Saturday, 23 March 2019

Moonstones in Vienna

The Vienna City Museum has many interesting exhibits that show different aspects of life in the city over the ages. The museum also hosts a small but excellent art collection with paintings by Kurzweill, Klimt, Schiele and Gerstl. One of the museum's strangest exhibits is a Moonstone or Moon Idol that dates from 5,000 to 8,000 BCE (i.e. Iron Age). It looks like a fire grate but the ends are shaped like the crescent moon.
  Moonstones or Moon Idols like this are found in burial sites from this period along with casseroles and foot bowls. The association is that women were responsible for cooking and household duties. The later Iron Age in Austria is known as the Kalenderberg Culture period and there exists pictorial evidence of female deities from the same period found in nearby North East Italy.   
There are very few images of the Moon that have survived from antiquity.  My explanation is that because the Moon could be seen most evenings from Earth there was no need for an artist to make a representation of it unless it was for ritual or ceremonial use.   The ritual and ceremonial use seem to be always in service of a female moon deity. The concepts of a female moon and male sun go back further than the Iron age and were still current in Shakespeare's time. The Moon is Diana (Timon of Athens Act IV, Scene 3, or A Midsummer Night's Dream Act I, Scene 1) or Phoebe (again in A Midsummer Night's Dream Act I, Scene1), or Cynthia (Pericles Act II, Scene 5 and Romeo and Juliet Act III, Scene 5).  The Moon is always the Pale Queen of the Night (Two Gentlemen of Verona Act IV, Scene 2). Shakespeare refers to the Sun as Phoebus (Apollo) and always in the masculine (Hamlet Act III, Scene 2, Romeo and Juliet Act II, Scene 2, Cymbeline Act II, Scene 3, Much Ado About Nothing Act V, Scene 3).  Shakespeare was writing for his time and for his audiences. If the people who paid to go to the theatre understood that the Moon was feminine and the Sun masculine then Shakespeare simply used these analogies in his actor's lines to convey a deeper meaning with fewer words.      


Sunday, 17 March 2019

The Garden Tower

John Flamsteed was appointed Britain's the first Astronomer Royal by King Charles II in 1675.  A year before this in 1674 he studied at Cambridge University with Isaac Newton who, when he was not lecturing, lived at the Tower of London next to the Royal Mint.  John Flamsteed's first observatory was based at the top of the round tower on the north side of the White Tower. However, this observatory had two major problems as any visitor to the Tower of London will quickly spot. Firstly the round tower is on the north side of the White Tower so its view to the south is inconveniently blocked by two square turrets. 
The second problem was the ravens who when not flying around the tower blocking his observations used his instruments as a perch and sometimes even pooped on them.  Most inconvenient!!
   The observatory was located to Greenwich where it has remained to the present day. John Flamsteed laid the foundation stone for the Greenwich observatory in August 1675. Although he had a telescope his preferred instrument was the quadrant which he used to catalogue nearly 3000 stars. His work Historia Coelestis Britannica was published posthumously in 1725. 
Although several of Shakespeare's plays have scenes set in the Tower of London Shakespeare himself has had a long lasting influence on the tower.  Prior to his writing Richard III the Bloody Tower was known as the Garden Tower.   In Act IV Scene 3 the tyrannous and bloody deed is done (i.e. the young princes are dispatched) and also Richard is described a  bloody king (both by Sir James Tyrell). In Act IV, Scene 4 Richard is described as bloody treacherous by the Duchess of York. Although Shakespeare did not use the phrase the Bloody Tower the name stuck in the public's imagination as a result of the popularity of the play Richard III


During my visit to the tower yesterday I overheard one visitor commenting to a friend "its like all the history you need all in one place".  There is certainly a lot to see and one day is not really enough time to see it all.


Sunday, 10 March 2019

A Shakesperian Conspiracy

Whilst the merrie meetings of actors, playwrights, explorers and scientists at the Mermaid Tavern have been well documented there was another group of educated men who met at Syon House, one of Henry Percy's southern estates (the other estate was Petworth). This group included Christopher Marlowe, John Dee, Thomas Harriot, George Chapman, Matthew Roydon and Sir Walter Rayleigh. In 1992 the Royal Shakespeare Company performed a play by Peter Whelan called the School of Night which was inspired by the meetings that took place in 1592 and 1593. In Love's Labour's Lost in Act IV, Scene 3 mention is made of a "suit of night" or a "scowl of night" depending on the edition.  In the Routledge 1859 edition of Shakespeare's complete plays the phrase a "style of night" is used with a dagger mark referring to a marginal note that "school" is used in older versions. The Routledge edition is nicely illustrated at this point with a cupid.
Fortunately the Bodelian Library in  Oxford have digitised a First Folio and made it freely available on line.  Looking at Love's Labour's Lost in Act IV, Scene 3 the word "schoole" is clearly visible.
Of course the blackness that the King is referring to could just be the dark hair of the fair Rosaline who is Berowne's lover.  The truth is that we will never know. Shakespeare was very adept with language uses words and phrases that can have different meanings to different audiences. To the groundlings in the pit the meaning would have been Rosaline's hair. To the more prosperous and educated theatre goers in the boxes it could have meant something different. Sir Walter Rayleigh was accused at one point of being at the centre of a school of atheism in 1592 by the Jesuit Robert Persons who was possibly referring to the Syon House meetings.  In addition John Baines, an anti catholic spy for the privy council accused Christopher Marlowe of reading an atheistic sermon to Sir Walter Rayleigh and others at a group but he was unable to substantiate his claims although he did promise to produce evidence. John Baine's claims are contained in the Baines note  and are based on hearsay (BL Harley MS 6853 ff307-8). Atheism was a serious crime in the Tudor era as it undermined the King or Queen's divine right to rule. However, before Marlowe could be tried he was killed in a duel in May 1593. Shakespeare is thought to have written Love's Labours Lost in either 1594 or 1595. Could this have been a sly reference to his friend Kit Marlowe and the Syon House meetings?  It is not impossible. Shakespeare's command of English in the mid 1590s was such that he was able to use the word honorificabilitudinitabus spoken by Costard the fool in Act V, Scene 1.   The word has alternating vowels and consonants and means the state of being able to achieve honours. Shakespeare only uses this word once in his entire works and doubtlessly was using it to show off his intellect.