and so into twenty fourteen. Our ears cannot be closed, whilst we live, speak, and breathe. Just back from experimenting with the passion in practice crew at the Jerwood Space in Bankside, Southwark.
Original practice workshop. Cue script of Pericles from the third folio and reassembled by Patrick Tucker, the original modern to dabble in Original Practice Performances at the Globe.
All 12 actors had been assigned roles with lots of doubling and tripling the lesser characters. I was given the 3 kings:
Antiochus the incestuous, no wife, one daughter;
Cleon the cuckold, one wife, one daughter;
Simonides (sigh mon i des) the honourable, no wife, one daughter.
The brief was that we would read for anomalies in verse meter etc and stamp in our cue lines and read when our cue lines were spoken by whomever they were spoken. We could not interact with other characters we knew to be in our scene, but save the full exposition for a sunday afternoon run through with a light, but judicious audience.
Passion in practice is a varying ensemble but with core members whose interest is exploring delivering shakespeare with a full understanding of what the verse is doing and a swift delivery playing the words. No long pauses and breathes in between meaningful moments, rather speaking the moment and see what emotions it will bring. The honesty towards yourself without being wanky about it, and above all honesty to the verse. The meaning actually takes care of itself, especially when given its context.
Physical work as an ensemble used sticks. We found out how two or three or four actors could explore the dynamics of a scene, while connected at the fingertips by sticks. Taking your stick for a walk works wonders, pairs or threesomes at one time.
The practice of cue script work using scenes from Makkers occasioned the inevitable whose line is it anyway; the re-reading of cue lines to check everybody heard; the muttered curses and doublings who ended up cueing themselves; the immediacy of staging on the fly; the expected accident of kneeling when you shouldn’t; and the happy accidents when the pronunciation of Simonides by the three fishermen gets turned into a running gag throughout the Simonides’ scenes.
We had an older Gower in Original Pronunciation and a young Pericles, who switched to young Gower in OP, and older Pericles in a breathtakingly focused scene of Pericles and Marina’s reunion. ‘A pats the stage and gestures her to him, the verse came to life as audience and cast enrapt in the original tale we all pieced together. Theatre magic.
Minimal music, minimal props, minimal decor, hanging cloths from lighting beams, audience Globe-like on three sides. Mistakes are inevitable. But oh, the successes.
An eclectic bunch of actors, Hilton the most experienced and the least ensemble, until the inevitable pull of the gravitas of the situation and the possibility to create wonder and lumps in several throats. Chicken skin, the Dutch say. Goosebumps, we.
Then to the Lord Nelson across the road for celebratory drinks, big plates of chips and a 7pm closing time. Oh England! Another pub down the road resolved the disappointment and the lure of pints of London Ale. Then we separated back to our workaday actor lives, in our case refreshed.
The diversity and skills of the actors was admirable. All fluent in metrical tricks and prose characterisations, all able to think on their feet. The narrator static, the scenes unfolding actus by scenae. Cue words became the aural signal for an entrance, or chance to take your part in the ongoing action. Perform that action, keep out of the way, be aware of sight lines, and above all pick up on the pace. Frequent contact with your acting partner’s eyes, tell you he or she too is working on the fly to survive the chaos of this story unfolding itself.
Reading of a cue script, changes the dynamic of acting from the sight and mind, back to where it belongs in the ears and imagination. You remain alert waiting for words that could come out of anyone’s mouth. Though by time we hit the stage we all knew who played who, but not what they said, whether one line or twenty.
All 3 Kings had so much character in the way they were written. Their psychology is in the words. We find it is possible to merely make the sounds and let the audience deal with what they mean. The medium we actors be. The characters interact and the actors try to keep up with how fast things are moving.
The theme of Pericles is incest and his voyage to Antioch uncovers this sinne. He scapes back to Tyre before shipping off to relieve famine ravaged Tharsus with ships stuffed with grain not armes. He is made a demi-god by King Cleon, who promises he and his wife are endebted forever. Pericles sets sail, shipwrecks off Simonides coast and joins a chivalric courting of his daughter, Thaisa.
These two marry, Thaisa has a child at sea, dies during childbirth, is sealed in a coffin and thrown overboard to appease the gods of the storm. Pericles calls their daughter Marina and sails back to Tharsus to leave her in the care of Cleon and his wife, Dionyzia.
During her upbringing in the next 16 years or, so their own daughter Philoten pales in virtuous comparison to Marina, so Dionyzia plans to have her murdered. Leonine her servant takes her on a walk, where they are surprised by pirates, who take her and sell her to a brothel keeper.
But you may know the story. if not try George Wilkins version here. Plain prose from the man who collaborated with Shakespeare to make the stage-play. He was also a pimp before making a career out of miseries. Oh yes, and they lived together at the Montjoys, both depositioned in 1612 in the Bellott Montjoy suit. But that’s another post.
The most valuable take away point for our-self this weekend is that hearing a play, isn’t only the reserve of the audience. The actors themselves are engaged in listening and responding in a different way than if they know the whole script. It all occurs primarily on an aural level. (We are aware of the nonsense of this statement, but time gives it the proof).
Secondly, inherent staging happens as the scene increases in focus. How else does a man silent for 3 months, realizing the daughter he thought dead is trying to break his silence, react? Focus is the key.
Lastly, We want more. Passion in Practice has a few workshops coming up and these pay for us to do this. Next one is on 19th January. Details here. And its affordable too.
Then back home, a mate sent me this link on the acoustic world of Elizabethan England. Rather apt.
Sight is the primary sense of the 21stC. Our ambient surroundings are shipwrecked on the shores of technology and advancement. Here’s to the sound of pigs in our inner city soundscapes. Anyway go wrap it in your ears. It’s a bit of a sit at 55 minutes, but well worth stopping, and listening to a bygone world, go by.
What’s in a name?
Love this discussion about Petruchio.
In Q2 of Romeo and Juliet (1599), at what modern editors would number 3.1.90, occurs a line of type, centered and reading “Away Tybalt.” It looks like a stage direction, and is so taken by most editors. But in 1960, George Walton Williams wrote an article claiming that this is in fact a line of dialogue. The Q2 compositor doesn’t use “Away” to mean “Exit,” speech prefixes for minor characters are often omitted, and there is a neat parallel later in the scene with Benvolio’s “Away, Romeo.”
Williams has a plausible argument, and, in any case, he is by common consent irreproachable. (As with Sara Lee, nobody doesn’t love GWW.) But his claim has put a sting in Rene Weis, with which he might do mischief in his Arden3 edition of the play. Since Weis accepts “Away, Tybalt” as speech, he needs a speaker. And where a less adventurous editor might settle for “Another Capulet” or “Tybalt’s follower,” Weis decides that the line is spoken by “Petruchio.” [!!!]
Now there is a Petruchio in the play: he is one of the three young men, including Romeo, whom Juliet asks the Nurse to identify for her toward the end of the ball scene. “Young Petruchio” is therefore currently present in Verona, as well as sufficiently friendly to the Capulets to be invited to the ball, sufficiently young to go looking for trouble in the streets, and of sufficient social rank to address Tybalt as “Tybalt” rather than “sir.”
The other young man has of course the same credentials and might be thought to be marginally more likely for being more familiar: the Nurse identifies him immediately, but only thinks the other to be young Petruchio. Still, “The son and heir of Old Tiberio” would be an ungainly prefix for a two-word speech. Petruchio is the better choice.
Shakespeare may in fact have been having a little intertextual fun here, because we hear earlier in the scene that Old Capulet and his cousin last masked some thirty odd years ago at “the nuptial of Lucentio,” which sounds like the last scene of Shrew. Admitttedly, we don’t hear of any masking or dancing at Lucentio’s “banquet,” but maybe that happened after we left, and in any case, old men tend to remember with advantages.
If the Capulet cousins were in the audience for Kate’s submission speech, one expects they were deceived into taking it at face value. But more important, if his brother-in-law’s wedding was thirty years ago, the Tamer himself must now be (by Our Lady) inclining to threescore, and clearly not the Petruchio of the Capulet ball. This might be his son, with something of his old man’s truculence, or even—eheu fugaces—his grandson.
Probably neither, however, is Tybalt’s companion. The key to solving that problem is the fact that when Petruchio—the real Petruchio—first appears on stage, he calls himself “a gentleman of Verona.” This immediately recalls the two titular gentlemen, and –sure enough—we find one of them on Capulet’s guest list: “Signor Valentio and his cousin Tybalt.” Tybalt’s cousin!
Of course, “Valentio” isn’t exactly “Valentine,” but Shakespeare may have felt the need for a variant to distinguish him from Mercutio’s brother, Valentine. “Signor” might sound like someone too mature for gang-banging, but Valentine may have earned the honorific for his legendary captaincy of supremely high-minded outlaws, and, in any case, he is (like Fredinand) the son-in-law of the Duke of Milan. Since he has a record for armed robbery, he would appeal to Tybalt as a formidable back-up, yet Valentine has a sense of moderation as well—he forbade his footpads to do violence to silly women or poor passengers. This is just the man to say, “That’s enough, Tybalt. Let’s go.” (His outlaws’ enthusiasm for Valentine’s linguistic skills was a recognition that he could holler “Stand and deliver” in whatever language was appropriate to the victim.)
Weis’s “Petruchio” opens a fertile field of investigation if one may shop the canon to give names to the anonymous inhabiting the locale. I thought of Dromio for the illiterate servant with the guest-list, but since slavery is probably illegal in Verona, I settled for Launcelot Gobbo, who, after getting in trouble in Belmont over inseminating the Moor, might well have looked for a new job. The anonymous Nurse—(forget the Angelica business)—could well be Nell Quickly. The Capulets, like many Italian aristocrats, often employ English servants, and Mrs Q has already, flouting her employer’s wishes, helped Anne Page to run off and marry the man she loves. For the apothecary, who has seen better times, is very short of money and has learned that “the world’s law” is no friend of his, who else but Shylock?
Other and probably better discoveries will surely follow. Hopefully, they will observe the maxim that resonance trumps probability.
Or it might just be a stage direction.
There are several others in the play named and not necessarily seen.
Like Antony and Potpan and Nell and Susan Grindstone amongst the Capulet servants.
All of them knaves according to Capulet’s commands.
Also the son and heir of old Tiberio and the afore-mentioned young Petruchio.
The party guests named in the letter the servant can’t read. Illiteracy and literacy being sharply delineated by the Petrarchan love of Romeo and the grounded first true love of Juliet. Artifice vs Nature.
‘Signior Martino and his wife and daughters;
County Anselme and his beauteous sisters;
the lady widow of Vitravio;
Signior Placentio and his lovely nieces;
Mercutio and his brother Valentine;
mine uncle Capulet, his wife and daughters;
my fair niece Rosaline; Livia;
Signior Valentio and his cousin Tybalt,
Lucio and the lively Helena.’
A fair assembly indeed as in the ball took place and one assumes they are among the mingling guests,
Valentine the absent brother of Mercutio.
And just where the hell is Rosaline, except on about five or six key characters lips and on the invitation. A Capulet and Juliet’s cousin. Sister to Tybalt, no; Lord Capulet’s side of the family and fair?
Then those musicians first, second, and third: Simon Catling, Hugh Rebeck and James (Jack) Soundpost. Usually assigned character descriptions as 1st 2nd 3rd Musician when they are readily identifiable and have specific monikers. The music of love in the play being firmly grounded in words and not music, as in the callous musicians hanging out for a free meal while the supposedly dead Juliet lies upstairs. No music with her silver sound for heart’s ease unless you pay for it. The Friar had promised them a gig he knew would not be going through.
It’s funny that the servant names are very English and not very Italian.
The watchmen likewise first second third. No names but there are more than just two companions commanded by the first:
‘go some of you whoe’er you find attach’ suggests several to search the immediate vicinity and arrest suspects,
‘go tell the prince’ is to Paris’ page
‘the Capulets’ 2nd watchman
and ‘the Montagues’ 3rd watchman
and then some others search.
Who’s left? The ghosts of Mercutio and Tybalt?
So how many are there?
The citizens too who are sick of the feuding and interrupt the first street brawl.
All help to populate this civic fiction, this two hours traffic of our stage.
My favourite bit of aurally nominally truthful text is Juliet’s:
My ears have not yet drunk a hundred words
Of that tongue’s utterance, yet I know the sound:
and indeed their recently spoken and shared sonnet amounts to about 90 words for Romeo.
Art thou not Romeo and a Montague?
What’s in a name?
Sound and fury signifying nothing. Or everything. Or something.
1. POEMS ABOUT Shakespeare 6435 reads. Always been the leader of the pack this one.
2. POEMS ABOUT Language… 4045 reads. One of my favourite sections.
3. A PAPER – A Prosodic Odyssey: Sorting the sonnets from page to stage. 2351 reads. A paper on the quarto of sonnets and its contents.
4. GUEST Post: Translating Shakespeare to “Modern English”: A Defence 2198 reads. I ass u me it’s fourth deservedly so.
5. BLOG’s WEE MANIFESTO… 2093 reads. Written for the Scotsman when at the Fringe.
6. MERES- Palladis Tamia allusions 1598 1819 reads. My fifth but really sixth. Newly enlarged with links to a facsimile and that Latin translated.
We all know women, and particularly the roles Will wrote for women, were never acted by women on the Elizabethan stage. There is the exception of Moll Firth the cross dressing roaring girl who is supposed to have crashed her premiere and taken the stage. We know also of an Italian commedia del arte group that performed in England, whose main actress may have inspired Isabella in Sh’s Measure for Measure. But structurally men or boys rather took the women’s roles. (Cross-dressing seemingly being in the English genes from Panto to POW camps ever since). The French allowed women on their stages, the Spanish too. So why not the English?
So were women just tools to be manipulated by a misogynistic playwright?
Were the boy actors that good at impersonating large amounts of their audience?
English women we know accompanied one another to the theatre. And there’s the titillating aspect to be dealt with too. We know of the gentle-lady who was groped in the upper boxes finding it exciting and pleasant but revealing to hubby at home that she had been thus robbed.
Our Will don’t forget, accepting the biog as writ, had a momma from a good station in life, related peripherally to his patron the Earl of Southampton, another young man highly influenced by his mother.
There is a certain amount of rape in Sh’s early plays: 2 Gentlemen of Verona, Titus Andronicus, Venus and Adonis (a reverse rape being goddess on mortal youth), the Rape of Lucrece were all popular.
Yet in Will’s later plays, namely
Innogen (Imogen) in Cymbeline,
Portia in Merchant of Venice,
Rosalind in As You Like It,
all have the most lines and therefore carry the play. Somebody played women well. Women are integral to the telling of the majority of his plays.
Viola and Olivia in Twelfth Night are at the heart of it,
Isabella in Measure for Measure yo-yo’d between the Duke and his brother,
Helena messed around on in All’s Well that Ends Well,
Joan of Arc in Henry the Sixth part one ignites the story to a more problematic level,
Queen Margaret’s rise and decline in Henry the Sixth parts two and three, and her madness and prophesying to
Queen Elizabeth in Richard the Third,
Constance suffers a mother’s ultimate loss in King John,
Hostess tag teams Falstaff in Henry the Fourth part two,
broken-spoken franglais English Catherine in King Henry the Fifth,
Queen Katherine in King Henry the Eighth,
Marina forced into prostitution in Pericles,
steadfast Paulina in Winter’s Tale,
Miranda the only woman in the Tempest,
Tamora Goth Queen in Titus Andronicus,,
no Romeo without Juliet in Romeo and Juliet,
suffering swallowing hot coals Portia in Julius Caesar,
suicidal Ophelia and poison drink imbibing Queen Gertrude in Hamlet,
self-will’d Katherina bowing to her man (or does she) in Taming of the Shrew,
not Cressida in Troilus and Cressida,
Desdemona and Emilia both fated to die in Othello,
the two evil and self-serving older daughters Regan and Goneril,
and the good honest youngest daughter Cordelia in King Lear,
the empress Cleopatra suicided out by an asp in Antony and Cleopatra,
Lady M sent into madness in Macbeth,
Volumnia reminding her boy of his civic duties in Coriolanus.
Now a whole bunch of other girls arise as support and to enliven the situation in subtle ways.
Anyways here’s the list of female roles with their line counts:
ROSALIND As You Like It Female 685. That’s twice as many lines as Orlando who’s 2nd in amount of lines. Let’s not forget she is dressed as the boy Ganymede for more than half the play.
CLEOPATRA Antony and Cleopatra Female 678. All woman this one. Anthony is first in line count with 839.
INNOGEN Cymbeline Female 594. Leads the line count above Postumus, Iachimo, Belarius with the title character in fifth place.
PORTIA The Merchant of Venice Female 574. Leads the line count above Shylock and Bassanio. Lest we forget she does dress as a man boy to defend the merchant in Court.
JULIET Romeo and Juliet Female 542. All girlie girlie and stays so, second in line count after Romeo.
HELENA All’s Well That Ends Well Female 478. The original orphan Annie helped by the Countess of Roussillon to gain her ingrate son. Leads the line count and perfects the bed-trick ie swopping the partner so someone is sleeping with someone they think is someone else.
ISABELLA Measure for Measure Female 424. Second in line count stuck between the Duke in 1st place and his brother Angelo in 3rd place. The poor virgin struggles to maintain her maidenhead between these two and is the play’s ultimate loser. Silenced or made tongue-tied by authority as sonnet 66 says.
DESDEMONA Othello Female 391
VIOLA Twelfth Night Female 335
PAULINA The Winter’s Tale Female 332
MISTRESS PAGE The Merry Wives of Windsor Female 328
JULIA The Two Gentlemen of Verona Female 322
QUEEN Henry VI Part 2 Female 316
OLIVIA Twelfth Night Female 314
VOLUMNIA Coriolanus Female 311
CRESSIDA Troilus and Cressida Female 301
COUNTESS All’s Well That Ends Well Female 291
PRINCESS Love’s Labour’s Lost Female 288
CELIA As You Like It Female 282
QUEEN Henry VI Part 3 Female 279
BEATRICE Much Ado About Nothing Female 279
NURSE Romeo and Juliet Female 277
QUEEN ELIZABETH Richard III Female 272
CONSTANCE King John Female 264
ADRIANA The Comedy of Errors Female 263
QUEEN KATHERINE Henry VIII Female 261
LADY Macbeth Female 259
TAMORA Titus Andronicus Female 257
PUCELLE Henry VI Part 1 Female 254
EMILIA Othello Female 243
MISTRESS QUICKLY The Merry Wives of Windsor Female 236
HELENA A Midsummer Night’s Dream Female 230
KATHERINA The Taming of the Shrew Female 221
QUEEN MARGARET Richard III Female 218
COUNTESS King Edward III Female 214
HERMIONE The Winter’s Tale Female 211
GONERILL King Lear Female 199
MISTRESS FORD The Merry Wives of Windsor Female 192
MARINA Pericles Female 190
REGAN King Lear Female 190
OPHELIA Hamlet Female 173
HOSTESS Henry IV Part 2 Female 171
QUEEN Cymbeline Female 168
ROSALINE Love’s Labour’s Lost Female 165
HERMIA A Midsummer Night’s Dream Female 164
SILVIA The Two Gentlemen of Verona Female 158
QUEEN Hamlet Female 157
ANNE Richard III Female 157
MIRANDA The Tempest Female 153
MARIA Twelfth Night Female 149
DUCHESS OF YORK Richard III Female 141
TITANIA A Midsummer Night’s Dream Female 141
DIANA All’s Well That Ends Well Female 138
HERO Much Ado About Nothing Female 132
PERDITA The Winter’s Tale Female 126
DUCHESS Henry VI Part 2 Female 119
CORDELIA King Lear Female 117
KATHERINE Henry VIII Female 115
QUEEN ISABEL Richard II Female 115
LADY CAPULET Romeo and Juliet Female 115
CHARMIAN Antony and Cleopatra Female 109
BAWD Pericles Female 104
And beyond this a further 100 odd female characters with under a hundred lines. So yes there are enough women in Will to study. We think Will knew his women would one day be played by women. That said. Tina Packer is coming to Europe soon. This would be scanned some more…
Bénigne de Bacilly’s treatise,
Remarques curieuses de l’art de bien chanter,
first published in 1668, is typical of mid-to-late 17thC French treatises on music
in its application of rhetorical principles to performance.
Here, he states that singing airs is analogous to declaiming a discourse
– ‘one must know how to sing well and declaim well at the same time’ –
alluding only to the fifth part of rhetoric, actio.
The emphasis in Bacilly’s treatise upon pronunciation
underscores the dominance of performance over composition
in the seventeenth-century musical experience in France;
thus, as Bacilly insists, the rules that govern singing
French-language airs must also apply to their composition.
Strategies related to actio provided composers with a means
of fulfilling vocal music’s primary aesthetic function,
a function it shared with oration:
moving the passions associated with a text and its recitation.
Just how this was accomplished is articulated in treatises on rhetoric, not music.
Rhetoricians identify two ways in which passions are represented in recitation:
NOMBRE or the rates of speech
ACCENS or tones of voice.
Nombre is specifically addressed by Bernard Lamy who was concerned with
the physiological and psychological effects of various qualities of sound
in his De l’art de parler, first published in 1675.
Although Lamy considers only language in his treatise,
his advice was easily applicable to another sound source:
And indeed, in his
L’Art de la poësie françoise et latine avec une idée de la musique
from 1694, Pherotée de la Croix applied Lamy’s theories to musical sounds.
Those sections of La Croix’s treatise that concern music
were copied directly from Lamy’s treatise,
differing only by adding the word ‘music’ to Lamy’s statements.
Both Lamy and La Croix stress
the effects on the soul
of the numerical proportions of speech called nombre.
La Croix, copying directly from Lamy, writes:
‘one calls number, in the art of speaking and of singing,
what the ears perceive as proportionate in the recitation of a discourse,
either following the proportion of the measure of time,
or according to the just distribution of the intervals of breath.’
Both Lamy and La Croix assert that
‘proportion in the pronunciation
of discourse and music is linked to the passions’.
As La Croix points out:
‘It is a question of making the numbers conform to the things one expresses,
in order to excite with success the movements (passions) that one wants.’
Several rhetoricians also describe
the tones of voice, called
associated with passionate recitation,
defined by Marin Mersenne as
‘an inflection or modification of the voice or of the word
by which one expresses the passions
or affections naturally
or by artifice.’
Mersenne notes that
‘la musique accentuelle’
incorporates the accents
used for raising or lowering syllables
(l’aigu and le grave
or high and low accents)
and must be accompanied by a quickness
or slowness of movement (nombre).
Rhetoricians indicate, for example,
that boldness or courage is characterized by
a voice that is lofty, forceful, and full of energy,
while happiness is portrayed by
a voice that is easy, brisk, and flowing.
Both rates of speech and tones of voice combine to express passion,
and both could be easily imitated through a variety of musical devices:
rates of speech primarily through the interplay of rhythm and metre and
tones of voice through melody and harmony.
In setting a poem to music as a type of persuasive discourse,
composers had to take into account the text,
and, in the words of Lamy,
its accessory meaning
or passionate associations.
Poems used by mid-seventeenth-century composers
are rich in words
that invite affective representation,
the passions themselves being frequently indicated by name.
There is a consistent correlation throughout the repertory
between a passion named in a text and its musical setting.
if the passion is not named but implied in the meaning of a phrase,
similar expressions receive similar musical treatment.
In airs written during the 1650s and 1660s, particularly by composers
Michel Lambert, Bénigne de Bacilly, Sébastien Le Camus, and Joseph Chabanceau de la Barre,
seven passions dominate and are given special musical treatment.
The agitated passions,
so identified by seventeenth-century rhetoricians,
1. despair or hopelessness;
2. boldness, particularly in commands or emphatic statements;
3. and the burning fires of love.
The moderate passions
5. languor, and
6. tender love;
and the neutral passion,
When considering affective representation in music,
it is important to realize that seventeenth-century theorists,
among them René Descartes and Mersenne,
considered certain musical devices
to be strong
and others, weak.
Melodic and bass line ascents were considered strong,
while descents, weak;
a high tessitura, strong;
a low tessitura, weak;
large verbal units, strong,
and small verbal units, weak.
Chords in root position built on the first and fifth notes of the mode
were considered strong,
while first inversion chords, weak;
large and expanded intervals (fifths, fourths, and tritones)
were considered strong,
and narrow intervals, particularly minor seconds, weak.
Major thirds and sixths were considered strong,
though not as strong as fourths and fifths,
while minor thirds and sixths, weak.
And finally, most dissonances were considered strong.
Defined and examined in 17thC French treatises on rhetoric
by Abbé de Bretteville, René Bary, Jean-Léonor Le Gallois,
Sieur de Grimarest, and Michel Le Faucheur,
and by Descartes in his ‘treatise on the passions’
Brief descriptions of these passions are given below.
(No they’re not it’s the end of the post)
The descriptions are accompanied by a list of musical devices
generally used to represent each passion as well as
musical examples from airs by Lambert and Bacilly.
We need to source this pdf asap.
Shakespeare never mentions Tarot cards. And Lewis in King John has this to say about cards:
Have I not here the best cards for the game,
To win this easy match play’d for a crown?
And shall I now give o’er the yielded set?
No, no, on my soul, it never shall be said.
According to this website they have been around since the Renaissance and earlier.
Naturally the tarot forum has a discussion about this subject and are generally in agreement Shakespeare did make use of the emblem books of the time and perhaps saw a deck or two.
Although playing tarot never became popular in England, there is no reason why some people might not have known it. Particularly Francophiles.
The earliest reference to tarot in England is in 1592, in a French conversation book by “G. De La Mothe” (usually known as G. Delamothe) called “The French Alphabet”. It is a collection of phrases, and one phrase says:”A quel jeu voulez vous jouer? Voulez vous jouer aux Dames aux Des, aux Tarots, aux Eschets, etc.” The English translation he provides is: “What game will you play? Will you play at tables, at Dyce, at Tarots, at Chesses, etc.”
For a description of this book (but not the quote), see e.g. -
“It is by someone calling himself G.(Guilliaum?) De la Mothe (= de la Motte). Who better than an English word-smith, who had just spent up to three or four years in France, to write such a book?
The third part of The French Alphabet is a collection of over six hundred “sentences, similes, apothegmes and golden sayings of the most excellent French Authors, as well poets as orators”, all translated into English (translators, of course, usually work into their native language, rather than from it). This would be a priceless collection for any playwright, whether interested in French or not, and appears closely to resemble the Promus and similar items among the Le Doux papers.”
Shakespeare mentions cards and uses card metaphors many times. I’m with those who don’t see a direct allusion to tarot cards, but there is no historical reason he couldn’t have known about it.
Ross G Caldwell
BTW, the second mention of tarot cards in English that I know of is in an Italian-English dictionary written by John Florio, “A Worlde of Wordes”, first published in 1598 and in a second edition in 1611.
Under “Tarocchi” in the first edition, it reads: “A kinde of playing cardes used in Italy, called terrestriall triumphes”.
The second edition omits a reference to Italy and mentions the German-sounding name “tarocks” – “A kinde of playing cardes called Tarocks or Terrestriall triumphs”.
As a Shakespeare enthusiast people buy me anything related to the man. I own 3 decks of Tarot or Oracle cards, one Dutch one English and a third called the Renaissance Tarot. I rarely use them but have of late to pass away the time.
The following descriptions come from The Shakespeare Oracle:
The Major Arcana:
0 FOOL – Feste
1 MAGICIAN – Shakespeare
2 ABBESS – Aemilia (appears at the end of Comedy of Errors)
3 EMPRESS – Queen Elizabeth
4 EMPEROR – Henry VIII
5 HIEROPHANT – Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester (youngest son of Henry 4th and brother to Henry V)
6 LOVERS – Romeo and Juliet
7 CHARIOT – King Henry V
8 JUSTICE – Portia
9 HERMIT – Caliban
10 WHEEL OF FORTUNE – Fortune Theatre
11 STRENGTH/LUST – Katherine & Petruchio
12 HANGED MAN – Hamlet
13 DEATH – Lear
14 TEMPERANCE – Prospero
15 DEVIL – Puck
16 TOWER – Timon
17 STAR – Cleopatra
18 MOON – Three Witches
19 SUN – King of Navarre/ Princess of France (Ferdinand & unnamed Princess)
20 JUDGEMENT – Vincentio (Duke of Vienna in Measure for Measure)
21 WORLD – Globe Theatre
The Minor Arcana:
Lady of Chalices – Rosalind
Lord of Chalices – Valentine
Queen of Chalices – Hermione
King of Chalices – Antony
Suit cards 1-10
Chalices represent those qualities that are fluid, inward looking, and life sustaining. This is the suit of emotions, relationships, and reflection.
Lady of Coins – Mistress Page
Lord of Coins – Falstaff
Queen of Coins – Helena
King of Coins – Shylock
Suit cards 1-10
Coins represent the mind working at the real world, physical level. This is the suit of material concerns, security, worth, practicality, and prosperity.
Lady of Quills – Viola
Lord of Quills – Armado
Queen of Quills – Beatrice
King of Quills – RIchard 2nd & Henry Bolingbroke
Suit cards 1-10
Quills represent abstract, theoretical applications of the mind. This is the suit of intellect, reason, creativity, problem solving, communication, truth, and justice.
Lady of Sceptres – Volumnia
Lord of Sceptres – Richard Plantagenet
Queen of Sceptres – Katherine of Aragon
King of Sceptres – Philip the Bastard
Suit cards 1-10
Sceptres represent energy and action. This is the suit of physical force, play, travel, inspiration, impulse, ambition, and self-growth.
Each suit has cards numbered 1-10. These refer to experiences, ordinary aspects of day-to-day life, actions, objectives, decisions, situations, and your responses to them, motives, reasons, justifications, goals, hopes, fears, and how your actions affect others. They lend insight into the ‘why’ of your actions and suggest ways to adjust and rethink.
Each number regardless of its suit holds some general meanings:
1. the essence and all of the potential of the suit, beginnings, foundation
2. opposites, conflict, decisions, duality, partnership, relationship
3. growth, results, action, synthesis, collaboration, plans, enthusiasm
4. stability, solidity, organisation, logic, security, order, discipline
5. mutability, change, uncertainty, loss, regret, obstacles ahead
6. advancement, prospective, thurning point, balance, social concerns
7. tension between creativity and reality, valor, end of phase, progress, wisdom
8. balance of opposing forces, setting priorities, interference, transformation
9. inner strength, achievement, fulfillment, perfection, bringing to conclusion
10. responsibilities, completion, wisdom from experience, culmination
Well it’s not just for Shakespeare, but he is mentioned in the same breath as Ovid and Horace and several contemporaries. My latin is lesse than Shakespeare’s so I called in help from visiting linguist David Crystal for a little pre-prandial translation. Several observations arose from this. Firstly that your average Elizabethan would have been much more strict in his Latin spelling than his Englishe. Secondly how close to sonnets 55 (Not marble, nor the gilded monuments of Princes shall outlive this powerful rime) and 65 (Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor war’s quick fire shall burn the living record of your memory) these praises are.
Iamque opus exegi, quod nec jovis ira, nec ignis,
nec poterit ferrum, nec edax abolere vetustas;
I have now completed a work that neither the wrath of Jove, nor fire,
nor sword, nor the devouring of time can destroy;
and as Horace saieth of his,
exegi monumentum aere perennius
regalique situ pyramidus altius,
quod non imber edax, non Aquilo impotens
possit diruere, aut innumerabilis
annorum series et fuga temporum:
I have created a monument more lasting than bronze,
And higher than the royal site of the pyramids,
Which neither harsh rains nor the wild North wind
can wear away, nor the countless succession of years
and the flight of the seasons.
so I say severally of Sir Philip Sidney’s, Spenser’s, Daniel’s, Drayton’s, Shakespeare’s, and Warner’s workes,
Non Iovis ira, imbres, Mars, ferrum, flamma, senectus,
hoc opus, unda, lues, turbo, venena ruent,
et quanquam ad pulcherrimum hoc opus evertendum,
tres illi Dii conspirabunt, Chronus, Vulcanus, et Pater ipse gentis.
Non tamen annorum series, non flamma, nec ensis;
Aeternum potuit hoc abolere Decus.
It is not the anger of Jove, storms, Mars, the sword, flame, old age,
the wave, plague, whirlwind, poison will bring this work to ruin,
and though there should be a conspiracy of the three Gods,
Chronus, Vulcan, and Jupiter (the Father of the nation)
for the overthrowing of this most beautiful work,
Not, however, the succession of years, nor flame,
nor sword will destroy this eternal splendour.
The first observation of the spelling came from some badly spelled Latin in my email, which I had transcribed (word for word) and not transliterated (letter for letter) the excerpt from Palladis Tamia pages 318-19. Yes i’d never made the distinction before either, but he is a linguist. BTW I was the guilty party (keyboard slip: n for m) and unfortunately for the laugh it wasn’t Meres Latin that was at fault.
Also interesting from a linguistic point of view:
as there are eight famous and chief languages,
Hebrew, Greek, Latine, Syriack, Arabicke, Italian, Spanish, and French:
so there are eight notable several kinds of poets,
Heroick, Lyricke, Tragicke, Comicke, Satiricke, Iambicke, Elegiacke, and Pastoral.
Shakespeare is then mentioned as excelling in lyric and tragedy and comedy (mentioned together with Edward, Earl of Oxforde being first on the list as his rank deserved). But the genres of poetry take away from the third observation: the 8 famous and chiefe languages.
Syriac. Seriously? The rest i can understand, but Syriac? The first either myself or DC had heard of it in relation to the Elizabethans. A quick google found that Syriac Renaissance happened from the 11thC to 13thC.
Syriac is a literary language formed from Aramaic. Wiki saieth: There has been a continuous stream of Syriac literature from the fourteenth century through to the present day. The first such flourishing of Neo-Syriac was the seventeenth century literature of the School of Alqosh, in northern Iraq.
(too late for Meres who printed Palladis Tamia in 1598.
But as Wiki saieth:
Francis Meres (1565 – 29 January 1647) was an English churchman and author.
He was born at Kirton in the Holland division of Lincolnshire in 1565. He was educated at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he received a B.A. in 1587 and an M.A. in 1591).
Maybe the church is the connection but he speaks of the 8 famous languages as if everybody knew this. Copasetically enough there are 8 mentions of Syria in the plays…
OK 2 of them are in the word Assyrian.
Well we can be certain that Shakespeare wrote these plays, even if we can’t decide when and where they were first performed. Which is odd. Given the mass of evidence that they were played from Inns at Court to revel’s accounts for Court. Richard Burbage, when and where did he and Shakespeare first meet? His dad is reputed to have relatives in Stratford. Clue? No. It leads nowhere. Curious? Yes. Time will tell.
‘A funerall Elegy on the death of the famous Actor Richard Burbage:
who died on Saturday in Lent, the 13th of March 1618′.
Although there were earlier transcripts of the text,
it was first published in 1825 in The Gentleman’s Magazine:
KING LEAR.org our source.
The Play now ended, think his grave to be
The retiring house of his sad Tragedie,
Where to give his fame this, be not afraid,
Here lies the best Tragedian ever played.
No more young Hamlet though but scant of breath
Shall cry revenge for his dear father’s death:
Poor Romeo never more shall tears beget
For Juliet’s love and cruel Capulet;
Harry shall not be seen as King or Prince,
They died with thee, Dear Dick -
Not to revive again. Jeronimo
Shall cease to mourn his son Horatio;
They shall not call thee from thy naked bed
By horrid outcry; and Antonio’s dead.
Edward shall lack a representative,
And Crookback, as befits, shall cease to live.
Tyrant Macbeth, with unwash’d bloody hand
We vainly now may hope to understand.
Brutus and Marcius henceforth must be dumb,
For ne’er thy like upon our stage shall come
To charm the faculty of eyes and ears,
Unless we could command the dead to rise.
Vindex is gone, and what a loss was he!
Frankford, Brachiano and Malevolo
Heart-broke Philaster and Amintas too
Are lost forever; with the red-haired Jew,
Which sought the bankrupt merchant’s pound of flesh,
By woman-lawyer caught in his own mesh.
What a wide world was in that little space,
Thyself a world, the Globe thy fittest place!
Thy stature small, but every thought and mood
Might thoroughly from thy face be understood,
And his whole action he could change with ease
From Ancient Lear to youthful Pericles.
But let me not forget one chiefest part
Wherein beyond the rest, he moved the heart,
The grieved Moor, made jealous by a slave
Who sent his wife to fill a timeless grave,
Then slew himself upon the bloody bed.
All these and many more with him are dead,
Thereafter must our poets leave to write.
Since thou art gone, dear Dick, a tragic night
Will wrap our black-hung stage. He made a Poet,
And those who yet remain full surely know it;
For having Burbadge to give forth each line
It filled their brain with fury more divine.
How Tarleton adopted Armin to be his successor:
(You can look at the entire jest book here).
Tarlton keeping a tavern in Gracious Street  he let it
to another, who was indebted to Armin’s master, a gold
smith in Lombard Street: yet he himself had a chamber
in the same house. And this Armin being then a wag came
often to demand  his master’s money, which he
sometimes had and sometimes had not: in the end the man
growing poor, told the boy he had no money for his master,
and he must bear with him. The man’s name being Char-
les, Armin made this verse, writing it with chalk on a
ARMIN, ROBERT (fl. 1610), actor and dramatist, was living in 1610. From a chapter in ‘Tarlton’s Jests and News out of Purgatory,’ 1611, headed ‘How Tarlton made Armin his adopted son to succeed him,’ we learn that Armin was apprenticed to a goldsmith in Lombard Street; that he became acquainted with Richard Tarlton, the famous performer of clowns and jesters in Queen Elizabeth’s time; that Tarlton prophesied that Armin should be his successor in clown’s parts; and that Armin, from his regard for Tarlton, frequented the plays in which he acted and perhaps acquired something of his humour. Afterwards Armin was able to display his own abilities as an actor at the Globe Theatre on the Bankside. Tarlton died in 1588. If his pupil Armin was then seventeen or so, he was born about 1570, and must have been an actor of some position when, in 1603, James I. granted his patent to the players, wherein the name of Armin comes last but one. He is supposed to be the Robert Armin who was the author of ‘A Brief Resolution of the Right Religion,’ printed in 1590, and of other publications, and who was described in ‘Pierce’s Supererogation,’ 1593, as one of ‘the common pamphleteers of London.’ The name of Robert Armin is also attached to a publication in 1604, entitled ‘A True Discourse of the practices of Elizabeth Caldwell and others to poison her husband.’ Armin was probably a member of the company of actors performing under the patronage of Lord Chandos. He is believed to have joined the Lord Chamberlain’s players in 1598, and to have accompanied them, to Scotland in the following year. In 1608 he published a work called ‘A Nest of Ninnies’ (reprinted by the Shakspeare Society), and in 1609, styling himself ‘servant to the King’s most excellent Majesty,’ he printed a play: ‘The Two Maids of More Clacke, with the Life and simple manner of John in the Hospital,’ as it was acted by ‘the children of the King’s Majesty’s Revels.’ Armin is enumerated as one of the original representatives of Ben Jonson’s ‘Alchemist’ in 1610. From a passage in Armin’s next tract, ‘The Italian Tailor and his Boy,’ 1609, it has been concluded that Armin had played the part of Dogberry, succeeding to that duty upon the death or the departure from the Lord Chamberlain’s players of William Kemp, the original Dogberry. About 1611 John Davies of Hereford published his ‘Scourge of Folly,’ in which a long ‘epigram’ was devoted to ‘honest gamesome Kobin Armin,’ and testimony was borne to the worth of his private character, and the excellence of his public performances. In 1615 was published a play, the ‘Valiant Welshman,’ purporting to have been written by R. A.: the publisher may have wished the public to infer that Robert Armin was the author. The date of his death is not known. The London parish registers have been vainly searched for evidence of his burial. Apparently he left no will, nor were there issued any letters of administration of his estate.
[Memoirs of the Principal Actors in the Plays of Shakespeare, by J. Payne Collier, 1846; Langbaine's Account of the English Dramatic Poets, 1691.]
(and the poem that got him the part:
O world how wilt thou lie,
is this Charles the great that I deny:
Indeed Charles the great before,
But now Charles the less, being poor.
Let: A letting for hire or rent. Oxford English Dictionary
Wag: A mischievous boy; a habitual joker. Oxford English Dictionary
Wainscot: trans. To line (a wall, roof, etc.) with panel-work of wood. Oxford English Dictionary
Goldsmith: A worker in gold; one who fashions gold into jewels, ornaments, articles of plate, etc. Oxford English Dictionary
? Also known as Gracechurch Street, it was the part of Bishopsgate Street south of Cornhill which contain two of the main inn-playhouses: the Bell and the Cross keys.
? Robert Armin was a boy whom Richard Tarlton takes as his adopted son in this jest. He ends up becoming the next clown of the Queen’s Men after Tarlton’s death.
? Lombard Street is a street named after the bankers that originally occupied it. It intersects Gracious Street a little south of the inn in which this takes place.
? ed. Originally “often thither to demand…”
? This panel-work would reach about waist high and would be on all the walls in many inns.
We know of but one letter to Shakespeare in his lifetime written by his friend Richard Quiney on 25th october 1598.
1598 Oct 25 Letter from Richard Quiney asking for a L30 loan. This is the only letter that has ever been found addressed to William Shakspere of Stratford. It is addressed “H[aste] To my Loveinge good ffrend & contreymann Mr Wm. Shackespere deliver thees.” (Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Records Office, MS. ER 27/4.)
Loveinge Contreyman, I am bolde of yowe as of a ffrende, craveinge yowre helpe with xxxll vppon Mr Bushells & my securytee or Mr Myttons with me. Mr Rosswell is nott come to London as yeate & I have especiall cawse. Yowe shall ffrende me muche in helpeinge me out of all the debettes I owe in London, I thancke god, & muche quiet my mynde which wolde nott be indebeted. I am nowe towardes the Cowrte in hope of answer for the dispatche of my Buysenes. Yowe shall neither loase creddytt nor monney by me, the Lorde wyllinge, & nowe butt perswade yowre selfe soe as I hope & yowe shall nott need to feare butt with all hartie thanckefullenes I will holde my tyme & content yowre ffrende, & yf we Bargaine farther yowe shalbe the paiemaster yowre self. My tyme biddes me hasten to an ende & soe I committ thys [to] yowre care & hope of yowre helpe. I feare I shall nott be backe thys night ffrom the Cowrte. Haste. The Lorde be with yowe & with vs all Amen. ffrom the Bell in Carter Lane the 25 October 1598. Yowres in all kyndenes Ryc. Quyney.
(handwritten) (EKC II, 102; SS 180, with facs.)
11c. 1598 Nov 4 Letter from Abraham Sturley to Richard Quiney. It is addressed: “To his most lovinge brother, Mr Richard Quinej, att the Bell in Carterlane att London, geve these.” (Misc. Document 1, 136, Birthplace Museum, Stratford).
Abraham Sturley mentioned above wrote a letter before all of this to his brother in which he says:
1598-1-24: Letter. Abraham Sturley wrote to his brother-in-law that
“our countriman mr Shaksper is willing to disburse some monei upon some od yardeland or other Shottrei or neare about us…”
(Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Records Office, Misc. Doc. I, 135).
The Shakespeare as property buyer and money-lender had some basis in historical fact.
That Shakespeare never once wrote to his wife, as Edward Alleyne did, adds perhaps fuel to the idea that he didn’t like his wife. Ben Jonson wrote letters too and was the subject of letters.
But that Shakespeare didn’t write letters is nonsense. His plays are full of them.
All’s Well’s Helena reads letter from Bertram to the Countess:
Look on his letter, madam; here’s my passport.
When thou canst get the ring upon my finger which
never shall come off, and show me a child begotten
of thy body that I am father to, then call me 1460
husband: but in such a ‘then’ I write a ‘never.’
Till I have no wife I have nothing in France.’
Tullus Aufidius this in Coriolanus:
Is it not yours?
What ever have been thought on in this state,
That could be brought to bodily act ere Rome
Had circumvention? ‘Tis not four days gone
Since I heard thence; these are the words: I think
I have the letter here; yes, here it is.
‘They have press’d a power, but it is not known
Whether for east or west: the dearth is great;
The people mutinous; and it is rumour’d,
Cominius, CORIOLANUS your old enemy,
Who is of Rome worse hated than of you,
And Titus TITUS, a most valiant Roman,
These three lead on this preparation
Whither ’tis bent: most likely ’tis for you:
Consider of it.’
Imogen reads a letter from Posthumus her husband shown by Pisanio their servant:
[Reads] ‘Thy mistress, Pisanio, hath played the
strumpet in my bed; the testimonies whereof lie
bleeding in me. I speak not out of weak surmises,
but from proof as strong as my grief and as certain
as I expect my revenge. That part thou, Pisanio,
must act for me, if thy faith be not tainted with
the breach of hers. Let thine own hands take away
her life: I shall give thee opportunity at
Milford-Haven. She hath my letter for the purpose
where, if thou fear to strike and to make me certain
it is done, thou art the pandar to her dishonour and
equally to me disloyal.’
Later in Act 5 the soothsayer reads this:
‘When as a lion’s whelp shall, to himself
unknown, without seeking find, and be embraced by a
piece of tender air; and when from a stately cedar
shall be lopped branches, which, being dead many
years, shall after revive, be jointed to the old
stock, and freshly grow; then shall Posthumus end
his miseries, Britain be fortunate and flourish in
peace and plenty.’
Thou, Leonatus, art the lion’s whelp;
The fit and apt construction of thy name,
Being Leonatus, doth import so much.
The piece of tender air, thy virtuous daughter,
Which we call ‘mollis aer;’ and ‘mollis aer’
We term it ‘mulier:’ which ‘mulier’ I divine
Is this most constant wife; who, even now,
Answering the letter of the oracle,
Unknown to you, unsought, were clipp’d about
With this most tender air.
The Hamlet plot turns also on letters.
The first of which Polonius reads to the King and Queen:
‘To the celestial, and my soul’s idol, the most beautified Ophelia,’
That’s an ill phrase, a vile phrase; ‘beautified’ is a vile phrase.
But you shall hear. Thus:
‘In her excellent white bosom, these, &c.’
Gertrude. Came this from Hamlet to her?
Polonius. Good madam, stay awhile. I will be faithful. [Reads.]
‘Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.
‘O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers; I have not art to
reckon my groans; but that I love thee best, O most best, believe
‘Thine evermore, most dear lady, whilst this machine is to
Later Hamlet sends letters to Horatio for the King via some pirates he befriended whilst at sea.
‘Horatio, when thou shalt have overlook’d
this, give these fellows some means to the King. They have
letters for him. Ere we were two days old at sea, a pirate of
very warlike appointment gave us chase. Finding ourselves too
slow of sail, we put on a compelled valour, and in the grapple I
boarded them. On the instant they got clear of our ship; so I
alone became their prisoner. They have dealt with me like thieves
of mercy; but they knew what they did: I am to do a good turn for
them. Let the King have the letters I have sent, and repair thou
to me with as much speed as thou wouldst fly death. I have words
to speak in thine ear will make thee dumb; yet are they much too
light for the bore of the matter. These good fellows will bring
thee where I am. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern hold their course
for England. Of them I have much to tell thee. Farewell.
‘He that thou knowest thine, HAMLET.’
And perhaps Hamlet voices Shakespeare’s own thoughts on writing letters in this exchange about the commissioned letter Rosencrantz and Guildernstern were carrying to the King of England.
Hamlet. Here’s the commission; read it at more leisure.
But wilt thou bear me how I did proceed?
Horatio. I beseech you.
Hamlet. Being thus benetted round with villanies,
Or I could make a prologue to my brains,
They had begun the play. I sat me down;
Devis’d a new commission; wrote it fair.
I once did hold it, as our statists do,
A baseness to write fair, and labour’d much
How to forget that learning; but, sir, now
It did me yeoman’s service. Wilt thou know
Th’ effect of what I wrote?
Horatio. Ay, good my lord.
Hamlet. An earnest conjuration from the King,
As England was his faithful tributary,
As love between them like the palm might flourish,
As peace should still her wheaten garland wear
And stand a comma ‘tween their amities,
And many such-like as’s of great charge,
That, on the view and knowing of these contents,
Without debatement further, more or less,
He should the bearers put to sudden death,
Not shriving time allow’d.
Horatio. How was this seal’d?
Hamlet. Why, even in that was heaven ordinant.
I had my father’s signet in my purse,
Which was the model of that Danish seal;
Folded the writ up in the form of th’ other,
Subscrib’d it, gave’t th’ impression, plac’d it safely,
The changeling never known. Now, the next day
Was our sea-fight; and what to this was sequent
Thou know’st already.
In Henry 4 part 2, Bardolph delivers Falstaff’s letter, which Poins and Prince Hal peruse,
before deciding to play a trick on him at Gadshill:
Bardolph. Well, my lord. He heard of your Grace’s coming to
There’s a letter for you.
Edward Poins. Deliver’d with good respect. And how doth the martlemas,
Bardolph. In bodily health, sir.
Edward Poins. Marry, the immortal part needs a physician; but that
not him. Though that be sick, it dies not.
Henry V. I do allow this well to be as familiar with me as my
dog and he holds his place, for look you how he writes.
Edward Poins. [Reads] ‘John Falstaff, knight’—Every man must know
as oft as he has occasion to name himself, even like those
are kin to the King; for they never prick their finger but
say ‘There’s some of the King’s blood spilt.’ ‘How comes
says he that takes upon him not to conceive. The answer is as
ready as a borrower’s cap: ‘I am the King’s poor cousin,
Henry V. Nay, they will be kin to us, or they will fetch it from
Japhet. But the letter: [Reads] ‘Sir John Falstaff, knight,
the son of the King nearest his father, Harry Prince of
Edward Poins. Why, this is a certificate.
Henry V. Peace! [Reads] ‘I will imitate the honourable Romans
Edward Poins. He sure means brevity in breath, short-winded.
Henry V. [Reads] ‘I commend me to thee, I commend thee, and I
leave thee. Be not too familiar with Poins; for he misuses
favours so much that he swears thou art to marry his sister
Repent at idle times as thou mayst, and so farewell.
Thine, by yea and no—which is as much as to say as
thou usest him—JACK FALSTAFF with my familiars,
JOHN with my brothers and sisters, and SIR JOHN with
In Julius Caesar a letter is delivered to Brutus:
Brutus. The exhalations whizzing in the air
Give so much light that I may read by them.
[Opens the letter and reads]
‘Brutus, thou sleep’st: awake, and see thyself.
Shall Rome, &c. Speak, strike, redress!
Brutus, thou sleep’st: awake!’
Such instigations have been often dropp’d
Where I have took them up.
‘Shall Rome, &c.’ Thus must I piece it out:
Shall Rome stand under one man’s awe? What, Rome?
My ancestors did from the streets of Rome
The Tarquin drive, when he was call’d a king.
‘Speak, strike, redress!’ Am I entreated
To speak and strike? O Rome, I make thee promise:
If the redress will follow, thou receivest
Thy full petition at the hand of Brutus!
In King Lear, kent receives a letter from Cordelia:
Earl of Kent.
Good King, that must approve the common saw,
Thou out of heaven’s benediction com’st
To the warm sun!
Approach, thou beacon to this under globe,
That by thy comfortable beams I may
Peruse this letter. Nothing almost sees miracles
But misery. I know ’tis from Cordelia,
Who hath most fortunately been inform’d
Of my obscured course- and [reads]
‘shall find time
From this enormous state, seeking to give
Losses their remedies’-
All weary and o’erwatch’d,
Take vantage, heavy eyes, not to behold
This shameful lodging.
Fortune, good night; smile once more, turn thy wheel.
In another sub-plot plot turn,
Edmund the bastard tricks his father with a letter
from his legitimate son Edgar:
Edmund, how now? What news?
Edmund. So please your lordship, none.
[Puts up the letter.]
Earl of Gloucester. Why so earnestly seek you to put up that letter?
Edmund. I know no news, my lord.
Earl of Gloucester. What paper were you reading?
Edmund. Nothing, my lord.
Earl of Gloucester. No? What needed then that terrible dispatch of it into your
pocket? The quality of nothing hath not such need to hide
itself. Let’s see. Come, if it be nothing, I shall not need
Edmund. I beseech you, sir, pardon me. It is a letter from my brother
that I have not all o’er-read; and for so much as I have
perus’d, I find it not fit for your o’erlooking.
Earl of Gloucester. Give me the letter, sir.
Edmund. I shall offend, either to detain or give it. The contents,
in part I understand them, are to blame.
Earl of Gloucester. Let’s see, let’s see!
Edmund. I hope, for my brother’s justification, he wrote this but as
an essay or taste of my virtue.
Earl of Gloucester. [reads]
‘This policy and reverence of age makes the world
bitter to the best of our times; keeps our fortunes from us
till our oldness cannot relish them. I begin to find an idle
and fond bondage in the oppression of aged tyranny, who sways,
not as it hath power, but as it is suffer’d. Come to me, that
of this I may speak more. If our father would sleep till I
wak’d him, you should enjoy half his revenue for ever, and live
the beloved of your brother,
My son Edgar! Had he a hand to write this? a heart
and brain to breed it in? When came this to you? Who brought it?
Edmund. It was not brought me, my lord: there’s the cunning of it. I
found it thrown in at the casement of my closet.
Earl of Gloucester. You know the character to be your brother’s?
Edmund. If the matter were good, my lord, I durst swear it were his;
but in respect of that, I would fain think it were not.
Earl of Gloucester. It is his.
Edmund. It is his hand, my lord; but I hope his heart is not in the
A reversal of the plot turns Edgar into the one who intercepts letters meant for Edmund from Lear’s daughter Goneril. Edgar has killed her servant Oswald, who carried the letters.
Edgar. Sit you down, father; rest you.
Let’s see his pockets; these letters that he speaks of
May be my friends. He’s dead. I am only sorry
He had no other deathsman. Let us see.
Leave, gentle wax; and, manners, blame us not.
To know our enemies’ minds, we’ld rip their hearts;
Their papers, is more lawful. Reads the letter.
‘Let our reciprocal vows be rememb’red. You have many
opportunities to cut him off. If your will want not, time and
place will be fruitfully offer’d. There is nothing done, if he
return the conqueror. Then am I the prisoner, and his bed my
jail; from the loathed warmth whereof deliver me, and supply the
place for your labour.
‘Your (wife, so I would say) affectionate servant, ‘Goneril.’
Love’s Labours Lost also contains letters. This time for comic effect about the dullard Costard written by Don Armado:
Ferdinand. Will you hear this letter with attention?
Biron. As we would hear an oracle.
Costard. Such is the simplicity of man to hearken after the flesh.
Ferdinand. [Reads] ‘Great deputy, the welkin’s vicegerent and
sole dominator of Navarre, my soul’s earth’s god,
and body’s fostering patron.’
Costard. Not a word of Costard yet.
Ferdinand. [Reads] ‘So it is,’—
Costard. It may be so: but if he say it is so, he is, in
telling true, but so.
Costard. Be to me and every man that dares not fight!
Ferdinand. No words!
Costard. Of other men’s secrets, I beseech you.
Ferdinand. [Reads] ‘So it is, besieged with sable-coloured
melancholy, I did commend the black-oppressing humour
to the most wholesome physic of thy health-giving
air; and, as I am a gentleman, betook myself to
walk. The time when. About the sixth hour; when
beasts most graze, birds best peck, and men sit down
to that nourishment which is called supper: so much
for the time when. Now for the ground which; which,
I mean, I walked upon: it is y-cleped thy park. Then
for the place where; where, I mean, I did encounter
that obscene and preposterous event, that draweth
from my snow-white pen the ebon-coloured ink, which
here thou viewest, beholdest, surveyest, or seest;
but to the place where; it standeth north-north-east
and by east from the west corner of thy curious-
knotted garden: there did I see that low-spirited
swain, that base minnow of thy mirth,’—
Ferdinand. [Reads] ‘that unlettered small-knowing soul,’—
Ferdinand. [Reads] ‘that shallow vassal,’—
Costard. Still me?
Ferdinand. [Reads] ‘which, as I remember, hight Costard,’—
Costard. O, me!
Ferdinand. [Reads] ‘sorted and consorted, contrary to thy
established proclaimed edict and continent canon,
which with,—O, with—but with this I passion to say
Costard. With a wench.
Ferdinand. [Reads] ‘with a child of our grandmother Eve, a
female; or, for thy more sweet understanding, a
woman. Him I, as my ever-esteemed duty pricks me on,
have sent to thee, to receive the meed of
punishment, by thy sweet grace’s officer, Anthony
Dull; a man of good repute, carriage, bearing, and
Dull. ‘Me, an’t shall please you; I am Anthony Dull.
Ferdinand. [Reads] ‘For Jaquenetta,—so is the weaker vessel
called which I apprehended with the aforesaid
swain,—I keep her as a vessel of the law’s fury;
and shall, at the least of thy sweet notice, bring
her to trial. Thine, in all compliments of devoted
and heart-burning heat of duty.
DON ADRIANO DE ARMADO.’
In the Merchant of Venice a letter from Antonio the merchant is sent to his friend Bassanio:
Portia. But let me hear the letter of your friend.
Bassanio. [Reads] Sweet Bassanio, my ships have all
miscarried, my creditors grow cruel, my estate is
very low, my bond to the Jew is forfeit; and since
in paying it, it is impossible I should live, all
debts are cleared between you and I, if I might but
see you at my death. Notwithstanding, use your
pleasure: if your love do not persuade you to come,
let not my letter.
Later a letter of recommendation is sent from bellario to the Duke in Venice on behalf of Portia dressed as a young doctor t law:
Duke. This letter from Bellario doth commend
A young and learned doctor to our court.
Where is he?
Meantime the court shall hear Bellario’s letter.
Your grace shall understand that at the receipt of
your letter I am very sick: but in the instant that
your messenger came, in loving visitation was with
me a young doctor of Rome; his name is Balthasar. I
acquainted him with the cause in controversy between
the Jew and Antonio the merchant: we turned o’er
many books together: he is furnished with my
opinion; which, bettered with his own learning, the
greatness whereof I cannot enough commend, comes
with him, at my importunity, to fill up your grace’s
request in my stead. I beseech you, let his lack of
years be no impediment to let him lack a reverend
estimation; for I never knew so young a body with so
old a head. I leave him to your gracious
acceptance, whose trial shall better publish his
Duke. You hear the learn’d Bellario, what he writes:
And here, I take it, is the doctor come.
[Enter PORTIA, dressed like a doctor of laws]
Give me your hand. Come you from old Bellario?
Portia. I did, my lord.
The character Falstaff is a far more prodigious letter writer than the writer Shakespeare. Here he is again in the first farce The Merry Wives of Windsor writing to Mistress Page:
What, have I scaped love-letters in the holiday-
time of my beauty, and am I now a subject for them?
Let me see.
‘Ask me no reason why I love you; for though
Love use Reason for his physician, he admits him
not for his counsellor. You are not young, no more
am I; go to then, there’s sympathy: you are merry,
so am I; ha, ha! then there’s more sympathy: you
love sack, and so do I; would you desire better
sympathy? Let it suffice thee, Mistress Page,—at
the least, if the love of soldier can suffice,—
that I love thee. I will not say, pity me; ’tis
not a soldier-like phrase: but I say, love me. By me,
Thine own true knight,
By day or night,
Or any kind of light,
With all his might
For thee to fight, JOHN FALSTAFF’
But it seems I’m re-inventing the wheel with this post. A book dedicated to the Letters is written and available to partially peruse on Amazon:
Shakespeare’s letters by Alan Stewart.
And for a bit of fun with the festive season looming here are some letters to Santa written by Shakespeare’s characters.
We would be amiss if we neglect the most famous letter of them all from 12thNight.
A trick is being played on Malvolio, who thinks this letter is from his mistress commending his dress sense and encouraging his upward mobility:
M, O, A, I; this simulation is not as the former: and
yet, to crush this a little, it would bow to me, for
every one of these letters are in my name. Soft!
here follows prose.
‘If this fall into thy hand, revolve. In my stars I
am above thee; but be not afraid of greatness: some
are born great, some achieve greatness, and some
have greatness thrust upon ‘em. Thy Fates open
their hands; let thy blood and spirit embrace them;
and, to inure thyself to what thou art like to be,
cast thy humble slough and appear fresh. Be
opposite with a kinsman, surly with servants; let
thy tongue tang arguments of state; put thyself into
the trick of singularity: she thus advises thee
that sighs for thee. Remember who commended thy
yellow stockings, and wished to see thee ever
cross-gartered: I say, remember. Go to, thou art
made, if thou desirest to be so; if not, let me see
thee a steward still, the fellow of servants, and
not worthy to touch Fortune’s fingers. Farewell.
She that would alter services with thee,
Daylight and champaign discovers not more: this is
open. I will be proud, I will read politic authors,
I will baffle Sir Toby, I will wash off gross
acquaintance, I will be point-devise the very man.
I do not now fool myself, to let imagination jade
me; for every reason excites to this, that my lady
loves me. She did commend my yellow stockings of
late, she did praise my leg being cross-gartered;
and in this she manifests herself to my love, and
with a kind of injunction drives me to these habits
of her liking. I thank my stars I am happy. I will
be strange, stout, in yellow stockings, and
cross-gartered, even with the swiftness of putting
on. Jove and my stars be praised! Here is yet a
‘Thou canst not choose but know who I am. If thou
entertainest my love, let it appear in thy smiling;
thy smiles become thee well; therefore in my
presence still smile, dear my sweet, I prithee.’
Jove, I thank thee: I will smile; I will do
everything that thou wilt have me.