The form’s the thing

This article by Lucy was first published on, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust website.

As a poet and playwright working in the renaissance form, I’ve found that if you simply begin a play with the premise that a great deal of your dialogue will be in blank verse, then many of the conventions of the form grow naturally from that decision. A play dealing in the theatricality of language is almost predestined to contain a play-within-a-play, for example.

However, I’ve been happy to discover that these echoes, natural to the form, are timeless. There is no need to use self-consciously ‘ancient’ words, or to engage in flowery language for the sake of it. Iambic pentameter is, in fact, bold and sparse. It is very suited to the patterns of modern speech.

In the theatre, when we watch a Shakespeare play, we don’t feel that we are experiencing a period drama or a revival. The language is resonant, despite certain archaic words and references that are no longer relevant to us. The form is flexible, allowing productions with casts of hundreds or adaptations with small casts doubling, outdoor productions, promenade performances: the list goes on, throughout history.

Of course, Shakespeare casts a long shadow, but many of his contemporaries wrote in the same style, and their works also survive. The playwriting form of the renaissance period – itself a re-birth of classic techniques – is a testimony to the robustness of this type of theatre. There are certain things it is possible to say in this form that aren’t possible in any other.

When working with an iambic pentameter beat, that rhythm of ten stresses per line and its many variations, something happens to the language. Out of the constraint, comes the ability to communicate on a different and deeper level.

Poets are usually restricted to telling the authentic truth from their point of view. But in this form, they are permitted to ‘lie’: or to tell the truth as seen from the point of view of other characters. They can reveal what happens with these ‘truths’ unite or battle against each other. Additionally, dramatic poetry is not just a communion between author and reader on a page. Something will happen on the stage, in front of the audience, as a direct result of this reasoning and expression. The writer is free to explore the moment when a character is caught between thought and action.

In the same way that the tools of the dramatist liberate the poet, the playwright is liberated from prose, delving into the minds and hearts of his characters. The characters become poets. The subtext is driven deeper and deeper until it becomes a mystery, a reflection of the reality of human experience as well as a comment on it.

Often a writer will tackle complex ideas, examining particular questions in order to explain or examine some conflict within themselves or that they see occurring in the world around them. No other form is so suited to fully exploring such conflicts with both ambiguity and precision – for example examining the nature of politics, without becoming in itself political.

In an age of specialisation, it may be rare for writers to engage in this style, as it is necessary to be almost equally engaged in the activities of both poetry and playwriting. Despite this, it is a marriage of techniques well worth pursuing. The qualities that keep audiences enthralled by these plays should also attract the writer. I have been delighted to find that the same skills that directors and actors use to bring the originals to life can just as readily be applied to a new work on this form.

A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming Under the Southern Bough

This article by Lucy was first published on, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust website.

As a specialist in blank verse,  I was fortunate to be involved in a fascinating project organised by the University of Leeds to mark the 400th anniversary of the deaths of both Shakespeare and the Ming dynasty playwright Tang Xianzu. A new stage production was presented by two groups preparing and rehearsing on different continents, with Beijing-based students from the University of International Business and Economics (UIBE) adapting A Midsummer Night’s Dream, while students from Leeds University reworked Tang’s Nanke-ji (A Dream Under the Southern Bough). The adaptations were performed at both Universities before appearing at the 2016 Leeds Intercultural Festival and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. This was followed by a tour of China taking in Beijing, Shanghai, and Tang’s hometown Fuzhou during the Tang Xianzu Memorial Festival.

Ruru Li, Professor of Theatre Studies at the University of Leeds, suggested I assist Jun Li, director of UIBE’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in some aspects of their script. Jun, a passionate advocate of Shakespeare’s style, wanted to remain faithful to the poetic nature of the work even though this aspect of the adaptation might prove challenging to non-native English speakers.

Jun sent across the script, which he had written with co-adaptor Bingying Wang. The adaptation clearly took inspiration from parts of the original text that echoed aspects of Chinese culture. This was shown by the working title of the play: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Sophora Nest 槐树爱巢仲夏梦”.  The Sophora tree (Chinese scholar tree) 槐树 is associated with dreams in ancient Chinese stories and legends, and also served as the main set in the Leeds University adaptation of Tang Xianzu’s “Southern Bough”. The characters, too, were taken from Chinese traditions. Inspired by Puck, together with Oberon and Theseus, the play contained a chorus-like assembly of three Spirits to represent different attitudes towards love: Sense, Sensibility and Moderation. Jun pointed out that as ‘moderation’ is a quality highly valued in China, this Spirit was portrayed as especially Chinese.

The adaptation also reflected a generational response to the source material. The main characters followed similar trajectories to those in the original, but contemporary concerns were included. For example, Chinese social media forum Wechat was mentioned to demonstrate potential for communications and miscommunication between the characters. Jun wrote that the young people in the play “represent more up-to-date aspects of people in China as well as in a great number of other places in this global village…the story can be also interpreted as a search for enlightenment, for they experience moments of epiphany and undergo a process of growth in our comic adaptation.”

Jun wanted the Spirits especially to speak in iambic pentameter, in order to distinguish their voices from the non-magical characters. We had an idea of what these Spirits should say: it was a case of converting the dialogue into blank verse. This mirrors how I work on iambic pentameter, firstly by creating an overall plan of the meaning and then transforming it into poetry. With a modern work in a classic style, it is possible to refer to aspects of contemporary life, making new metaphors and allusions possible. This is an advantage of poetic dialogue, as comparisons are naturally drawn between one thing and another, drawing in complex ideas and making them human.

Jun also requested that I edit the script and polish the language. Overall, the script contained prose dialogue, modern references, and new passages of iambic pentameter together with passages from the original play. It was important to maintain an overall tone to unite these elements while remaining faithful both to the source material and the specific cultural aspects of the adapted work. I avoided specifically Elizabethan words, modernising the language so there was uniformity within the whole script to tie all the different aspects together. The writing process was flexible, with the text re-drafted after rehearsals as the students improvised and explored new ideas.

The run up to the opening performance demonstrated that this project was a significant cultural exchange. While visiting the UK, Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed the idea of a joint celebration of Tang and Shakespeare, saying: “China and the UK can join in celebrating the legacies of these two literary giants, to promote interpersonal dialogue and deepen mutual understanding.”  Liu Xiaoming, the Chinese ambassador to the UK, gave a speech before the world premiere at Leeds University.

I saw the play at the Edinburgh Festival, and welcomed the chance to experience all aspects of the production beyond the text, including the actors’ interpretations of the lines and the use of music with some of the iambic dialogue. From an audience perspective, some would be unfamiliar with Shakespeare, while others would be new to Tang. “Dreaming Under the Southern Bough” told the story of a man falling into a dream in which he becomes ruler of an Ant Kingdom, slowly becoming corrupted by power. For their adaptation, the Leeds students updated the central character as a soldier back from Iraq, rather than the unsuccessful officer who lost his military position due to drunkenness in the original. Afterwards, I was left wanting to find out more about Tang, and I expect those unfamiliar with Shakespeare had the same reaction watching the UIBE performance.

This project involved many people through study, practical theatrical work, and cross-collaboration. My own small part in this production revitalised my writing practice with new ideas and a welcome chance to work with some inspiring academic and arts practitioners. As Ruru commented when working on the project, “It is a genuine intercultural practice, both thought-provoking and a great pleasure for everyone involved.” It is also a testament to the enduring qualities of the classic form that these playwrights, four hundred years after their deaths, can still have their work produced and adapted in such a modern way.



The legal connection – Shakespeare, law, and Middle Temple Hall

This article by Lucy was first published on, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust website.

Playwright Lucy Nordberg interviews Professor Jessica Winston, Professor of English and Chair of the History Department at Idaho State University, and author of Lawyers at Play: Literature, Law, and Politics at the Early Modern Inns of Court, 1558–1581, published by Oxford University Press (2016).

While researching Elizabethan playing spaces, I recently investigated the history of Middle Temple Hall in London, the site of the first recorded performance of Twelfth Night on 2nd February 1602. Virtually unchanged since its construction, the ornate oak-panelled Hall overlooks the Thames and contains curiosities including a piece of Drake’s ship the Golden Hind and a 29-foot table carved from a single oak, said to be donated by Elizabeth I. But this is far from a museum. Aside from all its artefacts, the Hall has an unbroken line of practical and intellectual use dating back to its inception. As one of the four ancient Inns of Court, the professional associations for barristers in England and Wales, it continues to provide education and support to new members of the legal profession.

Of course, there are some differences now. You can pre-book lunch at the Hall, alongside the students, bench members and barristers, but besides the odd heated discussion you probably won’t witness arguments overspilling into violence, as they did in 1598 when future poet, MP and lawyer John Davies cudgelled fellow student Richard Martin on the head. This was, it can easily be imagined, a more swashbuckling age. New traditions, ventures and ideas were forged here. The legal profession itself was being defined. And in the entertainment of the day, new plays were finding a way to articulate ideas about human nature.

I was particularly curious about how aspects of the Hall’s history reveal connections that exist between law and Elizabethan drama. In the course of my work, I had made contact with Professor Jessica Winston, a specialist in Shakespeare and sixteenth-century literature, who has recently written a book on literature, law and politics at the early modern Inns of Court. Jessica kindly agreed to be interviewed when visiting the UK, and we met at the British Library, where she was conducting research.

Lucy Nordberg: In 1602, a legal student, John Manningham, wrote in his diary about the production of Twelfth Night at the Hall. He gave it a good review. Can you tell us little about the Middle Temple audience and what would make them so receptive to Shakespeare?

Jessica Winston: Although Manningham was something of an ideal spectator, the audience would have been fairly diverse in terms of age and level of affiliation with the Inns of Court. There could have been junior members, barristers, readers and the Governors of the Inn called the Benchers. But junior members at the Inns were especially fond of playgoing. There are references in the period to the Inns of Court Man, who was never a student and who spent all of his time at the plays and bearbaiting in Southwark. So in that sense, the lovers of plays would have been part of the Twelfth Night audience. The kind of men at the Inns of Court around 1600 – but especially at the Middle Temple – often wrote poetry, and were often mean spirited with each other as well as witty.

LN: You give a good description of them having “a similar fondness for witty, biting satire and they had similar personalities, often characterised by volatile tempers and intellectual and egotistical discontentedness with society and the follies of others.” So they would have been sparring with each other in a sort of almost playlike way, with drama going on amongst themselves.

JW: Yes, and in that sense even something like the shaming of Malvolio, which is often taken to be a satire on Puritans, in its meanspiritedness could also have been appealing to the audience.

LN: Manningham points that out, doesn’t he, and says he thinks that part of the play is done well. Overall, it seems there is a big connection between the legal and the literary professions, especially at that time. How did that come about?

JW: As with any historical phenomenon, the answer is multifaceted. For a long time, scholars have hypothesized that the Inns of Court were literary centres because of geographical location and institutional context, attracting young fairly well-to-do men who were also well educated. They had a lot of time on their hands because there was no required schooling.

LN: Yes, that interested me, the idea of having a place where people gathered who could create things that weren’t necessarily connected to what they were prescribed to do. They had the space to be able to explore other areas intellectually.

JW: Yes. To many of us nowadays that seems strange, considering how prescribed the programming is – at least in an American university. It’s very odd to think that there would have been so much space and time, where you don’t have to do anything except maybe attend some moots and dinners. And if you don’t do those few things, you only have to pay a fine. A way to think about the Inns of Court is as liberating, intellectual spaces. That’s part of the answer, although in my book I also tried to show that the Inns of Court are not always a literary space. That literary energy gets activated in particular decades. So, in the 1560s and in the 1590s, there’s an increase in the literary activity associated with the Inns and that has to do with changes in the legal profession.

The Inns existed first and foremost as legal societies and law schools. Even though up to about 85 percent of the men admitted to the Inns did not become barristers, many did aim to become legal men in a larger sense: they went on to govern their own estates, to serve as local Justices of the Peace, or to work in other civic positions, such as town recorder, and in this sense the law nevertheless mattered to members. In the 1590s the legal profession consolidated in London, but there was not a good sense of what exactly a lawyer should be, what his ethics should be, how he should treat people personally and professionally. There are all kinds of comparisons in the literature of this period from people like John Davies between ‘lawyers and whores’.

Many writers at the Inns were also using their biting satire and wit to consider what it meant to be a representative of the law. Even if they didn’t want to be lawyers, it mattered to them to consider: ‘are you doing the right thing?’ The culture of personal shaming and wit was, I think, also about policing or trying to come up with a certain idea of what a lawyer should be by shaming men for acting in ways that lawyers shouldn’t act.

LN: Middle Temple itself is often mentioned in literary works. How does Shakespeare mention it and does this tell anything about Middle Temple’s significance to the wider public at the time?

JW: Shakespeare’s most famous mentions Middle Temple is a scene in 1 Henry VI in the Temple Gardens. That’s the scene where the factions of York and Lancaster sow the seeds of civil war. When they pluck the roses in the garden, one takes a red rose and one takes the white rose so there’s a kind of national mythmaking going on. But it’s interesting as well because Shakespeare uses that location ironically. It’s a garden at a law school, so a place you would associate with an ideal pastoral world, with a natural order, and with law. And yet here is a scene where these men ultimately disregard the law, so Somerset says: ‘Faith, I have been a truant in the law / And never yet could frame my will to it; / And therefore frame the law unto my will’ (2.4.7–9). So law is perverted by personal will. The irony might suggest that Shakespeare is perhaps idealising the Inns. But it could also suggest that he’s not. That he’s actually associating what’s happening in the garden with the reputation of the Inns of Court as a place where the law is made—and perhaps shaped in ways that are affected by personal, human elements.

LN: There’s another connection between law and drama. A dramatic situation comes about when two sides are pitted against each other. A court case and a play have both a human and logical elements. And I wonder if a particular style of drama might come from a time when people are creating the means of working through ideas in certain ways.

JW: True. So there’s an even more fundamental connection. There’s some wonderful work by the author Lorna Hutson who argues that legal rhetoric, based on Quintilian, was of course the way that young men learned to argue anything, in any sort of rhetorical context. That’s the way you’d learn the art of rhetoric in school. But she demonstrates how that style of argument influences how scenes are plotted in Shakespeare’s plays, and also how Shakespeare makes places and people seem real by including references to circumstances (times, places, and persons), in ways that can be traced back to Quintilian’s rhetorical guidelines. So a play like the Comedy of Errors – an Inns of Court play – sets up ideas about eyewitness evidence and how you draw conclusions from what you see, which of course is also something that Twelfth Night plays with.

LN: It also brings to mind John Donne – also connected with the Inns of Court – in the poems where he uses the learning of the time to win over a lover. Poetry brings together logic and feeling as well so it seems that it stems from a particular mindset.

JW: Absolutely. Also, a good rhetorician will know how appeal to the emotions, among other things. So it’s important to understand when to do that and how to do that – both as a lawyer and as a writer.

One related note about Twelfth Night is that, like the Comedy of Errors, it’s a story about someone who arrives in a new place who’s completely unknown, someone who has to make their own identity in that place. A Comedy of Errors is perhaps more obviously relevant to the Inns of Court context, expressing the idea that ‘who you are’ is malleable. The future could be yours, but what is going to happen to you is always up in the air and not solely dependent on your actions, but also on the people around you. You know, not everyone wants to see Viola marry Orsino at the end of Twelfth Night. But to the extent that there is this trajectory of developing towards a sort of mature self, the play contains the idea of malleability of identity and the sense of developing into something. I think that would have appealed to Inns of Court men too.

For more information on Middle Temple Hall, follow this link