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Rosedale Abbey Bookworms

Rosedale Abbey Bookworms

by Linda Blackburne

This is the first of regular blogs from the Rosedale Abbey Bookworms club. We hope these reports will encourage you to read or give you a different take on a book you have already read. At this meeting I was trying to encourage Bookworm members to read poetry – hence the eclectic choice. This blog post focuses on Shakespeare but do Google Neruda, renowned as one of the world’s greatest love poets, and Zephaniah, who has a very user friendly website.

Venus and Adonis by William Shakespeare

Tonight I can write by Pablo Neruda

The British and Dis Poetry by Benjamin Zephaniah

Shakespeare’s long poem, Venus and Adonis, is rarely read nowadays and yet it made our famous bard a household name. It was a best seller, which was published in 16 editions over a period of 47 years, and was quoted in numerous journals, letters and plays of the period.

Shakespeare tells the well-known story of his day about the encounter between the Roman goddess of love and the boy hunter. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the beautiful Adonis is the willing lover of Venus and his death is an accident of the hunt. Shakespeare turns the story on its head by having his extremely reluctant Adonis reject ardent Venus’s overheated advances in a way that, for his readers, was both ironic and comic.

The poem has all the ingredients of a modern day blockbuster – action, death, love and sex. It is, in fact, the most sexually explicit of all Shakespeare’s work. Take the scene where Venus is pinning Adonis to the ground for example:

“ ‘Fondling,’ she saith, ‘since I have hemm’d thee here

Within the circuit of this ivory pale,

I’ll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer;

Feed where thou wilt, on mountain or in dale:

Graze on my lips; and if those hills be dry,

Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie.

 “’Within this limit is relief enough,

Sweet bottom-grass and high beautiful plain,

Round rising hillocks, brakes obscure and rough,

To shelter thee from tempest and from rain

Then be my deer, since I am such a park;

No dog shall rouse thee, though a thousand bark.’”

 Although the text is difficult and the subject  – love – not everyone’s cup of tea, it is a satisfying read because of its historical context. Shakespeare was only in his twenties when he wrote it, and yet, he is, clearly, already an accomplished poet. Interestingly, some critics have said that the poem is a comment on his own life  – Shakespeare’s wife, Ann Hathaway, was eight years older than her husband, and it has been assumed (although by no means proved) than Ann was the mover in the courtship.

A good way into our most famous bard is to go and see a production at The Globe next time you are in London (it’s not expensive compared to the West End and it has a wonderful Shakespeare shop) and then look at a key speech when you are back at home. You can also easily read a Sonnet or two when you have a spare moment (!)

One Bookworm commented that Shakespeare’s language was so sophisticated compared to how we speak today, and, yet, everything about modern day living is so much more complex than it was in the 16th century (but you might want to debate that point…) It’s an interesting observation. Of course, Shakespeare would probably have thought our language just as fascinating and baffling as we find his – “lol”, cappuccino, and rogue traders, for example, are not only modern words but are a comment on our society. For an amusing take on this subject, I recommend you watch the Dr Who episode in which the doctor meets William Shakespeare.

As with all literature, and particularly with the classics, the background of the book and biographical notes about the author are intriguing. Sadly, although we know Venus and Adonis was a best seller, our knowledge of the poet’s life is sketchy. Nevertheless, academics are always on the look out for new biographical detail. Did any of you see this newspaper cutting, for example?

The real Ophelia? 1569 coroner’s report suggests Shakespeare link

Death of Jane Shaxspere bore hallmarks of character and girl may even have been relative of playwright

Maev Kennedy  The Guardian, Wednesday 8 June 2011

The 1569 coroner’s report describing the death of Jane Shaxspere, who drowned aged two-and-a-half while picking marigolds near Stratford-upon-Avon. Photograph: PA

A little girl of the 16th century, who lost her footing while picking flowers, tumbled into a mill pond and drowned, could have inspired one of the most famous tragic heroines of literature.

Shakespeare was five at the time of the tragedy that befell Jane Shaxspere in 1569, and would not write Hamlet until 40 years later, but academics now believe the girl may have inspired the fate of the author’s character Ophelia.

Shakespeare’s noblewoman fell with her garlands of “crow-flowers, nettles, daisies and long purples” into a brook, singing “snatches of old tunes” until her waterlogged clothes dragged her under to her death. She was old enough to marry Hamlet when she drowned, a scene immortalised by many artists including John Everett Millais, who almost killed his model, Lizzie Siddall, by leaving her lying for so long in a bath of cold water.

Jane Shaxspere was only two and a half when she died, picking “yellow boddles” or corn marigolds, according to the coroner’s report.

As the scene of her death, Upton Warren on the river Salwarpe, in Worcestershire, was only 20 miles from Shakespeare’s childhood home at Stratford-upon-Avon, historians at Oxford University speculate that the playwright could have heard of the event.

Historians believe Jane could even have been a relative of William: the spelling of his surname was notoriously eclectic in his day, and there are variations even in his own signature.

The academics came upon Jane’s short life while trawling through Tudor coroners’ reports into accidental deaths, part of a four-year research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

The coroner, Henry Feeld, was scrupulous in details: “By reason of collecting and holding out certain flowers called ‘yelowe boddles’ growing on the bank of a certain small channel at Upton aforesaid called Upton myll pond – the same Jane Shaxspere the said sixteenth day of June about the eighth hour after noon of the same day suddenly and by misfortune fell into the same small channel and was drowned in the aforesaid small channel; and then and there she instantly died.”

He added the plaintive note: “And thus the aforesaid flowers were the cause of the death of the aforesaid Jane; and they are worth nothing.”

Steven Gunn, from the history faculty at Oxford, said: “The detail in which Jane Shaxspere’s death was reported suggests children’s deaths merited careful consideration. Other young girls are similarly reported as drowning when picking flowers. It was quite a surprise to find Jane Shaxpere’s entry in the coroner’s reports – it might be just a coincidence but the links to Ophelia are tantalising.”

Emma Smith, of the English language and literature faculty, added: “Even if Jane Shaxspere were not related to the playwright, the echo of their names might well have meant that this story stuck in his mind. It’s a good reminder that while Shakespeare’s plays draw on well-attested literary sources, they also often have roots in gossip, the mundane, and the domestic detail of everyday life.”

More than 9,000 coroners’ records survive, drawn up by men who were mainly local gentlemen with some legal training but little medical knowledge. The reports are in the National Archives, at Kew, south-west London, because they were given to assize judges on circuit, then taken to London.

Some are more Monty Python than Shakespeare. One man shot himself in the head trying to get an arrow out of his longbow, another fell into a cesspit while relieving himself and drowned.

Seasonal entertainments were clearly highly dangerous: one man avoided mishap from a toppling maypole but it knocked a stone out of Coventry’s city wall and that fell on his head and did kill him. Another man is cryptically described as crushing his testicles while playing “a Christmas game”.

Three people were killed by performing bears, and one of the bears was clearly too valuable to die for the crime, priced at 26 shillings, four pence. Others died wrestling, playing football, bell ringing, and lobbing sledgehammers for sport.

Patterns are already emerging from the study: more died in summer when people were out and about, but relatively few people died in house fires because most lived in single-storey homes and could easily escape. And, by 1556, accidental deaths from handguns were more common than from archery.

Gunn added: “We also have a lady who had an accident called Elizabeth Bennett, but we are not making any literary claims there.”

© 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.

Food for thought.  Who knows, one day in our life time scholars might unearth some really remarkable biographical detail about the poet. Until then, look out for our next blog on The Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan.

Linda Blackburne

PS: Try out this Shakespearean insult on your enemy:


Horrible villain, or I’ll spurn thine eyes

Like balls before me; I’ll unhair thy head,

Thou shalt be whipp’d with wire, and stew’d’in brine,

Smarting in lingering pickle”.

Anthony and Cleopatra

Or if that’s too Elizabethan for you, try this one on you spouse or offspring:

“I will not excuse you, you shall not be excused, excuses

shall not be admitted, there is no excuse shall serve, you shall not be excused”.

Henry IV, Part 2


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