Shakespeare and Suffolk

This isn’t really a blog as it’s taken from an article written by Emma Cullum. First published in the East Anglian Magazine, April 1964:


So few facts are known about the first 28 years of William Shakespeare’s life, that some very doubtful legends have gathered round them. The borough of Stratford-on-Avon, swelling with pilgrim-tourists, has not unnaturally claimed as much as possible of the poet-dramatist. A close study of the early plays indicates that Shakespeare was travelling around England when he was much younger than is suggested in the hitherto generally accepted accounts.
Why are the Wars of the Roses the theme of the first plays attributed to Shakespeare? If, as is at present urged, Shakespeare attended Stratford Grammar School from the age of 11 to 16; was then buried in this small provincial town until he was 24 or 25 and wrote the plays as a poor hireling, he would have had small opportunity to acquire interest in or a knowledge of history. We know that English history was not included in the curriculum of Stratford Grammar School and there is no evidence that copies of the chronicles which he uses were available there.
The reasons advanced for the choice of the subject are the patriotic fervour consequent on the victory over the Armada in 1588 and the expedition of the Earl of Essex to Normandy in 1592. Yet Henry VI tells not of England’s glory but of its disintegration and the loss of overseas possessions.
In the 1580s, the Earl of Oxford gathered round him a group of poets, playwrights and men of letters. He had houses in London, a manor at Lavenham, a favourite ‘country muses’ at Wivenhoe and his ancestral castle at Hedingham. If Shakespeare was present at one of his literary house-parties, he might well have had occasion to contrast the castle of Hedingham with the neighbouring castle at Clare.
Even to-day, Hedingham castle stands triumphant. Clare castle is a sombre warning to those who, like its former owners, the Mortimers, aspire to power and are laid low. In Shakespeare’s time the new ruins must have been even more awe-inspiring. The three parts of Henry VI and the sequel, Richard III, unfold the story of the claims of the Plantagenet-Mortimers to the throne and their eventual downfall. The Duke of Clarence, son of Edward III, and Edmond Mortimer, their bones brought home from foreign lands, are both buried in the nearby Priory of Clare.
It is significant that although Shakespeare drew his material from the chronicles of Halle and Holinshed, he gave the story of the Wars of the Roses a different slant. He tells it as it would have been related by a member of the East Anglian De Vere family, Earls of Oxford. The De Veres first upheld the Lancastrian cause and then protected and advanced to the throne, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond. Although the Earl of Oxford, who appears in the play, has only a minor role, he is one of the very few who is consistently praised in a drama in which most of the characters appear as weak or evil:
‘Oxford that did ever fence the right . . .’ It is improbable that the early plays  of Shakespeare which we know, the fragments thought to be his and some pieces of his which are no doubt lost, were the work of a single author composing in seclusion. The plays ‘grew in action’. One man made a draft; another revised it; actors improvised. There were few theatres in our sense. Performances took place for various occasions and before widely different audiences—the Queen and her nobles; the law students of the Inns of Court; a crowd of burgesses or ‘country bumpkins’ in a market place. Shakespeare showed great skill in adapting his plays and introducing passages to please the different localities through which a group of touring players passed: his introduction of ‘the men of Bury’, for example, and of the grievance of the enclosure of the common lands of Long Melford. Since there was no scenery, the actors no doubt made the fullest possible use of the background against which a piece happened to be performed— the garden of a stately home, a castle wall, the balcony of an inn yard. It is tempting to think that the tremendous scenes of Henry VI part II, which are set in Bury St. Edmunds, were originally played in the buildings of the Abbey, where the nobles really had gathered 150 years before. Through the still magnificent gateway, Henry VI and his peers must have ridden to that fatal parliament, which Shakespeare so vividly describes; and in an inner chamber the Duke of Gloucester was foully murdered. It is claimed that the early plays are full of the images of the Warwickshire countryside and reflect the life of sixteenth century Stratford and its neighbourhood. Such a general claim might be made on behalf of almost any county in the southern half of England. What is more striking is how many phrases and turns of speech, occurring in the plays, are still alive in Suffolk today:
‘Lards the lean earth as he walks along . . .’ (Henry IV). (To lard is to sweat heavily, as a horse does.)
‘Your sauciness will jet upon my love . . .’ (Comedy of Errors.)
(This line has long puzzled scholars. A ‘jet’—a peculiarly Suffolk word—is a scoop with a long handle for clearing ponds and ditches. I take the phrase to mean ‘diminish’. The word also appears in Titus Andronicus.)
‘I’d rather be a canker in the hedge than a rose in his grace.’ (Much Ado.)
(The ‘canker’ is the Suffolk word for a rose hip.)
‘I know a hawk from a handsaw.’   (Hamlet.)
(‘Handsaw’ or ‘Harnser’ is still the Suffolk word for a heron.)
‘I doubt he will be dead.’   (King John.)
‘Now they are clapper clawing one another.’ (Troilus and Cressida.)
(This was a game of pulling off caps, played by boys at school.)
‘We will draw cuts for the senior.’ (Comedy of Errors.)
(Drawing lots by pieces of cut straw held in the
‘Sowle the Porter of the Roman Gates by the ears.’ (Coriolanus.)
(To pull, especially a dog tugging at a pig’s ear.)
‘In a twink she won me to her love.’ (Taming of the Shrew.)
“Twere not amiss to keep our door hatched.” (Pericles.)
An expression I have not heard out of Suffolk is a ‘tizzicking’ cough (Troilus and Cressida).
‘Finnick’ is used here of giving oneself airs. In Lear there occurs ‘a finical rogue’.
The old lady down the road (who is one of my main sources of dialect) once said: ‘tomorrow’ll be enough to flee yar.’ ‘Flee’ of course is Suffolk for ‘skin’ but Hamlet speaks of ‘flaw’, referring to the wind, probably the same derivation.
In his delightful book The Suffolk Dialect of the 20th Century (Norman Adlard 1960), Mr. A. O. D. Clayton gives further examples.
It may be that such expressions once existed in other counties also and that they have survived in Suffolk because it has been less subjected to the destructive effects of so-called modern civilisation.
Shakespeare spoke for all England but at least such metaphors as
‘With russet yeas and honest kersey noes . . .’ (L.L.L.) and Prince Hal’s description of Falstaff as ‘that roasted Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly’ sprang from our own part of the countryside.


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