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Transcript - Shakespeare's Restless World - Programme 16

A Time of Change, a Change of Time: A Striking Musical Clock

'Ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats. This evening's performance will start in 15 minutes.'

We take time for granted, or perhaps we just accept its tyranny, as we rush from pillar to post or hurry to take our seats in the theatre. But how did Shakespeare's audiences know when a performance was going to start and how did they think about time? It is an important issue in many of the plays and like so much for Shakespeare's contemporaries even time itself had been recently changed by new ideas and new inventions. Richard II, imprisoned by his cousin and awaiting death in his cell, thinks of himself as quite literally 'doing time' but he does so in a very modern way.

Richard: For now hath time made me his numbering clock.

My thoughts are minutes, and with sighs they jar

(Richard II 5.5.50-1)

The 'jar' or ticking of a domestic clock as it marked the minutes was a new feature of Elizabethan England. This is not a sound that Shakespeare's parents would have known. For them, minutes would have been merely an idea and the noise of time would have been almost exclusively the chimes of a public clock.

Richard: . . . the sound that tells what hour it is

Are clamorous groans, which strike upon my heart

(Richard II 5.5.55-6)

We're used to kings being compared to the sun, to lions, even to gods, but here Richard II likens himself to a new modern clock. It is a comparison Shakespeare uses just as effectively in comedy.

Berowne: I seek a wife?

A woman, that is like a German clock,

Still a-repairing, ever out of frame,

And never going aright

(Love's Labour's Lost 3.1.186-9)

For Berowne in Love's Labour's Lost, wives, like German clocks, demand a lot of attention and are essentially unreliable. To get a sense of how fresh these comparisons must have seemed to Shakespeare's public, how powerfully they must have resonated we need to look at a real clock, one made in 1598, just after Shakespeare wrote both Richard II and Love's Labour's Lost.

The clock you can hear is in front of me in the British Museum. It is not strictly German, but it's not English either. Its maker was Flemish and he came to England from the Low Countries in the 1580s, a refugee from religious prosecution. He made this clock in Blackfriars and it still keeps remarkably accurate time. It is made entirely of iron and brass, it stands about 2 feet tall and it looks like a small square classical temple. At each of its four corners is a grey iron Doric column, brass plinth, brass capital, on top of them four smaller columns carry triangular brass pediments and house thirteen small bells and above them one giant bell which doubles as a dome. Behind the face we can see the workings and this whole clock is in fact a portable (just portable) classical bell tower made for use in the home, and the maker of this modern mechanical marvel, Nicholas Vallin, has proudly engraved his name on the front and dated the clock 1598.

When Berowne in Love's Labour's Lost compares a possible wife to a foreign clock like this one, he is absolutely right: it is expensive and very high maintenance. Mounted on a bracket high on the wall, our clock would have held a prominent position in the wealthy owner's house, probably in a reception room or in a hall. The smaller bells would have sounded a different melody every quarter, while the big bell at the top announced the hour to the whole household.

This private clock and it's miniature belfry are a small domestic echo of the large clocks in churches and civic buildings that punctuated public life across England. There were dozens of them in Shakespeare's London, and as clock making skills advanced, their chimes and bells were keeping time more accurately than ever before. 'Telling the time' was becoming a routine thing to do at least in cities. 'There's no clock in the forest' says Orlando in As You Like It, and he's right - clocks are urban things, not needed in the countryside. But in the busy urban environment, city gates had to be opened, council meetings convened, markets regulated, alehouse hours supervised and public theatres opened at the times announced. Paul Glennie has studied the history of timekeeping in England:

'The thing about towns, at least large towns, is the density of clocks. In London for example there are 110 or so parishes of which, in Shakespeare's time, somewhere around half, or just over, have clocks that are striking the hours. One of the great things about timekeeping with bells, as opposed to looking at a clock dial, is that that information is being spread over quite a wide area. They may not be exactly in time with each other, but broadly there is a kind of big audible pulse broadcasting to the atmosphere into the landscape.'

It's the sound you would have heard as you hurried, late, to a two o'clock performance at the Globe.

Reliable public timekeeping was essential for London's new commercial theatres. The public had to get there in time, pay their admission, and buy their refreshments. What Shakespeare called the 'two hours' traffic of our stage' depended on a punctual start. The authorities liked to get people home before dark to avoid trouble, so performances were usually matinees and in 1594, the Lord Chamberlain assured the Lord Mayor of London 'where heretofore they began not their Plaies till towards fower a clock, they will now begin at two, & have done between fower and five'. Since afternoon church services also started at 2pm, this fuelled Puritan dislike of the playhouse. Many Londoners must have reacted to the chiming of church bells, by setting of for the theatre.

One feature of our 1598 clock would have particularly impressed contemporaries. It's got two hands, one for hours and one for minutes. Before 1600, most clocks just had a single hand and so you would only be able to judge the minutes pretty roughly. So what now looks to us like an entirely conventional clock was in 1598, in fact, cutting-edge technology. It was another fifty years before a minute hand like this one became a normal thing.

In The Winter's Tale a man sees a statue of his dead wife miraculously come to life, it is as if we can all turn back time, and every human loss - grief, guilt, even death - can somehow, at least within the romance of the play, be restored. It is perhaps Shakespeare's greatest meditation on time. But there's hardly a sonnet or a scene of Shakespeare's that doesn't tackle the subject. Nicholas Hytner of the National Theatre:

'The passage of time and the effects of time come up over and over again in his plays: 'Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, / Creeps in this petty pace from day to day / To the last syllable of recorded time.' That 'syllable of recorded time' is an image which I think could probably only have emerged after the invention of the clock. The idea that time passes in tiny increments and 'all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death'. The idea that Macbeth is trapped in a kind of vast ticking mechanism, that the human race is stuck in the middle of a slowly ticking clock which is just going to go on ticking away the syllables until the world ends, that is an extraordinarily potent image.'

Older forms of timekeeping, hourglasses and sundials, do crop up. Mercutio tells Juliet's nurse (surely with a heavy wink) that 'the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon'. But clocks are more frequent. Their sound effects are explicitly required by the stage directions and they are commented on by the characters. The striking of the clock propels the comic plot in The Comedy of Errors and The Merry Wives of Windsor, while in histories and tragedies, Hitchcock-style, it ratchets up the tension. Even ancient Rome is awarded its own prematurely invented clock as a key dramatic devise in Julius Caesar, as the conspiracy against Caesar is being hatched, we hear the clock strike 3am. We're told it has just struck 8 in the morning when Caesar sets off for the Capitol, and when Portia asks for news at 9am, Caesar's assassination is imminent.

'Ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats. This evening's performance will start in 5 minutes.'

Theatrical tension was one by-product of the mechanical march of time, but it wasn't just in the theatre that clocks spread a sense of menace. In the work place also they were often seen as instruments of oppression, Paul Glennie:

'There is plenty of complaining about the volume and the intensity of work and hard task masters before time discipline comes in, so it is very easy to blame time, to blame the clock . Anyone who supposes that life in the pre-industrial countryside was an idyllic kind of existence doesn't have a sense of how urgent it was to get the harvest in before it rained for example. But it is certainly true that expectations about how hard people work, how regularly people work and how intensively their output is monitored do relate quite closely to the way in which clocks can be used to record that much more closely. It becomes a way of inspecting.'

If the London workforce disliked clocks, on occasion they resented the clock makers even more. Nicholas Vallin, who made our clock, was a Flemish refugee. Whose family had come to England to escape the Spanish occupation of the Low Countries. I'm standing in the heart of the City of London, not far from the Bank of England, at the site of the Nederlandser Kerk, the Dutch Church where Vallin married in 1590.

Elizabeth I welcomed the settlement of these skilled Protestants. But they didn't always have an easy time of it, asylum-seekers rarely do. The Flemings and French were the two groups of 'strangers', as they were called, that drew the sharpest antagonism from London apprentices and journeymen. In 1593, a series of hostile posters 'libels', as they were called, were pinned up, some of them here, on the walls of the Dutch Church itself: 'Be it known to all Flemings and Frenchmen that . . . there shall be many a sore stripe. Apprentices will rise to the number 2336. And all apprentices and journeymen will down the Flemings and strangers.'

Was this just xenophobic graffiti? We know there was a lot of that around. There is no record of an attack by 2336 apprentices on the Flemish migrant craftsmen, nor do we know if Nicholas Vallin ever suffered any assault. But we do know that he didn't live long after he made this clock. He died in the great plague outbreak of 1603 along with his father, two of his three daughters and two journeyman clockmakers who were working for him at the time; an entire household virtually obliterated by plague.

Queen Elizabeth, so long on the throne, seemed to many the very image of timelessness. In a poem only recently attributed to Shakespeare and probably spoken by him at a court performance in 1599, he addresses the elderly queen, now in her late 60s, comparing her (like Richard II) to a clock, or rather, to a clock face - herself unchanging, the constant background against which the lives of her transient subjects are being played out:

As the dial hand tells o'er

The same hours it had before,

Still beginning in the ending,

Circular account still lending,

So, most mighty Queen we pray,

Like the dial day by day

You may lead the seasons on,

Making new when old are gone.

Elizabeth was lucky. She survived into old age. But many of her subjects, like Vallin, did not, thanks to that most terrifying of Elizabethan diseases, the plague. But that's for the next programme.

'Ladies and gentlemen this evening's performance is about to begin, please take your seats.'

Shakespeare quotations are taken from:

Richard II (London: Penguin, 2008). ISBN: 978-0-141-01663-4

Love's Labour's Lost (London: Penguin, 2005). ISBN-13: 978-0-141-02055-6