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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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Ukrainian cooking shakes off the old Soviet fur coat

Forget the stereotype: Ukranian cuisine is about more than just borscht, as a new cookbook shows.

“Potatoes,” Olia Hercules fumes. “Everyone thinks I’ve written a book about bloody potatoes.” It must be said that there is the odd spud in Mamushka (Mitchell Beazley), her surprisingly colourful celebration of Ukrainian food (after all, how could you have an eastern European cookbook without borscht?), but potatoes are far from the only thing to thrive in the country’s famously fertile black soil.

In fact, Hercules – young, slightly built and rarely seen without a slick of dangerously red lipstick – bears as much resemblance to the archetypal babushka as her homeland does to the bleak, grey landscape of the popular imagination. Born close to the Crimean border, she spent many holidays at the beach by the Sea of Azov, “the shallowest in the world”, where the kids ran around smothered in kefir to soothe their sunburn and everyone feasted on mountains of home-made apricot doughnuts.

Southern Ukraine, it turns out, is a land of plenty – during its long, hot summers anyway. There are prickly cucumbers picked straight from the vine, “aromatic and warm from the blistering sun”, sour cherries that “just drop off trees in the streets in June”, and the best watermelons you’ve ever tasted: “huge, firm, stripy beasts”, Hercules says.

What isn’t eaten straight from the garden will be preserved carefully to see the household through the region’s mild winters. The conserves include some rather intriguing fizzy fermented tomatoes that promise to blow your mind and your taste buds. In Ukraine, she says, “Tomatoes are king!” Fresh curd cheese and barbecued catfish, warm, flaky pumpkin bread and saffron-spiked rice all sound a blessedly long way from that old Soviet favourite, herring in a fur coat.

Nevertheless, this sunny childhood was still spent under the rule of Moscow, with its power cuts and queues, and Hercules retains to this day a nostalgic fondness for margarine, a legacy, she says, of the USSR’s “perpetual credit crunch”. A family favourite of slow-cooked goose brings back memories of bribes her surgeon uncle received to grease the creaking wheels of an ageing Soviet health system, while the home-made silky egg noodles underneath were a necessity, at a time when the local shop stocked only the occasional packet of grey macaroni.

The Soviet Union can also take some credit for the diversity of Hercules’s family, and hence the food on which she grew up. When you have a Siberian grandmother, aunts from Armenia, an Uzbek father and relatives in Azerbaijan, impossibly exotic asides such as “My grandmother picked this recipe up when she lived in Tashkent” just come naturally.

In answer to my geographic puzzling, Hercules snorts that “Ukraine basically is eastern Europe”, but the country’s culinary horizons stretch far further – there’s even a significant Korean population in the south, which, in the absence of Chinese cabbage for kimchi, has contributed a pickled carrot dish to her book.

For most of us, thanks to long memories for those tales of endless queues and dismal canteen cooking, the curtain is yet to rise on the culinary delights of the former Soviet bloc. The television producer Pat Llewellyn, the woman who discovered Jamie Oliver and was
food judge for the 2015 André Simon Awards, described it as “a much-underrated food culture” when praising the shortlisted Mamushka (the author’s childhood nickname for her mother, which has come to signify, she says, “strong women in general”).

It’s anyone’s guess whether that means we’ll get to see Hercules, resplendent in one of her signature knotted headscarves, showing off her Moldovan giant cheese twists on screen any time soon. But we’ll be seeing a lot more of her beloved “mamushka cooking”, one way or another. Just don’t mention the P word.

Next week: Richard Mabey on nature

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle