Review: Shakespeare’s Ear by Tim Rayborn

A review of Shakespeare’s Ear: Dark, Strange and Fascinating Tales from the World of Theatre, by Tim Rayborn, published in 2017 by Skyhorse Publishing. 249 pages. No index, but the table of contents is very detailed and serves much the same purpose.

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Shakespeare’s Ear “presents dark and sometimes funny pieces of fact and folklore that bedevil the mostly unknown history of theatre. All manner of skullduggery, from revenge to murder, from affair to persecution, prove that the drama off-stage was just as intense as any portrayed on it.”

For the most part, Shakespeare’s Ear – which deals strictly with European theatre – is a fascinating work, covering historical anecdotes from the very beginning of theatre – the Greek, onward to the present day. There are only a handful of ‘modern day’ anecdotes, as Rayborn concentrates mostly on Greek and Roman theatre, Elizabethan, and the Commedia dell’Arte of Italy.

What’s the explanation of the title? Well, Rayborn covers Shakespeare in his own chapter of 20 pages (justifying referring to Shakespeare in the title!). He covers the question of whether Shakespeare was a secret Catholic (a dangerous thing to be in Protestant, Elizabethan England), gives the plot of the “utterly awful” Titus Andronicus (Shakespeare’s bloodiest play), covers the authorship question thoroughly, and then gets to “Shakespeare’s ear and the golden earring,” visible in the “Chandos portrait.” What is the significance of the earring? He presents several theories.

There’s plenty of other interesting anecdotes and brief histories of the various types of theatre,, which any theatre buff will find interesting and perhaps a springboard for further research

Where the author falls down, in this reviewer’s opinion, is in the “voice” he uses. He’s very much of the writing school of the “…for Dummies” series of books – addressing the reader directly in what he hopes is a humorous manner. I found such constant (in every single anecdote), unnecessary and sometimes tasteless humor grating on the nerves.

For example, each time Rayborn addresses a topic, it is given a factual header and then an “amusing” sub-heading.

Alexander Pushkin (1799-1830)
He couldn’t stomach it (referring to his death, by being shot in the stomach during a duel).

The Derby disaster at the London Coliseum (1905)
Stop horsing around (referring to a fatal accident with horses inside a London theatre)

Tennessee Williams (1911 – 1983)
All bottled up (referring to the fact that he died of alcoholism)

The Swan theatre in the 1500s, one of several illustrations in the book. (Wikipedia Commons)

The Swan theatre in the 1500s, one of several illustrations in the book. (Wikipedia Commons)

In the early section of the book devoted to ancient  theatre, Rayborn talks of the Hittites and the Anatolian Greeks:

“The later Greek version of events was very saucy, indeed. Cybele refused the advances of Zeus, a bold move which the arrogant leader of the gods was not about to take lightly. He approached her as she slept and – for real – got himself off on her. This money shot was enough, her being a fertility goddess and all, for er to become pregnant, and at the appropriate time, she gave birth…”

The history of theatre, and theatre people, is fascinating. Whether or not you like this book will depend on whether you like the author’s style.

The book includes 14 pages of b&w illustrations and photographs.

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Grim an the Unusual in the History of Western Theatre

Act I: The Strange Lives and Odd Fates of Playwrights, Actors, Theatre Companies and More

The Ancient World
Ancient Mesopotamian dramatic rituals
Ancient Egyptian dramatic rituals
The Hittites and the Anatolian Greeks

Ancient Greece and Rome
Aeschylus (525/524 – ca.456/455 BC)
Sophocles (ca 497/96 – 406/05 BC)
Euripides (ca 480 – ca 406 BC)
Philemon (ca 362 BC – ca 262 BC)
Seneca the Younger (ca 4 BC – 65 AD)
Atellan farces and Roman mimes (ca 391 BC – 3rd century AD)

The Middle Ages and the Renaissance
Jacopone da Todi (ca 1230 – 1306)
The fabliaux:: scandalous minidramas (ca 1200 – ca 1340)
Elaborate and ridiculous medieval stage sets (14th and 15th centuries)
Arnoul Greban (ca 1420 – 1473/86) and Simon Greban (mid-15th century)
Onstage agony: accidents and otherwise (14th to 16th centuries)
Pietro Aretino (1492 – 1556)
Miguel de Cervantes (1547 – 1616)

The Tudor and Stuart Ages: A Golden Age of English Theatre
Tudor and Jacoben playhouses: dens of iniquity
Traveling players: liars, vagabonds, and ne’er-do-wells
Thomas Kyd (1558 – 1594)
Robert Greene (1558 – 1592)
Christopher Marlowe (1564 – 1593)
Ben Jonson (1572 – 1637)
Moll Cutpurse (ca 1584 – 1659)
The fiery end of the Globe Theatre (June 29, 1613)
Richard Burbage’s very brief epitaph (1567 – 119)

The Seventeenth Century
Lope de Vaga (1562 – 1635)
William Davenant (1606 – 1668)
Thomas Killigrew (1612 – 1683)
Moliere (1622 – 1673)
The spectacle of English female actors during the Restoration (1660 onward)
Charles Riviere Dufresny (1648 – 1724)
Nathaniel Lee (ca 1645/53 – 1692)
Jeremy Collier (1650 – 1726)
Anne Bracegirdle (ca 1671 – 1748)

The Eighteenth Century
Joseph Addison (1672 – 1719)
Charles Macklin (1690/99 – 1797)
Voltaire (1694 – 1778)
Carlo Goldoni (1707 – 1793)
Pierre Beaumarchais (1732 – 1799)
The obnoxious Licensing Act of 1737
Philippe Fabre d’Eglantine

The Nineteenth Century
August von Kotzebue (1761 – 1819)
Heinrich von Kleist (1777 – 1811)
Alexander Griboyedov (1795 – 1829)
Alexander Pushkin (1799- 1837)
The Old Price Riots (1809)
Vampires on stage: a nineteenth-century obsession
Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900)
Alfred Jarry (1873 – 1907)

The Modern Age
Pedro Munoz Seca (1879 – 1936)
John Barrymore (1882 – 1942)
Michael de Ghelderode (1898 – 1962)
The Derby disaster at the London Coliseum (1905)
Odon von Horvath (1901 – 1938)
Tennessee Williams (1911 – 1983)
Albert Camus (1913 – 1960)


Act II: A Dark and Weird Theatrical Miscellany

The Shakespeare You May Not Know
Was Shakespeare a secret Catholic?
The utterly awful Titus Andronicus
The bloodiest moments in Shakespeare’s plays
The authorship controversy – did Shakespeare write Shakespeare?
Shakespeare’s ear and the golden earring
Where is Shakespeare’s head?
William Henry Ireland: the great Shakespeare forger
Yorick’s skull, like, for real

The Commedia dell’Arte
The cast of characters
-The old devil, Arlecchino (Harlequin)
-The deceitful and cruel Brighella
-The zany zanni
-The foolish and miserly Pantalone
-The quack Doctor
-The bombastic Capitano (Caotain)
-The innocent Innamorati (the Lovers)
-The coarse and volatile Pulcinella
-The youthful servant Pedrolino
The scenarios
The slapstick and physical comedy
Punch and Judy – violent and comical Commedia puppet shows

The Bloody Theatre
Fake carnage for the stage: animal blood bladders, red rags, and many body parts
The horrors of the Grand Guignol in Paris and London
Actors who gave their all for their final performance

An Abundance of Superstitions, Curses and Bad Luck
Never whistle backstage
Never wish anyone “good luck”
The mysterious ghost light
Peacock feathers are forbidden
Unlucky colors
Deadly flowers
The curse of “the Scottish play”
The curse of Ophelia?
And the list goes on and on…

Haunted Theatres
Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London
The Adelphi Theatre, the Strand, London
St. James Theatre, Wellington, New Zealand
The Palace Theatre, New York
New Amsterdam Theatre, New York
The Duke of York Theatre, London

An Encore of Theatrical Oddities
David Garrick and the wigs both scary and silly
Joseph Grimaldi’s awful discovery
Sol Smith and the theatre of bones
Henry Miller and the Great Divide with his audience
Hedda Gabbler’s overly noisy suicide
The madness of the King in Yellow
The game show guest who saw it all

Exit Stage Left
Suggestions for further reading
About the author

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