So I write analysis and reviews… Why?


In part, because of the man you can see in the image above: Simon Forman.

First and foremost though, because I want to develop my eye for theatre, but in a way that informs how I (and hopefully readers) see the world. This is where Forman comes in…

Forman was born on the 31st of December 1552 and died on the 12th of September 1611 – and so, was a contemporary of Shakespeare. He made a living as a practicing physician, specialising primarily in medical-astrology but also dabbling in occult remedies, which, (for better or worse) resulted in his becoming a well known member of late-16th to early-17th London society. In fact Ben Jonson mentioned him directly (by name, alluding to contemporary controversy) in two of his comedies,The Silent Woman (‘Doctor Forman’) and The Devil is an Ass (‘Oracle-Forman’). So much was Forman’s notoriety that it has even been suggested that he may be the potential inspiration for Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus. Whilst he was written about, he was also himself a prolific writer, recording everything from the minutia of his patient’s ailments to his copious (often morally dubious) sexual exploits – and even some of his own poetry. He left behind an enormous selection of papers, a brief autobiography, a diary and – most importantly in the context of this blog – his Boke of Plaies.

This contains some of the only accounts of Shakespeare’s plays as they were first performed – at least that we know of. His Boke speaks of only four plays, one of which is thought not to be Shakespeare’s (the rest are), but all of which were performed in 1610-11: Richard II (not Shakespeare’s), Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and Macbeth. Each of these accounts provide interesting perspectives on these plays – that can sometimes challenge how modern audiences might read them: in Cymbeline, for example, Forman suggests that ‘the Italian’, Giacomo, ‘came from her [Imogen’s] love’ – which could be interpreted as either his being sent by Imogen’s lover Posthumous, or that she somehow encouraged him to invade her bedchamber (see my review/analysis of Imogen to find out why this might be contentious: https://sissoisaw.wordpress.com/tag/imogen/). However, what is perhaps most interesting about Forman’s accounts of these plays is the manner in which he approaches the act of viewing them.

Forman treats the plays almost as if they are the firmament – the characters the stars and planets, and the plot their various movements between the astrological houses. For just as he produced ‘Judgements per Forman’ regarding the treatment ‘and cause thereof’ of his patients’ ailments that were grounded in the movements of the planets and stars, he viewed plays with a similar eye – detailing the plot like an astrological chart, drawing from it a sort of ‘judgement’ to inform the treatment of our day to day lives. For example, he concludes his ‘observ[ation]’ of The Winter’s Tale with the dictum ‘beware of trusting feigned beggars or fawning felons’. The full title of his Boke of Plaies also denotes this attitude: ‘The Boke of Plaies and Notes thereof p Forman for Common Pollicie’. This is a direct transcript of the title without any modernised spellings – and there is a minor scholarly debate about the meaning of the ‘p’. J. H. P. Pafford  suggests two possible interpretations: ‘The notes about them, by Forman, for general guidance’, in terms of acting as ‘a help and a warning to be prudent in the affairs of life’ on a ‘general’, wider public level; or ‘The book of plays and notes of performances for my general guidance’ – implying a purely personal application of the morals that can be drawn from them. So, Forman’s ‘notes’ about the plays he saw in 1610-11 seem to have at least two potential purposes: to ‘guide’ how his potential readers (the wider public) or simply himself (arguably these are not mutually exclusive!), might take on the ‘affairs of life’.

Whilst the aim of this blog is certainly not to moralise, it does take inspiration from these (non-mutually exclusive) potential purposes. In each essay I aim to come to a sort of ‘judgement’, although not one that is prescriptive: rather, I hope to suggest (at least from my individual perspective) how each performance relates to the constellations of events going on outside of the theatre-verse. But this blog takes inspiration from Forman’s Boke in other ways too. Take, for example, Forman’s account of Macbeth, performed at the Globe in 1610 – here’s an excerpt:

‘…Then Macduff fled to England to the king’s son, and so they raised an army and came into Scotland, and at Dunsinane overthrew Macbeth. In the meantime, while Macduff was in England, Macbeth slew Macduff’s wife and children, and after, in the battle, Macduff slew Macbeth. Observe also how Macbeth’s queen did rise in the night in her sleep and walk and talked and confessed all, and the doctor noted her words.’

(read it in full at: http://www.shakespearedocumented.org/exhibition/document/formans-account-seeing-plays-globe-macbeth-cymbeline-winters-tale).

Although the notion of his writings being ‘notes’ towards ‘common policie’ can be seen (‘observe’: the imperative implying that there is a lesson to be learned from ‘how Macbeth’s queen did rise’ – that the truth will out?), it certainly does not comprise the majority of his account. He spends the most of his time on description, and mainly on the play’s plot.

Now, when we have easy access to the plots and scripts of plays via the internet (or purchasing them in hardcopy), we don’t really need someone to note down the plots of plays in minute detail. However, the minutia of staging – which has the power to completely change the main thematic thrust of a play as it is received by the audience – is, perhaps, a little neglected. Modern reviews of plays tend to withhold a lot of the detail in this regard – and with good reason. After all, their target audience is potential play-goers, so the play’s intrigue must be maintained. However, this means that, in the future, someone researching previous productions of a given play might find themselves somewhat short-changed: I have found myself in this position when researching for the essays on this blog. So this blog is my solution – I hope that what it gives away in terms of plot-spoilers is made up for in terms of the future value of the interpretive detail given.

But, talking of interpretation, it might be argued that the analysis of productions I aim to deliver in these essays makes them less than perfect sources for future researchers. True. I’m only one person, and I will miss some detail – and, like Forman recording the plot of Macbeth (if it was actually an error – we can’t ever be sure), I might make mistakes. Some things will be filtered out because of how I read a certain production. But is any source really a perfect source? Every written resource has an element of subjectivity in it, no matter how objective it aims to be. Yet, maybe this is a strength – or even a form of objectivity in itself. For personal experience, subjective interpretation, can give just as much information – perhaps even more – than a source that tries to exclude this: for the former adds context, and signposts to readers the biases of the writer more transparently perhaps than a source purporting to be purely ‘objective’. And, above all – mind you this is just my personal opinion – the more subjective something is the more fun I find it is to read.

The reason for this is because I enjoy trying to understand how others see the world: trying to interpret their worldview, and relating this to my own. However, an issue does arise with this: how can we know that we are actually achieving an accurate understanding of the worldview expressed in a piece of creative work? My answer is that accuracy isn’t really that important, at least not in this context; I would rather shift the emphasis to the very action of attempting to interpret something new – a creative act in and of itself. E.M. Forster posits something akin to this in his essay ‘Anonymity: An Enquiry’, where he argues that ‘what is wonderful about great literature is that it transforms the man who reads it towards the condition of the man who wrote, and brings to birth in us also the creative impulse’. It is this notion of the ‘creative impulse’ (evoked in the reader or viewer engaging in the act of interpretation of a creative work) that is, to me, the most important effect of theatre – or really any form of creative expression – because it is what keeps us engaged with a creative work, and encourages our capacity to imagine as individuals. Consider the old aphorism ‘practice makes perfect’; whilst the idea of ‘perfecting’ imagination might be a little inappropriate, the more we practice engaging our imaginations (via interacting with creative works) the more we open up our capacity to build new imaginative alleys in our interpretations of the world – increasing our imaginative freedom, and, thereby, potential for self-expression.

This is what I found myself doing when reading Forman’s accounts – and perhaps his accounts are themselves in some sense evidence that he did the same when he saw theatre. I feel that I do when I see theatre – and this is, on a personal level, what I hope to express through this blog. But I also hope that this blog will engage readers similarly: inspiring the ‘creative impulse’ in readers, just as plays do in me – building new perspectives to inform how we see the world, bringing us to a sort of ‘common policie’.


by Emily Swettenham

1st May 2017.



[1] Cerasano, S.P. 1993. ‘Philip Henslowe, Simon Forman, and the Theatrical Community of the 1590s’. Shakespeare Quarterly. Vol.44. No.2. [online]. Avaliable at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/2871136.pdf [Accessed: 1st May 2017].

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Forman, S. 1611. The Boke of Plaies and Notes thereof p Forman for Common Policie. Bodleian Library, Oxford University, Oxford, UK. Transcript. [online]. Available at: http://www.shakespearedocumented.org/exhibition/document/formans-account-seeing-plays-globe-macbeth-cymbeline-winters-tale [Accessed: 1st May 2017].

[5] Ibid.

[6] Forman. S. 1597-1603. Simon Forman’s Casebooks. Collected by the Casebooks Project, The University of Cambridge. [online]. Available at: http://www.magicandmedicine.hps.cam.ac.uk/view/text/normalised/TEXT5#section03chap01 [Accessed: 1st May 2017].

[7] Ibid.

[8] Forman, S. 1611. The Boke of Plaies and Notes thereof p Forman for Common Policie. Bodleian Library, Oxford University, Oxford, UK. Transcript. [online]. Available at: http://www.shakespearedocumented.org/exhibition/document/formans-account-seeing-plays-globe-macbeth-cymbeline-winters-tale [Accessed: 1st May 2017].

[9] Ibid.

[10] Pafford, J.H.P. 1959. ‘Simon Forman’s Boke of Plaies’. The Review of English Studies. 2. Vol.10. No.39. [online]. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/510304.pdf [Accessed: 1st May 2017].

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid. My own emphasis added.

[13] Forster, E.M. 1951. ‘Anonymity: An Enquiry’. In: Two Cheers for Democracy. London: Harcourt-Brace. p.g.84.