Shakespeare and His World (Course on Future Learn)

Shakespeare and His World was a 10 week course on Future Learn which finished just a couple of weeks ago. The course was run by Warwick University and presented by Jonathan Bate (with Jennifer Waghorn as moderator). And in the 10 weeks it covered a huge amount of ground! Each week focussed on a particular theme and there were 6 or 7 video lectures, each of which featured an object from Shakespeare’s time – most of these were from the collections of the Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust, and most of the videos were filmed there. And eight of the weeks featured a particular Shakespeare play, which also illustrated the weekly theme. We were looking at both what the plays told us about the time they were written in, and what contemporary events & things influenced the writing of the plays. As well as this we also looked a little at the plays as plays rather than historical items – their themes & characters and so on. Obviously in the time available all of this was covered at a fairly superficial level – an overview rather than anything in depth, but there were normally links to places to find out more about the featured objects and some ideas for further investigating the plays.

Week 1 was an introductory week which looked at what we know of Shakespeare’s life story and also set him in context as an Elizabethan playwright and poet. We also read Venus and Adonis, one of Shakespeare’s poems. The second week was the first one with a play, The Merry Wives of Windsor. The theme was Shakespeare’s time in Stratford, in particular his schooling, and this was a good play to illustrate it because although the town in the play is Windsor there’s internal evidence that suggests Shakespeare was actually basing it on Stratford. And he made use of the sorts of people he would’ve known growing up to provide characters for the play – in particular there’s a small part for a schoolboy called Will which is generally assumed to be an author-insert.

Week 3 used A Midsummer Night’s Dream to focus on the theatre in Elizabethan England – chosen because of the play within a play sequence. Week 4 was about war, using Henry V as the illustrative play. Bate made the point in this week that Shakespeare was a war poet for the first half of his career – England was at war with Spain in this period – so Henry V isn’t just looking back to former glories but is also saying something about contemporary events in particular the defeat of the Armada. Week 5 moved on to look at finance, using the Merchant of Venice. As well as the obvious use of Shylock the moneylender to think about how Elizabethan money & finances worked, we also looked at how Shakespeare often used Venice as a mirror for London. And of course we also covered Elizabethan attitudes to Jews, as well as looking at how Shylock has been portrayed through the ages since the play was written. Shakespeare himself seems to be making a more nuanced point than some later stagings of the play.

I’m afraid this is turning into a bit of a laundry list, but I’m trying not to go into too much detail otherwise this post will go on forever!

Week 6 used Macbeth to look at witches and medicine. Because of studying the play at school around 25 years ago I was expecting the bits about witches, but I hadn’t really thought about what the play tells us about medicine of the time before. Sadly the discussion section for this week (about similarities and differences between modern & 16th Century medicine) got over-run by people enthusing over herbal remedies being better than “all those chemicals” and misplaced nostalgia so I stopped reading it before my blood pressure rose too much. The seventh week used Othello to look at the interactions between Christendom and the Islamic world. Again Shakespeare is more nuanced than some later stagings of the play – the villain of the play, after all, is Iago who is a white Christian (although notably with a Spanish name). Othello the Moor is basically a good man who is led astray by Iago’s playing on his insecurities.

The eighth week looked at what Classical culture meant to the people of Shakespeare time, and also to look at how “the East” was regarded. The illustrative play chosen was Anthony and Cleopatra which obviously gives us an image of orderly moral Rome vs the opulent decadence of Egypt. And it was also a play designed to appeal to James VI & I by implying he occupies the place of Augustus in his own time, seen in the play as unifier and peacemaker. Week 9 was the last week with a play – fittingly this was The Tempest, Shakespeare’s last solo authored play. This was used to illustrate the “Brave New World” of the Americas that the Stuart age was beginning to successfully colonise. And also to think about how the art of the theatre was similar to the art of magic in The Tempest so Prospero’s final speech retiring from his art can be seen as Shakespeare’s final speech too. And the last week was a brisk trot through Shakespeare’s legacy looking at how he grew from being regarded as one of the Elizabethan playwrights into “the Greatest Playwright of All TIme”.

I’m glad the information, including videoes & links, is still available on Future Learn for those of us that did the course – I’m not sure I got everything out of the course that I could and some weeks I definitely skimped on due to lack of time. Even tho by the end I was thinking it had out stayed its welcome a bit (8 plays in 8 weeks is a lot to read and contemplate) I’m glad I did it πŸ™‚

In Our Time: The Tempest

On Sunday we listened to the In Our Time programme about Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, which was discussed by Jonathan Bate (Worcester College, Oxford), Erin Sullivan (University of Birmingham) and Katherine Duncan-Jones (Somerville College, Oxford). This was the last play written solely by Shakespeare, around 1610, and is also the only one where he made the plot up entirely from scratch. The action almost entirely takes place on an island (perhaps in the Mediterranean, perhaps in the Atlantic, it’s not specified). Prospero was Duke of Milan, but his position has been usurped by his younger brother and so Prospero and his daughter Miranda have gone into exile on this island. The island is uninhabited except for the spirit Ariel and Caliban, the deformed/monstrous son of the deceased witch Sycorax (who was previously banished to the island). The opening scene shows Prospero’s brother and a boatload of people from Naples (including the King) caught in a storm (raised by Prospero) and being shipwrecked on the island. The plot revolves around Miranda and one of the nobles falling in love, Caliban in rebellion against Prospero’s authoritarian rule over the island and Prospero and his brother reconciling (eventually).

After Bate gave a summary of the plot the programme moved on to looking at the ways that Shakespeare’s life and the politics and issues of the day influenced the play. Parallels are often drawn between Prospero (using his magic to manipulate and direct all the others on the island) and Shakespeare (using his art of playwriting to manage and direct the action on stage, and to shape the imagination of the audience). This parallel is increased by the last section of the play where Prospero talks about giving up his art and retiring. As this is Shakespeare’s last solo-authored play this can be seen as Shakespeare talking about his own retirement. Another way that Shakespeare’s own circumstances inform the writing of this particular play is that later in his career he and his acting company bought an indoor theatre. This meant that more lighting effects and sound effects were possible than in the outdoor theatres. And it’s easier to do special effects like having someone fly when you’re in a room where you can fix a hoist to the ceiling.

One obvious way that the political situation of the time informs the play is that Shakespeare’s company were frequently called upon to perform plays at court; even more often after James took the throne than in Elizabeth’s time. The plays he wrote therefore needed to be entertaining to the King, and to pander to his interests and enthusiasms. One of the things that King James VI & I was particularly interested in was magic, and he believed that there was both black magic (that of witches) and good magic. In the play Sycorax (who never appears but is referred to) is an embodiment of evil magic, and Prospero’s magic is presented as good magic. However Shakespeare leaves the question of whether there’s any real difference between the two open for the audience to think about. Family and dynastic marriages were also of interest to James (and to his wife) – they had children, unlike James’s predecessor on the throne, and had to think about marriages for them. So the plot thread with Miranda, and Prospero’s orchestration of her romance with Ferdinand, would appeal to the royals.

For all that Shakespeare made up the plot of this play, it’s still informed by stories or events he’d heard of. For instance the whole set-up of a ruler usurped by a brother going into exile to study magic comes from a real life event. One of the rulers of the Holy Roman Empire had had that happen – but it seems he was quite happy with that state of affairs, and devoted the rest of his life to magic rather than trying to regain his throne. Obviously in The Tempest Prospero isn’t happy, and this may be another way of appealing to James (who firmly believed in the divine right of kings). Another real life event that underpins Shakespeare’s story was the shipwreck of a ship going to Virginia in Bermuda. (This same event is important in Pocahontas’s life as her future English husband was on that very ship – the In Our Time about her aired the week after this one, but we listened to it a few weeks ago (post)).

Colonialism is also an important theme in the play, and it’s one that’s only grown in importance in modern times. The island is “uninhabited” – which means except for Caliban. Even by the standards of the time Caliban should’ve had rights to the land by virtue of having been born there, but Prospero still feels he has the right to rule the land because he’s more important than Caliban (I paraphrase heavily here). Caliban is described initially as monstrous and deformed, and there’s some reference to how if they could get him back to Naples they could display him in a fair and make a lot of money. That’s actually a reference to what really happened to some poor Inuit person, brought back to London and displayed as a fairground attraction (he didn’t take long to die, apparently). This was an era when explorers were discovering the strange (to Europeans) flora and fauna of the Americas, and it was thought that there might be not-quite-human people out there too, over whom obviously the “superior” Europeans would rule. But there were more enlightened viewpoints even at the time – the experts talked about an essay called “Of Cannibals” by Montaigne which argues that just because the customs of other people are different doesn’t mean they are wrong. It’s worth noting that Caliban is almost an anagram of Cannibal, and is also similar to Cariban (which is what people called Carribeans at the time). Caliban isn’t just depicted as monstrous, however. He’s portrayed as a sympathetic character, and Duncan-Jones was saying that the best lines and best poetry in the play are given to Caliban. Shakespeare is again not coming down on one side or the other – he’s giving the audience something to think or argue about.

The play fell out of favour after Shakespeare’s time. In particular after the Civil Wars it was rewritten as more of a rom-com called An Enchanted Isle. Partly this was because it was seen as an “old” play, so needed reworking for the new fashions. And partly because there are various speeches in the play that think about different ways the world could be ruled – and that would be quite a raw and touchy subject for the time. In the 19th Century the play was rediscovered and across the course of the 20th Century it increasingly appealed to a post-colonial audience. The experts talked a bit about more modern reimaginings of the play including one where Ariel is coded as Martin Luther King and Caliban as Malcom X (Prospero, obviously, remains the authoritarian white man).

The Tempest isn’t one of the plays I knew much about before listening to this programme, it was interesting to learn more (I don’t get to it in the Shakespeare MOOC I’m doing for another couple of weeks).

Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Course on Future Learn)

As you might’ve noticed from the piece of whimsy I posted a few weeks ago I’ve been doing a course on Hamlet with Future Learn. This is my first foray into the world of massive online courses, and also the first non-science course I’ve done since 1990. All in all I think it was rather successful – I learnt stuff, I enjoyed it and I only had a couple of moments where I thought to myself “ah, yes, this is why I did science instead” πŸ˜‰

The course described itself as follows:

This course introduces the many ways in which Hamlet can be enjoyed and understood. Six weekly videos discuss the play’s fortunes in print, and its own representations of writing and theatre; its place in the Elizabethan theatrical repertory; its representation of melancholia and interiority; its fortunes on the modern stage; its appeal to actors; and its philosophy.

And had no pre-requisites other than an ability to read Hamlet, so that seemed a good one to jump in on. I’m not quite sure I got what I was expecting – part of which is down to me: I’d expected more about the text or play itself, and the course was more about the meta level of how it’s been performed since. Which it does say in the description really, so my failure there. However it was also very focussed on Hamlet the character, rather than the play in a broader sense and I really don’t think that Hamlet is the only interesting thing in the play even based on my own meagre knowledge.

The technical set-up for the course is that each week had a list of steps, say a dozen of them. Some of these would be short video lectures and some would be articles (or links to external content). And there were also discussion steps, and assignments. You could add comments to all but the assignment steps (which were more formally peer reviewed). So each video and article would have a few comments which I looked at or not depending on how interested I was. And the discussions would have a few hundred comments (mostly on topic) and I made sure I always commented on these and read a reasonable number of them – basically made sure I participated (otherwise what was the point of doing a course rather than read a book). The final step was always a short multiple choice quiz meant to primarily be a review of the week (but see the end of this post).

The first week of the course was an introduction to the course itself, and to the text of the play. I’d not realised before that there were three versions of Hamlet that survive from the 17th Century. There’s the First Quarto, which has different names for people and feels like it’s a “pirate” copy poorly transcribed from notes taken in a performance or from an actor’s memory. The Second Quarto is much better quality (in terms of the flow of the lines and so on) and has all the right names for people – it’s pretty much unstageably long though, as it would take 4 hours to do it all. And finally there’s the Folio version, which is a cut down version of the Second Quarto one. We were encouraged during this week to think about which of the versions of the text might count as “the real one”, and whether any particular performance might consititute the definitive version. And also whether the play as performance or the play as text was the more important.

The second week was a bit disappointing for me. It was billed as being about the Elizabethan audiences for the play, and the context the play was written in. However it felt very shallow, with most content being provided by a link to the Shakespearean London Theatres Project (which was interesting, but it felt a bit like cheating for them to point us there rather than provide content themselves). And the bulk of the time I spent on that week was taken up with trying to plough through The Spanish Tragedy, which is a play by Thomas Kyd who may’ve written a version of Hamlet before Shakespeare did. We were encouraged to discuss the reactions of Elizabethan audiences to Hamlet (and to write a review as if we were there, hence my little bit of whimsy) – sadly if you followed the steps linearly that discussion happened before we got the links to ShaLT and information on the audiences. The other discussion that week was on what we thought Kyd’s Hamlet might’ve been like, and what if anything we thought might’ve been surprising about Shakespeare’s Hamlet to audiences that knew the earlier play. My conclusions were that Kyd’s Hamlet would probably’ve been more straightforward and more like an action film, but Shakespeare’s Hamlet is one that gives you something to discuss afterwards. And it’s the plays/books/films/stories that you discuss or want to talk about that you remember.

The third week picked back up in quality, and was the start of a three week exploration of Hamlet’s psychology which felt like the core of the course. This week focused first on the theories of the mind of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. We learnt about the four humours, and what Hamlet meant when he talked of himself as a melancholic. Towards the end of the week Freud’s ideas were introduced, and we were told a bit about how Hamlet has been used as a fictional case study by several psychologists. In the discussions we were encouraged to think about what (if anything) is wrong with Hamlet and whether or not he was faking his madness. We were also invited to talk about how much sense it makes to use Hamlet as a case study for psychological theories that were constructed centuries after Shakespeare died. I was astonished how divisive this subject was. Some people couldn’t move past a literal viewpoint: “you can’t psychoanalyse or diagnose a fiction person because they don’t exist”. Which just strikes me as orthogonal to the point. Obviously you can’t really diagnose them with anything, but thinking about the theories in relation to the character can tell you something about the character and also about the theory. In both directions it’s a tool for shining light on something in a way you might not’ve considered before.

Week four moved on to thinking about modern stagings of the play, with an emphasis on how the Oedipal interpretation of Hamlet’s relationship with his mother came to dominate 20th Century stagings of the play. Even if the production doesn’t interpret it that way, there’s still always a bed in the closet scene (which is just Hamlet and Gertrude) and it’s choosing to not be Oedipal about it rather than just not being so, if that makes sense. There was an assignment during this week, for peer review, that asked us to look at a particular scene that’s only in the First Quarto and we had to decide if we would include it if we were staging the play. The scene itself has Gertrude receiving news of Hamlet surviving the attempted murder on Claudius’s instructions (which happens off stage). This changes the feel of the end of the play – she knows more, and she’s unambiguously on Hamlet’s side after this scene. I rather enjoyed thinking about this assignment, and I would’ve liked more of the course to be like this. I decided that I wouldn’t want the scene included, because I felt it was a bit out of character for how I see Gertrude – to me it reads almost like Hamlet’s wishes for how his mother would react. It’s full of things like “For murderous minds are always jealous.” which I could see Hamlet saying about Claudius, but not Gertrude (who I see as somewhat more pragmatic and possibly even aware of Claudius’s initial murder of Hamlet Sr.). I’d quite like to read a story of the events in Hamlet from Gertrude’s point of view, I bet they’d look quite different.

The fifth week was the one where I had my “oh yes, this is why I did science” moment. The focus of the week was on an interview with Jonathan Slinger who played Hamlet recently, recorded when he was about halfway through the run. And we were invited to consider such weighty questions as whether or not the role of Hamlet was seeping into his interview persona. And I really don’t care. The other half of the week was another theory of Hamlet’s psyche – Slinger’s director had a view that Hamlet had bipolar disorder, and Slinger played him as someone who didn’t know they had it rather than knowingly. My exasperation with this bit was because part of the discussion after this was about “would tragedy have been averted if Hamlet had been diagnosed and medicated?”. Perhaps? But then it would’ve been a boring play, so that just felt like a daft question. Not an illuminating question like considering if bipolar disorder fits as a diagnosis could be (and to be fair we were invited to discuss that too) but just rather daft. Also bipolar disorder doesn’t mean “crazy person” and the questions and discussion thread veered rather closer to that than I was comfortable with. The assignment for the week was comparing the “different versions of Hamlet we’ve seen” to say which best fit Hamlet’s own advice to actors in Act 3 Scene 2. Which is difficult to do when you’ve not seen one full production let alone more … I wasn’t the only person commenting on that in the weekly feedback section. I did do my little 500 word essay on the subject and peer review a couple, but really all I learnt from that was that I can successfully waffle for 500 words even when I don’t have much to say. Looking at the length of posts I write here on a regular basis, that doesn’t come as much of a surprise to me (nor anyone else, I’d guess)!

The sixth and final week returned to more of a highpoint. The theme this week was the soliloquy “To be or not to be”. We’d had a practical exercise at the end of week 5 to read it out loud ourselves, and this week started with Pippa Nixon (who played Ophelia in the same production that Slinger played Hamlet) reading the soliloquy. We were then asked to think about the meaning of it (and to paraphrase it ourselves, quite a fun exercise) and in particular to discuss how it fit within the Christian context of the time it was written and how it transcends that context. I would’ve liked more of this sort of consideration of the text in the whole course. The second half of the week was thinking about women playing Hamlet – Pippa Nixon talked about how she’d like to play Hamlet, and how she thought the changing of the central family relationships to a father-daughter and a mother-daughter one would change our perceptions of the play. There wasn’t a discussion section for this which I think was probably just as well – I read a few of the comments on the video & article sections and some of them made me roll my eyes quite hard (and there were even comments that can be paraphrased as “but if Hamlet’s a girl then you have to make Ophelia a man otherwise how can they have a relationship??”). I do think it’d be interesting to see a female Hamlet done straight – just changing the pronouns and no other textual alterations. And see how that changes how you see the character, or doesn’t change it. In the same way that staging the play with different dress can interestingly change the feel of it (from clips I’ve seen, anyway).

Overall this was an interesting course, even if I’d’ve preferred a slightly different one! It was run by a team from the Institute of Shakespeare Studies at Birmingham University, and I thought that most of the material was well thought out and well presented. They also responded very well to any criticism. For instance at first there were no places to leave feedback, but after people started to say things in one of the discussions each week had a dedicated feedback section added. And not only that, but if something came up that was easily fixable on the fly it was done – the quizzes at the end of each week included material not in the course which was disconcerting and confusing to several of us at first. But it was by design and the description of the quiz was changed to make it clear that we weren’t supposed to know all the answers, it was a) for fun and b) supposed to point you to other things you could think about.

TV Including Greeks, Indian Railways, Sweets, Ottomans, Neolithic Britons and 20th Century Britons

Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth

The last part of Michael Scott’s series about Greek drama looked at what happened after Greece was conquered by Rome. It felt a little less focussed than the previous two episodes, possibly because the Romans aren’t as much his thing as the Greeks? The theme was that Rome both preserved this art form (and Greek plays, too) and also changed it along the way. Early Roman culture frequently mimicked Greek culture. Scott positioned this as them seeing the Greeks as “this is how a civilised culture acts” and so imitating it to make sure everyone knew they were civilised too. Then later there’s more of an element of “we can do it bigger & better” – the temples & monuments still have that classical style but they’re much more over the top. So drama got a foothold in Roman culture as it conquered the Greek city states in Italy, and gradually became a common sort of entertainment. In Greece drama had been closely connected to the political process & the people who produced it (playwrights, actors etc) had high status. In Rome drama was only entertainment, and while playwrights might still command respect actors were much lower status. And woe betide the playwright who took too obvious a dig at the powers that be, much better to stick to safe subjects.

An interesting series about something I didn’t know that much about πŸ™‚

John Sergeant on Tracks of Empire

In the second & final part of John Sergeant’s trip on the Indian railway he travelled from north to south. Along the way he talked about the construction of the railways. I hadn’t realised everything was shipped across to India from Britain, because there wasn’t the industrial capability in India to build it. This includes not just the tracks and so on, but the actual trains themselves. He also visited a Maharajah’s palace – once upon a time the train ran direct to the door, as part of the British Empire keeping the Indian Princes onside.

The railways revolutionised Indian transport – prior to the British building them transport for most people was by foot or by animal. The increased mobility both connects people to the wider country, and allows for a lot more trade. Obviously the British benefited from that first, but modern Indian businessmen still use the same railways for their goods transport. The railways also generated a lot of jobs (and many of those jobs went to people who would otherwise have been shunned – Anglo-Indians for instance who weren’t welcomed in either English or Indian societies). And this is still true today. Sergeant visited a laundry facility (where it seemed it was all done by hand) and a leather workshop (again, handmade bags for all the railway employees/business).

So the railways have brought much good to India, but it was at a high price. Sergeant visited Bhore Ghat just south of Mumbai where the engineering difficulties of building a railway through a mountain range in a hot country with Victorian technology lead to a lot of deaths. Europeans tended to die of fevers, the engineer who was supposed to be running the project died not long after he arrived in India but his wife took over the project management and it was still completed on time & under budget. The Indians tended to die from industrial accidents and many more of them died.

Nigel Slater: Life is Sweets

This programme was a combination of a history & survey of British sweets, and personal reminiscences by Nigel Slater. I think I would’ve preferred more history/survey & less autobiography – particularly as I only have the vaguest idea who Nigel Slater is. But it did fit the primary theme of the programme, that sweets can be very good memory triggers. And as the programme went on I definitely had my own trips down memory lane – sweets I remembered, adverts I remembered, memories associated with particular sweets (in particular I hadn’t thought about peppermint creams at xmas for years, I don’t remember when Dad last made them either. Marzipan fruits too!). The bits & pieces of history were also interesting – I don’t think I ever knew that cocoa (the drink) was being pushed by the Quakers as an alternative to alcohol in a part of the Temperance Movement in the Victorian era. Which “explains” the Quaker origins of the chocolate companies. I also didn’t know that UFOs and aniseed balls both derive from medicine packaging of a bygone era.

Fun, but I’m not sure how much appeal it would have if you aren’t of the right age & country to remember the sweets.

The Ottomans: Europe’s Muslim Emperors

This is a recent series covering the history of the Ottoman empire, with an emphasis on how this history affects the current politics & unrest in the Middle East today. In the first episode Rageh Omaar covers the beginnings of the Ottoman Empire, the first two hundred years or so. A lot new here for me, I don’t really know much about the history of the Ottomans. They start as a nomadic tribe of horseback warriors, who fight as mercenaries as part of how they survive. From settling down in 1300-ish near the Turkish town of Sogut they start to conquer the lands around them, and construct a settled Ottoman state. At first this included a lot of the land around Constantinople but not the city itself, but in 1453 Mehmed II’s army succeeded (with the help of their superior military tech – cannons) to capture the city and turn it into Istanbul (here, have a free They Might Be Giants earworm. You’re welcome)*. This was a hugely symbolic moment – it was seen as the victory of Islam over Christianity. This was also the point where the Ottoman state began to turn into the Ottoman Empire. So far the Ottomans had been fighting Christians, and fighting other Muslim states was not the done thing – this changed when tensions increased between the Ottomans & the Safavid Empire. As the Safavids were Shiite and the Ottomans were Sunni the “obvious” solution was to declare the Shiites heretics, and then they were fine to go to war with – which is still having repercussions today.

*Omaar gave the impression the Ottomans changed the name of the city, but while I was looking for that vid I ran across a few mentions that it might’ve been the Turks after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. I don’t know which is right, but I still got that earworm during the programme πŸ™‚

Omaar also talked a bit about life in the Empire in this period – the Sultan with his harem of concubines, fratricide between rival sons of the Sultan, Christians as tolerated but second class citizens. In his eagerness to emphasise that life in the Ottoman Empire wasn’t as bad as later history might suggest (i.e. the folk history of the peoples in Greece & Bulgaria etc who were conquered by the Ottomans) I think Omaar went a bit too far towards apologising for them. In particular the “it wasn’t that bad” of children being taken from (Christian) conquered families as slaves – army for the boys, concubines for the girls) – was a bit tenuous: they wouldn’t take your last son! it was quite a good life! Or the comparison of the fratricide to the succession wars in Europe in the same time period (Wars of the Roses, Hundred Years War) – doing your killing by policy rather than sometimes having wars isn’t quite a good v. bad distinction to me πŸ˜‰ How about two shades of grey?

Stories from the Dark Earth: Meet the Ancestors Revisited

The second episode of Stories from the Dark Earth was desperately padded, with not much new stuff – if I’d seen the older series I think I’d’ve been rather disappointed. The two excavations were both of neolithic burials – one in Dorset & one in Orkney. The Dorset one is near a great earthwork called the Dorset Caucus – function unknown, and probably unknowable. One reason this burial is notable (apart from just because neolithic burials are only rarely found) is that in the original work they used isotope analysis of the teeth of the four skeletons to show that two had grown up in one area and two in the area where they were buried – the woman and the youngest child weren’t local, the two older children were. This was apparently the first proof of concept for using this sort of analysis on teeth, and all the problems that the PhD student (at the time) had had getting people to let her do analysis on their skeletons suddenly vanished once she’d been on telly. I suspect the way it was presented in the programme is likely to’ve been simplified to make a nice story πŸ˜‰ One new thing for that burial was that in the last 15 years someone has done analysis of snail shell fragments in soil samples across the area, these have changed the perception of the landscape the people lived in – not dense forest across the whole region, but changing from wooded to cleared at the Dorset Caucus. The other new thing is that by correlating radiocarbon dates with archaeological evidence they’ve figured out there’s a 45% chance that the woman was alive when the earthwork was being constructed. A datapoint I was a trifle underwhelmed with (as I was also underwhelmed with the DNA evidence shown earlier about relationships between the woman & children) – the narrative of the show presented this as far more conclusive than it actually sounded like.

The Orkney burial had been in a pretty poor condition when discovered – fragile rotted bones & lots of missing bits. Originally assumed to’ve been as a result of a burial rite that involved letting the bones be picked clean by animals before interring them. But they’re now pretty sure this can’t’ve been the case – the missing bits include the bigger bones, not just the small ones. Some other bones from the area (and time period?) have had holes drilled in them after they’d been interred for a while, so clearly this culture had a different attitude to dead people than we do. No “rest in peace” here. And that was pretty much it for this half, only it was dragged out to about half an hour somehow. Oh, there was also something about a new tomb discovery only the excavations there aren’t very advanced yet.

A Hundred Years of Us

The second episode of this series was a mix of the fascinating and the banal. Banal included Phil Tufnell being a cheery chappy and finding out that Working On A Farm Is Hard (with c.1911 techniques) – not exactly news. But the segment on tuberculosis, and the start of the NHS, was fascinating – they had interviews with a woman who’d been a nurse in a sanatorium in 1948 and with a surviving patient from that sanatorium. The patient had been about 15 years old in 1948 and was one of the first people to be given streptomycin after the NHS started – if it had been left much longer she’d’ve died, and 12 weeks after treatment she was well enough to leave the sanatorium and go back home. If the NHS hadn’t been formed there’s no way she or her family could’ve afforded treatment, that’s why she was in the sanatorium waiting to die in the first place.

Other topics for the episode ranged from holidays (and the rise & fall of the Butlins style holiday camp), hats, to the end of rationing after WWII. There was some peculiar editing of the sat-on-the-sofa-chatting segments that meant people got obviously cut off and it didn’t look very smooth.

This Week’s TV Including Dogs, Evolution of Mammals, Greek Drama, Indian Railways, Roman Britain & the 20th Century

The Wonder of Dogs

The last episode of the dogs series was about dog personalities & dogs as pets. It made the point that although breeds have tendencies towards personality traits each dog is an individual. And that the first few weeks/months of a dog’s life are critical for enabling it to bond with people. They also talked about how it’s not that particular breeds are particularly prone to attacking people, but more the differences in what the dog does if it is badly trained/badly behaved – a labrador will tend to bite hands & arms and to bite & release. That’s much more survivable than the way a pit bull will go for face & neck and bite & hold on. So pit bulls have a reputation for being vicious when the average pit bull isn’t – the badly trained ones cause more problems tho.

They talked about the top 10 breeds kept as pets in the UK, and what about dogs makes them such good pets. Which basically boils down to the fact that we’ve bred them into forming close bonds with their owners. They showed us the classic owner-leaves-the-room experiments where the dog is visibly concerned until their person comes back. There was also demonstration of the fact that dogs generally want to comfort people – a researcher who hadn’t met the dogs before was faking crying, and each dog they tested went over to her to try & lick her face & cheer her up.

It was a good series, although I think it’s a little unfair that dogs got a three part series & cats got a programme & a half on Horizon for a similar thing! πŸ˜‰

David Attenborough’s Rise of the Animals: Triumph of the Vertebrates

The second & last part of the recent David Attenborough series about evolution of the vertebrates concentrated on the mammals. As with the first episode I have reservations about the language used – too much of a sense of purpose & direction to what’s a much more random process than was implied. However it was still a neat programme – I liked the mix of CGI and fossils. In particular the shrew-like early mammal skull that they showed turning into a little skeleton walking around on David Attenborough’s fingers. This episode had fewer surprises for me than the previous one – it name checked all the critical mammalian features (fur, warm-blooded, live young, milk) and took in the monotremes & marsupials on the way to placental mammals and eventually apes & humans.

Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth

The second part of Michael Scott’s series about Greek drama & Greek history talk about how when democracy & Athenian supremacy wobbled drama managed to broaden its appeal & go from strength to strength. One of the changes was the rise to prominence of actors, and the restaging of old plays – when drama first started it was the playwright who was the only named individual involved (in terms of records that come down to us) and the plays performed were the new ones for the festival that year. But over the 4th Century BC there begin to be awards for actors at the festival, and often the old classics are staged after the new plays. And this is really why we have copies of the surviving plays – the old classics were copied out many times, and so managed to survive intact.

Comedy also shifted in form – at the start of the period they were bawdy and pointedly aimed at current personages & situations whilst being nominally about myths. Whereas by the end of the period the bawdiness was toned down (no more strap on phalluses, as Scott put it) and the tone had shifted to being about ordinary people and stock character types. Much closer to modern comedy, in fact. This was part of how drama’s appeal was broadening as Athens and its democracy ceased to be the centre of the Greek world. Drama was becoming entertainment rather than a part of the political process. And that increased popularity across the Greek world meant that when the Macedonians (under first Philip & then Alexander) were taking over much of the known world they also spread theatres and drama throughout the empire.

The next part promises to be about the Romans, and their reaction to/inheritance of Greek drama.

John Sergeant on Tracks of Empire

This is a two part series about the railways in India. The premise is that John Sergeant travels the length and breadth of India on the train, and talks about the history both of the railroad and of India during and post British Empire. In this episode he travelled from Calcutta west & north-west towards the Pakistan border. Along the way he talked about the railway towns that grew up to house the men who worked on the railway. He met some of the modern day railworkers, who are devoted to the job of keeping the network running – regarding it as a vital service to their country. He also talked about modern disruption to the rail network by violent protests (blowing up bits of track etc) and about past violence. This included visiting a house besieged during the “Indian Mutiny”. He’s more pro-Empire than is currently fashionable, and this segment made me wince a bit because he was playing up the clueless Englishman abroad thing with “but don’t you think the British soldiers were heroic” while talking to a group of Indians who regarded the leader of the siege as the true hero – the start of the fight for independence. And I felt it came across as a bit patronising, particularly in the context of “paternalistic” attitudes from the British Empire back in its heyday.

The programme finished at the India/Pakistan border. He talked to some people who’d lived through the appalling violence after the partition of India post-independence, which was particularly disturbing to watch. And the next & last segment was filmed at the border itself – the two armies in their fancy uniforms prancing around like something out of a Monty Python sketch, while citizens of each country chanted encouragement like they were at a football match. For all it was funny to see, it was sobering too – keeping the tribalism going and the wounds open.

Stories from the Dark Earth: Meet the Ancestors Revisited

The premise of this series is Julian Richards revisiting the finds from some archaeological digs he’d been part of over a decade ago – ones that were filmed as part of a series called Meet the Ancestors. The episodes are interspersing the original footage with new work that’s been done on the finds. The first episode was about two Roman burials dating from the 4th Century AD. He’d been discovered in a lead coffin, and was buried in a way that showed he had (or his family had) pagan beliefs. More recent analysis of his teeth has shown that he was definitely a local man. A survey off all the Roman era bodies that’ve been found in Winchester showed that about 30% of them weren’t local – and who was who didn’t always match the theories that had been based on grave goods. Then, as now, some immigrants assimilated and some families kept their “home” traditions generations after they arrived.

The second burial was of a high status woman found in a lead coffin & stone sarcophagus in Spitalfields, London. We’d actually seen the coffin etc in the London Museum when we visited earlier this year, so kinda neat to see that (and a reminder I’ve not yet sorted out my photos from that trip!). When discovered she’d been thought to be Christian, but more recently it’s been suggested she was a member of a mystery cult possibly dedicated to Bacchus. Very recently analysis of her teeth has shown she grew up in Rome itself – which makes her the first (only?) Rome born Roman to be found buried in Britain. Quite exciting, and Richards was speculating that perhaps she was involved with bringing the cult of Bacchus to Britain.

A Hundred Years of Us

This series was originally aired in 2011 just after the census, and it’s a retrospective of how life has changed over the last hundred years. The format is Michael Aspell in a studio talking to guests, interspersed with bits of video about various topics. The primary guest in the first episode was Pete Waterman, which I initially rolled my eyes at, but he was actually pretty interesting. They also have a family of four generations, the eldest of which have been on every census back to the 1911 one – and so we got some reminiscences of WWI and the 20s & 30s in this episode. The programme started by talking about the 11 plus – using a pair of twins as examples of how passing or failing could change your life. There was also a segment about food and how that’s changed – in particular the influx of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent and our national love affair with curry. Somebody (Phil Tufnell? who wikipedia tells me is a cricketer) went down a mine to see how coal mining was done in the early 20th Century – backbreaking labour, and the 75 year old man who had worked in mining since he was 13 was not impressed by the ability of this “young” man πŸ˜‰ Oh, and a bit about tea, and how we love to drink it.

It’s a pretty fluffy programme but it is entertaining, we’re going to finish watching the series.

This Week’s TV Including Dogs, Shakespeare, Evolutionary Vertebrates, Greek Drama & Jewish History

The Wonder of Dogs

More about dogs – this episode concentrated on their senses & intelligence. This included demonstrations of how good their hearing, smell & eyesight is (in particular that a dog’s field of view is much wider than a human’s). They also talked about the sorts of behaviours that dogs have been bred for – using gun dogs as the primary example. The desired behaviour has changed over time, as gun tech & hunting styles changed. So at first it was pointers (who found and pointed to the game) then spaniels (to bounce around and flush the game out) and finally retrievers like labradors (to bring the game back to the hunter). And they demonstrated how training is needed as well as the innate behaviour using one of Kate Humble’s dogs – who is a herding breed, but who wasn’t a very useful sheepdog after only one lesson (although very enthusiastic).

They also had a bit on how intelligent dogs are, including a German group who are studying dog intelligence by getting them to push pictures to get treats. They’re offered a choice of a dog picture & a landscape picture each time, and they learn that dog pictures get treats. Which is quite an abstract level of thought – it’s not one dog v. one landscape, it’s a variety of pictures of a variety of scenes & dogs. I wanted to know if dogs could tell the difference between, say, cats & dogs for getting treats.

Shakespeare in Italy

This is a two part series about Shakespeare’s connections with Italy that we’ve had on the PVR for ages. It’s languished there in part because I find the presenter, Francesco da Mosto, irritating (irrational on my part, I’m sure, his style just sets my teeth on edge). But despite that it was still interesting enough to watch the second part.

This episode was about Shakespeare using Italian places (and stories) to tell stories about love. The plays he talked about were Taming of the Shrew (marriage for money not love), Romeo & Juliet (obviously, tragic love), Much Ado About Nothing (rom com) and Othello (love turned to jealousy). Along the way he visited various places mentioned in the plays, and talked about the Italian stories they were based on. He also discussed how Shakespeare might’ve visited Italy – there’s no record of him doing so but there’s also 7 years where he’s missing from any records. So perhaps. Of note, tho, is that the British Museum Shakespeare exhibition that we went to last year (post) was sure that Shakespeare didn’t visit Italy but instead talked to people who had. And there was also a somewhat nutty theory put forward by a town in Sicily that Shakespeare was actually Sicilian – some playwright or poet whose name translates to Shake Spear who goes to London. I’m not sure if or how they tried to reconcile this with the Shakespeare who exists in records prior to this Italian’s arrival …

The second part was looking at how Shakespeare set plays in Italy to give himself a layer of plausible deniability when writing about politically sensitive subjects. So he talked about The Merchant of Venice as being (among other things) about law & the rule of law. And Julius Caesar, set not just in Rome but in long ago Rome, is a commentary on tyrants and if it’s ever justified to assassinate them – a particularly touchy subject at the time, as there were many assassination attempts on Queen Elizabeth and the England of the time was very repressive. Italy was also the country of the future – da Mosto made much of how the Renaissance was in full swing in Italy but England was lagging behind. Anthony & Cleopatra was an example of a play where Shakespeare was exploring new ideas to come out of Italy – in this case how a ruler should act and da Mosto said it owed much to Machiavelli. The final play he talked about was The Tempest – based in part on a well known alchemist or sorcerer in Naples at around that time. Again a touchy subject – James I was paranoid about witchcraft – but it was also the way of the future (in that alchemy leads to science in a while).

I’m a bit conflicted about this series – it was an interesting subject, but I still found the presenter irritating.

David Attenborough’s Rise of the Animals: Triumph of the Vertebrates

This is a new two part David Attenborough series, all about the evolution of vertebrates. The first part, From the Seas to the Skies, covered the first vertebrates and the major developments leading to the evolution of fish, amphibians, reptiles (including dinosaurs) & birds. It was a rather good mix of fossils, modern animals and cgi reconstructions of ancient animals. I was particularly fond of the tiktaalik taking it’s first waddly steps across the land. The gliding feathered dinosaurs were also neat. I don’t think I learnt anything new in terms of concepts or the overall story, but there were several new details – like the tiktaalik as the first animal to get onto land (I’m sure I learnt about lungfish escaping predators in the past), or the Chinese fossil beds that pre-date the Burgess Shale ones that I knew about (and contain the first known chordate, ancestor of modern vertebrates).

If I’ve got one quibble is that the language used emphasises progress too much. I’m probably over-sensitive to this, tho. But I do think it’s important that there’s no inevitability about the evolution of any species or group, and that there’s no progress – modern lampreys aren’t “primitive” for instance, they’re well suited to the places they live. Lacking most of the features we think of as common to the vertebrates (like jaws, fins or limbs) doesn’t make them worse it just makes them different. But it’s very hard to avoid because when talking about these things it’s easiest and clearest to tell a story, which leads to language that implies progression and purpose. So in this programme Attenborough talks about problems needing to be solved before vertebrates could move onto the land. Which makes me wince because there wasn’t any working towards a goal involved.

Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth

This is a recent series from Michael Scott, about the development of drama & theatre in Ancient Greece. The first episode looked at how the development of drama as an artform is intertwined with the development of democracy. Both have their roots in Athens, in the 5th & 6th Centuries BC and at the smaller local level debates & plays would even happen in the same assembly spaces. Greeks had three sorts of plays, two of which we still have. These were tragedy, comedy & satyr plays – the last were bawdy, farcical plays which were used as a sort of palate cleanser after a cycle of tragedies. Tragedies in a modern sense are stories with a sad ending, but Scott said Greek ones were more about posing questions about situations. One of the experts he spoke to characterised tragedies as setting up problems caused by bad luck or bad decisions, and suggesting how they might be dealt with while getting the audience to think about what would they do in this or similar situations. Plays were often based on myths, but the stories told were topical and relevant to recent politics domestically & abroad. And the audience for the plays would be the same men who would then vote on how Athens was run & how it reacted to events. Scott was saying that this close link between the subjects of plays and the real life decisions that were being made meant that plays can be seen as educating the Athenians about democracy and as a part of how democracy evolved. Comedies were also important in this process – they weren’t just funny stories, they were generally pointedly aimed at particular political figures. Who would be right there watching thinly veiled versions of themselves be publicly mocked. Scott said this was part of how the boundaries on what was & wasn’t appropriate behaviour were enforced.

The Story of the Jews

The last episode of Simon Schama’s series about Jewish history looked at the formation & history of the modern state of Israel. He started with the Holocaust and the plight of the Jewish refugees during & after that horror. He talked about how even those fighting against Germany in the war were not willing to do much for the Jews – lots of sympathetic noises not much if any actual support. And how this led to more Zionism in the Jewish population – if no-one else will aid you or want you, then you are even more in need of a homeland of your own. And then Schama moved back to trace the steps towards the formation of the modern Israel – starting with the Zionist movement in the early 20th Century getting the British Empire on board with granting the Jews a homeland within Palestine. Apparently in the early days post WWI there were even some glimmers of hope that a future Israel and the existing Arab nations might co-exist in some form of peace. Sadly, as we now know, this was not to be – the influx of Jews post-WWII being a contributing factor, with the British Empire’s poor handling of the situation pre & post war also being important. (Promising the same real estate to two groups of people as “their own nation” isn’t ever going to end well …). Schama then discussed the history of Israel since independence, and how over time (and after two wars, more persecution of Jews in Arab nations & violence and terrorist attacks on Israelis in Israel) the politics & sentiment inside Israel has calcified into hatred & mistrust of Arabs. Schama talked to someone involved in the Settler movement, who was disturbing in his starry-eyed rhetoric about how the Jews were entitled to the land up to the biblical borders by God given right. And Schama visited the wall built to keep the Palestinians out of Israel, or at least only allow them through under strict observation.

I found this series thought provoking & well worth watching, although frequently grimly depressing. As well as the subject matter itself it was an interesting reminder that so much of the stuff we watch is from our own perspective – this very much wasn’t, it was Simon Schama’s take on Jewish history from the perspective of a member of the culture whose history it was.