“Very great and most tragic”

Kullervo, from Finland in the Nineteenth Century by Finnish authors. Illustrated by Finnish artists, edited by Leopold Mechelin (1894)
Kullervo, statue by C E Sjöstrand, from Finland in the Nineteenth Century by Finnish authors. Illustrated by Finnish artists, edited by Leopold Mechelin (1894)

J R R Tolkien The Story of Kullervo
Edited by Verlyn Flieger
HarperCollins 2015 (2010)

Tolkien’s reputation rests on two parallel streams of his work. First, and the more renowned of the two, is his creative work, his fiction, much of it founded on his secondary world of Middle Earth: The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion and so on. The second stream is what was his day job, so to speak, his work as a scholar, the academic who specialised in languages and literatures and was well regarded by his peers and students.

Less well known, except to a host of die-cast fans and Tolkien scholars, is his work in which those two streams — the creative and the academic — co-mingle. His fascination with mythologies and folktales and legends led him to recast disparate ancient materials into what he must have hoped were coherent wholes, though none of it was published in his lifetime. The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún (2009) was his reconfiguring of the Northern myths that were to famously inspire Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Tolkien’s own Lord of the Rings, while The Fall of Arthur (2013) dealt with the Matter of Britain, tidying up plot inconsistencies through his own verses inspired by Old English alliterative verse. The latest Tolkien re-envisioning (ironically one of the first he attempted) is The Story of Kullervo, which first appeared in Tolkien Studies VII in 2010, and then in an expanded form by HarperCollins in 2015.

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Soul of the age

Chandos portrait
Chandos portrait

… Soul of the age!
The applause, delight, the wonder of our stage!
My Shakespeare, rise! …
Thou art a monument without a tomb,
And art alive still while thy book doth live
And we have wits to read and praise to give.
— Ben Jonson To the Memory of My Beloved
the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare

This valedictory poem by fellow playwright Ben Jonson summons up a contemporary estimation of the worth of William Shakespeare, whose death-day (and possibly birthday too) is annually celebrated — if that’s the right word — on April 23rd, St George’s Day. There can’t be many lovers of literature who aren’t aware that 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of his departure from this world, leaving it a richer place for what he left to us.

I’ve discussed the man and works a few times in these pages, and now may be a fitting time to draw your attention to the occasionally dark but sometimes floodlit corners that I’ve explored over the years, with links to the posts that deal with these matters.

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Playing the innocent

  • Repost of a review first published in April 2014, and now dusted off as we approach the fourth centenary of his death on 23rd April 1616

Scholars suggest that Cymbeline was composed by Shakespeare and an unnamed colleague between 1609 and 1610, and first performed in 1611 — though not appearing in print for a dozen years until the First Folio. I have no competency to discuss which passages are by him and which by his collaborator, so I’ll treat the whole text as though by a single author, whom I shall call … “the Author”. In this final post about the play — marking the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s baptism on April 26th 1564 — I would like to draw out some of the strands that make up the fabric of the play before discussing its merits as drama.
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Mortal Coil Shuffled Off

Bard strip

Director: Action!
Great Actor: “To be or to not be –“
Director: Cut!

Director: Action!
Great Actor:To be or to be not –“
Director: Cut!

Mumbles off-camera.

Great Actor: OK …
Director: A-n-d action!
Great Actor:To be or not … to be:”

Muffled cheers off camera.

Great Actor:that is … the answer –“

Muffled swearing off-camera.

William Shakespeare died April 23rd 1616, having retired a couple of years earlier from the stage and from playwriting. Reportedly this scrap of manuscript was recently discovered concealed behind his monument in Stratford’s parish church.

Uncover his face (part 2)

Droeshout engraving

Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel
The True Face of William Shakespeare:
The poet’s death mask and likenesses from three periods of his life

Translated from the German by Alan Bance
Chaucer Press 2006

Having established, as thoroughly as she could, their documented provenance Hammerschmidt-Hummel arranged for the four primary candidates for Shakespeare’s genuine likeness — the Chandos and Flower portraits, the Davenant bust and the Darmstadt death mask — to undergo various scientific and technological investigations. These included computer montage, photogrammetry, trick image differentiation technique; the idea was to compare the four likenesses to see if there were enough correlations to establish that they were all of the same person. This proved to be the case in terms of proportion of features, head contours and so on.

What also emerged from these comparisons — of Shakespeare from his early 30s (the Chandos portrait), aged 45 (the Flower portrait), around the age of 50 (the Davenant bust) and soon after his death, aged 52 (the Darmstadt death mask) — was clear evidence of
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Uncover his face (part 1)

eyes

Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel
The True Face of William Shakespeare:
The poet’s death mask and likenesses from three periods of his life

Translated from the German by Alan Bance
Chaucer Press 2006

Here is my kind of book: a true life tale of literary detection that outshines fictional mysteries, however well written they may be. Sadly, it is also a piece of research that exposes at least two more mysteries: what has happened to two very probable Shakespeare likenesses in very recent times, centuries after the playwright’s death? But there is also pleasure and satisfaction that any lingering doubts expressed by anti-Stratfordians (“Did Shakespeare actually write Shakespeare’s plays?”) have finally been put to sleep … one hopes.

Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel is a determined Shakespearean academic who, in this closely argued study, examines two portraits, two sculptured busts and a death mask in great forensic and documentary detail. She gives the cultural context for the 16th- and 17th-century creation of accurate, true-to-life, warts-and-all representations of illustrious people before then going on to describe her selected images. Then she describes the various scientific tests she applied to those images (with the help of experts in several disciplines) using procedures available in the 1990s, and then summarises the results. Finally she puts those results back into historical and biographical context.

What were those images?

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Rough magic

Waterhouse's 1916 portrait of Miranda watching the shipwreck
J W Waterhouse’s 1916 portrait of Miranda watching the shipwreck in The Tempest

D G James The Dream of Prospero Oxford University Press 1967

… We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

The Tempest, along with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, seems to me to be among the most magical of Will’s comedies, with illusion, love, conflict and happy endings all genially conspiring to entertain us. Generally assumed to be the last play Shakespeare composed for the stage, completed in 1611, it’s ironically also the first play contained in the posthumously published First Folio of 1623. Meanwhile, D G James’ The Dream of Prospero is an expanded version of the author’s Lord Northcliffe Lectures of 1965 in which he sought to extend his reflections on Shakespeare’s great tragedies to musings on the last plays and, specifically, The Tempest. Bacon’s description of poetry as “a dream of learning” had provided the title to an earlier published discourse, and James followed this conceit here, appropriately given Prospero’s celebrated speech from Act IV. But how much of The Tempest is a dream-like fantasy, how much based on real life?

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