#MindTheBard 2020: Shakespeare & Somerset

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“York lies; he might have sent and had the horse; I owe him little duty, and less love; And take foul scorn to fawn on him by sending.” (1H6, 4.4)

As previous Shakespeare-related challenge weeks have been based almost solely in London, I’ve enjoyed taking the Bard out to Somerset for the majority of this #MindTheBard week. Disappointingly there don’t seem to be any records of Shakespeare’s players visiting the region during his lifetime, however I am one for tenuous connections (hence ‘2 Bard 2 Spurious’), so there are plenty of ways to link Shakespeare with Somerset.

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“O Rosalind! these trees shall be my books, And in their barks my thoughts I’ll character.” (As You Like It, 3.2)

It was interesting to read about Queen Anne’s players (wife of James I) visiting Bridgwater in 1606-7 in a bid to push back the Puritans; Shakespeare himself held no truck with Puritanism, using the term as an insult about Malvolio in Twelfth Night, for example. There was also a Falstaff-esque incident in a Somerset alehouse in 1607/1608, where card players in Croscombe’s alehouse woke up Richard Jellycombe – until then, drunk & sleeping by the fire.

On 10 April 1820, Taunton Theatre welcomed Bristolian actress Miss Wensley as Rosalind in a tour of As You Like It – previously performed in Covent Garden and Bristol. This was part of Taunton Theatre’s attempt to establish itself as a mainstream theatre. Later still, a private production of Hamlet was put on by a Taunton Freemason’s group on 26 April 1820; the organisation is alluded to in some of his plays (such as a speech from Berowne in Love’s Labour’s Lost), but there is no conclusive evidence that Shakespeare himself was a Freemason.

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“Horrible steep. Hark, do you hear the sea?” (King Lear, 4.6)

A more tenuous link comes in the form of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Known mostly as a Romantic poet, Coleridge was also something of a Shakespeare scholar, giving lectures on the Bard first between November 1811 & January 1812, and then between December 1818 & January 1819. Though born in Devon, he is famously linked with Somerset – first by way of what is now known as Coleridge Cottage in Nether Stowey, and also for writing the likes of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan whilst living in the area.

There’s an additional tenuous link in the presence of the Duke of Somerset in the Henry VI plays – yes, I’m going there! Shakespeare’s character was in fact an amalgamation of the first two Dukes of Somerset: John Beaufort (1404-1444) and his brother Edmund Beaufort (1406-1455). The elder Beaufort died at Corfe Castle following a decline in health (though there are suggestions that he committed suicide), and the younger brother was killed at the Battle of St Albans – the first in the Wars of the Roses.

IMG_20200810_115346_453In Shakespeare, the Duke of Somerset first appears in Henry VI, part one where he & Suffolk align themselves with the House of Lancaster by picking red roses; his stage time comes to an end when he’s killed by the future Richard III in Henry VI, part two. Not all factually accurate, but this is drama – not a documentary!

Hold on, because it’s about to get more tenuous… I couldn’t come up with anything specifically & directly linked to Shakespeare, so I resorted to vagueness instead; I identified three walking routes and then hoped for the best in terms of what the landscape might throw up.

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“Where the place?” – “Upon the heath.” – “There to meet with Macbeth.” (Macbeth, 1.1)

First up was Dead Woman’s Ditch; I went for the obvious with the name, as there are a considerable number of dead women in Shakespeare’s plays (Lady Macbeth, Gertrude, Desdemona, Lavinia, etc. etc.). It also allowed me to go into Shakespeare’s green world in the wooded areas (see A Midsummer Night’s DreamAs You Like It, etc.), and also onto a bit of moorland à la Macbeth – the mist added an extra eeriness early on.

Less to report from walk 2 (Capton/Sampford Brett), though a couple of churches made me think of Feste ‘living by the church’. The final walk had to take in some coastline, as that figures in a few Shakespeare plays in various ways: Richard II sits on a beach with Aumerle to talk things over after fighting in Ireland, Edgar leads the blinded Gloucester to the Dover coast in King Lear, Imogen heads to the Welsh port of Milford Haven in Cymbeline, and Antigonus leaves baby Perdita on a beach in Bohemia in The Winter’s Tale – before exiting pursued by a bear…

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“For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground, And tell sad stories of the death of kings.” (R2, 3.2)

If I’d had a bit more time, I might have made it to Shepton Mallet – witch HQ in the West Country! Plenty of Macbeth quotes to be going on with there. Plus other types of water feature would have fit with, say, Ophelia’s drowning in Hamlet (cheery). And that, you’ll be pleased to know, is that.

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