Shakespeare: 10 Things you didn't Know

How did the Bard cause a plane crash? Why did his theatre stink? To celebrate the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth, the RSC's Gregory Doran presents 10 startling facts

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1. Shakespeare caused an air crash

On October 4th 1960 a Lockheed Electra aeroplane setting off from Boston Airport stirred up a flock of 10,000 starlings on the runway. It flew straight into the avian cloud which choked the engines and brought the aeroplane down. 62 people died in the crash.

Now, starlings are not a species which are native to North America. They were introduced in 1890 by a Shakespeare nut called Eugene Schieffelin. He wanted Central Park in New York to be home to all the songbirds mentioned in Shakespeare.

The thrushes and blackbirds had no impact on the environment, but the starlings thrived. By the late twenties they had reached the Mississippi and by the forties had arrived in California. Now they are found from Alaska to Florida, and have ousted many native species, driving off bluebirds and woodpeckers, and forming gigantic flocks of up to a million birds.

So Schieffelin’s romantic gesture not only brought about an air crash, but an ecological disaster too.

But where does Shakespeare ever mention starlings? There is only one reference. It comes in “Henry IV Part One” when Hotspur, forbidden by the king to mention the name of Mortimer, declares that he will train a starling to say his name and sing it continually in his majesty’s ear.

2. Hitler designed a Shakespeare play

In one of Hitler’s 1926 sketchbooks, there is a design for Julius Caesar. It portrays the forum, with the same sort of “severe deco”, neoclassical architecture which would later create the setting for the Nazi rallies at Nuremburg. Hitler’s admiration for The Imperial Roman Empire was immense, after a visit to the Colosseum, the Pantheon and the baths of Caracalla. And his drawing of the forum suggests his appetite to create a platform worthy of his oratorical skills, paralleling Brutus and Mark Antony, and establish an arena in which to glorify the thousand year Third Reich. His chief architect, Albert Speer, designed the grandstand of the Zeppelinfeld, in which his Fuhrer could realise these ambitions.

In 1937, Orson Welles opened his Mercury Theatre Company in New York, by directing a production of Julius Caesar which evoked both contemporary Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

3. Shakespeare’s theatre stank

When Thomas Platter visited London in 1599 and saw a production of Julius Caesar at the newly opened Globe Theatre, he also visited the bear baiting. Afterwards he went behind the theatre and saw the dog enclosure, where there were one hundred and twenty English mastiffs each chained to their own kennel. In an adjoining stall there were twelve large bears, one of which was blind, and several bulls in another. He comments on the stench:

“And the place was evil-smelling because of the lights (offal) and meat on which the butchers fed the said dogs”.

The Hope Theatre which was built on Bankside, ( just two months after the nearby Globe Theatre burned to the ground in June 1613), alternated bear baiting and theatre plays. In Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, the stage-keeper complains about having to share the arena with the bears, and to the shocking smell: “the place be as dirty as Smithfield” he says, “and as stinking every whit”.

4. The great actress, Sarah Bernhardt modelled for a statue of Lady Macbeth

Next time you pass the Gower Statue of Shakespeare, which stands in front of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, take a closer look at one of the four supporting figures which surround the plinth. These bronze characters represent four elements of Shakespeare’s genius: Falstaff chortles for Comedy; Henry V holds the crown aloft for History, Hamlet with Yorick’s skull broods for Philosophy, and Lady Macbeth wrings her hands for Tragedy.

Lord Ronald Gower sculpted this assemblage in his studio in the Boulevard Montparnasse in Paris. When the great actress “the divine” Sarah Bernhardt visited him one day, she advised him precisely how Lady M. should wring her hands. She would play the part later, in 1899.

When the statue was originally unveiled in 1888, it was positioned on the other side of the building, behind the Swan Theatre, and faced the church.

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