This vase was designed and made by John Hutton to commemorate the opening of the Shakespeare Centre in 1964. It is the largest example of blown glass currently known.
The etching depicts the ‘Dance of the Reapers and Nymphs’ from Act 4, Scene 1 of The Tempest. In this comedy, the last play Shakespeare wrote as a sole author, the character Prospero distracts his daughter and her lover Ferdinand from their amorous adventures with an enchanting spectacle or masque. Iris, who in Greek mythology represents the rainbow, calls forth nymphs, or mythical female deities which she calls Naiads who live in the ‘windring [sic] brooks’:
With your sedged crowns and ever-harmless looks,
Leave your crisp channels and on this green land
Answer your summons; Juno does command:
Come, temperate nymphs, and help to celebrate
A contract of true love; be not too late. (The Tempest, Act 4, Scene 1)
Iris also calls forth the harvest reapers whom she bids dance with the nymphs, thereby bringing together two worlds: water and land, as well as myth and reality. Iris bids the reapers join the nymphs:
You sunburnt sicklemen, of August weary,
Come hither from the furrow and be merry:
Make holiday; your rye-straw hats put on
And these fresh nymphs encounter every one
In country footing. (The Tempest, Act 4, Scene 1)
Shakespeare includes the stage direction ‘Enter certain Reapers, properly habited: they join with the Nymphs in a graceful dance’. There are no preserved notes on stage dancing in the period, but it is likely that it resembled the fashions and tastes at the time.
Dancing in the 16th Century
Dances were inspired by the music that accompanied them, whether at court or in rustic revels. Rhythms or ‘measures’ were very important, helping participants to keep time. Fashionable dances came from Italy, such as the Galliarde, and France, like the Saraband, and were invariably to be found in court. Queen Elizabeth was famed for her love for and skill in dancing at social occasions.
Country or rustic dances originated from festivals such as May day dancing, and were therefore performed in circles or lines. Such dances were accompanied by tabors (snare drums) and pipes. Dancing was a very energetic affair, and people often considered it a form of exercise. Country jigs were extremely popular, and they involved jumping and leaping. Some country dances had amusing names such as the ‘Petticoat Wag’, ‘The Friar and the Nun’ and the ‘Bear Dance’.
In the theatre, both music and dance were extremely important. Actors and musicians would play, sing and dance together during and after performances, constantly entertaining their audiences. Shakespeare includes dancing in plays such as Romeo and Juliet, Love’s Labour’s Lost and Henry VIII. In these situations, when the characters are dressed in their finery, there is so much dramatic excitement and possibility. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, the lovers meet at a grand ball during a dance when Romeo is disguised with a mask. Similarly, Anne Bullen (based on Anne Boleyn) is wooed by King Henry during a dance in which he disguises himself.
Dance was also an exciting way to end a theatrical performance. At the close of As You Like It, Duke Senior asks everyone to take part in ‘rustic revelry’, after which the instruction ‘a dance’ appears. Notice how the Duke plays with the word ‘measure’ to highlight the importance of the rhythms of the dance music:
Meantime, forget this new-fall’n dignity
And fall into our rustic revelry.
Play, music! And you, brides and bridegrooms all,
With measure heap’d in joy, to the measures fall. (As You Like It, Act 5, Scene 4)