Whispers from the Wings


March 25, 2014

The RSC take artist development rather seriously and organise sessions for us designed to broaden our reach and enrich our work. Lyn Darnley, our head of Voice & Text, brought the lecture on rhetoric to us a couple of weeks ago, and last week organised a trip to the archive of Shakespeare's Birthplace Trust.

In 1964 the RSC's own archive was amalgamated with that of the trust and this astonishingly valuable and varied collection is looked after by Paul Taylor and Emily Millward. Together they had assembled a rich and fascinating collection of artefacts that they thought might be of relevant interest to the cast of Wolf Hall.

Most fascinating — and revealing — I thought, was the inventory of the land and property, in the Stratford area, that Thomas Cromwell owned just prior to his execution. By now he was Earl of Essex and an immensely rich and powerful man. I wondered if he had acquired much of this land through the dissolution of religious houses, and now it was to be re-distributed to some of the paranoid king's new favourites.

There were all sorts of delights: the silver staff of office that would have been carried by Shakespeare's father; pieces of exquisitely embroidered Tudor clothing; a beautiful wax seal of Henry VIII. The care and thought that had gone into such an eclectic array of intensely interesting bits and pieces was quite evident.

A bit of bardolatry

Shakespeare first folioWe had the chance to hold and venerate an original Shakespeare First Folio. A bound copy of this remarkable book, published posthumously in 1623, would have cost one pound — which is exactly one twentieth of a Stratford schoolmaster's annual wage. A First Folio was recently sold for six million pounds!

Of the 750-1000 copies originally printed, about 230 survive, and 80 of those are held in the American Folger library. The SBT and the RSC own three between them.

Bois durci plaque

We were able to see the very faded parish register that records Shakespeare's birth and death, the pages shiny with the grease of millions of curious fingers – just one of the 31 contemporary documents in the collection that mention Shakespeare by name. We also had the chance to turn the pages of an original Holinshed's Chronicles that was an important source for Shakespeare's history plays. These remarkable volumes were barely representative of the one million documents in this archive which nestle in the dark basement alongside 50,000 books and 11,000 Shakespeare or Stratford related objects.

A wonderful selection of these artefacts has been incorporated into the new exhibition at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust which opened this week. I found the new display particularly interesting because I've been adding to my own collection of Shakespeariana while I've been here. I recently bought a plaque made of bois durci — that was a new one on me . . . a material invented in nineteenth century Paris, made from a mixture of powdered wood and blood!

Image 1: A chance to venerate the First Folio!

Image 2: My plaque made of bois durci.

by Nick Day  |  1 comment

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Mar 26, 4:16pm
Debby Phielix

Thanks for another lovely blog. Great that you all got a chance to see these things. I am sure it was fascinating. I had no idea that Thomas Cromwell owned land and property in the Stratford area. Something I have to look into on my next visit to Stratford. I wish you and all involved a great few last days at the Swan theatre, and a wonderful time in London. Can't wait to see the plays there.

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Teaching Shakespeare