To commemorate 400 years of Shakespeare’s brilliance, the Globe Theatre set up a 2.5-mile walk along the south bank of the Thames the weekend of April 23-24, 2016, showing one 10-minute film for each of his 37 plays. The films combined new scenes shot just for this walk (set in places the plays were set like Hamlet in Denmark and Antony and Cleopatra in Egypt), scenes from silent movie adaptations (on loan from the British Film Institute), and scenes from Globe productions over the years.
I had a wonderful time walking the route over the course of two days, sometimes with friends and sometimes on my own. I mistimed my Sunday and got caught up in the mass of humanity that was cheering on the London Marathon across the river, so I just squeezed in all the plays that day and finished 15 minutes before the event ended and the screens went dark.
I certainly don’t know every play, and in fact upon talking it over with my friend Liz (who knows just about every single one and has seen most of them performed too), I realized that I know the tragedies and many of the comedies, but I only know the outlines of his histories and some of the problem plays. I suppose that just gives me more to explore.
I liked that the Globe filmed scenes where Shakespeare originally set them; I think this was particularly effective with Othello & Iago alone in a Cypriot fort, where Iago could pour his poison in Othello’s ear under the hot sun; Coriolanus driving around the streets of Rome at night, Taxi Driver-style; Juliet ending it all in the tomb named for her in Verona; Richard II handing over his crown in the austere Westminster Hall; Cordelia trying to bring Lear back from madness at the white cliffs of Dover; and Falstaff carousing and philosophizing in The George pub.
Here’s a sample of what I saw, in the order of the route as laid out by the Globe (you can see the route I followed here and the list of credits & play summaries here). I didn’t always get the famous lines on video, and my camera ran out of storage space before I could get video of each film so there are still photos for those plays. The only scene out of order is Hamlet–there’s a photo of that film in order, but the video is at the very end of my movie, because I think the brief lines there offer a nice coda. Enjoy!
“You have to really menace me with those swords,” I reminded my friends. “Don’t hold back.” They rolled their eyes at me, but obliged by brandishing their sticks more threateningly. The woman taking our photo looked bemused. Welcome to traveling with me–there’s probably going to be some ridiculous posing, and it might well involve liberal interpretations of what a historical moment might have looked like. In this case, the signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede.
The Magna Carta is held up as a sort of proto-democratic document, the fledgling beginnings of constitutional rights. And it was the first document in Western society of its kind, even if it was an agreement reached between a weak king and his disgruntled barons, dealing in large part with the property rights of those barons. But never mind, it’s got a lot of symbolic power. It was used throughout the centuries as the basis for laws granting liberties in England, and the Founding Fathers looked to it when they were drawing up the United States Constitution.
King John signed the Magna Carta on June 15, 1215, which means that when I visited last year, it was nearly the 800th anniversary of the signing. There were probably some ceremonies in June last year to commemorate the anniversary, but on that overcast April day, the site was pretty empty. We met only a few people on our walk from the start of the National Trust trail, through the woods and fields, to the monument itself.
Once at the monument, we saw that the American Bar Association had put it up and maintained it. There was also a monument to John F Kennedy, and a tree planted to commemorate the bicentennial of the United States–that last seems a bit cheeky on English soil. So pretty much everything there was put up by the Americans. My mom said it was typical of both countries: the English took it for granted that this major historical site was just there, and the Americans needed to mark it ostentatiously. Sounds about right.
When I mentioned to my mom that I’d gone to Runnymede, she asked how I’d got on the island. What island, I wanted to know. She’d been taught at school that the Magna Carta was signed on an island in the Thames. I didn’t even see an island when I was there. I did see the ruins of a priory across the river, unreachable from where we were, and an old yew tree near it, which the Internet tells me is likely the actual spot the document was signed. So the memorial isn’t quite in the right spot. We can only fetishize historical places so much, because it’s all an approximation. I suppose, as usual, it’s what we’ve done with that historical moment that matters.