I’ll put a gridle round about the earth

Having already carried out several pieces of background research I hope I’m demonstrating that I’m taking this Bottom lark seriously (ahem!). But the one thing I feel that has been lacking so far is some good old academic graft. I don’t know if you’ve come across an organisation called Future Learn but they are a private company owned by the Open University who have partnered with higher education institutions from all over the globe as well

Future Learn logo

as organisations like the British Library and British Museum and who run a whole raft of online courses which anyone can access for free – yes, really for free! The courses last for anything from a couple of weeks to a few months but having registered you can adapt the time spent according to individual circumstances and take things at your own pace.

I’d already taken one such course earlier this year (Explore Film Making From Script to Screen) but when I saw a course coming up called Shakespeare and his World during the autumn this seemed like a very neat piece of serendipity, so signed on; what was especially enticing was that one of the plays featured was A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s a ten week course covering eight plays and the poem Venus and Adonis and is run by the University of Warwick in conjunction with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. As such it makes much use of Shakespearian documents, artwork and artefacts to lend background context to the plays. Last week for instance, the key play was Henry V (beautifully timed to coincide with the Agincourt anniversary) and we learned about how the play reflects Elizabethan attitudes to warfare, the weapons of the period and how Shakespeare drew on Holinshed’s chronicles as his source material.

Portrait of actor William Sly, the possible original Bottom
Portrait of actor William Sly, the possible original Bottom

For A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the previous week’s featured play) we focused on Elizabethan theatre going, Shakespeare’s own (probable) early theatrical experiences and how a play at the time would have been rehearsed and performed. This all sits very neatly with AMND itself which examines truth and illusion and the art of the drama. The last act, of course, famously contains a play within the play performed both to an onstage audience of Theseus and the nobility as well as the actual audience in the theatre. As well as this the play gives an insight into the rehearsal process and various other aspects of pulling a production together.

So here are seven things I learned/was reminded of by the course:
1) That scripts came incomplete. Actors only had their own speeches plus their cues. This was partly because the poor old prompter (who had the master copy) had to write everything out longhand and was also partly to guard against plagiarism. This also explains why there are textual variations in various editions. Peter Quince distributes such scripts to his actors in AMND and during rehearsal gets cross with Francis Flute: “You speak all your part at once, cues and all!”

2) That there was no director as such, though it’s thought WS might well have fulfilled this function himself in his own company. As the author of the piece, Peter Quince tries to direct – with a little “help” from Nick Bottom.

3) That rehearsals were extremely limited. No time for textual examination or considering psychological motivation. The Mechanicals have only a couple of days to prepare and have to fit this round their working lives.

4) That plays had to be approved and that there are examples of local town councils paying acting companies to leave them alone and not put on a play (I can think of some productions where this would have been handy). Philostrate, the Master of the Revels, certainly doesn’t think Duke Theseus should bother with the Mechanicals’ play.

5) That going to a play was one of the few places where the social classes mixed. This is demonstrated in AMND when the Mechanicals get to perform for Theseus and his court – not that the supposed nobility of the latter is any guarantee against boorish behaviour.

A collector's moneypot
A collector’s moneypot

6) That theatre was, even then, a commercial enterprise and the term “box office” was coined around this time. The boxes/pots that the so called “gatherers” used to collect the penny entrance fee (an extra penny for seats, of course) were taken to a central point and smashed open so that the coins could be recovered. Very cheap objects at the time these money pots are now extremely rare. The actors earned about one shilling (twelve pence) per day which was significantly more than a manual labourer. It’s no wonder Flute gets excited at the prospect of earning sixpence for an evening’s work with, perhaps, a promise of more to come.

7) That the idea that women were not allowed on stage is now being discredited. While it remains a fact that all the actors were male, this was not because women were banned from appearing (as I had always understood). Rather the acting companies were constructed like the trade guilds which used an apprenticeship system. The teenage boys taken on as apprentices were, therefore, the obvious people to take female roles. However, women could and did work backstage making the costumes, dealing with the wigs, etc. Women were also known to be among the “gatherers”. Once they had collected the entrance money these people -male and female- may have taken on the role of extras for crowd scenes – thus it is entirely possible that women were to be found onstage. Perhaps there were, then, some real females among Theseus’s courtiers and in Titania’s fairy train.

So, plenty to be learned from the course and it’s very able leaders Professor Jonathan Bate (incidentally the editor of the text the RSC are using for their production) and Jennifer Reid of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. But I’ve also gained a lot through interaction with my fellow participants. The technical term for this type of learning is, apparently, a MOOC (massive open online course). So I’ve been able to indulge in discussion with a whole range of people. Although there have been some vested interests declaring online war about whether Shakespeare wrote his plays or someone else (actually, who cares?) the majority of fellow learners have been informative, witty and united by a universal desire to improve their knowledge and understanding of the Bard’s work. Of course, while I’ve been about it, I’ve been able to trumpet the merits of the RSC project to a whole new audience and not just in this country. As a direct result of the online course this blog has now been accessed by people from America, Canada, Japan, Singapore, Australasia, several countries in Europe and Hong Kong and many more people are aware of the daring and innovative project that is A Play For The Nation. Bottoms up!

I’ll put a gridle round about the earth