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Shakespeare & Beyond

What happens when actors, musicians, and scholars collaborate on a Restoration Shakespeare play

Performing Restoration Shakespeare workshop in November 2014

Participants watch as directors Amanda Eubanks Winkler and Richard Schoch give preliminary stagings to the actors and dancers, for Gildon’s 1700 adaptation of “Measure for Measure.” Part of the November 2014 Folger Institute weekend workshop, “Performing Restoration Shakespeare.”

Part of what makes the Folger Shakespeare Library special is that while scholars are busy creating new knowledge in the reading rooms, actors and musicians in the adjacent theater are busy creating world-class performances. Amazing things result when scholars and artists break down the wall that traditionally separates them and start collaborating.

That’s what happened in November 2014, when Folger Institute, Folger Theatre, and Folger Consort joined forces to explore Restoration Shakespeare: the adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays that were popular with audiences from 1660 to about 1710.  As spectators like Samuel Pepys noted, what made these performances so appealing was their winning combination of acting, music, and dance.

The performance of Restoration Shakespeare—how it lived on the stage—was the focus of the workshop that I jointly directed with the musicologist Amanda Winkler from Syracuse University. Over three days, we brought together theatre and music scholars, actors, singers, and musicians—including Folger Consort’s Bob Eisenstein—to explore Charles Gildon’s adaptation of Measure for Measure (1700), which includes Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas (c. 1689) presented as three separate musical interludes—that is, entertainment for both the audience and the characters within the play.

At first glance, the coupling of Measure for Measure with Dido and Aeneas seems odd. What does a play about the corrupting effects of power in fashionable Renaissance Turin have to do with an opera taken from Virgil’s epic The Aeneid about the doomed love between a Trojan hero and the Queen of Carthage? Why in 1699 did Charles Gildon put these stories together for performance at the theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields? He must have believed that the audience would enjoy it. Times were tough in the London theatre world, and the company led by the star actor Thomas Betterton (who played Angelo) needed a ‘hit’ to keep afloat.

We explored these questions in our workshop. One scene in particular proved revelatory: in Act 3 of Gildon’s Measure for Measure, the villain Angelo watches the final section of Dido and Aeneas—whose high point is the dying Dido’s famous lament (‘Remember me, but ah forget my fate!’)—as he waits for Isabella’s arrival. Angelo had sentenced her brother Claudio to death, but then agreed to commute the sentence if the virgin Isabella would sleep with him.