Friday 18 December 2020

#HistoricalFiction author, Steven Veerapen, is taking a look at the myths behind that infamous Scottish Play! There is also a chance to check out Steven's fabulous book — Assassination @ScrutinEye @SharpeBooks


Publication Date: 12th November, 2020
Publisher: Sharpe Books
Page Length: 311 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction 


England still reels from the narrow escape of the Gunpowder Plot. Jubilation and fear compete for dominance in London as the queen’s brother, King Christian of Denmark, arrives for the first state visit seen in decades.

Ned Savage, thief and spy, is summoned by Robert Cecil and the bookish Francis Bacon.
Intelligence has come in concerning the arrival of a female assassin, code-named Locusta.
Savage soon discovers that the agent is in the employ of a secret society called the Brotherhood of Augustus.

Their mission is one of terror and revenge.

But who are they? And who is their target?

Savage’s search takes him into the Tower of London to interrogate the last remaining member of the Gunpowder Plotters - and an old foe, Walter Raleigh. He is also on the trail of the disgraced Penelope Devereux, sister to the late earl of Essex.

Savage gradually uncovers a plan to assassinate a king during the premiere performance of Macbeth at Hampton Court. But which king’s life is in peril - and how will the Brotherhood achieve their aim?

The spy must discover the truth behind Locusta and the Augustans and foil their assassination plot before the curtain falls.

Even those who have neither read nor seen performed Shakespeare’s Macbeth undoubtedly know one thing about it: you must never say its name in a theatre, because ‘the Scottish Play’ is cursed. This alleged curse has certainly made its way into popular culture. How unforgettable the sight of the two thespians in Blackadder the Third, frantically reciting, ‘Hot potatoes, orchestra stalls, Puck will make amends!’ to exorcise the evil spirits, because ‘one does never speak the name of the Scottish play!’

Don't Mention Macbeth | Blackadder The Third | BBC Comedy Greats

But where does the idea of this curse spring from?

Supposedly, one can find all manner of dark tales emanating from the stage and behind the scenes. In the 1930s, Laurence Olivier was almost killed by falling scenery during a performance. A man in the audience then suffered a heart attack when a piece of metal flew from the stage during a sword fight. No fewer than three actors died in the course of a production during the Second World War. It all sounds very dark, very grim … and very modern.

Macbeth and Banquo with the Witches by Henry Fuseli: Wikipedia

The source of the alleged curse is hazy. One story goes that Shakespeare – without permission, mind you – drew on real spells when writing the Weird Sisters’ incantations into his play. This so angered the witching world that members of a real coven cursed the drama for all time. Another tale runs that King James, outraged by the depiction of his home kingdom as a place of unnatural acts and bloody deeds, forbade the play from being performed at court again – an act of royal impetuosity (for which there is no contemporary account) which so infuriated the hapless playwright that William Shakespeare cursed the play himself.

But by far the most famous – or infamous – account of the birth of Macbeth’s association with darkness pertains to its first performance at court: in the great hall at Hampton Court, in fact.

In the summer of 1606, England was visited by Queen Anne’s brother, Christian IV of Denmark. A whole festival of entertainments was laid on, from hunting at Robert Cecil’s splendid palace of Theobalds to triumphal ceremonial entries, visits to St Paul’s Cathedral and a trip around Westminster Abbey, in which effigies of England’s finest kings and queens were set up. Nor was nightly entertainment neglected. In addition to the little-known Abuses being staged at Theobalds by a children’s company, the King’s Men (of which Shakespeare was a member) were charged with staging three plays on August 7th. Amongst them was the bard’s newest drama, and one which was bound to delight a Scottish king: Macbeth.

The stage was set. The lines had been learnt. The drama adhered to all the strictures which the king had recently brought in to govern what could and couldn’t be performed publicly (cursing and oaths were out, as was the depiction of living monarchs of any nationality).

And then disaster struck.

A print of Lady Macbeth from Mrs. Anna Jameson's 1832 analysis of Shakespeare's Heroines, Characteristics of Women: Wikipedia

Hal Berridge, the boy actor who had the plum role of Lady Macbeth fell ill of a pleurisy and dropped dead without further ado. All looked lost; the theatricals were dismayed; the king would surely be humiliated before his brother-in-law! Thankfully, however, none other than William Shakespeare himself was able to don the wig and dress and it was alright on the night. Well, except for the unfortunate Berridge, whose angry ghost apparently left behind a lasting curse.

But is the tale true?

Unfortunately, it isn’t. There never was a Hal Berridge. The entire episode sprang from the pen of essayist and humourist Max Beerbohm in 1898. This delightful piece of Victoriana, though, was of a piece with the mountain of mythology – or bardolatry – which grew in tandem with the Romantic raising up of Shakespeare to national hero status (and in part sought to fill the void of actual, concrete information about his life). Like the stories of the playwright poaching at Charlecote Park as a youth, and his being asked by Elizabeth I to write a play about Falstaff (which request saw The Merry Wives of Windsor brought to life), it is a piece of pure fiction. Yet, like the others, the story of Hal Berridge has taken on such a life of its own that it is common to find it related as fact (and not just on the internet!).

Max Beerbohm: Wikipedia

In truth, although contemporary evidence tells us that three plays were indeed staged before the royal family on August 7th 1606, we do not know what they were. Macbeth, however, seems a reasonable candidate (even though the first written reference to its performance comes in 1612, scholarly opinion largely agrees on a 1606 dating). In setting Assassination during King Christian’s 1606 visit, and climaxing on the night of the three plays, I found myself unable to resist including Hal Berridge as a character (with credit, of course, given to the mischievous Beerbohm). My intention is not to misinform, but to invite readers to consider our strange and, to me, endlessly interesting relationship with Shakespearean mythology. As an avid reader of historical fiction, I’ve encountered Shakespeare as a detective; Shakespeare’s brother as a spy; Shakespeare as a spy; Shakespeare as a victim stalked by a killer… Our love of the bard appears to go far beyond the plays; it extends into a hunger for a glimpse of the man and his actions. Where we lack absolute facts, fiction, speculation, and mythology flood in, reflecting our own needs and desires as to what the man was back at us.

In Assassination, both Hal Berridge and Shakespeare appear as secondary characters – as do King James, Robert Cecil, Sir Francis Bacon, Queen Anne, and Penelope Devereux. There might, though, be a few surprises even for those who know the mythology surrounding Macbeth. Alas, I cannot promise that, as in Beerbohm’s creation of the dying boy actor myth, it’ll be alright on the night.

Steven Veerapen
was born in Glasgow and raised in Paisley. Pursuing an interest in the sixteenth century, he was awarded a first-class Honours degree in English, focussing his dissertation on representations of Henry VIII’s six wives. He then received a Masters in Renaissance studies, and a Ph.D. investigating Elizabethan slander. Steven is fascinated by the glamour and ghastliness of life in the 1500s, and has a penchant for myths, mysteries and murders in an age in which the law was as slippery as those who defied it.

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See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx