History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

14 March 2016

Documenting Shakespeare -- Word by Word

As a classically trained actress who has a strong background in the Shakespearean canon, with years of experience as both performer and scholar dissecting the nuances of individual roles as well as entire texts, I remain an unashamed Stratfordian. Which means that I believe Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. Not Francis Bacon. Not the Earl of Oxford. Not Amelia Bassano, daughter of a Jewish Venetian courtier (though that would be really cool; and I know there are a few good historical novels in that idea). And not your great aunt Lula.

Yet historians, academics, theatre directors, and armchair time travelers alike continue to debate whether the Bard's oeuvre is just too damn brilliant to  be attributed to a nearly unlettered (except that he wasn't: he had rather a comprehensive education for a youth at the time) guy -- who came from nothing (except that he didn't: his father was not just a glover -- he was an alderman, quite a respected local office).

These disputes may soon be settled, via the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C.

Since the year 2000, Dr. Heather Wolfe, a multi-degreed expert in paleography, the study of historical, handwriting, has been working on SHAKESPEARE DOCUMENTED, a project at the Folger that transcribes every contemporary (to his era) mention of William Shakespeare.  Shakespeare Documented will digitize and post online every known reference to Shakespeare and his family written in and around his lifetime, resulting in a treasure chest of information that will be a phenomenal boon to scholars, historians, and performers the world over.

None of Shakespeare's plays exist in autograph (handwritten) form; only typset published versions are extant. However, scholars believe that there are three pages he wrote to revise a play by Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle. The penmanship is known as "secretary hand," a style of cursive common in 16th and 17th c. England.

Dr. Wolfe is an expert at deciphering secretary hand. At the Bodleian Library in Oxford, she transcribed a 1611 account written by the astrologer Simon Forman, who recorded his impressions of four plays he'd seen at the Globe. Forman's impressions are currently the most detailed eyewitness account of an audience member of Shakespeare's era.

On May 15, 1611, Forman saw THE WINTER'S TALE, Shakespeare's dark fantasy/romance, which explores the evils of jealousy.  Citing Autolycus, the peddler who tricks people out of money, Forman wrote, "Beware of trusting feigned beggars and fawning felons." For decades, scholars, misreading Forman's handwriting, believed he had written the word "fellows," and academic texts continued to print the error. But after careful study of the "secretary hand," Dr. Wolfe concluded, and colleagues agreed, that the word was "felons," which is a more accurate description of the character of Autolycus,

Bust of Foscarini

Another of Dr. Wolfe's major discoveries is a document referencing the playgoing habits of the Venetian ambassador to England, Antonio diNicolo Foscarini (who evidently saw more than one performance of PERICLES) -- incognito. In 1616, the year of Shakespeare's death, Foscarini was placed on trial in Venice.  His crimes: conversion to Protestantism, being a drunkard, a womanizer, and a theatregoer. In the original trial deposition (now in the Venice State archives) Foscarini's interpreteter stated "I believe he went twice or three times, but I never went with him, because he would go in private, thinking no one would recognize him."

Shakespeare's gravestone

Where do you weigh in? Do you think Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare?

07 March 2016

The Little Mermaid, Once Upon a Time, Downton Abbey, & Happy Endings

I confess that as a child I always shied away from The Little Mermaid because I knew it had a sad ending. I remember thinking how odd it was Disney had made it into a film until I learned they had changed the ending. Which rather horrified me. I was in my twenties by then, the wrong age for cartoon movies and not yet a mom, so I didn't see the movie until my daughter Mélanie discovered it, first through a lovely video someone gave us that’s a sort of novella about Ariel and a baby killer whale named Spot, then through the movie itself. She loves it. Ariel, I think, is her favorite Disney princess, alongside Anna and Elsa. We have several Ariel dolls, including two who sing “Part of Your World” (a couple of nights ago we had them singing a duet). I’ve come to love it myself and find myself very grateful for the changed ending. But then I've always been fond of happy endings.

This weekend Mélanie and I saw a wonderful children’s theatre production of the story at the fabulous Marin Theatre Company (photo above). The play was based on the Hans Christian Andersen original. I was afraid the differences from the movie she loves, and in particular the sad ending,  would bother Mélanie, but she was entranced. As was I. The ending is haunting and so sad - not just the mermaid dissolving into foam, but the fact that the prince never knows of her sacrifice, never knows she is the girl who saved him. It's rich with metaphor and I found myself thinking of thematic echoes in my own writing. At the same time part me really missed Ariel and Eric's happily ever after.

Last night I was thinking more about happy endings watching two favorite tv shows. First, in Once Upon a Time, the heroine went into the underworld with some of the other characters to rescue her true love Hook. Emma killed Hook to save their world in the winter finale. Watching that (very well done) scene with me, Mélanie said, "A fairy tale is supposed to have a happy ending." (While I thought "Oh, my goodness it's Buffy and Angel.")  Once Upon the Time turns the idea of fairy tales having happy endings on it's head as it melds together characters from different fairy tales and takes their stories beyond the traditional endings. At the same time, happiness remains a possibility for most of the characters (including some who are considered villains in the original stories, like Captain Hook and Snow White's Wicked Queen stepmother). Much as I love the twists and turns, I find myself still intensely rooting for ultimate happy endings.

From Once Upon a Time, I went on to the Downton Abbey series finale. It's always bittersweet and a bit nerve-wracking to say goodbye to favorite characters. This finale brought tears to me eyes, but mostly because it was lovely to see everyone so happy. I hadn't thought everything would be wrapped up in such a neat and happy bow. At various points I'd envisioned different characters dying or the family having to sell the estate. Which could have fit with what had gone before. But overall I'm so glad Julian Fellowes went that way. After spending so long with these characters it's nice to imagine them going on having happy lives.

Did you watch Downton Abbey? What did you think of the ending? What are some of your favorite series finales? What do you think of the different versions of The Little Mermaid?

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