A big thank you to Gina at Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers, for hosting me today for a guest post on your blog! I’m so excited to be here to celebrate the release of my latest novel, Twelve Nights.
It didn’t take long before I was buying every book on Elizabethan theatreland I could get my hands on. And I quickly discovered that while some things were very different 400 years ago, many things haven’t changed much at all. Elizabethan actors (or players as they were known), were often idolised, just like today’s celebrities. Crowds would wait at the stage door to catch a glimpse of their favourites. And just like today’s concerts with their drone-lights and laser-shows, Elizabethan plays could be spectacular. Props included muskets, canons and fireworks but unfortunately, Health and Safety was non-existent: On one occasion, a cannon was fired during a performance, and the theatre actually burnt down! On another, a musket was fired with a live round, tragically killing an audience member.
The protagonist of Twelve Nights, Magdalen Bisset, is the wardrobe mistress of Richard Burbage’s imaginatively titled ‘The Theatre’. The Theatre was practically bankrupt after a terrible pandemic closed the playhouses (again, nothing changes). But once they re-opened, Magdalen was still expected to provide spectacular costumes for the audiences to enjoy. Fortunately, the aristocracy often donated their cast-off clothes to their servants, who then sold them on to the playhouses (astonishingly, servants were forbidden by law to wear expensive fabric). Magdalen also scours the second-hand clothes stalls of London’s markets and then alters them to create the latest fashions.
She is also responsible for The Theatre’s props. One of Shakespeare’s most famous stage directions is ‘Exit pursued by a bear’ from A Winter’s Tale. Although bears were still around in the sixteenth century, this was most likely a player in disguise! Theatre prop lists actually survive from this period, including such gems as ‘1, bear’s skin’.
Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare’s most shocking, blood-soaked play. There are murders, mutilations, assaults and even cannibalism. In Twelve Nights, Magdalen buys the pigs’ blood and guts from the local butcher to add gory realism to the performance.
In Twelve Nights, the make-believe suddenly becomes reality when a player is murdered on stage. Magdalen is instantly suspected of the crime because everyone knows poison is a woman’s weapon. In a desperate attempt to prove her innocence, Magdalen ignores anonymous threats to ‘leave it be’ and delves into the dangerous underworld of the city. Here again, I discovered that some things have actually changed very little over the last 400 years. Elizabethan England experienced an influx of immigrants fleeing persecution on the continent. Whilst some welcomed them with open arms, others were actively hostile to the incomers, blaming them for taking housing, jobs, and even for spreading the plague!
William Shakespeare writes of the asylum seekers’ cruel plight in his co-authored play Sir Thomas More:
‘Would you be pleased to find a nation of such barbarous temper that, breaking out in hideous violence, would not afford you an abode on earth … What would you think to be thus used? This is the strangers’ case, and this your mountainish inhumanity.’
As Shakespeare’s great friend Ben Jonson famously said, Shakespeare was ‘not for an age but for all time’.