day
  • Charmingly clumsy bilingual flirting undercut by uneasy sense of woman as war-trophy
  • Fin.
  • Fridge magnet production begins
Available for £2.70 from Zazzle. Listed under ‘Band quotes’.

All of these elements were present and correct at the RSC, but this is quite clearly the trajectory of Henry V: not Henry V. As the production constantly reminded me, there’s more going on in this play than I realised.

I didn’t like the play because I remembered it as jingoistic: a series of vaunting boasts about a futile war of conquest in which the audience is exhorted to celebrate as a national hero a man who cuts the throats of prisoners-of-war and threatens the women of an entire city with ‘hot and forcing violation’ (3.3.104).

Though Henry doesn’t directly condone his troops’ sexual violence, he seems content to victim-blame the whole of Harfleur: ‘What is’t to me, when you yourselves are cause…’ (3.3.102). Greg Doran’s production staged this speech almost blankly, with Hassell’s Henry betraying only a slight vocal tremor, and little in the way of staging context: it was left to the audience to make up their minds how this unflinching catalogue of horrors could share cognitive space with the largely idealised King.

Photo taken from The Stage

What the production reminded me is how much this is a play of jarring juxtapositions. This speech, for instance, is directly followed by the scene in which Princess Catherine of France learns English. Played as a moment of comic frippery, it’s nonetheless framed in a context of endemic violence against conquered women, and the brutality of this transition reminds us that the apparent courtly romance might only be the Harfleur speech in finer clothes. Elsewhere, a misogynistic rant breaks the spell of Falstaff’s bucolic death scene, and Pistol segues directly from being beaten over the head by a leek to a melancholy reflection on the vagaries of fortune, the death of a lover (and a much-loved character), and time’s passing: ‘Old do I wax’ (5.1.80).

Most relevant to my own research is the moment between the French surrender (‘The day is yours’) and Henry’s acknowledgement of the scores of dead: ‘Bring me just notice of the numbers dead/On both our parts’ (4.7.84-115). Where we might have expected a final paean to English victory by the King, delivered in stirring verse, Captain Fluellen pops up for a prose discourse on Welsh pride and the wearing of leeks: ‘If your majesties is remembered of it, the Welshmen did good service…’ Though not played for outright comedy, Doran used this moment to break the tension on the battle-field of Agincourt: Fluellen’s costuming, reminiscent of the WWI cartoon Old Bill, contributed to this demotic puncturing. Why this flourishing of prosaic Welshness should happen at this point, where a neater history might include a plangent eulogy to ‘our English dead’, says much about the complications and contradictions that could be teased out of this play with audiences and students.

Joshua Richards as Fluellen

How much this production did so, I wasn’t sure. Though making us fully aware that war is hell, the RSC version did little to challenge or question the inflexible nationalism that led to its outbreak – perhaps a missed opportunity, in a performance rich with centenary resonances. The reassignation of Burgundy’s long speech about the destruction wreaked on France to the steely Queen Isabel went some way to redressing this, and it was hard to forget John Bates’s pointed reference to what mostly happens offstage: the loss of ‘many poor men’s lives’ (4.1.121).

The final choric reminder that Henry VI ‘lost France’ shows, within the play, a conscience of the cyclical pointlessness of it all, but I’m not convinced Henry V as a whole commits to an awareness of such loss and waste. As such, I didn’t leave the theatre wholly converted: but I was also reminded of the need not to oversimplify or underestimate even those Shakespeare plays we find hard to truly love.

— Jake Thackray’s ‘The Remembrance’, the best song I know about the futility of war.

Nell Gwynn, John Dryden, and the Restoration of Theatrical History

Does anybody care what I want to write?
— John Dryden

— The rest of the King’s Company

Hooray for Jessica Swale’s Nell Gwynn, now playing at the Globe. As well as being a sprightly, engaging feminist reclamation of Restoration theatre history, it’s also the only play I’ve ever encountered where all roads of narrative fulfilment lead to the debut performance of John Dryden’s Tyrannick Love, and thus quite possibly represents the first time Dryden’s 1669 couplet tragedy has been seen on the London stage since 1702.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Nell Gwynn

Most of Swale’s script, stuffed with knowing winks and cracking one-liners, is geared towards Gwynn’s development as a person as well as a performer. Her self-actualisation culminates in the Epilogue to Tyrannick Love, which is both a moving and funny final moment and a call to arms against the male, pale and stale state of the theatre industry. Swale rearranges chronology to give this moment maximum impact – Gwynn’s fictional return to the theatre comes after the death of King Charles, the lover whose wits she is constantly able to match and check in the finest tradition of ‘gay couple’ Restoration comedy. She has moved beyond identification either with the King or his company, and ends on her own terms, in her own voice: Swale presents the epilogue itself as written by Gwynn.

These changes to the raw material of history (Charles died in 1685, some time after Gwynn’s retirement, and I haven’t found any scholars directly arguing for Gwynn’s authorship, though I might be looking in the wrong places!) are in the best tradition of No Bed for Bacon (1941) and Shakespeare in Love, particularly its recent incarnation as a West End metadrama. Through playful anachronism, character and humour are foregrounded – the best story matters more than the ‘true’ one, and as Pete Kirwan has argued, this kind of adaptive engagement has a pedigree dating back to Shakespeare’s own histories.

By performing theatrical history in, and with an eye towards, the theatrical present, Nell Gwynn and Shakespeare in Love both delight audiences with their appeals to our own participation in a continued tradition: we pay homage to our theatre’s roots as we celebrate its current cultural value. The characters in both plays imagine the theatrical future – and here we are, in it, because of them, watching them both anticipate and create us. We gratefully resurrect characters such as Burbage and Gwynn partly to venerate them as mythic founders, and partly to imagine them as ordinary humans.

So where does Dryden fit into all this?

Graham Butler as John Dryden – credit due to the blog ‘Partially-Obstructed View’

Though I’m not a specialist in Restoration theatre or the biographies of any of the main figures, Swale’s play is clearly engaging with a tradition of previous lives of Gwynn, many of them likely to be sexist traductions. But in doing so, she also gives Dryden more of a voice within English theatre than he’s had for a long time. Doubtless there are other fictions set in this period in which Dryden plays a role – it’d be great if anyone could tell me what’s out there – but if he has any kind of public image at all, even within academia, it’s as something of a patrician figure. Rightly or wrongly, Dryden sounds dusty, stuffy, pedantic, the mainstay of a literary establishment most of us rarely engage with outside of the period’s prose comedy. Or, as a guy in my A-level English Language class once said, when asking for clarification on the name of the author of a nit-picking text on English grammar: ‘Like, a dry den, Miss? It’s not wet in there?’

It is not, indeed, wet in the cultural profile of John Dryden. But Swale’s version of the character is neither arid, nor ossified. Instead he’s floppy-haired, diffident, somewhat gauche, but the subject of gentle mockery rather than outright scorn. It’s a genuine surprise to see Dryden (played wonderfully by Graham Butler, with a meek charm reminiscent of the play’s show-stealing spaniel cameo) as a young writer making his place in the world. Young Dryden is a perfectionist, always late for his deadlines, never having quite written ‘the middle bit’ of the plays he dashes off for the King’s Company as he tries to find the right words, the right story. This is not too far from contemporary accounts of Dryden, as analysed by Steven N. Zwicker:

He was a man of the theatre writing in an age of intense theatricality, and yet nothing of Dryden’s public reputation suggests either fluency of personal manner or success in adopting the accents and postures of public life: he was apparently hesitant of speech, poor at telling jokes, awkward in reading his own scripts – an object of theatrical ridicule.

He’s presented primarily as a prose writer, perhaps because the witty repartee of Secret Love fits more neatly with Swale’s own wordplay, but mostly I suspect because the thundering couplets of his heroic work would have come across as too jarring, a distraction from the general sense of the theatre we know today taking shape. Far from autocratic, he takes suggestions from all those around him, especially the women who he struggles winsomely to understand and represent as authentically ‘tangled’ beings, in Gwynn’s phrase. Nell’s presence in the company encourages him to improve his art, to turn away from pastoral delusions to a more authentic and complex portrayal of his female leads (I don’t know enough of Dryden’s work to know if he achieved this!)

As such, we find ourselves in the strange position of rooting for Dryden, hoping that this callow but eager young figure skulking to the side of the stage will hit upon his true voice under Nell’s inspiration, make a breakthrough, and turn into the dazzling theatrical genius we all know and love today …

Not Dryden

That this doesn’t quite happen seems fair enough: after all, we don’t. Nonetheless, it’s fascinating how closely Butler’s Dryden follows the traditional arc of the young male artist origin story, albeit in the background of a play which is much more interested in a young female artist. Douglas Lanier has explained a version of this narrative at length, whereby

[T]he principle of authorial biographicality, the notion that the art is fundamentally expressive of, or at least deeply co-extensive with, the author’s life […] is often positioned against rival models of authorship that the writer must reject to become ‘authentic’: a professional conception of writing as verbal or adaptational craft, a commercial conception of writing as genre-driven, profit-oriented entertainment for the masses, a high-cultural conception of writing as a learned dialogue with literary tradition.

Or as Sidney’s muse says, ‘Look in thy heart and write.’

Though it steers shy of the biographical, Swale’s account of Dryden’s self-realisation conforms closely to this model: the character turns away from the inauthentic to ‘real life’, from a literary view of women to one grounded in a series of conversations with an actual person. And in a story where Dryden was the main character, the debut of the work which shows the culmination of the development would be a scene of unassailable triumph. In Nell Gwynn, however, Tyrannick Love is nothing of the kind – the Globe company heightens the melodrama, presenting the final bloodbath as a camp and ludicrous pastiche which Nell’s clear-sighted, grounded and self-penned epilogue literally rises above. Though Dryden’s arc has been one of steady progress towards authorial flowering, the play chosen to represent his final level of accomplishment within this context is treated as … a bit of a mess.

Part of me wonders what would have happened if Tyrannick Love was presented as a crowning achievement, a challenge to alternative models of theatre (for instance, those of the original Globe), but this could have risked detracting from Nell’s own victory – a victory which it was essential for the play to pull off on Nell’s, and Swale’s, own terms. As such, Dryden remains where he started the play – in the background of theatrical history – but his name, and some sense of his potential, will now be familiar to far larger audiences than it has been for many years. Is there room for more Dryden on the Globe stage? The ribald, outward-facing audience awareness of Swale’s script made me realise just how responsive this space might be to some of the conventions of the Restoration theatre. Could it handle Tyrannick Love on its own terms – or Aureng-Zebe, or the pseudo-Shakespearean All for Love? It’d be a huge gamble, but I’d be fascinated to see if anyone could pull it off.


— Douglas Lanier. “’There won’t be puppets, will there?’: ‘Heroic’ authorship and the cultural politics of Anonymous.” Shakespeare beyond doubt: evidence, argument, controversy. Ed. Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

— Peter Kirwan. “‘You Have No Voice!’: Constructing Reputation through Contemporaries in the Shakespeare Biopic.” Shakespeare Bulletin 32.1 (2014): 11–26.

— Stephen N. Zwicker, ed. The Cambridge Companion to John Dryden.

Jonathan Strange and the Friends of English Verse Drama

This article was originally published by Blogging Shakespeare.

 ‘This other magic, it will not do, sir.’

– Gilbert Norrell

‘But Shakespear’s Magick could not copy’d be,
Within that Circle none durst walk but he.’

– John Dryden

It’s entirely possible that my thesis is giving me tunnel vision, but the way characters discuss the ‘wild, cruel, medieval’ magic of the Raven King in the BBC’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell series is starting to seem eerily familiar to me. The terms being used are remarkably similar to what writers in the century and a half after the Restoration say about Shakespeare’s poetry.

The ‘magic of the modern age’ championed by Gilbert Norrell in the Regency world of the Susanna Clarke adaptation is defined by its refinement, its restriction, its unwillingness to ‘meddle’ with powerful but dangerous forces. His polite, precise, bookish discrimination is associated with Georgian Englishness, a particular view of national identity which his magic is intended to further in the Napoleonic wars.

Jonathan Strange, by contrast, is something of a Romantic: an untamed and untaught free agent, intent on exploration of the possibilities of the world and the self, the ‘mysteries and dreams of the past’, even if they lead him into madness. Strange draws his inspiration from the half-understood, controversial and dramatically unpredictable showmanship of a lost past master: the Raven King.

These positions are staked out as the show’s key opposition, between modern and ancient magic. But they don’t exist in a vacuum: they arise from a hundred and fifty years of debate about art, poetry, and the powers of the imagination in the real society which inspired the show. These debates – about what English literature, and verse in particular, ought to look like – take shape at least partly in reaction to the legacy left by Shakespeare.

John Dryden, in a Prologue to the version of the The Tempest he co-wrote with William Davenant in 1667, acknowledges his forebear’s talents as different in kind to those of other writers:

But Shakespear’s Magick could not copy’d be,
Within that Circle none durst walk but he.

His praise is mingled with a kind of admonition: such writing is no longer possible in his more enlightened times, and can only be justified by reference to Shakespeare’s elevated (and removed) status:

I must confess ’twas bold, nor would you now,
That liberty to vulgar Wits allow,
Which works by Magick supernatural things:
But Shakespear’s pow’r is sacred as a King’s.

Similarly, the Raven King’s abandonment of England is linked to the demise of an older form of magic. Norrell tells Strange – the vulgar wit whose liberty he repeatedly curbs – that the King’s loss ‘took the best part of English magic with him’, and it isn’t coming back: ‘such magic belongs to an England that is dead. And it is out of our control.’

Scattered throughout Dryden’s commentaries on Shakespeare and drama are concerns about belatedness, lost powers, and control. Praising the use of rhyme over blank verse, he argues that it is necessary because ‘it bounds and circumscribes the fancy. For imagination in a poet is a faculty so wild and lawless, that, like an high-ranging spaniel, it must have clogs tied to it, lest it outrun the judgment.’

Undeniably hilarious though this image of a tied-up (or shoe-wearing) dog might be, it shouldn’t blind us to Dryden’s message: wild and lawless forces can’t be allowed to roam free, because we don’t know what will happen. Shakespeare’s example, as an ‘untaught’ artist, is an especially dangerous one: it isn’t safe for him to be operating this kind of equipment. Dramatic theorist Thomas Rymer also described the ‘fancy’ as ‘wild, vast and unbridled’, and ‘art’ over the following century gradually came to be associated with restraining just this kind of unpredictable, free-flowing force. Playwrights such as Otway and Lee who tended towards older traditions were criticised as undisciplined, drunk on language to the point of madness.

‘Nat Lee, the Mad Poet’

As Scipio comments in James Thomson’s Sophonisba (1730), ‘Real glory/Springs from the silent conquest of ourselves’, and the rational conduct needed to build and manage a global empire was seen partly to spring from self-restraint of the messy, disruptive emotions. The old magic – the unconstrained, liberated imagination – might still be possible, but if so, Norrell says, it would be best for everyone if we ‘let it alone’.

There were moments of nostalgia among this self-assertion, but many works argue that the writers of the present century understand humanity, and poetry, far better than the primitive, barbaric playwrights of ‘the last age’. We have moved on too far to go back now, even if we wanted to. Jonathan Strange’s backward-looking impulse criticises just such aggressive modernity: ‘Surely magic should be magical? Surely magic is to dream? Where is the wonder of England’s past? Of magic’s golden age?’

But in 1714, Alexander Pope mocked Nicholas Rowe for writing his play Jane Shore ‘professedly in Shakspear’s style; that is, professedly in the style of a bad age.’ Faced with this level of cultural resistance, it is easy to imagine writers wondering: what exactly was so ‘bad’ about it? What were the powers and resources they were being denied in the name of propriety and modern English restraint?

By 1769, the tide was turning in favour of Shakespeare, led by David Garrick, the Drury Lane actor-manager who organised a Shakespeare Jubilee in his hometown, Stratford-upon-Avon, complete with Garrick himself reciting an Ode in tribute to this ‘blest genius of the isle’. The association between Shakespeare and Englishness is starting to take shape, though it would go through many further stages of negotiation.

Garrick’s ‘Ode’ is keen to stress the benign nature of Shakespeare’s ‘magic art’. But his anxious caution to diminish the dangerous aspects of the great power of this writing in favour of its wholesome and morally improving qualities tells a slightly different story:

What tho’ with more than mortal art,
Like Neptune he directs the storm,
Lets loose like winds the passions of the heart,
To wreck the human form;
Tho’ from his mind rush forth, the Demons to destroy,
His heart ne’er knew but love, and gentleness, and joy.

‘What tho” indeed. There seems to be a genuine concern about what might happen

When our Magician, more inspir’d,
By charms, and spells, and incantations fir’d,
Exerts his most tremendous pow’r …

The greatest fanboy of the 18th century wishes that his poetry could even begin to imitate Shakespeare’s, but in describing the power that his idol possesses, something strange happens in the picture Garrick is painting:

O from his muse of fire
Could but one spark be caught,
Then might these humble strains aspire,
To tell the wonders he has wrought.
To tell,—how sitting on his magic throne,
Unaided and alone,

In dreadful state,
The subject passions round him wait;
Who tho’ unchain’d, and raging there,
He checks, inflames, or turns their mad career;
With that superior skill,
Which winds the fiery steel at will,
He gives the aweful word—
And they, all foaming, trembling, own him for their Lord.

With these his slaves he can controul,
Or charm the soul …

For a moment, the most renowned poet in English history doesn’t sound quite as benevolent and uplifting a national symbol as Garrick might hope. Sitting on his demonic throne, surrounded by foaming minions whose dark forces he can unleash at will, he doesn’t sound a lot like a friend to England, or even a friend of English magic. He sounds a lot more like the Raven King.