Thursday, February 24, 2011

Where the Bard found his stories

William Shakespeare
Every great writer needs good, solid source material. Harper Lee had her childhood, Truman Capote had a sensational murder case in a small town and Shakespeare had Holinshed’s Chronycles.

This ambitious history of England, Scotland and Ireland was published in 1577. A copy of it in two thick volumes is in the collection of rare and unusual books at Lighthouse Books, ABAA. It will be on display at the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair in March.

There isn’t a whole lot known about Raphael Holinshed, except that he, along with other contributors, created this massive history of Great Britain. The late historian Vernon Snow has declared that Holinshed was a Cambridge-educated translator but no one has found any other work by him and nothing is known of what else he might have done.

What is known is that Holinshed went to work for a London printer who had a grand vision to create a comprehensive history of the known world from the Great Flood to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The printer, Reginald Wolfe, conceived his massive project in 1548 and worked on it by himself for a time. Eventually he realized that he needed help and hired Holinshed and a clergyman named William Harrison. But Wolfe died in 1548 and the book still wasn’t finished.

Wolfe left the project under the direction of three associates in the printing business. They hired Holinshed who in turn hired Harrison, Richard Stanyhurst, an Irish poet and historian; Edmund Campion, a Jesuit priest who eventually became a saint; and John Hooker, a writer and antiquarian. The scope of the work was reduced to focus only on Great Britain.

Finally, in 1577, the book was published as The Chronycles of Englande, Scotlande and Irelande. There were several subsequent editions of the book, including some without passages on Ireland censored by the British Privy Council. Apparently the council took exception to some of Stanyhurst’s contributions. It was not until 1758 that the work acquired the name Holinshed’s Chronycles.

The first volume contains the histories of England, Scotland and Ireland. The second focuses specifically on the lives of some of the English royalty, including Queen Mary, several of the Henrys, Edwards and Richards.

Scholars say Shakespeare relied heavily on the book as he wrote his histories, as well as MacBeth and King Lear, though it is unlikely that the book was his only source. Academic authorities think he probably used the writings of  Sir Thomas More and the Italian historian Virgil as well.

What is clear is that Shakespeare used Holinshed’s Chronycles not only to plot his various works but also to add texture to characters. For instance, in Richard II, a superstitious Welch Captain worries about withered bay trees being the sign of doom. Holinshed reports that in 1399, “old bay trees withered and, afterward, contrary to all men’s thinking, grew green again: a strange sight, and supposed to import some unknown event.”

In another instance, Shakespeare appears to have borrowed directly from Holinshed, using dialogue found in the earlier work with but little change. Holinshed wrote: "The proclamation ended, another herald cried: "Behold here Henry of Lancaster Duke of Hereford, appellant, which is entered into the lists royal to do his devoir against Thomas Mowbray Duke of Norfolk, defendant, upon pain to be found false and recreant!"

Shakespeare wrote:
Harry of Hereford, Lancaster, and Derby,
Stands here for God, his sovereign, and himself,
On pain to be found false and recreant,
To prove the Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Mowbray,
A traitor to his God, his king, and him,
And dares him to set forward to the fight.
(Richard II 1.3.104-9)
Some scholars caution that the massive history may be suspect in its accuracy, noting that some of Holinshed’s sources may have been less than objective accounts. But aside from the historical content, the books offer an interesting glimpse into the world of Elizabethan publishing, a period apparently marked by the great love for blackletter typography.

The title pages and some incidental typography use a more readable font that may be an ancestor of Times Roman. But most of the narrative is set in the sort of font you associate with the word “Christmas” in Merry Olde Englande. It is a typeface most designers today would agree should be used sparingly.

The volumes are filled with copious black and white illustrations depicting wars, beheadings, stake burnings, weddings, coronations and other manner of activities that kept the royals and their subjects entertained and occupied over the centuries.

William Shakespeare must have drooled.

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