What an Easter break. Our ASLE-UKI-INSPIRE prize essay (see blog below) on Shakespeare and the food chain was picked up by Jonathan Leake, Science and Environmental Editor of Sunday Times. With the kind of media-savvy you’d expect from, well, a paper whose circulation is pushing 900,000, Sunday Times focused the story as Shakespeare the “tax-dodger” and “grain hoarder” in a time of dearth. We found ourselves on the front page leader column, page 22 and the Editorial on page 28. Then the phones started ringing.
Daily Mail, Mirror, Huffington Post, Telegraph, Independent, Yahoo! OMG, Der Tagesspiegel, Spiegel Online, LA Times, MSN News and Forbes followed it up, journalists rang for interviews and syndicated versions of the original research with new mash-ups went global. We made Radio 4’s review of the papers, news bulletins throughout the day and there are even reports (unconfirmed) that Sir Terry Wogan commented on the story. One of the day's highlights was an invitation from Stacy Herbert via Twitter to be interviewed about the “bankster bard” on the Keiser Report. [UPDATE: After the noon news on his Radio 2 show on Easter Sunday, Terry Wogan, remarking on the Shakespeare story in his beautiful, buttery brogue, uttered the enigmatic words: "Probably bacon". We may never know for certain what he had in mind, but he was perhaps referring to the fact that Shakespeare's father, among many things, was a butcher. Either that, or he was remembering J. Dover Wilson's often-quoted remark that the restored Stratford funerary monument makes the bard look like a "self-satisfied pork butcher". Or he was alluding to Francis Bacon.]
Reactions, inevitably, have been mixed, ranging from “this story makes Shakespeare seem more human and accessible” to “Welshski kommies knock England’s national hero”. The comments at the end of Daily Mail’s online coverage provide a good spread of public views in this regard. Huffington Post's online comments section is also heaving (over 500 views expressed so far) – with some excellent engagement with the political angles. Patt Morrison has written a very good opinion piece in LA Times in response to the research, with a great punch-line, ditto Alexander Lee in History Today.
While grain-hoarding certainly provides a popular way into the discussion, our research is concerned with exploring the ways in which an acknowledgement of Shakespeare’s involvement with agrarian trade helps us to read his works with a greater awareness of the tropes and metaphors that may have mattered most to him. As we wrote in Times Literary Supplement in 2010, and in our recently published Shakespeare Quarterly essay, play-goers have become increasingly used to seeing King Lear presented on a bare stage, in a ground-zero, psychologized staging where what’s at stake is a man’s struggle with the human condition itself. Yet key sections of the play are set in a corn field, and Shakespeare carefully references crop weeds such as the bastard wheat relative, psychotoxic cereal mimicker, darnel (lolium temulentum), to address themes of political and familial infiltration – “bastardy”, in the play’s terms.
In addition, the problem that sets the action of King Lear going is Lear’s division of the kingdom. Divisive in more ways than one. As we argue in our published work, by giving the scrubland, mountains and unproductive land to Goneril and Regan, and the valuable grain-growing regions to Cordelia, Lear is guaranteeing the derangement of the kingdom in the form of resource wars. A Shakespeare who knew all about the value of grain at a time of national dearth wasn’t making references to the corruption of the food chain by darnel or to squabbles over the most fertile land lightly. His crop weeds are not “literary” weeds, and the setting of Lear’s madness, his personal derangement, in a wheatfield – emphatically not a bare stage – shouldn't be seen as arbitrary. At any rate, looking beyond the headlines of grain-hoarding and tax-dodging, our work attempts to reconnect the plays with the crisis of food supply, distribution and sustenance in the England of Shakespeare's own day – crisis in which, through his business dealings, the playwright was himself a player.
Jayne, Sid and I will be discussing our ASLE-UKI-INSPIRE paper at the Hay Festival on 23 May, 7pm, along with Adeline Johns-Putra of ASLE-UKI, and Jane Davidson, Director of INSPIRE and former Welsh Minister for Environment and Sustainability.
Jayne's interview on Good Morning Wales with Felicity Evans (timing: 55.37-59.10)
My interview with Julian Marshall on BBC World Service’s Newshour (timing: 18.30-22.49)
Pdfs of Sunday Times coverage (front page, p. 22). Jonathan Leake, science editor of The Sunday Times, published these articles on March 31, 2013. The originals can be seen at www.thesundaytimes.co.uk
Fox News Radio bulletin. Newsy video feature.