No Bed for Bacon – Caryl Brahms & S J Simon

Doris Abrahams and Simon Jacoblivitch Skidelsky, better known as Caryl Brahms and S J Simon respectively, collaborated on eleven comic novels and crime stories between 1937 and 1948 when S J Simon died suddenly at the age of just 44. No Bed for Bacon was their sixth book, first published in 1941, and is a comic retelling of Elizabethan England featuring William Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh, Queen Elizabeth herself and numerous other famous characters from the period. Caryl Brahms was best known as a theatre, especially ballet, critic and S J Simon was a journalist but much more famous in the world of contract bridge where he was European champion and also the author of books on the subject.

Well this was a fun romp round Elizabethan London with lots of running gags including the one that gives the book its title which is Sir Francis Bacon’s desperate attempt to get hold of a bed that Queen Elizabeth had slept in during one of her many progressions around England which was seen as a major status symbol in ones home. In this he is constantly thwarted partly at the hands of the Master of the Revels who controls all such progressions but also bu Elizabeth herself who knowing of his desire for such an item of furniture ensures that it never goes to him. Other running jokes include William Skakespeare constantly trying out spellings for his name, which definitely has a basis in fact because all the known remaining signatures by Shakespeare are spelt differently. Sir Walter Raleigh keeps getting a new and ever more flashy cloak only for it to be ruined within a couple of hours, from the, probably apocryphal, tale of him using his cloak to keep the Queens feet dry when her carriage stopped by a puddle and in contrast Lord Burghley keeps being dressed in more and more shabby attire. Shakespeare also keeps trying to start a new play called Loves Labours Wonne as a companion piece to Loves Labours Lost which famously has not survived to the present day even assuming that he ever finished it in reality and the regular sections in terrible Elizabethan spelling also add to the joy of reading the book.

The opening character remains anonymous through the work yet appears regularly always doing a different job as he makes a rapid rise, and even faster fall through the ranks of the proletariat from horse holder outside a theatre, to watchman, soldier, manservant, prisoner and back to watchman amongst many other jobs too numerous to list. He invariably starts any chapter actually set in London and you get used to seeing what he has managed to become this time. The other main fictional character, most of the people in the book really existed, is the young Lady Viola who disguises herself as a boy in order to join Shakespeare’s company as an actor as females were not allowed on the stage at the time and ultimately falls in love with him. If this sounds familiar than you have probably seen the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love where Gwyneth Paltrow plays Lady Viola who disguises herself as a man in order to join Shakespeare’s company as an actor as females were not allowed on the stage at the time and ultimately falls in love with him. Just a reminder that the book was written in 1941 and Tom Stoppard, who co-wrote the film is known to have had a copy of the book but claims to have not been influenced by it despite even using the same character name and no credits to Brahms or Simon are given in the film.

The book does play fast and loose with historical accuracy (as does the film which nicked the plot) but one of the most poignant sections and indeed the longest chapter of the novel takes place on a boat on the Thames with Queen Elizabeth progressing down the river in the company of her famous military and naval commanders whilst reliving the routing of the Spanish Armada. From what I remember of my Tudor history lessons this does appear to be mainly factually correct although it does contain Sir Francis Drake completing his game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe before heading out to meet the enemy which almost certainly didn’t happen. There are various sidelong comments regarding Drake being lucky with the wind which however was certainly correct.

Forsooth, tis a merrie romp Master Will and I definitely recommend the novel assuming you can lay your hands on a copy as it appears to have been out of print for a couple of decades but there are plenty of copies available on abebooks.

My copy is the first Penguin Books edition published in December 1948 five months after the death of S J Simon, Carly Brahms greatly outlived him and died just 3 days short of her 81st birthday in 1982.


The Tempest – William Shakespeare

Continuing with my plan to read plays through November, I am now starting The Tempest. I have several copies of this play, partly due to the two complete sets of Shakespeare’s works I have, one of which I covered in an earlier essay, but I also have three copies of the play in individual volumes. One from the Oxford University Press, one by Penguin Books from 1937 and the copy that I have been reading which is the beautiful Folio Society letterpress edition from 2008.

20181120 The Tempest 1

This edition is bound in green goatskin leather, blocked in gold with hand-marbled paper sides and limited to 3750 numbered copies although not all of these appear to have been produced. The book is large (14˝ x 10¾˝ – 35½cm x 27cm) and the pages clear and easy to read. As the Folio Society themselves said about these volumes…

The starting point was the text. Rather than keep text and commentary together, we decided to put them into separate volumes. Out went the elements that clutter the page : footnotes and textual variants. All that was left was Shakespeare’s words.

We decided to have the text printed by letterpress in 16-point Baskerville. The type is set in hot metal and impressed on thick, mouldmade paper. The margins are generous – over 6 centimetres – to allow the words room to breathe.

The result is a simple, understated design that is a delight to read and a pleasure to hold.

Needless to say the books were expensive (£295 per play) but they did set out to produce the finest editions available and the ones I have are amongst the treasures of my library. A comparison between the Folio Society edition and my complete Oxford Shakespeare can be seen below and it’s obvious which is the better to read.

Enough about the book, as Shakespeare himself wrote in Hamlet “The play’s the thing” and this was the last play written by Shakespeare so I’m looking forward to reading it.

The play opens with a short scene set on a ship that is caught up in the eponymous tempest and looks as though it will probably sink. On board is Alonso the King of Naples and several courtiers including Antonio the Duke of Milan, the noblemen are however getting in the way of the seamen trying to save the vessel and frankly are just a nuisance. The rest of act one takes place on the island home of Prospero and his daughter Miranda, during which we find out that Prospero is the true Duke of Milan who was usurped by his brother Antonio with the help of King Alonso.

Prospero has somehow gained magical powers during his exile on the island and with the aid of the sprite Ariel he caused the foundering of the ship but also ensured that all aboard survived. The other occupant of the island is Caliban, the son of the witch Sycorax who is enslaved to Prospero and is described as half man, half beast. Ariel is also in servitude to Prospero but this is because he rescued him from a spell by Sysorax and Prospero has promised that when he regains dukedom so Ariel will be free to go on his way. Towards the end of the first act Ferdinand (King Alonso’s son) finds Prospero and Miranda and immediately falls in love with her, which is clearly Prospero’s plan to try to regain his dukedom.

Act two moves away from Prospero to follow up the other characters in two separate scenes. In the first one the other noblemen including King Alonso assume that they are the only survivors of the wreck although Gonzalo in particular is perplexed by the condition of their clothing which suggests that this was no ordinary maritime disaster.

…Our garments being, as they were drenched in the sea, not withstanding their freshness and gloss, being rather new-dyed than stained with salt water…

…Methinks our garments are now as fresh as when we put them on in Afric, at the marriage of the King’s fair daughter…

Ariel joins the group although he is invisible to them and by means of music causes some to fall asleep leaving Sebastian (Alonso’s brother) and Antonio. Antonio suggests to Sebastian that with Ferdinand dead the only thing stopping him doing what he did to Prospero and taking the kingdom of Naples for himself is Alonso himself who is conveniently asleep at his feet. Sebastian has drawn his sword to kill Alonso when Ariel reverses the charm and the others awake. Sebastian explains the drawn sword by saying he had heard noises and was preparing to defend the king.

The second scene takes us to the last remaining significant characters in the play Trinculo the court jester and Stephano the drunk butler who has managed to salvage a barrel of wine and is happily working his way through it. These two also believe themselves the only survivors and stumble across Caliban who sees them as a means of escaping his slavery by getting them to kill Prospero. His clownish attempts to get them to help him and the drunken antics of the other two are quite funny.

Act three keeps the three groups apart and sees us catching up with them in turn in separate scenes. All three scenes are quite short and we bounce from Ferdinand and Miranda who are now getting on very well and are talking of marriage. Then to Trinculo and Stephano who are convinced by Caliban to attack Prospero but are also now quite drunk and have also introduced Caliban to wine so this plot is clearly going nowhere. Finally the king and his party meet up with Ariel and with Prospero watching and commenting although invisible to the party he can see that his plans are working.

20181120 The Tempest 2

Both of the final acts are short single scene performances and act four sees things moving forward quickly. Prospero agrees to the marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda as they continue to express their love for each other and when they have left the stage he works with Ariel to ensure that the plot hatched by Caliban to get the two drunks to kill him will fail although by now none of the them are in a fit state to do anything sensible.

Finally the fifth act brings everyone together at last, Prospero draws a magic circle on the stage and lures the noblemen into it where he reveals who he really is but decides to forgive rather than punish them. He also reveals that the ship didn’t sink, instead it has been anchored off another part of the island with the crew charmed asleep, these are woken by Ariel and prepare for sailing as soon as possible. It isn’t clear what happens to Caliban, he presumably remains alone on the island but everyone else returns to Naples with Prospero renouncing his magic as he regains his dukedom.

The Tempest is grouped with the Comedies within Shakespeare’s canon however there is nothing particularly comedic about it, it is probably there because it certainly isn’t a History or Tragedy which are the only two other options. The light relief is provided by Trinculo and Stephano during their interaction with Caliban but this, as explained above, is largely self contained within scene two of acts two and three. I’m not a big fan of Shakespeare’s later mystical plays but this made for a pleasant evenings read and I’m surprised that I haven’t got round to reading it before. As usual for a Shakespeare play there are several quotes that have enriched the English language and gone on to be used even by those who don’t know where they were first created:-

Hell is empty. And all the devils are here.

Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.

We are such stuff as dreams are made on

O brave new world

and the probable winner for the worst chat up line of all time is given to Ferdinand

Hast thou not dropped from heaven?

Note: The kingdom of Naples and the duchy of Milan sound odd to us now as Naples in particular appears far too small to be a kingdom, but in Shakespeare’s time both these houses existed. The kingdom lasted from 1282 to 1816 although from 1501 it was effectively a title only as control of Naples passed between France, Spain and Austria depending on which monarchy was in the ascendant at the time. As for the duchy of Milan that lasted from 1395 to 1814 although over the last century of this it was absorbed into the Austrian Hapsburg empire.

First Folio: 2

Yesterday, 23rd April 2018, was the 402nd anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare and whilst we don’t have his date of birth, he was baptised 454 years ago on 26th April 1564 so this is a good week to look at his works. Monday was also the UNESCO recognised International World Book Day, as not only did Shakespeare die on the 23rd April 1616 but that is also the date that the great Spanish author Cervantes died and that is why the 23rd April (also St. George’s day) was chosen. Although they died on the same date, they didn’t die on the same day, Cervantes was 10 days earlier. Catholic Spain had already adopted the Gregorian calendar by then, however protestant England was still using the Julian calendar so there was a 10 day difference in dates between the two countries.

It may come as a surprise to most people but there isn’t a definitive version of most, if not all, of Shakespeare’s plays. The plays were documents under constant review as performances took place during his lifetime and numerous copies have survived until today. This means that modern performances can pick and choose sections from versions of the play being produced to create a suitable text for their needs. Also several of the plays are very long so now it is rare to see them performed complete, especially with falling audience attention spans. Some of the plays were published whilst Shakespeare was alive, but that was not through his doing and these are quite often inaccurate as either they were taken from actors notes or in extreme cases written down from memory by somebody in the audience. This means that we could easily have ended up with no accurate record of Shakespeare’s works at all if it wasn’t for two members of his main group of players John Heminges and Henry Condell.

The Lord Chamberlain’s Men later renamed The King’s Men in 1603 after James I came to the throne, were Shakespeare’s main troupe although other groups of actors are known to have performed his works. However these men worked most closely with Shakespeare and he was also an actor in the group so they knew his works intimately. Heminges and Condell along with Shakespeare are three of the nine men included in the Royal Patent that formally named the players The King’s Men so were significant individuals and good sources for the plays. The book is called the First Folio because it was the first edition of any of the plays to be printed folio sized, i.e. much larger than the quarto editions of individual plays that had appeared up until then and as said above were notoriously unreliable. A good example of this between a ‘bad quarto’ one probably written down by an audience member; a ‘good quarto’ one taken from actors notes or performance copies; and the First Folio can be seen here.

There are a total of 36 plays included in the First Folio out of the 38 existing works nowadays accepted as being by Shakespeare, ‘Pericles, Prince of Tyre’ and ‘The Two Noble Kinsmen’ are missing from the book. Both of these are regarded ny modern scholarship as collaborations rather than entirely by Shakespeare which may explain their absence. Eighteen plays had been published before the First Folio, however a few of these are notoriously unreliable so this was effectively the first appearance in print of over half of Shakespeare’s works and this was 7 years after his death. His modern reputation almost entirely relies on this single publication which perpetuates his work in a way he would never have expected especially due to his own reluctance to publish and therefore make his work available to other companies.

20180424 First Folio 1

An original copy is worth a small fortune, one sold 12 years ago for £2.8 million and it must be worth considerably more now, so I clearly don’t own one of those. But mine is a lovely copy, quarter bound in leather, of the second edition of the Norton Facsimile. This volume was created with the assistance of the astonishing Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. which holds 82 out of the known 235 copies of the First Folio. Each page was selected as the best example (or sometimes the least worst) from their enormous collection. One of the major problems is the amount of show through the pages where you can read the type on the other side of the page through the side you are looking at and this made photographing the works for this edition especially difficult. Also it was decided that where possible the most correct version of the text was used as it was known that the original book was corrected during printing back in 1623 so copies vary as they were produced.

20180424 First Folio 2

As such the reproduction is remarkably legible and easy to read and makes for interesting contrasts with my other versions of Shakespeare’s texts, two complete sets and three partial sets where the plays are in individual volumes. Some of these will be covered in later blogs especially the amazing Folio Society Letterpress Edition, probably the finest edition of Shakespeare ever printed, and certainly one of the most expensive at £295 per play. The introduction to the second edition is surprisingly dismissive of the scholarship that led to the first edition pointing out several errors. It is interesting to note that a third edition is in progress and it is hoped that the editor of that work will be kinder to their predecessors.

20180424 First Folio 3

Seen above is the opening of The Taming of the Shrew, a play I fell in love with when I was very young and the first Shakespeare play that I bought a copy of when I just 11 years old. I still have that book in which I wrote my name, year and form name at the front of so I must have taken it to school at some point, which is how I know I was that young when I bought it. On that basis The Taming of the Shrew seems a good place to mark the end of this first essay of mine on Shakespeare’s works and I look forward to examining other editions I have in future writings.

20180424 First Folio 4

as for the title of this essay, that is explained in First Folio 1