The Edmund Shakespeare Blog

The end of Charles’s Nicholls’ The Lodger is very good on Shakespeare’s supposed swan song, The Tempest, when Prospero drowns his ‘bookes’ and breaks his staff. As both he and Peter Ackroyd point out, it was not his actual writing end, before his death in 1616, (the Earl of Oxford had died in 1604) and so instead Nicholls quotes Theseus’s lines from another little-read collaboration – The Two Noble Kinsmen

“O you heavenly charmers
What things you make of us! For what we lack
We laugh; for what we have are sorry; still
Are children in some kind. Let us be thankful
For that which is, and with you leave dispute
That are above our question. Let’s go off
And bear us like the time.”

Appropriate words for Phoenix Ark Press, perhaps! As Nicholls says, that does not mean that The Tempest was not his greatest swan song, but then, as so much in Shakespeare is about the art and artifice of theatre itself, and generative language too, Prospero is much about the magical engagement of the poet magician’s own psyche, meeting the intractable threat of real life and politics. The appeal beyond fragile art too, not half so real or true as when fact and fiction meet.

There were about 15 permanent theatres in London at the time, and the remains of The Curtain were uncovered in work on the London Olympics. But in the story of William and many other players, like his youngest and virtually unknown brother Edmund Shakespeare, that astonishing flowering of poetry and theatre in London and Southwark was soon to be swept away by the Puritans, and Civil War, or find its channels in other more aristocratic rivers. Closed winter theatres, like the one Shakespeare and The Globe sharers were developing in Blackfriars, brought more expensive seats, the introduction of candlelight, one day to become ‘the limelight’, and so changed the shape of playwriting too, into formal acts. Theatre also moved towards London’s ‘West End’ – the City was pushing that way – with theatre’s like Beeston’s Cockpit, and developing Drury Lane.

But by the 1640’s The Swan theatre in Paris Gardens in Southwark, built by Francis Langley, was described as hanging down its head “like a dying Swan.” The Globe, that had burnt down in 1613 and was rebuilt, had gone by 1642. Later reformers would associate the site with a Baptist meeting-house, but if, for the morally minded, the ‘sinful miasmas’ of the theatres had been happily expelled, what really drove the development of the area now was the hugely lucrative brewing business, as individual ‘taps’ were driven out, and everything went through the guts of kings, beggars and London Citizens alike. So those ‘player’s fictive worlds were vanishing under their entertaining feet!

If Shakespeare, during the Reformation, did turn away from Marlowe’s darker revolts and investigations, that fiery playwright spy, to the purposeful prosperity of secular theatre and sought futures, perhaps he also echoed Dr John Dee’s turning from alchemy and the occult too. It seems that in writing about London, a skillful fiction writer like Peter Ackroyd, who wrote a novel about John Dee, has himself touched the potential darkness of that imagining. Shakepseare’s astonishing alchemies are of the heart, most interested in working effects on an audience, so he is always concerned with real love, and the effect of the play in engaging with life. Summoning too though those mythic ‘Gods’ of a classical imagination and belief, powerfully real forces inside such a psyche, before any pseudo ‘science’ of psychology had been invented, but knowing in The Tempest, and the flow and tide of time, that everything dissolves in the end, except the play itself:

“Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”

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Filed under Culture, Education, Language, London

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