Monday, 17 January 2011

Conjecture in black and woite (conclusion)


One of the books that arrived here over the Christmas period was Prefaces to Shakespeare, by Tony Tanner, a Cambridge professor of English and American Literature. As you might imply from the title, this book consists of the introductions Prof. Tanner wrote for every one of the plays in the Shakespeare canon, an immense labour.

I became very excited indeed about it, to the extent of getting up in the middle of the night to read a bit more, then a bit more, then just another little bit more. (It's true, my reading filled in the gaps between small-hours Ashes over-by-over reports.)

The previous three posts in this series (which have led to some very gratifying private outcomes, incidentally) have been nibbling at the edges of the idea that the ancient house I lived in for a few years as a child, St Margaret's in Titchfield, Hampshire, was associated with Shakespeare. It's pictured above, showing the Tudor or pre-Tudor tower and the rather disproportionate Georgian wing, added in about 1800.

In particular there was the persisting tradition that he'd written Romeo and Juliet there, if not at St Margaret's, then at the nearby and now ruined Place House, the former Titchfield Abbey. Both great houses belonged to Shakespeare's friend and patron Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton.

My grandfather, a man with an even longer nose for this sort of thing than mine, came from his native Lancashire to stay at St Margaret's once. Somehow he discovered the name Gobbo in the 16th-century parish registers in Titchfield church. Not a common name. Where else do you find it? Why, in The Merchant of Venice. No proof, of course, but another faint pointer to the possibility that Shakespeare, with his magpie mind, picked up and developed several ideas from Titchfield and his association there with Henry Wriothesley.

The most powerful of these seems to me to be the figure of Juliet. I wonder if her creation owed anything to Margaret of Anjou, the 15-year-old French princess who stayed at St Margaret's the night before her wedding to King Henry VI in 1445? (As far as I know she and Henry had never met before the wedding.) Shakespeare's source was a long, dull 1562 poem called The Tragicall History of Romeus and Juliet, by Arthur Brooke, who had put it together in English from several Italian versions of the story. Brooke puts Juliet's age at 16, which we can just about accept.

But Shakespeare goes out of his way to emphasize a younger Juliet. In the play, with Romeus changed to Romeo, the Nurse works Juliet's age out almost to the day. She is just 14 and hardly into stays. Romeo and Juliet directors, whether of play, film or ballet - the 1966 film of Prokoviev's ballet Romeo and Juliet, otherwise stupendous, is made ridiculous with the 47-year-old Margot Fonteyn dancing Juliet opposite Nureyev's Romeo - directors who cast Juliet as a girl obviously older than 14 disregard Shakespeare's powerful projections of innocence, exploitation and betrayal, without which the play falls back on the lesser, West Side Story, issue of the rivalry between two noble families. (I would like to explore the powerful 'Vestal Virgin' concept of sacrifice some time, but clearly not just now.)

Tony Tanner came up with another idea that sent shivers down my back. (Excuse me: these sudden trembling enthusiasms are meat and drink to me and I hope they never leave me) Romeo and Juliet, with its possible St Margaret's connections, was written at the same time as A Midsummer Night's Dream. And it's true, Mercutio's speech from Romeo and Juliet starting 'O, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you. She is the fairies' midwife...' has - in content and atmosphere - somehow strayed out of R and J into A Midsummer Night's Dream. Similarly, the Pyramus and Thisbe sub-play in A Midsummer Night's Dream is a well-meant parody of . . . Romeo and Juliet. It's as though the two manuscripts lay next to one another and paid each other visits in the night.

Much of A Midsummer Night's Dream takes place in woodland. At St Margaret's there was a formal garden, shown below, with box clumps a 7-year-old could jump over, and a central path leading to a gate which opened into The Wood. I expect it's built over now, what's left of it, and it's hardly likely that the same wood grew 350 years earlier, when I imagine, with no justification whatever, Shakespeare chewing the end of his quill, staring out of one of the St Margaret's lattice windows towards The Wood, reciting to himself and testing the balance and euphony of the lines (e.g. 'Dare I put 9 Os into "O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?"') he was putting into the mouth of Juliet, or of Mercutio, Oberon, Titania or indeed Margaret of Anjou, as she appears in Henry VI.


The Wood had another, indisputable, legacy. When I was about 8, I and another lad happily coincidentally called Jimmy Shakespeare made a fire in a hollowed-out and fallen tree trunk. The draught turned a little play-fire into a raging inferno, which soon spread to the surrounding trees. The Titchfield fire brigade saved most of The Wood from destruction, and my other principal memory is standing in front of one the canvas hoses as the firemen prepared to void the tank of water no longer needed, now that the fire was out. Despite being told to stand aside, I somehow failed to, being not so much a child, more an imbecile. I received the full force, knocking me to the ground. A richly deserved outcome. I probably deserve it again for all this unwarranted conjecture. Thank you for bearing with me, if you have.

13 comments:

english inukshuk said...

oh crikey! poor you, you must have been terrified. . .

isn't it great when you have hold of one of those books that fills spare moments and takes hold of other moments

all this talk of Titchfield, reminds me of this. . .

and while I was looking for that, I found this

(-:

Rog said...

Well, what a Titchfield Thunderbolt eh? Those elusive tentacle labyrnthian connections touching the past....

I'm tembling myself as there was a bloke next door to our old council house called "Gobbo" and he was always wont to show people his Bottom. I may even pitch "The Arse Detectives" to Richmond Desmond on C5....

Dave said...

Nuts! I was just about to say no doubt you blamed the Titchfield Thunderbolt for the fire, but Rog has already pinched the motif.

I must say, my research into my family tree has me trembling with excited 'I wonder ifs'.

english inukshuk said...

my first link was supposed to redirect you here. . .

. . .and my second here. . .

oh well!

letouttoplay said...

Oh that's wonderful about Gobbo!
And what a thoroughly enjoyable night you must have had :)
I think Queen Mab belongs more to an English Midsummer Night (wasn't she a Welsh? Irish? legend)than to a tragic Italian romance, though I believe she was a fierce old biddy and might have enjoyed all that teenage angst and self destruction.

Christopher said...

Rog: I knew I could count on you, as the _____ said to the _____. (Fill in as appropriate)

Shakespeare also seemed to have intimate knowledge of Gadshill (see Henry IV) so maybe there were two clans of Gobbos, the Kent and the Hampshire? I wonder if 'Gobbo Moon' would be a suitable subject for the arstronomical photographers among us?

IE: Thanks. I picked the links up second time round. We still have Tit. Thun. on Vid. Cass. waiting to be transferred to DVD (will we ever get round to it?) and I knew about the Titchfield Tapestry. St Margaret's is on it somewhere.

Dave: I'm sure some eye-blinking revelation is just round the corner. Have you considered the anomaly that the further back you explore, the more ancestors you have, despite the population being smaller?

Mig: Queen Mab seems to have been a Celtic agent for making dreams come true. Clearly a very useful person to have around. (Tho' last night I dreamt I was playing ball in the swimming pool with a golden retriever we had, now gone before, so if Queen Mab calls today I shall be happy to pass her on to you.)

Spadoman said...

I certainly have, and the experience was well worth it. You are welcome.
Now see, a guy like me wouldn't conjecture at all. If this was a place where I lived at one time and the legend might say it is possible that Shakespeare or any one of notoriety lived here centuries before me, I'd take that story and run with it for all it's worth in the hopes that I could make a tonne of money. (It's the "Mericun way you know). Just joking, of course. I thoroughly enjoyed the conjecture amnd I am enamored by the young babe and your eluding to West Side Story. Natalie Wood is one of my favorites!

Peace

Dave said...

Indeed Chris, with generations doubling in size every time, my tree will soon contain more people than have ever lived.

Christopher said...

Spadoman: Thank you for these very kind words. Makes it all worth while!

Dave: Maybe you'll trace things back to the point where they came down from the tree?

Z said...

That has been wonderful, thank you Chris. I shall now go back and read it all over again.

Rosie said...

Amazing story...and amazing how easily trees caught fire in childhood days, especially the hollow ones. Why did we all light fires in hollow trees?

Christopher said...

Too kind, Z, too kind. Thank you.

Rosie: Aha! You too? May we know more?

Anonymous said...

You could have outdone those minuted monologuers at that dinner table with a delivery of ‘the conjectures’ you have just enthralled us with (10 days) Lol!