Category: Tour Guide

An Introduction to Early Modern FairiesWhen attending a Guided…

An Introduction to Early Modern Fairies

When attending a Guided Tour at Shakespeare’s Globe you’ll hear all manner of stories from our passionate and knowledgable guides. Over the last few months we’ve been sharing blogs by our staff in a new series.

Last week, Tour Guide and Exhibition Assistant Jon Kaneko-James explored what the area of Bankside would have been like in Shakespeare’s time. Today, he’d like to talk to you about another one of his areas of expertise…

As well as being a Tour Guide and Exhibition Assistant at Shakespeare’s Globe, I also write and publish historical research on the Early Modern belief in the supernatural. 

Fairies were a definite part of English life in Shakespeare’s era. In 1590 Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queene had mythologised Queen Elizabeth as the fairy queen Gloriana. In general, in fact, fairies went through definite period of popularity in literary circles, with the number of published works involving fairies experiencing steady growth from 1598 through to 1610. 

Fairies had also long occupied a place in popular culture. The 10th century Leechbook of Bald included a medico-magical spell for curing elf shot, and medieval chroniclers like Gervaise of Tilbery and Geraldus Cambrensis had written detailed stories of the fairy realm and their visits to our world. 

In Act Five, Scene Five of The Merry Wives of Windsor Mistress Quickly and the others band together to convince the troublesome Falstaff that if he goes to a secluded place in Windsor forest disguised as a ghost, he will meet the object of his affections – Mistress Ford. When Falstaff arrives wearing horns as a chain as his disguise, he is set upon by children dressed as fairies and chastised in verse for his wicked ways. 

For Shakespeare’s audiences, this may well have resonated with the not unamusing crimes of a London con-woman named Judith Philips. The 1595 pamphlet The Bridling, Saddling and Riding of a Rich Churl in Hampshire had documented Philips’ tricking of a rich country miser. 

Philips herself had been the wife of a gunmaker named John Pope, before tiring of his modest income and leaving to seek her fortune elsewhere. Described as a fortune teller and ‘Cunning Woman’ (a magical practitioner who sold remedies), Philips heard that the miser – living in Up Somborne – was both greedy and gullible and decided to turn a profit on him. 

After first climbing into his garden to plant coins at the dead of night, Philips returned the next day to convince the miser and his wife of her magical link with the queen of the fairies by leading them to dig up the coins, seemingly detected by magic. Obviously, having made a profit, the miser offered her anything she wanted. Judith was not shy to demand.

She asked not only for fourteen pounds (and got it) but also for ‘The largest chamber in your house behung with the finest linen you can get, so that nothing around your chamber but white linen cloth be seen, then you must set five candlesticks in five several places in your chamber, and under every candlestick you must put an angel of gold, all of which was done as she required…’ 

The final step in the process was the utter humiliation of her mark: Judith saddled and bridled him, rode him three times between the chamber and the holly tree, and left him with instructions that he and his wife must worship the tree naked for at least three hours. 

Judith, of course, used the time to clean his house out of valuables, and after a brief pantomime as the fairy queen to subjugate her gulls, she escaped the scene of her crime to Winchester, and eventually to London. Embarrassed by his foolishness, the ‘churl’ initially reported nothing.

For Shakespeare’s audiences, this would be neither the first or the last time that fairies – whether honestly or dishonestly – came into their lives. Whether as the mythical builders of iron age mounds, or the supernatural authority behind a local Cunning Woman’s medicine, fairies would have been an almost commonplace element of daily life.

Photo: The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania by Joseph Noel Paton, Google Art Project / Wikimedia

Read more blogs by our Guided Tours & Exhibition staff

Words: Jon Kaneko-James

Playing Companies in Shakespeare’s TimeOur amazing Tour Guides…

Playing Companies in Shakespeare’s Time

Our amazing Tour Guides and Exhibition Assistants have been sharing their knowledge of Shakespeare’s Globe in a series of recent blogs.

Nicola discussed her experiences of becoming a Tour Guide, and this month is here to talk to you about Elizabethan theatre companies…

Today, most actors are self-employed freelancers, but this was wholly inadvisable in Shakespeare’s time. 

In Elizabethan England the term for self-employed was ‘vagrant’ and punishments were worse than just paying your National Insurance twice. A vagrant would wander around in search of work and risk being branded, fined or imprisoned in the process. To avoid such association, aspiring actors joined playing companies. Being a member of a company protected you from vagrancy laws – you had somewhere to belong. Young Shakespeare was a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the Lord Chamberlain being their patron. They later became the King’s Men, the premier theatre company of the time. Members of the aristocracy or the royal family often lent their name to companies, which, in addition to a financial benefit, also gave the company prestige and status. 

Each company had a company manager. In the case of Lord Chamberlain’s Men this was impresario James Burbage, responsible for the first purpose-built theatre in London (named, with great imagination, The Theatre), and then The Globe in 1599. James wasn’t an actor, but his son Richard played many of Shakespeare’s leads, including Hamlet, Richard III and Othello. (Richard also, allegedly, shares my birthday.) 

Richard was at the top of the actors’ hierarchy. Below him were 15 or so men and boys, all aware of their place. The older, more experienced actors would play the mature roles, such as Polonius in Hamlet, senior lords in the history plays. Lower down the company, actors would get two or three roles per play. As you might know, many of Shakespeare’s plays have fairly sizeable casts so there must have been a great deal of multi-role going on. At the bottom of the company are the apprentices, young boys attached to an older actor to learn their trade. These lads play the young Princes in Richard III, pages and children of nobles. Once they have learned a little stagecraft, but before their voices break, they might play the female characters, Viola, Rosalind, Imogen. Not every boy player went on to be a professional adult actor, in fact, very few of them did, although one or two were noted as being brilliant. 

The share-holders in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were, in some reports, a band of brothers. Leaving each other gifts in their wills and sticking together for many years, these were the few who had put up money to build the Globe of 1599. These players were the backbone of the company. Some say that Shakespeare knew his men so well he wrote specific parts for specific actors, roles that suited their styles and manners. It’s certainly likely that the Fool or Clown parts differ due to the contrasting playing styles of the two comedians in the company, Will Kemp (who upon leaving the Chamberlain’s Men morris danced from London to Norwich, as you do) then the slightly wittier, better behaved Robert Armin

I wonder if these men and boys had any idea that in over 400 years, actors would still be playing those roles, saying those lines. That they would become some of the most revered roles in theatre. Although the names of many of these players are now lost, as members of the company for which Shakespeare wrote they certainly made their mark.

Find out more about theatre history and Shakespeare’s Globe on one of our Guided Tours.

Elizabethan Special EffectsIn this new series of blogs, we’re…

Elizabethan Special Effects

In this new series of blogs, we’re going to take you behind the scenes of our Guided Tours & Exhibition. Open all year round, the tour gives you an opportunity to learn more about this unique building and its most famous playwright, Shakespeare.

In this post, Exhibition Assistant Claire Reeves talks about how stage effects would have been created in Shakespeare’s time.

Facing tough competition from neighbouring theatres, such as the Rose and Swan, Shakespeare’s company, The King’s Men, had to fight hard to keep their share of the audience. So, like blockbuster movie producers today, they often looked to special effects to help wow audiences and keep them coming back for more.

There is the famous story of how, on the 29th June 1613, the company fired a cannon above the stage as part of a performance of Henry VIII. Part of the wadding flew out and landed on the thatched roof, starting a fire that would lead to the theatre burning to the ground. This was just one of the special effects used in Elizabethan Theatres. 

The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s most spectacular plays, featuring raging storms, magic and even fairies. It also features one of Shakespeare’s most spectacular special effects. In Act Three Scene Three Prospero leads part of the shipwrecked party to a grand feast conjured by the spirit Ariel. However, just as the group reaches out to take the food Ariel ‘clasps his wings upon the table and, with a quaint device, the banquet vanishes.’ So how, without Prospero’s magic books, could Shakespeare’s company make a table of food disappear before the audience’s very eyes? 

The answer is simple: with a cleverly designed Trick Table. The table would be brought onto stage elaborately decorated with the magical feast. However, what the audience doesn’t realise is this table is carefully weighted so that once a pin was removed the top of the table would flip over to reveal the blank table top, concealing the feast below. The actors would crowd round the table, appearing to grab food from the feast. This meant that when the table flipped the audience couldn’t see the movement so when the actors step away in shock the food seems to have magically disappeared.

Of course The Tempest doesn’t just require magical special effects, it also needs a storm! Whilst you could be forgiven for thinking that there is enough rain and wind in a British Summer to make storm effects unnecessary in an open air theatre, Shakespeare and his company didn’t agree! Instead they came up with numerous ingenious machines to help ensure that, even on the brightest days, you got the full force of Prospero’s Tempest! 

The easiest way to create the sound of thunder was by banging drum in the Tiring House behind the stage. However, they all produced a device called a Thunder Run which was a wooden trough attached to a stand similar to a see-saw. This would be placed in the Sound Attic above the stage. A stagehand would then place a cannon ball in the groove and roll it from one end to the other to create a rumbling sound. To complete the effect they also use a device called a Swevel to create lightening. This was a wire reaching from the roof of the heavens to the stage bellow. Gunpowder could be purchased from a grocer or ironmonger and used to make a firecracker that could be lit to fly down the wire to the stage, sending sparks all the way. 

And, of course, Lear cannot cry ‘Blow winds and crack your cheeks’ without the wind. To create the sound of wind they had a large cylinder covered in fabric. When a handle on the side was turned the cylinder would rotate, moving the fabric and creating the sound of howling winds. This technique is still used on our stage today. In fact the wind machine used in our 2008 production of King Lear can be found in our Exhibition, so why not come and have a go at creating a storm yourself? 

Visit our Exhibition and find out more about other special effects, like flying gods, demons emerging from hell and of course how they achieved all of the blood and gore needed for all of Shakespeare’s tragedies!

Words: Claire Reeves
Photo: John Wildgoose