Shakespeare and me

Shakespeare and I have never really got on.

Sure I’ve seen productions of his plays that were fantastic, and some that were quite frankly terrible, and the odd experimental version that was, well, odd.

And the reason why I went to see them was that I enjoy the theatre and its magic, not because I enjoy Shakespeare. I never really cleaved to English Literature and its orthodoxies and its insistence that this is what it meant, and how everyone should bow down in front of the great god Shakespeare.

Instead I’ve seen him as a hack writer, a very good hack writer, but a hack writer nevertheless, stealing ideas from literature and half heard stories of places far away. One of the interesting things about Shakespeare is where he doesn’t mention – like the newly conquered Peru or Mexico, or Japan, despite all of them being in conversation and in the popular tales of Raleigh’s of Drakes voyages and raids.

And this in a time when there were black people from Africa in London, Elizabeth was in negotiations with the sultan of Morocco, and there were even two Japanese sailors who had been captured by Thomas Cavendish.

But no, perhaps Shakespeare simply found it safer, politically, to put his plays in Rome, Venice or Athens, places known at least by reputation to most of his audience and about which he could raid his grammar school education. It’s been argued that the Tempest is set off the coast of South America – that may be so, but the identification is hardly explicit.

And computational analysis of the texts have put to bed any idea that he was anything other than a hack and a writer who collaborated with Marlowe among others.

Recently I’ve read two not particularly scholarly books that have reinforced this – Dominic Dromgoole’s Will and me which is part autobiography and what he has come to feel about Shakespeare after years of producing him, and strangely enough Harry Turtledove’s alternate history novel Ruled Britania.

Central to the plot is Shakepeare’s writing of a play Boudicca. As Shakespeare didn’t write such a play Turtledove uses the text of Fletcher’s Bonduca as a source of impressive speeches.

Fletcher and Shakespeare of course knew each other, and in fact collaborated later in Shakespeare’s life, so the device of raiding Bonduca works well – it could indeed be Shakespeare.

Basically what it comes down to is that the Tudor theatre needed plays, lots of them, and that Shakespeare, Kyd, Marlowe, Munday, and the rest of them were in the business of writing them, collaborating, plagiarising and reusing each other’s work. Nothing is truly original and what we know as the Shakespeare canon is only what was attributed to him in the first folio – doesn’t mean that the attributions are correct or are all his own work.

The picture that emerges is of a working writer.

Not some lofty paragon. Not some literary genius but someone who grafted at it – and who had off days – Dromgoole’s commentary on the opening of Cymbeline being wriiten by Shakespeare on an off day when he had a hangover is both wonderfully witty and probably what it was like.

Deadlines. Fights with coauthors and actors. Days when the words wouldn’t come and days when they wouldn’t stop.

And that Shakespeare is altogether more interesting than the rather colourless genius the English Literature types would have us believe in …

(still doesn’t mean his plays aren’t hard work at times)

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Echuca …

A couple of Saturdays ago we treated ourselves to a day out and drove, with no clear plan, to Echuca, a town on the Murray about 200km to the west of us.

In the nineteenth century Echuca was a major inland port on the Murray, and, like Morgan in South Australia, a railhead and a transhipment point for grain and freight from the railway to the paddle steamers that plied the Murray.

In fact before the railway systems of South Australia were connected in the 1880’s, if you wanted to get from Melbourne to Adelaide it was either the coastal steamer, or a train to Echuca, riverboat to Morgan, and train back to Adelaide.

While the regular paddle steamers are long gone there are still a number of preserved paddle steamers at the Echuca wharf museum, plus various other attractions, including a mock colonial period street and an old mailcoach that gives rides around the town.

All in all a bit hokey, but it did kind of give a feel of how things might have been a hundred and fifty years ago. And if living history is not your thing there’s number of reasonable restaurants and a couple of second hand bookshops on the main street.

In a strangely naff sort of way I liked it …

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Madeleine Smith as a worldwide phenomenon

As a final bit of investigation around the Madeleine Smith case I thought I’d have a look at how widely it was reported in Australia and New Zealand.

First of all I went to QueryPic to see if the case had registered at all:


which it had – a massive peak for 1857 when the trial took place. Remember that 1857 was the year of the Indian Mutiny and the reports of that might be expected to take precedence over a murder trial on the other side of the world.

Searching Trove, the National Library of Australia online newspaper archive, showed it had been major news with most papers reprinting the Times summary of the case [PDF via Evernote] and many the long report of the trial [PDF via Evernote] – both these are from the Sydney Morning Herald.

It was much the same thing in New Zealand, and when the news broke it almost beat news of the Indian Mutiny for importance [PDF via Evernote] and newspapers the whole progess of the trial – as in this PDF from the Otago Witness.

It’s worth noting that even though the trial was old news by the time news reached Australia and New Zealand it was still a major sensation. In the days before either Australia or New Zealand were connected to the outside world via undersea telegraph cables, news could take two or three months to reach the Antipodes. In this case while the trial took place in Edinburgh in early July, news and detailed reports did not reach Australia until nearly the end of September, and New Zealand two or three weeks later …

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Madeleine’s ambrotype

Continuing on the theme of what we can learn about life in 1850’s Scotland from the trial of Madeleine Smith, one interesting detail is that she exchanged ambrotypes (an early type of glass plate photography) with her lover, at around the same time that Rochlitz was running his photographic studio in Beechworth, half a world away.

What this reinforces is that portrait photography was already widely adopted by the mid 1850’s and was reasonably affordable.

The exchange of photographs between lovers as a habit is particularly interesting given that only a few years before photography was still nothing more than a gentleman’s plaything …

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Travel in 1850’s Scotland

I’ve recently been reading an account of the trial of Madeleine Smith, which took place in Glasgow in 1857 – in essence Madeleine Smith was accused of poisoning her lower class lover because of her upcoming more respectable marriage to a well known business person. Madeleine was tried for murder on the basis of fairly compelling circumstantial evidence, but the jury held the case to be not proven, a Scottish verdict meaning that the prosecution’s case was not compelling enough.

As in all such Victorian murder cases, there is the suspicion that if Madeleine was not daughter of one of the great and the good of Glasgow society she would have hung for it – to slightly misquote Weir of Hermiston ‘she would hae had a fair trial and then be hanggit’.

The Madeleine Smith case was major newspaper event of the time and inspired  Not Proven, a long out of print three volume mid Victorian novel by Christina Broun Cameron. The way that the events and correspondence between Smith and her lover were reported in the newspapers may have also partially inspired Wilkie Collins’ adoption of an epistolatory style for his early crime novels.

But  I digress. When the railway service between Edinburgh and Glasgow began, trains were infrequent and expensive, but roughly fifteen years later, at the time of the trial,  L’Angelier, the victim, who was a warehouseman in a seedsman’s business was able to  travel by train between Glasgow and Bridge of Allan and from Glasgow to Helensburgh to meet Madeleine when she was staying at her parents house outside of Rhu.

I have no idea what a warehouseman in mid Victorian times earned, but a Google search for Victorian wage rates suggests that L’Angelier would be doing well if he had an income of sixty pounds a year.

A third class railway ticket between Glasgow and Helensburgh would possibly have cost a shilling (GBP 0.05). I’m saying possibly, as I don’t know, but other railway fares advertised on different lines suggest that this isn’t a wildly stupid estimate.

So, affordable if not cheap.

Bridge of Allan is a little further than Helensburgh from the centre of Glasgow, but not remarkably so, again making the journey affordable for L’Angelier.

At the same time the Clyde paddle steamer network was already well developed offering travellers the alternative of getting the train to Greenock and then crossing to Helensburgh, or getting a ferry all the way from the Broomielaw quay in central Glasgow.

The fact that these competing routes all managed to stay in business suggests that all were well enough patronised to be profitable.

So, just as the railways invented punctuality, cheaper and more frequent trains allowed poorer people to travel, if not on a regular basis, frequently enough, just as Ryanair and EasyJet opened up cheaper air travel in Europe.

And this had all sorts of social effects. Poorer people could now get out of the city. Wealthier people could afford to summer on the Clyde estuary yet could still travel up to town for business for a few days every week or so. and of course lovers could meet for lochside assignations …

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I’m late, I’m late !

Last night I was idly watching Michael Portillo’s Great British Railway journeys (SBS has bought a load of these years old and shows them after the news as an antidote to the lunacy of the world), and in the episode Michael visited Croft on Tees on the edge of North Yorkshire where Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, spent most of his formative years before boarding school and Oxford.

Crucially Dodgson moved to Croft in 1843 at the age of eleven or thereabouts and was apparently fascinated by the then new and shiny railway between York and Newcastle.

One thing that apparently fascinated him was people rushing about and constantly looking at their pocket watches to ensure that they did not miss their train – for the simple reason that punctuality was a new thing in the early 1840’s.

Before then neither mail coaches or steamships were punctual to the minute – the vagaries of the weather and, in the case of mail coaches, poor roads, ensured that being on time was more a matter of quarter hours than minutes.

To be sure, people had meetings and appointments, but before the railways  being punctual to the minute rarely mattered, or was necessary. Trains were of course different and changed our world in many ways, just as the internet has today

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Finding George

Well, today happens to be the 25th of April or ANZAC day, the anniversary of the Galipolli landings and a solemn day in the Australian calendar, perhaps too solemn, but that’s a different discussion.

Anyway, after my success with open source genealogy, we thought we’d take advantage of the fact that have a free day on first world war veterans’ records to go searching for Judi’s grandfather, who everybody thought had been at Galipolli but no one was sure.

While the actual records are at either the National Archives in Canberra or the Australian War memorial, the searchable online ones are annoyingly only available via Ancestry.

Annoying, but digitisation costs money and the servers need heating, cooling and power to keep the disks spinning, and that all costs.

Finding Judi’s grandfather was easy – we needed a little more work to find that he had been in the landings and had been injured a few days later, and sent to a hospital in Malta before being redeployed to Egypt, from whence he was transferred to the AIF facility in Wiltshire for additional training before being sent to France.

In the course of all of this he met and married Judi’s grandmother, was put in detention and had his pay docked for going AWOL around the time J’s mother was born, and somehow managed to survive the whole bloody business and be discharged in September 1919, having signed up five years earlier at the start of the war.

We managed to piece this together with the aid of google and wikipedia to find the locations of army camps or the terms we didn’t understand, including even a suburb in Melbourne that was split into two in the 1950’s (but the train station kept the old name), plus a bit of playing with the scanned images – people’s handwriting then was just as bad as now, and harried record and pay clerks seem to have been worse than anyone.What it taught us is that you can find out a lot, and I mean a lot quickly with a bit of work. (Oh and we saved pdf copies of everything for work after the paywall reappears …)

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