A Pox on Puritans

The Herbal Bed, English Touring Theatre, Theatre Royal, Brighton, Sat 26 April 7.45pm

It's tempting to squint at the meagre facts we have about Shakespeare's life, to see if something will come into focus, an overarching key to unlock the work. People have dedicated their lives to scouring records in search of his name. Others have stopped at almost nothing to prove, one way or the other, that Shakespeare couldn't have written what is attributed to him, that there is a mysterious code in the work and the life which will prove, beyond doubt, something or other. Book after book assert that it's a hopeless case. We are all free to make of his life whatever we wish.

Did his father marry him off so he could safely send him to London to manage his affairs, an illegal trade in wool? That would be fun. Was he more than just a lodger in Silver Street, the accepted lover of Frenchwoman Maria Mountjoy and father of her daughter? Is this really why he interceded to encourage the daughter to marry and perhaps gave her legal father money for her dowry which this father kept for himself? That would be fun too. But completely ridiculous of course. Chances are all that writing made the real Will a pretty dull boy.

And so to the facts of The Herbal Bed: these events occurred in 1613, the same year that Shakespeare wrote Henry VIII, which the company was playing when the Globe burned to the ground. It was also the year in which he first bought a property in London, in Blackfriars, near to the indoor Blackfriars theatre where his later plays were performed. What was he up to in his London pad? We hope no good.

In this year too, his elder daughter, Susanna, was slandered by one John Lane, son of local gentry. She was accused of spreading the pox by having it off with a haberdasher. What is really interesting about this event is the glimpse it provides into the journey in miniature Shakespeare's family seems to have made, the same journey the whole country was struggling with at large, the transition from Catholic, through Protestant to Puritan.

Was Shakespeare's father a recusant, a secret Catholic? Some biographies of Shakespeare have connected him with notable Catholic families in the North. Certainly, a distant relative of his mother was executed as a Catholic, not long before Shakespeare goes to London.

The French family that he is recorded as lodging with in the early 1600s are Huguenots, refugees from religious violence, and committed Protestants.

Susanna's husband, John Hall, whom she marries in 1607, is a Puritan.

Are you still with me?

Because, you know, why did Peter Whelan write this play, late last Century, and why did the English Touring Theatre revive it? No doubt it has something to do with of the anniversary of Shakespeare's death.

It's a handsome rendering for sure. Nice sets, good lighting, lovely costumes. But, you know, why?

The why is maybe submerged beneath an overwhelming reverence for all things Shakespeare. Originally performed by the RSC in 1996, The Herbal Bed is a kind of Midland's version of The Crucible or The Scarlet Letter, complete with a character called Hester.

Instead of a straightforward witch hunt, and a teenager with confused motivations, we have Shakespeare's daughter, with all the animal spirits and vivacity we must assume that family to possess, in the household of a Puritan doctor, a Cambridge graduate and scientist, potentially with dangerously seditious views on the proper place of religion as a moral and political force.

The play, or this production at least, isn't clear on the motivations or even actions of the characters. All the major religious and social groups are represented: the joyous Humanists (the Shakespeare family), the old-fashioned gentry (Susanna's accuser, Jack Lane), the established church focused on compromise (the Bishop of Worcester), the Bishop's Vicar-General, bent on restoring the authority of the established church, and the Puritans (Susanna's husband and putative lover).

The actors, however, tend to put on their performances with their costumes; they are the same at the beginning of any scene as they are at the end. Susanna, supposedly the personification of the conflict between Puritanism and humanity, seems to prefigure her fate before she has got through with her sin. We never get her energy and joy, just her anxiety. She isn't really any different with her lover, her accuser, her husband or her inquisitor. The same can be said of Jack Lane. The script suggests an irresistible rake, an attractive seducer of women and men. His teacher, John Nash should no more be able to resist his charms than can Hester, the serving girl. But Jack too, is the same at the beginning as he is when he returns in rags. The journey, the dynamic is absent.

This production, try as hard as it may to make something of an event in Shakespeare's life, misses the essential conflict, focussing instead on a clerical spat long forgotten. An expense of production values in a waste of intentions perhaps?

Paul Corcoran