Shakespeare at the Middle Temple
Berry, Ralph, Contemporary Review
WHEN the Shakespeare Guild made its annual Golden Quill award to Kenneth Branagh this year, they chose well in staging the award ceremony at the Middle Temple. There are genuine Shakespearean associations, and the Great Hall held some 500 celebrants. 'All that was most sonorous of name and title', as Evelyn Waugh wrote of another occasion, 'was there for the beano'. Place is authenticity, the experience we all yearn for. The Great Hall of the Middle Temple -- not open to the general public -- is a secular temple to Shakespeareans. There's more outside, for Shakespeare makes the pivotal scene in Part One of Henry VI take place in the Temple Garden (2.4). He imagines the quarrel of the roses to have started among a group of high-spirited aristocrats: 'Within the Temple Hall we were too loud;/The garden here is more convenient'. (3-4) Surely Shakespeare must have walked in the Temple Garden. But the grand association is with Twelfth Night.
'I delight in masques and revels sometimes altogether', says Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Twelfth Night, 1.3.108). It's his wistful tribute to a life of pleasure. Revels is a big word for the Elizabethans. The grind of daily life regularly exploded into festive mirth, whether determined by the calendar or a special event such as a wedding. The spirit of revelry haunts Twelfth Night; it's the inspiration for the subplot, the gulling of Malvolio. But which revels does the comedy aim at?
The question comes up with Shakespeare's 'occasional' plays. The Merry Wives of Windsor was probably written for the Garter installation of April, 1597. A Midsummer Night's Dream seems to have been written with a noble wedding in mind. Philostrate is the Athenian equivalent of the Master of the Revels, and is ordered by Duke Theseus to 'Stir up the Athenian youth to merriment;/Awake the pert and nimble spirit of mirth'. (1.1.12) Theseus promises to wed Hippolyta 'with pomp, with triumph, and with revelling'. (1.1.19) We can't be sure of the occasion the play was written to grace: it might have been the wedding of Elizabeth Vere and the Earl of Derby (1595) or Elizabeth Carey and Thomas Berkeley (1596). And the same doubt occurs with Twelfth Night.
At first, this doubt seems misplaced. Surely Twelfth Night must have been written for a premier on Twelfth Night, January 6th? That was the argument of Leslie Hotson, who reckoned (in The First Night of 'Twelfth Night') that the play was part of a gala entertainment at Court on January 6th 1601. He resurrected some remarkable diplomatic documents, including the eyewitness report of the Russian Ambassador, Grigori Mikulin, to his master, Tsar Boris Fedorovich. But none of the distinguished guests stooped to report such trifling details as the name of the play and its author. Hotson could not nail down the identification. Subsequent editors have been uniformly sceptical.
And now comes a new book, Shakespeare and the Prince of Love: The Feast of Misrule in the Middle Temple (Giles de la Mare Publishers, 2000). Its author, Anthony Arlidge, is a Queen's Counsel at the Middle Temple, where he is Master of the Entertainments. He is deeply versed in the archives and traditions of the Middle Temple. He puts forward a beguiling and persuasive thesis, that Twelfth Night had its premier in Middle Temple Hall on February 2nd, 1602.
Of a performance on that date we have sure knowledge. John Manningham was a fourth year student at the Middle Temple, one of the four Inns of Court. For February 2nd 1602 he made this entry in his diary: 'at our feast wee had a play called Twelve Night or What You Will...a good practise in it to make the Steward beleeve his Lady widdowe was in Love with him by counterfeyting a letter as from his lady in generall tearmes...'. This has to be Shakespeare's comedy. Could it have been a first night performance?
It could, indeed, and Mr Arlidge builds up a very strong case based on circumstantial evidence. …