The Comedy of Errors

First Written for The Reviews Hub

The Comedy of Errors, Smock Alley Theatre

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Liam Halligan

“What? Did I marry her in my sleep?”

Two sets of twins separated at birth, a nun, a possible execution, a bondsman with a baton, a goldsmith lacking in gold, an over-enthusiastic kitchen maid, a wife, a mistress, infidelity, a tempest, demonic possession and a subversive sister. It can only be Shakespeare. One of the strangest and most farcical of his comedies is bought to the stage by Dublin’s Youth Theatre.

It is a wise choice of play; offering the actors plenty of opportunities to flex their comedy muscles. The Comedy of Errors is also particularly timely. The themes of separation, walls, and borders seem to resonate with today’s audience.

Foreigners are not welcome in Ephesus as a result of a trade war with the neighbouring Syracuse. This leads to the event that bookends the play: the impending execution of Syracusian trader Egeon, played by Tristan Spellman Molphy. He is the father of twins. When a poor woman gave birth to twins on the same day as his wife, he purchased them to be slaves to his sons. Shortly after this they undertook a sea voyage but were hit by a tempest. Wife and husband, brother and brother were separated. When Antipholus of Syracuse, along with his slave Dromio, goes in search of his missing family the stage is set for a great series of mishaps, farce, and family.

Ciara Cochrane and Penny Morris, playing the two different Dromio’s have many of the best lines and provide great comedy moments throughout; using their words and their bodies to elevate the language. Similarly, Rhys Coleman-Travers and Kit Geraghty, playing the two Antipholus’s, seem to be having great fun with the parts. The scenes in which Antipholus of Ephesus is arrested and finds himself embroiled in the confusion of mistaken identity is full of farce and quick action. As he loses his temper and is thought to be mad, or possessed by a demon, he becomes increasingly angry and increasingly funny. As the play accelerates the humour builds into a wonderfully funny denouement. The play ends on a final touching moment.

Under musical director Jack Cawley the musicians added atmosphere and drama to the production, being careful to never overpower the actors. Standing on a balcony to the left of the stage it was a wise move to have live music supplement the action on stage.

The Comedy of Errors ends with reconciliation, providing hope for our troubled times.

Runs until 18 August 2018 | Image: Contributed

Hagseed: The Tempest Retold by Margaret Atwood Review

 

As the 4ooth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death brought with it an outpouring of new appreciation. However at the same time there has been some debate as to the worthwhile of adapting Shakespeare for new generations. The London based Hogarth Press persuaded eight popular modern novelists to retell or respond to their favourite Shakespeare play in novel format for today’s audience. Margaret Atwood, best known for her feminist dystopias, chose Shakespeare’s final solo authored play and possible goodbye to the stage; The Tempest.

On the release of the Hogarth Press novels, Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker argued persuasively that Shakespeare, a jobbing writer and actor, would be somewhat bewildered by this turn of events. Stating that “Shakespeare believed in fate, order, and forgiveness; we believe in history, justice, and compassion – three pairings so similar as to sometimes seem the same, though they are not”. Shakespeare’s dramatic storylines that pulled in the London crowds have been muted and internalised and the outcast and dejected made sympathetic. This may work for a new audience but ultimately it pushes one back to the original; to seek out the certainty in order and forgiveness that has been lost over the centuries. However, if one is to argue that these novels push one back to the original plays is that a bad thing?

This argument seems to have been expected. For example Constance Grady at Vox focuses on the exciting plot lines to be developed from new adaptations. Once one is free of the language and poetry the storylines become open to response. From the literal island banishment of Prospero comes the figurative exile and prison of Atwood’s Felix.

The novel concerns theatre director Felix, who after losing his prestigious position at Makeshiweg Theatre Festival goes into hiding for several years before remerging as a prison literacy teacher. Having spent many years at the top as artistic director his plays had increasingly started to bewilder rather than charm the audience, and importantly the shareholders. His next production was to be The Tempest. This would bring him back to prominence and also give him the chance to resurrect his family and heal himself.

In the first few chapters Felix, who can be somewhat pompous and self-righteous, is the victim of an unexpected act of treachery that foists him from all he knows and leaves him plotting his revenge. “What was Felix waiting for? He hardly knew. A Chance opening, a lucky break? A pathway toward a moment of confrontation? A moment when the balance of power would lie with him. It was an impossible thing to wish for, but suppressed rage sustained hum. That, and his thirst for justice.”

Living in exile with thoughts of his daughter becoming increasingly real to him Felix is a shadow of his former self. Having named his daughter Miranda the chance to perform as Prospero gives Felix the chance to bring back his daughter. She had died shortly before the novel opens at the age of three. Their lives will parallel those of Prospero and his Miranda. As he lives out his days in the wilderness he allows himself to think her back into existence. “It was only a short distance from wistful daydreaming to the half-belief that she was still there with him, only invisible. Call it a conceit, a whimsy, a piece of acting: he didn’t really believe it, but he engaged in this non-reality as if it were real”.

Instead of being set on an island Hagseed takes place in a prison: Fletcher Correctional Facility. Felix uses this as his chance to lure his old adversaries onto his territory. Will he seek vengeance in the end though or will this be his final curtain call? The idea to set the action in a literal prison was inspired. It offers the sense of claustrophobia and entrapment that is necessary to make the character motivations seem believable. Throughout The Tempest there are many forms of imprisonment with every character being trapped and lacking control over their own destiny. In this light one can see how the characters come to take advantage of whatever skills or abilities they have to try to reassert their authority in a push for freedom.

Further Atwood latches on to the idea that more than any other play The Tempest is about production. “But above all, The Tempest is a play about a producer/director/playwright putting on a play – namely, the action that takes place on the island, complete with special effects – that contains another play, the masque of the goddesses. Of all Shakespeare’s plays, this one is most obviously about plays, directing and acting.”

This retelling is clever and self knowing. Hagseed is tremendous fun. It roars along tearing through the layers of acting, playing, identity, mischief and magic that mark Shakespeare’s final play. Although prior knowledge of The Tempest is helpful and will provide insight into the multiple layers Hagseed can, and should, be enjoyed by those unfamiliar with the play.

The title Hagseed refers to Caliban (it also comes from a list of swear words gathered from the text. Although he is granted the title of the novel his name is still used as an insult) however the novel is Felix’s (aka Prospero’s). Magic, control and power are played with throughout. The play is often thought to be Shakespeare’s goodbye to the theatre. As Prospero says goodbye to his magic books was the writer saying goodbye to his pen and paper? Similarly in Hagseed by recreating The Tempest will Felix either recapture Miranda or be finally ready to let her go. The father daughter relationship is beautiful although full of sorrow and softens Felix to the reader. It is this relationship that makes him seem human and damaged, rather than a power hungry. However it is surprising that Atwood set up the idea of a novel focusing on Caliban and then retreated from the idea.

The Tempest is an underappreciated play that contains more depth and feeling that often sighted at first glance. In Hagseed Atwood teases out the twin themes of grief and isolation to create a vital and surprising novel that does an excellent job of reimagining the storms and magic of the 1600s into music and special effects for today’s reader. This version perhaps leaves the reader with more hope than the original, with one being able to see a glimmer of life left for Felix. Most of all this is an excellent read from start to finish and can, and should, be enjoyed by all.

 

Hogarth Shakespeare. 2016. London. ISBN: 9781781090237

 

The Fairy Queen

First Written for The Reviews Hub

The Fairy Queen – Samuel Beckett Theatre, Dublin

Composer: Henry Purcell

Director: Conor Hanratty

Conductor: David Adams

The Royal Irish Academy of Music, in collaboration with Design for Stage and Screen at IADT, Dun Laoghaire, opened their interpretation of Henry Purcell’s semi-opera The Fairy Queen to a full house. The Fairy Queen sets out to recreate Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, so viewers can expect star crossed lovers, magic, humour and moments of sincerity and sadness.

At first the characters enter the stage at odds with one another. Oberon and Titania are fighting, bringing discord to fairy world, Hermia and Lysander have run away from Athens so that they can be together but their love is interrupted by the arrival of Helena and Demetrius. In the middle of all this is a rather drunk and lost Bottom, looking for his friends so they can begin rehearsing a play. In the magic of the forest will all right itself?

The stage is large and dark. Four large steps lead up to the centre. Gold lighting hangs in beaded chains from the ceiling, separating the orchestra from the main action. The orchestra are slightly behind the stage and a level lower, but still visible to the audience. They do not seem to miss a beat and are close to flawless, making it a pleasure to listen to. Either side of the stage are two raised sections that are used throughout, for example in denoting who are young lovers are pairing with. At times the actors are able to make use of the fire escape and main seating area for performance purposes. This shows an excellent ability to adapt to a performance space. In future productions additional lighting and props might be used for further effect. Further there is scope to play up the comedy elements. There are humorous interludes however these can be maximised for greater effect. Bottom, Puck, played by Philip Keegan, and Caper, played by Hannah O’Brien have perhaps the funniest moments with O’Brien managing to make the audience chuckle with a scene involving just a dustpan and brush.

Particular focus was given to the costumes, to the extent that the performers appeared to be wearing matching nail varnish. The fairies wear soft pastel colours, the king and queen however wear much brighter blues, silvers and golds. Additionally headdresses are used throughout to denote status and narrative movement. For example Titania begins The Fairy Queen wearing a crown of ice, by the end summer has come and warmer colours, brighter lights and a gold headdress take centre stage. Glitter and make up are expertly used to add to otherworldly, ethereal sense that the actors are from another, less mortal world.

Props are used sparingly but successfully. Gold lighting, smoke, petals, paper fans and purple lamps help to give atmosphere and make use of the large stage. Further additional props are used during the final scene to reflect the emotional changes that are occurring on stage.

Bass-Baritone Robert McAllister gave a standout performance as Bottom. Bottom usually gets the best plot lines, from falling in love with the queen of the fairies, to growing ass’s ears to waking up thinking that it is all a dream, which gives the actor plenty of room to show their ability. However McAllister truly gives a stellar performance; his powerful voice reaching across the theatre. Importantly all of the singers project their voices well and remarkably do not use (and do not need to use) microphones. Soprano Florence Khei Kuan Chong, who played the fairy Moth, gave a sterling performance, and fellow soprano Clodagh Kinsella, who played Titania also excelled. Both Kuan Chong and Kinsella were given a chance to shine in the second half.

This is a distinguished performance of Purcell’s semi-opera that will appeal to opera and music lovers, as well as those who are new to the genre. The plot is relatively easy to follow and the audience can be carried away by the music and fun and games happening on stage. This is a bright start to innovative theatre this year.

Runs until 14 January 2017 | Image: Mark Stedman

Review Overview

The Reviews Hub Score: 4*

Key Word: Vibrant

Twelfth Night | University Observer

First Published September 2014

With Purple Coat Production’s award winning production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night going on tour, Laura Marriott reviews its recent Dublin performance. For one night only, Liverpool’s award winning Purple Coat Production brought their tour of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night to Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre. They are supported by a wide range of celebrated actors including Stephen Fry, Sir Ian McKellen and by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and with good reason.

This powerful performance of one of Shakespeare’s most entertaining love stories brought out the humour, wit and tragedy that marks the uneven path of love. Twins Viola and Sebastian are separated in a violent shipwreck leaving them washed ashore in a strange country.

Believing her brother to be dead, Viola assumes his image and identity in order to make her way in a man’s world. This leads to a tangled web of mistaken identity and confusion as Viola crosses paths with a host of characters including unsuccessful lovers Olivia and Orsino. Falling in love with Orsino, Viola finds herself cornered, unable to proclaim her love and yet at the same time is pursued by the love struck Olivia.

By choosing actors without physical similarities to play twins this version played with the idea of love at first sight and, suggested that by disguising their appearances they were able to find a love based on more than just outward appearances.

As Olivia finds herself smitten with who she believes Viola to be, the cast play with the idea of identity and homosexuality. This culminates with Olivia finding herself nearly marrying a woman before accidentally becoming involved with the real Sebastian. Performed in the Boys School of Smock Alley theatre, Purple Coat bought a sense of summer holiday romances and holidays to the tail end of the Irish summer. The theatre works excellently acoustically and its limited space pushes the actors to a greater performance.

This worked particularly well as we saw court steward Malvolio being forced to question his sanity when interrogated by the witty and surprisingly lyrical fool. Here the audience were brought on a journey through identity, sanity and madness that raised many questions for both the characters as well as the audience.

The talented and vibrant cast capitalised on the danger and excitement found in love. Like many of Shakespeare plays, Twelfth Night came dangerously close to crashing into tragedy, before being salvaged as a romance. Each actor brought something special to the play, making this an incredibly watchable and enjoyable performance by a rising star company.

The Darkness Lurking Beneath: Romeo and Juliet | Sprint for Shakespeare

First Published June 2013 on Sprint for Shakespeare at the Bodleian Library

 

One of the most thumbed plays in the Bodleian’s copy of the first folio, which can now be found online, is Romeo and Juliet. But what is it about this tragedy that continues to resonate so powerfully across the centuries? Typically seen as an all consuming romance, the play concludes with the deaths of two star crossed lovers, who could see no future that involved themselves without the other by their side. It has undoubtedly cast a shadow over popular ides of romance since its first showing, with many of its key themes surviving in popular romantic culture today. From Jane Austen’s tales of confusion being righted in marriage to the appropriate person to nearly every Hollywood rom-com with it’s happily ever after.

However surely this is missing the key part, the tragedy that made this one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. The multiple deaths and suicides from Romeo and Juliet seem to have fallen by the wayside with most romances now ending with the wedding itself, cutting off the flow of blood before it has even begun. If you puncture the surface of Romeo and Juliet you can see the darkness lurking beneath. Even before you get to the high mortality rate of its characters the play throws up troubling questions about the difference between Elizabethan society and our own.

Starting with the question of age. It is repeated throughout the play that Juliet will shortly be 14 when her parents think she is ready to marry, but no age is ever given for either of Juliet’s potential suitors, Paris and Romeo. It is perfectly conceivable that they were older than her, possible even in their twenties or thirties, which shines a slightly different light on our star-crossed lovers. This is rounded off by the fact that Romeo and Juliet do not actually see each other properly until they are married. When they first meet they are wearing masks, then it is by moonlight for the infamous balcony scene, and then Juliet is hidden behind a veil as they marry. However when you then consider how little time they spend with each other during the play, this is perhaps less surprising.

The only modern production that I have seen that brought the darkness to light and juxtaposed it beautifully with the central love theme was Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad, performed by the Iraqi Theatre Company at the RSC last year. This version had an aging Paris as would-be suitor and although this Romeo knew his Juliet (and had certainly seen her before) the innocence is retained. They are not physically intimate, and rely on the language of passion and elevating of objects – a silken scarf that passes between them – to illustrate their feelings for each other.

Set in a background of a family feud in war-torn Baghdad, Romeo and Juliet’s delicate love story is heightened by the sharp contrast of the insecure, dangerous setting. This is further emphasized by the use of real gun shots which shook the audience out of their preconceptions and made one really aware of the danger lurking beneath if these two were to pursue their love affair. There is no elopement and suicide for this pair of star-crossed lovers, but instead a deadly bomb blast. They die together having been unable to live together, and this ending, perhaps more than most, highlights that their fate is out of their hands, that there could be no happy ever after for Romeo and Juliet.

 

Hamlet – Smock Alley, Dublin

HAMLETMIDSUMMER - Smock Alley
Writer: William Shakespeare

 

In the second part of a Shakespeare double bill at Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre Purple Coat Productions present Hamlet. Hamlet (Katie King) is a young prince who is greeted by the ghost of her (Hamlet is played very well by a woman) recently deceased father. The ghost tells her that he was murdered for his crown by his treacherous brother Claudius (Lee Burnitt); who then went on to marry his widow, and Hamlet’s mother, less than two months later. Hamlet meditates on and attempts to avenge her father’s murder.

An audio-visual introduction sets the scene. It is 1980s Liverpool – birthplace of Purple Coat Productions, where rich and poor live check by jowl and there is a constant feeling of dissatisfaction; a city on the edge. The main way that this theme is carried through the play is in the costumes. Stone washed denim, Doc martens, gold jewellery, shiny leggings and bomber jackets. Purple Coat’s Denmark is a hot bed of lust and incest. The characters are fully fleshed out and little twists are made on their actions. One side effect of this is that in the first half of the play Hamlet is portrayed as being the most sane, sensible and normal character. She does not seem mad or absurd. The world around her is licentious and illegal things happen regularly in the face of the madness around her Hamlet anger and hesitation make sense. This is something which is very rarely achieved on stage but Purple Coat make it look easy.

Ophelia (Paula Lee) is a notoriously tricky rôle to pin down however in this performance Lee was one of the stand-out stars. She managed to make such vague utterances as ‘I know not what to think’ seem clear; language as an act of survival. An added element of danger and intrigue is introduced through her interactions with the men in her life. The audience first see her with her brother Laertes. Soon to leave Denmark, he makes it clear that his interests in Ophelia are not entirely familial. He has a sexual interest in her; forcing his intentions onto her. This is followed by the entrance of Polonius and his famous speech made up of now common sayings and advice, such as ‘neither a borrower or a lender be’. In this production Polonius is not a bumbling, pompous old man. He is terrifying. Going one step further he rapes his own daughter. The scene is so well acted that it seems to fit perfectly with Shakespeare’s text and it adds weight to Ophelia’s language and eventual madness. Further, Claudius has a sinister edge; he is a dangerous man prepared to kill and maim to get what he wants. He is excellently portrayed as being angry, violent, controlling. He is partnered by another difficult to capture female character: Hamlet’s mother Gertrude (Caitlin Clough). Often seem as a sexually incontinent rather stupid woman here she is cocaine snorting young woman who loves her son but seems to be over taken by the events around her. All she has to offer her new husband is her body and comfort; and yet she is played delicately.

Purple Coat have managed to do something very rare and make the events in one of the world’s best known plays, seem surprising. There is an undercurrent of danger which is electrifying. As the play reached its final act, although many of the audience will know the speech, they will not know what to expect next. This is a rare and fantastic feat that is not likely to be repeated in the near future. This performance will make you see Hamlet anew and is not to be missed on its regrettably short Dublin run.

Photo courtesy of Smock Alley. Runs Until April 11th 2015.

Review Overview

The Public Reviews’ Score: 5*

Excellent

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Smock Alley, Dublin

First Published April 2015

HAMLETMIDSUMMER - Smock Alley

Writer: William Shakespeare

Purple Coat Productions have returned to Dublin’s Smock Alley theatre after last year’s triumphant Twelfth Night with a Shakespearean double-bill. Purple Coat are presenting both Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream on the Smock Alley Theatre stage. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s best loved and most performed plays. This means that often the audience are aware of events before they happen and the theatre company have the added challenge of making their production fresh and relevant. This is something that Purple Coat do by playing up the humour; props, physicality and voice intonation helping to flesh out the comedy that runs from the beginning to the end. The stage of the Boys School at Smock Alley Theatre helps with this. It is a small intimate theatre in a beautiful brick building that was once a boy’s school and at another time a church. It forces the players to be close to the audience and makes interaction easier.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a tale of love, magic and loyalty. As Duke Theseus of Athens and the Amazon Queen Hippolyta prepare to marry, four young lovers find themselves unable to marry their loved ones. Instead of accepting their fate, they take action. The plot moves to a forest; the realm of Fairyland which is overseen by King and Queen of the fairies Oberon and Titania. When their worlds collide magical deeds, love and humour are the result. Into this interconnected chaos walk the Rude Mechanicals, a band of amateur actors who intend to perform a play at the royal nuptials.

The scene in the woods where Lysander and Demetrius fight over Helena’s love is particularly funny. Never has silly string, shaving foam, wigs and socks been used so successfully to comic effect in a Shakespeare play. Further the relationship between Oberon and Puck (or Batman and Robin as they were also known) was very well done. The harsher edge was taken off Oberon in favour of a lighter tone. This is something that was done throughout and although the play was very funny some may lament the loss of the harder edge; after all Hermia does potentially face death if she does not agree to her father’s choice of husband for her. Even in one of the most magical of Shakespeare’s plays there is a darker undertone.

Over all the cast, in which women outnumber men approximately two to one, work well together and set changes are relatively smooth. Their timing and pace keeps the audience’s attention and maintain the humour throughout. This ensemble manage to balance the language with physicality and staging; allowing the magic of Shakespeare’s prose to shine through. The addition of modern music works surprisingly well (somehow making the inclusion of Tragedy by Steps seem perfectly natural). This modern, energetic re – interpretation stays close to the original text but uses costumes in particular to bring a new edge to the show. A few of the cast do need however to work on voice projection if they are to work in larger theatres in the future. Purple Coat Productions, a Liverpool based theatre company, have been doing very well over the past few years, receiving support from Stephen Fry and Sir Ian McKellen among others and will hopefully continue to bring Shakespeare to the Dublin stage for many years to come.

 Photo courtesy of Smock Alley. The double bill of Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream Runs Until April 11th 2015.

Review Overview

The Public Reviews’ Score: 4*

Amusing

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Abbey Theatre, Dublin

First Published February 2015

AMSD - Ros Kavanagh

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Abbey Theatre, Dublin

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Gavin Quinn

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is being staged at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre for the first time in 35 years. Given the fact that this is one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays this time gap is a little baffling however the Abbey seem to be rediscovering Shakespeare’s more magical texts since last year’s successful performance of Twelfth Night.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a story of lovers in ancient Athens who find their way through the confusion and magic of a night in the woods, populated by nymphs and fairies, to their final married end.

As it is so well known one of the difficulties for theatre companies hoping to stage a new production is how to make it surprising, how to bring out the comedy in jokes and scenarios that are so well known?

This is something Pan Pan have tackled head on by inverting the audience’s expectations and setting the play in a nursing home. This is a daring move by director Gavin Quinn. Quinn has worked with Pan Pan for many years and has pulled out all the stops for his Abbey theatre debut. The actors, many of them veterans of the Abbey, are sure and steady in this production. Four of them appeared in the Abbey’s last 1979 production.

Thwarted lover Hermia is denied permission to marry her beloved Lysander not by her father but by her son and Helena finds herself spurned by ageing lothario Demetrius. As they flee into the woods to avoid a marriage enforced by the Duke of Athens they walk into an argument between the King and Queen of the fairies, Oberon and Titania. When a six piece acting troupe get caught up in the middle of this the stage is set.

This excellent adaptation stays very close to Shakespeare’s text, comes at a time when the lack of rôles for older people within the acting industry are being questioned. Pan Pan without doubt deliver a deeply humorous and at times touching play the makes it clear that age is no barrier to acting ability and to the ability to entertain an audience.

The play’s multiple plot lines are well – handled and never become confusing. The famous play within a play; the tale of doomed lovers Pyramus and Thisbe, performed by the Rude Mechanicals makes the audience laugh continuously. Furthermore the way Pan Pan play with age allows for new areas of humour, with one scene in which mobile phones take the place of an almanac.

The attention to detail is exquisite; from the shoes worn by the nursing home assistants to the colour of the walls to the use of lighting and colour. The company augments the actors’ voices by using sound to elicit changes in emotion, from sincerity to humour. For example the play opens to the sound of Riders on the Storm, the curtains drawing back to show the home’s inhabitants exercising to the music.

The apparatus of a nursing home; Zimmer frames, wheelchairs and walking sticks are used successfully to comedic effect. The nursing home theme is carried through to the surreal setting of the woods as love potions and cures are delivered by drip and oxygen mask.

Pan Pan’s performance has innovated the tried and tested format of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and captured the timelessness of love.

Photo by Ros Kavanagh. Runs until March 28th.

Review Overview

The Public Reviews’ Score 4*

Timeless

The death of Shakespeare: where, when, how?

First Published on Headstuff.ie April 2016

April 23rd 2016 is the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. Although his plays and poems have lived on and are enjoyed across the globe, relatively little is known for certain about the man himself. This is particularly so for the matters surrounding his death.

Death, violent and natural, occurs frequently in the plays. This was both a way of bringing the story to a close, while also drawing on the perilous nature of life 400 years ago. At the end of Hamlet, one of the greatest meditations on life and death, the title character has to die to bring an end to his story. As he himself says in his last words, “the rest is silence”. However the death and afterlife of Hamlet’s creator has been less clear-cut. The way in which he actually died is still not established, and in a twist to the tale his remains have, in a way, lived on and created a story of their own.

He died in his home town of Stratford–Upon–Avon, Warwickshire in England, where he had been living with his family. The cause of death is not certain. However the most popular theory emerged from a diary entry written by John Ward, a clergyman living in Stratford in the 1660s, who recorded that:

“Shakespear, Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting, and itt seems drank too hard, for Shakespear died of a feavour there contracted”

The famous writer Ben Jonson had recently been selected as Poet Laureate, and the slightly less famous Drayton is most likely to be the Elizabethan poet Michael Drayton. Either way it seems as though the trio made up a raucous group, enjoying the company and drinking more than a little too much. At present there are no other sources that corroborate this idea, and it is worth noting that this diary entry was made several decades after Shakespeare’s death as Ward tried to familiarise himself with the life of a local celebrity.

Nasty, brutish and short

There is another main contender as to the cause of his death. Life in the early seventeenth century was often short. Death from disease was a very likely possibility for many. Indeed, Shakespeare was lucky to survive infancy, as the plague swept through Stratford, just three months after his birth, killing around one fifth of the town’s population. This is marked in the church’s burial register with the words Hic incepit pestis (here begins the plague). The year of the Bard’s death, 1616, saw a serious outbreak of typhoid fever across England. Shakespeare might have been at greater risk as an open sewer ran close by his town house, New Place, and typhoid is born of poor sanitary conditions.

Shakespeare was then buried inside Holy Trinity Church. His unusual epitaph is a curse written in verse:

“Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare, 

To dig the dust enclosed here.

Blessed be the man that spares these stones,

And cursed be he that moves my bones.”

From history buff.com

The afterlife of Shakespeare’s remains have developed their own story of intrigue, as the warning on his gravestone might not have always been heeded. Legend has it that the skull was stolen as a part of a 300 guinea bet in the late 1700s. This theory emerged from two articles written in Argosy magazine. The first article, written in 1879, stated that in 1769 the art historian Horace Walpole offered 300 guineas to anyone who could bring him Shakespeare’s skull. A Doctor Frank Chambers embraced this challenge and broke into the tomb. Having stolen the skull he presented it to Walpole, who then failed to hand over the money for it. Unable to find a buyer for the playwright’s skull, Chambers arranged for its return. All of this seemingly went on unnoticed by the wider world.

The later 1884 article titled ‘How Shakespeare’s Skull was Stolen and Found’ picks up the story with Chambers being unable to sell the skull, and argues that the grave robber panicked and instead of returning it hid it in a local crypt. This explains why many believe Shakespeare’s skull lies in St Leonard’s Church, Beoley, Worcestershire. Although the authorship of the articles has not been confirmed (in the magazine they were labelled as having been written by ‘A Warwickshire Man’) they are thought to have been penned by a Reverend C. K. Langston, who was a vicar in Beoley from 1881 to 1889.

Beoley is around 15 miles from Stratford and has not benefitted in the same way from the tourism industry that has built up over the centuries around Shakespeare’s birthplace. The Langston theory is typical of the Victorian love of the gothic and historical revisionism, which also coincided with a boom in the grave-robbing industry. A request to remove the skull temporarily for DNA testing was refused in 2015.

Recently there was another twist to the tale, when investigations were conducted for a Channel 4 documentary in the UK. For the first time archaeological investigations were carried out using non-invasive, ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to examine the grave site. Their findings were fascinating, to say the least, and some of the results are quite unusual. One of the first things the investigators noticed was that Shakespeare is in fact buried three feet deep, and wrapped in a shroud rather than placed in a coffin. They also found evidence of significant repair works that have been done but not recorded. This tells us that the grave had been disturbed at some point to the extent that new underground supports were needed to prevent it from caving in. Perhaps this damage was done by grave robbers working hastily in the dark to extract their prize? Significantly there is also reasonable evidence to assume that his skull is missing, or at least not buried with the body.

Although it looks unlikely that the custodians of Holy Trinity Church will ever allow the curse to be tempted and the grave opened against Shakespeare’s wishes, it is clear that speculation will persevere.

The riddle of Shakespeare’s death and afterlife will continue to intrigue.