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Welcome to Episode #118 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

In the 16th century as Shakespeare was writing plays like Alls Well That Ends Well, Hamlet, and Julius Caesar, Shakespeare turned to classical philosophers like Cicero and Isocrates to find tales exploring not only what constituted decent, or proper behavior, but what happened to people when those invisible rules of decorum were altered or violated. We’ve long lauded Shakespeare for including the works of famous Latin and Greek poets in his stories, but as our guest this week, Scott Newstok, is here to share, Shakespeare was doing more than simply building on the stories he found from the past. The ideas of Cicero and Isocrates concerning what it meant to “fit” a word to the action or an action to the word was built into the fabric of who the early modern playwrights were as artists, as well as an accepted cultural perspective from the 16th century that believed people, ideas, words, and even their clothing ought to fit together properly. Intriguingly, many of these playwrights came came from craftsmen background with Shakespeare being born to a glover and Marlowe being born to a shoemaker, playwrights like Shakespeare and his contemporaries were applying to their craft what they knew to be true about art–that the details needed to fit the scene where they were being used. This approach was not only standard industry practice in the Renaissance theater, but the culture of the audience themselves would have considered taking care to make proper connections between character, actor, and outfit in performances to be what Scott Newstok calls “fitting” to the times.

Scott Newstok is the author of How to Think Like Shakespeare, and he joins us this week to explore his chapter of that book called “Of Fit” where he explores the historical and culture context of Shakespeare’s plays, including the idea that for Shakespeare, precision with words, actions, and even costumes, was as much a well established professional standard as it was creative genius.

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Scott Newstok is the author of How to Think Like Shakespeare, and he joins us this week to explore his chapter of that book called “Of Fit” where he explores the historical and culture context of Shakespeare’s plays, including the idea that for Shakespeare, precision with words, actions, and even costumes, was as much a well established professional standard as it was creative genius.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Scott Newstok about :

  • One translator from Shakespeare’s life which helped bring the words of famous ancient philosophers to the English audience was John Bury, who translated Isocrates just before Shakespeare’s life, in 1557, and when it published it came out in tandem with another translator, Benedict Burgh’s version of the Distichs of Cato. As Cato was often turned into English theater well into the 18th century, Scott, was it an industry wide practice for Renaissance playwrights, like William Shakespeare, to turn to Greek and Roman stories as sources for theater?

  • Scott’s chapter on “Fit” states that “Shakespeare and his contemporaries emerged from the culture of handicraft trades, often concerned with fashion and clothing.” Scott, what were some of the handicraft backgrounds of Shakespeare and which contemporaries are your referencing specifically?

  • In Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare uses the phrase “Does he not wear a great round beard like a glover’s paring knife?” Scott, what was the actual glove making process in the 16th century that lends this line extra meaning?
  • … and more!

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Does he not wear a great round beard, like a
glover's paring-knife?

Hostess Quickly

Merry Wives of Windsor (I.4)

“Cheveril Glove Scene” Twelfth Night Act III Scene I. “ACT III. SCENE L—Olivias Garden. Enter Viola, and Clown ivith a tabor. Vio. Save thee, friend, and thy music: Dost thou live by thy tabor -■^? Clo. No, sir, I live by the church. Vio. Art thou a churchman ? Clo. No such matter, sir; I do live by the church ; for 1 do live at my house, and my house doth stand by the church.Vio. So thou mayst say, the king lies by a beggar, if a beggar dwell near him ; or the church stands by thy tabor, if thy tabor stand by the church.Clo. You have said, sir.—To see this age!—A sentence is but a cheveril glove to a good wit: How quickly the wrong side may be turned outward !Vio. Nay, thats certain; they that dally nicely with words may quickly make them wanton. a Lies—sojourns—dwells. Cheveril glove—a kid glove—a stretching glove.” From the Brandeis University Book Collection. Source

Cheveril and Glove Making

In Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare uses the phrase “Does he not wear a great round beard like a glover’s paring knife?”  This line is poignant when taken in context with Shakespeare's personal history. John Shakespeare was a glover, and knowing exactly how to use a glover's pairing knife would be something William Shakespeare knew something about. In context of the story, however, Scott explains that there was an elaborate process to creating a glove from leather, that included, of course, creating leather. 
You have to obtain the skins from the animal, bring them to the yard, stretch them to allow the scraping away, and this quote referencing the removing of the non skin parts when you’re working this into leather. Hair, blood, fat, etc. Scraping with a large round paring knife, looks like the size of a plate.
Inside one of the properties at Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford Upon Avon, there are gloves on display to demonstrate Shakespeare's connection to this trade. After you dried the leather, you had to tan it, embellish it, and the whole process was not only elaborate but intimately connected to the object and material as you are shaping it over time. The chemicals being used, and even the fragrances associated with creating leather gloves were quite unique. How much of Shakespeare's inclusion of gloves and glove making is actually a nod to his personal heritage is up for debate, but he does include gloves in several places. One specific kind of material that was considered a very high value for gloves is Cheveril. Cheveril comes up consistently in Scott's book as a kind of metaphor based in the 16th century practice of glove making. Scott explains the history of the material here when Shakespeare uses Cheveril in Alls Well That Ends Well, Taming of the Shrew, Hamlet, and Twelfth Night Scott explains,
“Cheveril is a specific kind of leather made from kid goats, baby goats (“gently with kid gloves”) most delicate, pliable, flexible, as opposed to dog leather which was used for cheaper gloves. Highest quality is cheveril. Will command the highest value and be most in demand. Proverbially, (Used by Jonson and others, too) it is a word used outside of theater, even for pliability and flexibility.
Mercutio mentions cheveril in Romeo and Juliet, and then the word “cheveril” is used to describe conscience in Henry VIII. The word functions as an easy way to express a flexible situation or something highly valued. Gloves are a similar cultural metaphor as a proxy for love, or even throwing down one's glove as a challenge.

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Even by the rule of that philosophy By which I did blame Cato…
Brutus

Julius Caesar (V.1)

The beginning of the Distichs of Cato by Dionisio Catone published by Johannes Schurener 1475. The English translation of this document published by John Bury in 1557 in London is one copy Shakespeare could have used.- Available in the Biblioteca europea di informazione e cultura (BEIC) digital library based in Milan, Italy, and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons in partnership with BEIC Foundation. Source

Cato, Isocrates, and Greek/Latin Influence

One translator from Shakespeare’s life which helped bring the words of famous ancient philosophers to the English audience was John Bury, who translated Isocrates just before Shakespeare’s life, in 1557, and when it published it came out in tandem with another translator, Benedict Burgh’s version of the Distichs of Cato. Cato was often turned into English theater well into the 18th century.

Scott shares that it was absolutely industry standard for early modern playwrights to base their work on the Latin and Greek playwrights that came before them. Their use of Latin and Greek in part that emerges from their Grammar School. All school boys read Latin sources and Latin translations of Greek sources and even Greek sources. Letters, essays, political essays, and more formed an immense subject matter to use in theater.

Cato additionally provided a pedagogical influence from Distichs, the longest standing Latin and translated into vernauclar textbooks for small children beginning their educational career. Students were given several opportunities to thinkthrough basics of grammar that was designed to promote a moral point. Shakespeare’s couplets at the close of scene mimics the same kind of sounds that occur in these texts. We can see influences of Isocrates or Cato in Polonius from Hamlet and this “teacher” image.

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I have sold all my trumpery; not a counterfeit stone, not a ribbon, glass, pomander, brooch, table-book, ballad, knife, tape, glove, shoe-tie, bracelet, horn-ring, to keep my pack from fasting…

Autoclytus

Winter's Tale (IV.4)

According to this source, this opening image and the man sitting at a desk there is James Peele, George Peele's father. James Peele was a tradesman. In our episode this week, Scott Newstok points out that James Peele worked as as Psalter. In this image, George Peele’s father is shown working as a bookkeeper ( I believe Psalter and Bookkeeper can mean the same profession). This image is featured on the title page of “The Pathe Waye to Perfectnes (1569)” Imprinted at London : In Paules Churchyarde. By Thomas Purfoote, dwellinge at the signe of the Lucrece, 16. August 1569. Source.

Handicraft Trades

Scott’s chapter on “Fit” states that “Shakespeare and his contemporaries emerged from the culture of handicraft trades, often concerned with fashion and clothing.”

You may have already learned that Shakespeare's Dad was a glove maker, but it seems that many playwrights contemporary to Shakespeare came from artisinal families as well. In Tudor England, if you’re not artistocacy, then you are from a artisanal household. 

George Peele’s father worked as a bookkeeper (and is immortalized in sketch on the title page shown above working at the table.)  Anthony Munday was born to a tailor, Christopher Marlowe's father was a shoemaker, and these are just a few examples.

Scott gives credit to these men's ability to rise up and make a career for themselves as playwrights due to the enormous mobility afforded them by a Tudor education. In the 16th century, Tudor edcuation was specifically focused on providing education in how to dress, how to act, how to speak, and how to behave that allowed a common man to function and succeed in the upper ranks of society. It was through learning how to navigate aristocracy that many men, like William Shakespeare, were able to achieve wealth and status in their lifetime.

Many of the artisnal realities these men learned from their fathers translated well into the theater. Aspects like thinking about using things efficiently, the variosu processes of making objects, costumes, or makeup, and suiting the product to part or even the audience and a fluxiacting market. 

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Looking to learn more and explore further into the history of this week's topic? Here are some great places to start.

Suit the action to the word, the word to the action;
Hamlet

Hamlet (III.2)

Title page of Armin's The History of the two Maids of More-Clacke, 1609. The woodcut shows Armin onstage. From the British Library. Source

Changes Actors, Changing Roles

Something unique about early modern theater is that instead of finding the right actor for the role the way we think of plays, actors, and auditions today, for William Shakespeare, a playwright wrote the story with the actors in mind. In this way, when Hamlet says it is necessary to “suit the action to the word, the word to the action” he is not only spouting philosophy, he is reflectingthe theater in which his character is appearing.

For Shakespeare, when you wrote plays, it was essential to fit words to a person and a scenario. Shakespeare wrote characters like Falstaff for Will Kemp, and later when Robert Armin assumed these roles, we see a change in Shakespere's plays to include singing for the clown character–something Robert Armin was specifically gifted at, which Kemp was not. That aspect of the character was added because it suited–it fit–Robert Armin.

Unique about Shakespeare’s status in his company, he had an ongoing relationship to the members of his company. It was a repertoire company similar to today, instead of playing per play. Shakespeare writes with particular people in mind. John Sinclair [aka Sinklo or Sinko is one example] character[s] for him were made fun of for their tall/thin [stature]”

 

C.R. Leslie illustration of Act 4, Scene 3 (Petruchio upbraiding the tailor for making an ill-fitting dress). From the Illustrated London News, 3 November 1886; engraved by William Luson Thomas.

 

The character of Dr. Pinch in Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, for example, was written for John Sinclair to play, as was the tailor in Taming of the Shrew, both of which are identified in the play as being tall/thin. 

Sometimes we even find textual evidence of Shakespeare himself actively thinking of a particular actor when he wrote the plays because inside the stage directions or cast listing we find that instead of listing the character's name, Shakespeare will write in the name of the actor who played that role. In addition to Will Kemp who was mentioned in Shakepseare's texts this way at least three time, John Sinclair was also mentioned three times by name. 

Scott explains,

“Will Kepme major example when it sould say Peter, it says “enter Will Kemp” on the actual stage directions.” 

 

Watch Judi Dench and the cast with the Royal Shakespeare Company portray the "Dr Pinch" Scene in Comedy of Errors This production is from 1978, made for TV, and featured Robin Ellis as Dr. Pinch. The play was directed by Nunn, choreographed by Gillian Lynne, and designed by John Napier. The play premiered at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1976. The cast included Mike Gwilym as Antipholus of Ephesus, Roger Rees as Antipholus of Syracuse, Nickolas Grace as Dromio of Ephesus, Michael Williams as Dromio of Syracuse, and Judi Dench as Adriana, with Francesca Annis, Richard Griffiths, Griffith Jones, and John Woodvine.

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Cook, play, and dance your way through the life of William Shakespeare
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Books & Resources Scott Newstok Recommends

Download this Stratford Upon Avon Watercolor Print

Completed in pen, pencil, and watercolor by Cassidy Cash, this Stratford Upon Avon print features 8 real life properties located in Stratford Upon Avon, England, from the life of William Shakespeare in one beautiful print. Celebrate your love of Shakespeare by downloading your free copy when you sign up for our email newsletter. The newsletter goes out on Mondays with episode notifications, and as a subscriber you get artwork like this one every month, completely free.

Subscribe now and grab your copy!

This illustration is part of our exclusive members library available when you subscribe to That Shakespeare Life. Subscription helps support the podcast and gives you access to the entire library PLUS you get our exclusive Experience Shakespeare digital history activity kits delivered once a month. Learn more and sign up here.


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