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The Bard’s untamed shrew: Shakespeare and the Countess by Chris Laoutaris

The Countess Russell drew up a petition to prevent Blackfriars Theatre from opening and to drive the dramatist and his wretched troupe from her turf.

Drama queen: the Countess Russell. Image: Red Edge/Girts Gailans

Shakespeare and the Countess:
The Battle That Gave Birth to the Globe

Chris Laoutaris
Fig Tree, 503pp, £20

Shakespeare was the neighbour from hell, according to Elizabeth Russell, the dowager countess of Bedford and Puritan zealot who had the misfortune to live next to his newly built Blackfriars Theatre.

Not only did she put up for months with the hammering and clattering of builders, whose carts of rubble rattled ceaselessly past her front door, but once the “house of Satan” was complete, she faced a future of roads gridlocked with revellers as well as the interminable racket of “drums and trumpets” rising from the stage. Shakespeare’s business partner James Burbage was hoping to create a state-of-the-art playhouse to attract a quality audience, but as far as Elizabeth was concerned, any audience was corrupting public morals. Preferring the “divine service and sermons”, she considered the theatre to be at best a “market of bawdry” and at worst the focus of civil unrest.

It was 1596 and these were nervous times; so, to preserve the peace, Elizabeth did what any soldier of Christ and servant of the queen would do. She drew up a petition to prevent the den of iniquity from opening and to drive the dramatist and his wretched troupe from her turf.

In doing so, she derailed Shakespeare’s career, but only temporarily. He avenged himself, Chris Laoutaris suggests, by sending up her kinsmen in Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor and immortalising her son, Thomas Posthumous Hoby, as the Puritanical Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Several scenes from her life are encrypted in his plays and Elizabeth’s final appearance in Shakespeare, Laoutaris moots, is as the dowager countess of Rousillon in All’s Well That Ends Well.

Shakespeare and the Countess is a work of historical and literary detection which takes us straight to the heart of religious politics in Elizabethan England. Homing in on the countess’s petition, Laoutaris – a lecturer at Birmingham University’s Shakespeare Institute – vividly reconstructs the neighbourhood of Blackfriars in the City of London, where courtiers, tradesmen and French émigrés lived cheek by jowl, and unravels the relationships between the signatories. These are not as straightforward as you might assume: the author shows how one of the petitioners was Shakespeare’s own patron George Carey; another was the publisher of his Venus and Adonis, Richard Field, a childhood friend. It was quite normal, in the extreme world of Elizabeth Russell, for everyone to be deceiving everyone else almost all of the time.

There is a great deal to admire in this hugely ambitious book but the title is misleading. The Bard has only a walk-on role in the overall drama and, strange to say, the scenes in which he appears could be cut without any great loss. His presence will obviously appeal to the audience and his name does not appear without a drum roll, but Laoutaris is less interested in Shakespeare than in Elizabeth Russell: occasional poet, pushy parent, self-promoting Puritan and the most litigious woman who ever lived. Putting the playwright out of business was as nought in comparison to the punishments meted out from her country estates to neighbours with whom she fell out. Kidnap, forgery and hanging men by their heels were Elizabeth’s usual responses to disputes over land. Ironically, she had a lively theatrical streak and blossomed in battle.

She was an extremist in all things and her life was organised around promoting her children, acquiring and protecting her property (she was the first woman to be the keeper of her own castle) and destroying the Catholic cause. Her afterlife has been just as hectic, with Bisham Abbey, one of her houses, reputed to be home to her furious ghost. Mysterious green lights flicker in the tower room and a hooded woman has been seen rowing a boat on the river in a swath of blue mist.

In the only living likeness of her that still exists, Elizabeth stares out like a cobra from beneath a white headdress of astonishing dimensions, and Laoutaris paints an equally striking biographical portrait. She was given the education of a king because her father, Sir Anthony Cooke, was tutor to Edward VI and Elizabeth shared the boy’s lessons. As such, she was raised to believe in her social superiority, her civic duty, and the importance of crushing those who were not on her team. The Cooke family operated at the centre of
the court: one of her sisters married William Cecil, Lord Burghley, the most powerful man in England, and another married Sir Nicholas Bacon and became the mother of Francis Bacon. Elizabeth married twice; first to Thomas Hoby, the English ambassador to France, and then to John Russell, heir of the Earl of Bedford. Russell died before he inherited the title, but this detail did not deter his widow from calling herself the dowager countess.

Probably wisely, Laoutaris at all times takes the side of his subject, even if this involves giving credit where none is due. She was, he argues, a pioneering “feminist” who stood up for women as independent owners of property. Elizabeth Russell, however, was concerned with the rights of no woman other than herself. He praises her courage as a “single mother”, a modern expression that has little meaning for an age and class in which the requirements of parenthood were so different. She seems to have been singularly unpleasant as a mother; iron-willed, she manipulated the marriages of her children, alienated her sons and was rumoured to have beaten one of them to death when, as a boy, he marred his copybook. Laoutaris swipes this story aside like an irritating fly.

In attempting to destroy Shakespeare’s career, Elizabeth inadvertently gave it a boost: had she not shut down the Blackfriars Theatre, he would not have crossed the river and built the Globe. And without the Globe, Laoutaris suggests, we might never have had Hamlet, Othello, King Lear or Macbeth, all of which appeared in the first six years of its opening. He ends on bended knee, thanking Elizabeth Russell for these late, great tragedies and for her role in the flowering of our culture. She is celebrated for giving us the very thing she fought to take away. The world’s turned upside down.

Frances Wilson’s books include “The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth” (Faber & Faber, £10.99)

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

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No, J J Abrams – Star Wars was never “a boy’s thing”

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”.

In 1977, millions of people went to cinemas to see Star Wars: A New Hope, and afterwards, a good portion of them were suddenly rendered invisible. It didn’t matter that they rushed to line up for the sequels; it didn’t matter that they were eager to buy and play with the toys; it didn’t matter that they grew up to read the novels and explore the expanded universe and sit through the prequels and introduce their children to something they had loved as a child. They’re a group that overlaps with the invisible force that haunts comic book shops, or plays a lot of video games, or makes up nearly half the audience for superhero films, or, to one New Statesman staffer’s persistent, possibly-only-half joking incredulity, liked Doctor Who long before Russell T Davies got his hands on it. 

With less than three weeks before J J Abrams’s rebooted Star Wars hits screens, the director went on Good Morning America yesterday to talk in vague, broad strokes about his turn with the franchise. But the otherwise-unremarkable interview made headlines because of one segment, when Abrams was asked who he most excited to hear from about the film. He said:

“Star Wars was always about, you was always a boy’s thing, and a movie that dads take their sons to. And though that’s still very much the case, I was really hoping that this could be a movie that mothers can take their daughters to as well. So I’m looking forward to kids seeing this movie and to seeing themselves in it, and seeing that they’re capable of doing what they could never imagine was possible.”

That invisible group of Star Wars fans, who love that well-known “boy’s thing”? Women, who have spent the past four decades loving the franchise just as much as all those fanboys, even if no one else – the fanboys themselves in particular – seemed to take much notice. Abrams’s offhand remark coincided with recent headlines like Bloomberg’s “‘Star Wars’ Toys Aren’t Just For Boys Anymore as Rey Takes Over”, a reference to the female lead of The Force Awakens, portrayed by Daisy Ridley. Across the web, aside from stirrings by the now-mandatory Internet Outrage Machine, the overwhelming response seemed to be one of sad and somewhat resigned frustration, with women sharing memories of falling in love with the series, essentially saying, “We’ve been here this whole time.” My friend Lori Morimoto, in “An Open Letter to J J Abrams”, wrote, “I’d like to tell you the story of a girl who became a Star Wars fan. I hope you can suspend disbelief over my existence long enough to make it to the end.”

Star Wars is a universe populated by complicated gender politics, on and off screen. The three original films fail most facets of the Bechdel test (I laughed out loud here seeing the suggestion that A New Hope deserves a pass because the only two named female characters could have talked offscreen). Princess Leia’s enslavement and escape (and the bikini she wears while doing it) is a cultural touchstone that’s launched a complicated feminist dialogue over the decades. And it is perhaps because of the mostly-male cast in the films – and the long-held assumption that science fiction is a primarily masculine property – that the franchise has long been marketed exclusively to boys, despite the massive and loyal female audience.

But the modern Star Wars empire is helmed a woman, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, and when she revealed that two-thirds the story team behind the newest film was female, she also pledged that there would be a woman in the director’s chair before too long. And since one of the leads in The Force Awakens is a woman, her character, along with a black male lead – portrayed by John Boyega – sparked anger from the reactionary white guy corner of the internet in recent months (sorry that the SJWs ruined your movies, guys!). For films that once portrayed a place so alien that only white men were allowed to speak to each other, the widening of representation in this reboot apparently looks to some like a political – or, to them, a politically correct – act.

The welcome diversity of the leading cast highlights all the good intentions in Abrams’s statement: that this new film promises more than a panoply of white guys, that girls and people of colour can see themselves reflected back in these new heroes. All the girls who thought the movies weren’t for them because they only saw men onscreen, or the endless line of male action figures on the shelf, have a point of entry now – that’s what representation means. And that’s certainly worth cheering for, even if it only took us 40 years to get there. But it’s hard for all the people who aren’t white men who’ve found other points of entry over the years, who managed to love it without seeing themselves there. I can speak from personal experience when I say that a lifetime of media about white guys hasn’t stopped me from finding characters and stories to fall in love with.

Here’s a theory: you might not have noticed that you were surrounded by female Star Wars fans all these years because you were the one who rendered them invisible. Women who like things such as Star Wars, or comics, or anything else that leads journalists to write those painful “not just for boys anymore” trend stories, have had to take it from all sides. Enthusiasm for something seen as the province of men clashes with mainstream perceptions of femininity. Even women liking this stuff in the context of traditionally feminised fan spaces, like fanfiction, find themselves fending off assumptions from men and women alike, perhaps the accusation that they are sexualising something too much, or they are placing too much weight on the emotional elements of a storyline. Basically, that they’re liking the thing the wrong way.

But women’s enthusiasm for perceived “male” spaces is always liking the thing the wrong way. The plainest illustration of this is the Fake Geek Girl, in meme and in practice: the barriers to entry are raised immeasurably high when women try to join in many male-dominated fannish conversations. The wonderful Noelle Stevenson illustrates this beautifully – and then literally, when a guy challenges her on her work. I’m sure that just by writing about Star Wars, I’m opening myself up to the angry gatekeeping-style pissing contests that men like to toss at women who claim to like the things they like. (Let’s get it all out in the open here: Star Wars isn’t my fandom. I saw the three original films on dates with my first boyfriend – our first date: Star Trek: First Contact, because we were clearly the coolest kids in town – and upon rewatches as an adult nothing grabbed me. But I am also a fandom journalist, so that’s kind of how this works.)

There’s a persistent myth – and I say persistent because I keep seeing these deluded boys get mad in new viral posts – that women who claim to like geeky things are just pretending, the somewhat confusing notion that they are doing it for attention. (And then there’s the inevitable anger that in this supposedly desperate plea for attention – why else would a woman claim to like their beloved characters?! – these women still don’t want to sleep with them.) And what never seems to occur to any of these gatekeepers is that these women were there all along, liking these things just as much – and are finally being given the cultural space to be open about their interests and passions. But that space is given haltingly; plenty of women, tired of waiting, are going out and taking it. The result is the tension (and, at times, outright hostility) that has marked certain corners of the fannish world in the past few years.

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”. There are many reasons that people love Star Wars, and most of them are universal things: the themes, the characters, the archetypal struggle of good versus evil. Most of the time we default to the white guy; he struggles with things we all struggle with, but somehow, he is deemed most relatable. Abrams, Kennedy, and everyone behind the new films should be applauded for their efforts to give non-white guys a turn at the universal story – I think these are incredibly valuable choices, and certainly will make the films vastly more accessible, particularly to children.

But we don’t just need Rey on screen and Rey dolls on the shelves for mothers and daughters – those same mothers and daughters have found plenty to love without many women to look to on their screens. We need boys to love the female heroes as much as we’ve loved the men over the years: we need universal to be truly universal. And when we express that love, the default reaction shouldn’t be a challenge: not, “You don’t like this thing as much as I do,” or, “You don’t love this the right way.” Isn’t it easier to say, “Oh, I’m so glad that you love this, too!”

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.