Elizabethan London

Elizabethan London
Tyburn was an infamous execution spot west of London, used since medieval times. The Tyburn "tree" - a unique, multi-person gallows - erected in 1571 became a popular public spectacle, drawing crowds of thousands.Tyburn Tree blog is less blood-thirsty but hopefully topical, interesting and informative, if slightly bent to my personal topics of interest - books, writing, history, technology, with a smattering of politics and dash of pop culture, science and the downright strange. So "take a ride to Tyburn" and see what happens...

Saturday, December 26, 2015

"Cogging & Foisting": Elizabethan Cardplay & Gaming

“I never prospered since I forswore myself at primero. Well, if my wind were but long enough to say my prayers, I would repent.” 
– Falstaff, The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare

Gambling games in the Elizabethan era variously included tossing the bales (dice), shrove-groat, venter point, cross-and-pile (all coin-tossing games), and wide variety of card games such as gleek, cent, foot-savant, maw, bone-ace, monchance & primero in all its many variations. Queen Elizabeth herself was inordinately fond of card games and played regularly (she apparently took Lord North for £33 playing Maw in August, 1577).

Technically gambling and games (along with bowls, tennis & football among others) were forbidden by law. The government instead encouraged all young males to practice the more martially useful sport of archery, an activity that was rapidly waning in face of gunpowder. The statutes on gambling were so commonly broken that the Queen eventually licensed the Groom-Porter's office in 1578 to allow licenses for gaming establishments, a very lucrative prerequisite for the occupants of the position.
The Cardsharps, by Caravaggio, c 1594 - Note the player in the gold-striped doublet is cheating....

Cheating was wide-spread and common, enough that a very specialized vocabulary for the many different variations has emerged and was in common language usage, often by Shakespeare and other playwrights. Cogging & foisting, cozening, cony-catching, bar-dice, bristle-dice, card chopping, highman & lowman and contraries were all actively in play.  False dice in particular were a concern (with at least 14 distinct variations cited) of the Groom-Porter's office as it cut into their own role as a monopoly supplier for licensed dice and cards.

"If you play among strangers, beware of him that seems simple or drunken; for under their habit the most special cozeners are presented, and while you think by their simplicity and imperfections to beguile them...you yourself will be most of all overtaken." - Reginald Scott, Discovery of Witchcraft, 1584

Elizabethan-era card decks were commonly imported from France or Germany. The earliest, most well-known designs were from Rouen, France by Pierre Marechal.  Spanish and Italian cards typically used 4 suits - chalices, swords, coins, and batons, while Germanic cards displayed hearts, acorns, hawk-bells, and leaves.  The French (and subsequent English cards) used the familiar hearts, spades, diamonds and clubs of today, although the cards did not display any numerals.
Facsimile based on playing cards by Pierre Marechal of Rouen, c.1567  
Published by Rose & Pentagram Design, 2006. www.historicgames.com

These French card designs formed the basis for the subsequent development of English card decks after foreign cards were banned in 1628. Very few cards remain extant today, only about a dozen cards from the 1590's have survived.

Attitudes of the Puritan authorities towards any type of recreational activity, particularly gaming of any form, was generally negative. Even bowls, the famous pastime Sir Francis Drake was engaged in 1588 while waiting for the arrival of the Spanish Armada, was problematic. Bowling alleys are described in School of Abuse (1579) by Stephen Gosson as "privy moths that eat up the credit of many idle citizens, whose gains at home are not able to weight down their losses abroad, whose shops are so far from maintaining their play, that their wives and children cry out for bread, and go to bed supperless oft in the year."

Of all the card games, Primero was probably the most popular and widespread 16th century card game. The game originated in Italy or Spain.  Widespread across Europe, it is widely considered one of the precursors of modern Poker.  The game was very fashionable during the Tudor and Elizabethan eras.

Primero is commonly played with four to six players, and with a 40-card deck (the 1567 Rouen deck pictured above, of which you can get a gloriously colourful reproduction of from historicgames.com is perfect), with the 8, 9 and 10 cards removed.

Here is a quick (and fairly light) review of the basic rules, in case you wanted to "toss a hand" (be advised, there are a number of variant rules and approaches. This is just one variant, the one I used in illustrating a card-playing scene in my book The Jesuit Letter).

Each card has certain points value, regardless of suit:

  • Cards 2 to 5 = 10 points plus their value (i.e. 2 Clubs = 12 pts) 
  • Cards 6 and 7 = 3x their value  (i.e. 6 Hearts = 18 pts)
  • Face cards all count for 10 pts
  • Aces = 16 pts


  • Chorus (Quartet) = Four  of a kind 
  • Fluxus (Flush)  = All cards of the same suit
  • Numerus (Point) = Two or three cards of the same suit. 
  • Supremus (Fifty-five) = The highest possible three-flush, the Ace, 6, 7 (plus an unrelated fourth card) and Ace card from any other suit.
  • Primero (Prime) = One card from each suit. It’s a four-card hand containing one card of each suit, hence the exact opposite of a “Flush” in Poker. 

Two cards are dealt to each player (face down).  Players may elect to Vie/Bid, Stake or Pass. 

A Bid is an initial bet, but players must state their supposed point total of their hand, the hand type, and the bid amount (i.e. “Numerus 34, Bid $5).  Players  may understate their hands but you are not allowed to overstate its actual value.  

The next player may elect to Stake (cover) the bid or Pass.  If Staking, the player must cover the $ value bet (toss your coins into the pot), and state a hand of greater value than the previous player’s Bid.  If the player also elects to Bid, the player that follows them only needs to cover the previous player’s Bid, not the original one.

If the player elects to Pass, they put no money in, but must discard two cards and draw another two.

Once all players have Bid, or Passed, the second two cards are dealt.  Each player now has four cards.  Players may elect to Bid, Stake or Pass.

The rounds of Bid, Stake or Pass continues around until the last Bid is staked (similar to a covering the raise in Poker) at which point the winner (highest point value) would take the pot.


The first set of two cards are dealt: 

  1. Player 1 is dealt 2 cards, a King of spades (10 pts) and five hearts (15 pts).  If bidding, P1 would state “Primero 20 (understating his actual hand value of Primero 25), $2.”
  2. Player 2 is dealt two sevens (hearts & clubs) for a total of 42 pts. He could Pass, putting in no $  (and discard his two cards for another two) , Stake for the previous P1 bid of $2, and then Bid himself with “Primero 34, Bid $15).
  3. Player 3 is dealt a three clubs (13 pts) and a four diamonds (14 pts), for a total of  27 pts.  P3 passes puts in no $ and discards his two cards for two new cards. Note, if he had decided to stake, he would be staking for the P2’s bid of $15. By passing, P3 has dumped that option onto P4.
  4. Player 4 receives a Queen hearts (10 pts)and an Ace hearts (16 pts) for a total of 26 pts. P4 Stakes the $15 and bids “Numerus 24, Bid $10)

The second set of two cards is dealt:

  1. P1 receives two clubs (12 pts) and five spades (15 pts).  P1 already has a King spades & five hearts, giving him a hand type of Numerus, with a total point value of 52 pts.
  2. P2 receives Jack hearts (10 pts) and an Ace spades (16 pts) . With P2’s two sevens, he now has a hand type of Numerus with a point value of 68.
  3. P3 passed during the last round, drawing a ten hearts (10 pts) and a six clubs (16 pts). P2 now receives a ten diamonds (10 pts) and a Queen spades (10 pts). This leaves him with a hand type of Primero, with a point value of 46.
  4. P4 is dealt another two hearts, the four (14 pts)  and the two (12 pts). This gives him a Fluxus (four of suit) with 52 points.
  5. The rounds of Bid, Stake or Pass continues around until the last Bid is staked (similar to a covering the raise in Poker) at which point the winner takes the pot. If the round ends with the current set of cards, then P4 wins with a Fluxus 52.

Now go forth, and win yourself some coin!

"I was as virtuously given as a gentleman 
need to be; virtuous enough; swore little; diced not 
above seven times a week; went to a bawdy-house once 
in a quarter—of an hour; paid money that I 
borrowed, three of four times; lived well and in 
good compass: and now I live out of all order, out 
of all compass." 
- Falstaff, Henry IV Part I


  1. The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer
  2. The Elizabethan Underworld by Gamini Salgado
  3. Wikipedia, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primero
  4. Primero: A Renaissance Card Game, by Jeff A. Suzuki, 1994.  http://math.bu.edu/people/jeffs/primero.html
  5. Game Report: Primero http://jducoeur.com/game-hist/game-recon-primero.html

Wednesday, December 23, 2015


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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A Day in the Life....

Pulled together a few more Gorongosa Wildcam .gifs.

The first one covers a 24-hour period on one of the cams, the other two are some buffalo and baboons enjoying their day.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Elizabethans at the Movies, Part 4

Here’s Part 4 of my Elizabethans at the Movies series, taking a quick look at the most recent crop of modern Elizabethan-era films.

Apologies for not getting this posted earlier in the week but the holiday season and life intervened.  In any case, here is Part 4, where we look at The Other Boleyn Girl:

The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)

Director: Justin Chadwick

Stars: Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Eric Bana

The Other Boleyn Girl is a much romanticized, soap operatic account of the events surrounding Henry VIII’s tempestuous relationship with Anne Boleyn, the subsequent divorce with Catherine of Aragon and Anne’s eventual rise to marriage and the position of Queen, followed by her abrupt fall, trial and execution.

The basic story centres around the ambitious Boleyn family – the uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, and Thomas Boleyn (the father) plot to introduce Henry VIII (Eric Bana, in a not particularly believable portrayal) to Boleyn’s daughter Mary (played by Scarlet Johansson) as a potential mistress (a most disquieting effort to pimp out his daughters…). Boleyn hopes to have position, titles and revenue as a reward for Henry’s possibly being able to sire a son and heir on his daughter. Henry duly becomes infatuated with Mary and becomes involved. Anne Boleyn (played by Natalie Portman) meanwhile secretly marries a nobleman, a marriage that Anne, fearing the King’s displeasure, rats out to her father and results in Anne being exiled to France and the marriage annulled. When Mary becomes pregnant, the Boleyn’s fear the King will lose interest, so they bring Anne back to keep the King’s attentions. Mary gives birth to a son but, alas, he’s a bastard, and so Mary and her new child are exiled to the country, while Anne replaces her sister as Henry’s new favorite. Anne pressures Henry to break with the Church and divorce Catherine, eventually he agrees, declares himself head of the church, has the marriage annulled and marries Anne Boleyn, who is now…wait for the drumroll…Queen of England. Anne gives birth to a daughter (Elizabeth, eventually to become Cate Blanchett..er…uhm…Queen Elizabeth) but fails to deliver to Henry the long-sought son and heir, for which he sundered the religious equanimity of his kingdom.

Fearing the King’s wrath over the miscarriage of his supposed son, Anne plots to father a child with her brother (spoiler: they don’t). The plot is reported, the two arrested for treason, incest and adultery. Her brother George loses his head, followed swiftly by Anne after a trial. Mary attempts to intercede but fails and is warned to no longer appear at Court. Henry VIII goes on to marry his next wife (Jane Seymour), Mary returns to her country exile, helping to raise Elizabeth, and Anne gets to fatally meet the Swordsman of Calais…

The Other Boleyn Girl is, as with so many of the Tudor/Elizabethan period pieces, gorgeous to watch. Sumptuous costumes, terrific historical locations and tolerable acting make what is a fairly pedestrian and overly melodramatic script work as a decent, if not particularly memorable film. There is nothing terrible in this movie, but nothing particularly memorable either. Both Portman and Johansson give strong performances as the Boleyn ladies but they are somewhat undone by the overall structure and pace of the movie. There seems to be little urgency around their actions (at least until Portman suddenly begins suggesting incest to her brother as a solution to their problems – a moment that feels highly forced and bluntly, illogical).

Historically there are a number of issues with this film, aside from the usual time-compression and conflation that almost all Hollywood historical dramas are guilty of when brought to the screen. The film understates Mary Boleyn’s role as a mistress, deliberately creating an air of innocence around a woman who historically had purportedly been the previous mistress of the King of France (who also, in the classy manner of so much royalty, described her as “a hackney” because she was fun to ride). The dual portrait of the Boleyn sisters as either naive innocent vs. scheming vixen ends up being both shallow and historically inaccurate.

As an added bonus, the film doesn’t do Henry VIII much justice either. The King is generally treated as a smoldering sex obsessive, slipping from one fruitless, frustrated dalliance to the next, trying in vain to beget an heir. Henry VIII was a complex character in his own right – vain, very much a man who believed in his own eminence and God-given divine right to rule but clever, manipulative and often mercurial.  The Henry VIII in The Other Boleyn Girl is a one-dimensional shade of the real character.

Overall The Other Boleyn Girl is a decent, if uninspired film, with good acting, nice sets and an overly melodramatic plot line that frankly, doesn’t treat the material with the respect it probably deserves. If you are looking for a more interesting take on the era, check out the miniseries The Tudors, which offers a longer and more nuanced look at the characters (particularly Anne Boleyn, archly acted by Natalie Dormer) and the era, although it also suffers from significant historical accuracy.

Ranking: B- / C+

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Attention Shoppers.....

Something to add to your holiday shopping list...‪‎

THE JESUIT LETTER will be available on Amazon Kindle for $0.99 from Dec 23-25th!


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Elizabethans at the Movies Part 3

Here’s Part 3 of my Elizabethan's at the Movies series taking a quick look at the most recent crop of modern Elizabethan-era films. Today:

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

Director: John Madden

Stars: Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush, Tom Wilkinson

Shakespeare in Love is an exceptionally enjoyable film (though whether it deserved to win Best Picture in a year with Saving Private Ryan and Life is Beautiful is very debatable). Oddly enough, 1998 saw Joseph Fiennes playing Shakespeare while simultaneously playing Robert Dudley in Elizabeth alongside Geoffrey Rush playing theatre-owner Henslowe and Francis Walsingham. A good Elizabethan year for them both, I presume. (FYI some spoilers in the review I’m afraid…)

The movie is a romantic comedy that follows struggling playwright Will Shakespeare, suffering from penury, romantic loss, and one of the better cases of writer’s block set to film. Having sold a yet unwritten play to both Henslowe’s Rose Theatre and Burbage’s Curtain, Shakespeare must re-discover his muse, while simultaneously penning the epic Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter. Meanwhile Viola de Lessops (Gwyneth Paltrow), a wealthy merchant’s daughter, disguises herself as a man (Thomas Kent) in order to audition for Shakespeare’s new work. The playwright follows the “actor” back to the de Lessop household and crashes the party being given for Lord Wessex, where he espies Viola (resuming her role as herself) dancing and is immediately smitten.

Inspired, he begins to write again and, as the play progresses, so does Shakespeare’s infatuation with Viola, which deepens into an affair when he discovers that she and Thomas Kent are one and the same.

Eventually Shakespeare discovers Viola is to be married to Lord Wessex, and Viola discovers that the playwright already has a wife waiting in Stratford, a very Shakespearean back and forth ensues that culminates in the performance of the tragic romance of Romeo and Juliet at the Curtain when Viola is forced to step into the role of Juliet when circumstances require it. Alas, the fates are destined to part the tragic lovers, with Viola married off to Lord Wessex and gone to the New World and Virginia. Shakespeare, however has re-inspired his muse and sets forth to write Twelfth Night.

One of the standout elements of the film is the dialogue, which is simultaneously snappy and clever. Here’s a brief excerpt of Henslowe facing down his creditors:

Philip Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.
Hugh Fennyman: So what do we do?
Philip Henslowe: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.
Hugh Fennyman: How?
Philip Henslowe: I don't know. It's a mystery.

Overall this is a vastly more enjoyable look at Shakespeare than Anonymous was, although with its historical or literary accuracy served in broad strokes.  It is fun, light-hearted and soulful by turns, with more respect for the characters and the setting than Anonymous ever cared to display. It feels more Shakespearean and in tune with the Bard’s work. The acting is solid with both Paltrow and Fiennes offering superb work in their respective roles, supported by a vast array of excellent character actors that, oddly enough, includes Ben Affleck as Edward Alleyn, the premier actor in the Admiral’s Men. Affleck delivers what was my favourite line:

William Shakespeare: You, sir, are a gentleman.
Ned Alleyn: And you, sir, are a Warwickshire shithouse.

So what is inaccurate? Much, but more in realism than in approach. The film is set in 1593, which does fit with the timelines of when Romeo and Juliet was estimated to have been written and performed. Kit Marlowe did die in a Deptford tavern brawl in 1593 (knife through the eye in a dispute over the bill, although he was also, at the time, hanging about with several of Francis Walsingham's agents, so read into that what you will...), so the film gets its major key facts correct. Despite the ostensibly setting and era Shakespeare has a souvenir mug from Stratford-upon-Avon sitting on his shelf, and consults a doctor/astrologist/psychologist for advice on how to re-ignite his literary passions. These type of clever references abound and anyone with a knowledge of Shakespeare’s works will have an enjoyable time picking out all the many references and in-jokes.

As an added bonus, apparently the film is now in the process of being converted to a stage play, so the circle is now complete...

In sum, Shakespeare in Love is a witty, engaging and energetically fun film, and highly recommended!

Ranking: A

Tomorrow, The Other Boleyn Girl

Monday, December 14, 2015

Elizabethans at the Movies, Part 2

Here’s Part II of my Elizabethan's at the Movies series taking a quick look at the most recent crop of modern Elizabethan-era films. Today, only one entry:

Anonymous (2011)

Director: Roland Emmerich

Stars: Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, David Thewlis, Rafe Spall

I’ll start with the blunt and brutal assessment that the plotline and claims of the film are a steaming crock of shit. It’s hard to look at anything else contained in this film without the nonsensical plotline obscuring the elements that work and the performances of the actors. Be advised, this review will contain spoilers….

The film advances the oft-cited theory that the plays of William Shakespeare were, in reality, penned by Edward deVere, the Earl of Oxford. That’s not really the reason for the plotline being a crock of shit, although it certainly contributes (and I know that there are any number of “Oxfordians” out there who will steadfastly argue the veracity of their theory, to which I will respond “prove it”, which usually meets with sputtering indignation and much spurious assumptions but no actual evidence).

The story postulates that Edward deVere was a literary prodigy, penning A Mid-Summer Nights Dream as a child, and later is forced to abjure himself from literature by his forced marriage to William Cecil’s daughter after murdering a servant that was spying on him (I know, a bit convoluted). Later, driven by his literary urges, he attempts to suborn playwright Ben Jonson into taking credit for his work, but eventually settles on a drunken, egotistic and bombastic actor named William Shakespeare.  Shakespeare eventually finds out who is supplying him the plays and in turn blackmails deVere for more funds (Will also murders Christopher Marlowe, who uncovers the secret).

Brace yourself, now it gets a bit more convoluted…De Vere, becomes romantically involved with Queen Elizabeth, purportedly fathering an illegitimate son in secret, who is adopted out by Cecil and eventually becomes Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. However, it turns out that this isn’t the first secret lovechild of Elizabeth. The first is (drum-roll) De Vere himself!

All of this incest/secret child nonsense leads to the climax involving the attempt to stir a popular rebellion against the nefarious Cecils who are controlling and manipulating the Queen to insure the succession of James I. The popular rebellion is led by the Earl of Essex and Southampton, ably supported by deVere penning Richard III as a attempt to drive the mob into a frenzy and overthrow the evil hunchbacked younger Cecil’s control over the throne.

So. Yeah. In a nutshell: craptastic.

What works – Elizabethan London has rarely looked as fine and dazzling as it does in Anonymous. The gorgeous CGI brings the city to life in a way not seen on the screen before. The sets and locations are terrific, the costumes wonderful, the energy and vibrancy of the stage at the Globe is fantastic.  The acting is solid, with Rhys Ifans pulling a soulful performance out of deVere, and Vanessa Redgrave as the elderly version of Elizabeth (this movie time-jumps wildly all over the place, did I fail to mention that?) is quite good. The other standout for me was Rafe Spall as the duplicitous William Shakespeare – actor, murderer, drunkard, blackmailer – but damned fun to watch.

History-wise this movie is, as stated, pretty much a crock. I won’t get into the documented evidence against practically everything the plot claims but, hey, it’s SUBSTANTIAL. You can review that online at your leisure. Some of it is fun to read but if you want a good, well-written documented and authoritative look at the whole Oxford vs Shakespeare fight, grab a copy of CONTESTED WILL by James Shapiro.

Overall terrible piece of film, beautifully made and acted.

Ranking: F

Tomorrow: Shakespeare in Love

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Elizabethans at the Movies

The Tudor and Elizabethan era has always been fodder for film-making, although it has dropped off considerably in recent years. The 1930’s saw Errol Flynn swashbuckling his way through the era in The Sea Hawk while Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s blaring trumpets set the tone. Flynn reappeared in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, while Charles Laughton gave the world an indelible portrait of Henry VIII eating a chicken.

Here’s a quick look at the most recent crop of modern Elizabethan-era films (note: I am not including adaptations of Shakepeare’s many works, we’ll save that for another day):

Elizabeth (1998)

Director: Shekhar Kapur

Stars: Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Eccleston, Joseph Fiennes

Cate Blanchett stars as the young Elizabeth, ascending the throne in the wake of her half-sister Queen Mary’s death. The film looks at the early years of Elizabeth’s reign, following her as she adjusts to rule in the face of ambitious men seeking to marry her off or control her, Catholic opposition, intrigue and rebellion, attempted assassination and her purported romance with Lord Robert Dudley.

The film is, bluntly, gorgeous and sumptuous, with the sets, costuming and location shooting at numerous historic locales (Bamburgh Castle, Durham Cathedral, Bolton Castle, Haddon Hall and more) which gives the film a powerful verisimilitude. The performances are solidly terrific, particularly Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth growing into her power and position.

So how historically accurate is the film? The story conflates particular events, compresses and disorders others and in a number of cases, just seems to make stuff up wholesale in order to make a more gripping and tense storyline. Certain characters are jettisoned – one assumes for simplicity's sake. One egregious example is William Cecil (eventually to become Lord Burghley) whom history records as one of Elizabeth’s most stalwart and long-serving advisers. In the film, he is rapidly dismissed and shipped out to retirement in favour of the lean and hungry Geoffery Rush playing a superb version of Francis Walsingham, who actually served as Elizabeth’s foreign secretary and spymaster.  Joseph Fiennes as Robert Dudley (Earl of Leicester) suffers a similar fate of having his character diverge considerably from historical reality which I won't outline here but is wholly inaccurate.

Overall Elizabeth is a superb film, albeit with a number of limitations on its historical accuracy.

Ranking:  A-

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

Director: Shekhar Kapur

Stars: Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Clive Owen, Jordi Molla

This second film picks up in the mid-point (roughly) of Elizabeth’s reign. Played again by the returning Cate Blanchett, the film follows Elizabeth dealing with the machinations of court, the ongoing plots of the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots and the imperial designs of Phillip II of Spain. Geoffrey Rush returns as the long-suffering advisor/spymaster Francis Walsingham, while Clive Owen makes an appearance as the dashing Sir Walter Raleigh, alternately trying to convince Elizabeth to fund his plans for a colony in Virginia, charming her (and her handmaidens) and generally playing the roguish buccaneer to the hilt. The film covers the eventual trial and execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, for treason in supporting an attempt on the Queen, and the subsequent attempt by Philip II to invade and conquer England with the Spanish Armada. 

Again Shekhar Kapur does a superb job in leveraging some terrific historic shooting locations which give the film an exceptional look and feel. The costumes are lavish, and the film generally wonderful to watch, in particular the soaring camera angles give the the viewer a birds-eye view from above, showing off the brilliant costumes and the vaulting locations.  The storyline and the acting seem somewhat less effective though Cate Blanchett is solidly in form playing a more austere and controlled Elizabeth, one that tends to watch with detachment and wry amusement, the endless dance of potential suitors. Viewers are left with a sense that she understands her role and her power better than any one else and she gives an excellent and believable performance.

History-wise, the accuracy of the film is questionable in both cause-and-effect. The film-makers re-paint the Babington plot (which is treated as a straight-up and deliberately failed assassination attempt) as a devious Spanish attempt to bait Walsingham and Elizabeth into executing Mary, thus giving them an excuse for launching the Armada. Similar to the first film, The Golden Age again conflates and combines key characters and events – in this case Sir Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake are stuffed into Clive Owen’s role and set out to destroy the Armada with fireships (which Elizabeth gets to conveniently watch cliffside after giving her historic speech at Tilbury). It made for more movie drama, but bad history…

Overall an enjoyable, if inaccurate bit of cinema!

Ranking: B+


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Review: The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 by James Shapiro

"The year 1606 would turn out to be a good one for Shakespeare and an awful one for England. That was no coincidence."

1606 was a particularly tumultuous year. Queen Elizabeth had died childless and unmarried in 1603, succeeded on the throne by the young King of Scotland James I, son of her executed rival Mary, Queen of Scots.  The shift in tone, approach and power after the long reign of Elizabeth was dramatic, and the subsequent failed attempt by a small group of Catholic conspirators in November of 1605 to destroy the Parliament and the King in one explosive discharge of gunpowder, shook the foundations of the nation to its core.

These twin seismic shocks - a new King and a new political reckoning, coupled with the inevitable fallout and bloody aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, directly impacted on the direction, focus and content of English theatre, helping drive one of William Shakespeare's most prolific and brilliant years into history.

The Year of Lear looks in detail at 1606, a year that saw Shakespeare pen Lear, Macbeth and Antony & Cleopatra, three of his most timely, searing and political dramas.

James Shapiro follows a similar pattern and approach to his previous work A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, weaving together political, social, economic, literary and philosophical threads into a deft and focused whole.

Shapiro alternates from delving into the events that dominated 1606, into how they impact and influence English theatre and literature in general, and more specifically how these were absorbed by William Shakespeare, player, shareholder and playwright of The King's Men.

Cover illustration details - depicting the execution,
drawing & quartering of the Gunpowder Plotters. Note the
man tossing body parts into boiling pitch.
The author traces the bloody aftermath of the Gunpowder plotter's confessions, their trials and executions, the impact of the concept of equivocation, James I's obsession with witchcraft and demonic possession, the rise of court masques as entertainment, the devastating return of the plague to London, and the problems of a political Union between England and Scotland.  The author tugs each narrative thread into place and ties it back to its impact and influence on Shakespeare's works as they emerged throughout the year.

The trials and interrogations of the Gunpowder plotters and in particular the interrogation and trial of the Jesuit Robert Southwell and the subsequent dissection of the Jesuitical concept of equivocation (use of unclear language especially to deceive or mislead someone) is deeply intriguing, particularly in light of Shakespeare's subsequent use of the concept in both Lear and Macbeth. The opening scene of the witches greeting Macbeth is an equivocation that sets everything in tragic motion:

First Witch:     All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, thane of Glamis!
Second Witch:     All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, thane of Cawdor!
Third Witch:    All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!

The nature of power, succession and how a kingdom can teeter into chaos dominates the themes of Lear, bringing the differences and potential dangers faced by the new regime into sharp focus.  The themes of murder, intrigue, tragedy and bloody raw political power highlight both Macbeth and Lear, with the added vagaries of witchcraft. The focus on the devastating impact that the Gunpowder plot and subsequent trial had on all aspects of Jacobite society permeates the year, and resonates throughout all the subsequent works. Antony & Cleopatra in turn - a play with it's shades of Elizabeth and Essex, was unlikely if not impossible to see the light of day during the Elizabethan era  - highlighting the fraught cultural shift with the new regime.

It was no accident that Shakespeare wrote these seminal, highly political tragic dramas in 1606.

Shapiro's writing is inspired, rich and evocative. The book is highly readable, written with flair, intelligence and a huge perceptible fascination for his subject matter.  It is one of the very best books of 2015 and is highly recommended for anyone wishing some insight into the Bard, his works or the era.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Black Dog FREE!

Looking for a good holiday read?  BLACK DOG, my novella, is FREE on Amazon Kindle from December 10 - 14th, 2015!

Grab a copy at amzn.to/1Tr9hM5 and #FearTheDog!