“Tragical trifles . . . darkly figured forth”

In the 15th and 16th centuries, modern imaginative literature (poetry, novels and plays) errupted out of feudal darkness at the courts of European kings and princes, for nowhere else was there the leisure to create it or the literacy to enjoy it.  This is not to say that the uneducated and illiterate did not have a rich heritage of spoken and sung story and verse, one shared by educated and uneducated alike, it’s that it was not until the Renaissance that it was combined with the literatures of ancient Greece, Rome and the Middle East into elegant national literatures.

In England, however, because the Renaissance had been preempted by the Reformation, unlike the other nations of Europe, the Renaissance urge to write got so thoroughly and completelyforced undergroundby Calvinistic fears of Hell and the Devil that it took on a most peculiar appearance. This didn’t mean that nothing got published (though necesarily much was surpressed, particularly the works of Catholic poets). What it meant was that the process of getting it published forced it to assume an obscure and defensive posture, pretending to be something it wasn’t, and seemingly written by persons who apparently had nothing to lose, or who were utterly unknown at Court or anywhere in London.

There was a lot more hiding going on in 16th-century English literature than just the hiding of Shakespeare’s identity. In fact, it might be stated without fear of exaggeration that the entire canon of early modern English literature was one long exercise in hiding––authors, central figures, publishers, patrons, some printers, dates of publication, and most of all, messages, for the Reformation didn’t like the kind of messages that were emerging from the push for intellectual freedom that was the English response to the Italian Renaissance. If the message was too obviously Catholic, too ornate, too passionate, too sexy, too ironic, too satirical, they wanted it toned down or better, squashed. As we puzzle out the truth about these early works, we need to keep this in mind.

For instance, take the tag “No less pleasant than profitable”found in one form or another on almost every work of imagination published between 1540 and 1640. What on earth does that mean? If it’s got you puzzled, you aren’t alone. What it seems to be saying is that what you are about to read is just as pleasant as it is profitable, so why not say that? Instead it says the opposite, as though the publisher is providing some tiresome instruction, promising to make it as enjoyable as possible: not exactly an enthusiastic message. In other words, it looks like a promotion, it sounds like a promotion, but it doesn’t really promote.

Titles can be just as confusing. According to one academic, “Whether the title had an immediate or remote reference to the subject-matter does not appear to have been considered material, or, in fact, whether it had reference to anything at all in particular.” He’s right about the title, but this isn’t true of this or similar tags, which did have a meaning, however obscure to present day literary historians. The message it conveyed to the silent seekers of a particular kind of writing was that this was a work of imaginative literature,a poem, story, or later, a play, as opposed to a scientific tract or religious sermon, works that apparently were safe from the Devil.

It’s said that during this time, the Jesuits were training their missionaries in a sort of double-speak known as equivocation, so that if grilled by the Protestants in northern Europe or the Inquisition in Italy and Spain, they could find ways of answering without either lying under oath or condemning themselves. Many in those days believed the fate of their souls was bound up with what answers they gave under oath: if they lied to the Inquisition they’d get burnt at the stake; if to God, they’d still get burnt, only later, perhaps for all eternity. Equivocation was simply a more serious form of the kind of wordsmithery that was the intellectual bread and wine for these early Reformation/Renaissance writers.

Where did it come from?

Usually it was not the author but the bookseller or publisher who composed a book’s title page and front matter. His primary objective, of course, was first to get it past the censor, and second to sell as many copies as possible as quickly as possible. Over time, much experimenting would lead to a formula that worked. A tag like “No less pleasant than profitable” met the Reformation requirement that everything, even joke books, had better advertise itself as having a serious purpose or it was in danger of getting a closer look and possibly rejected. So for the publishers of the 1590s, t’were best to take the easy way––give the work a confusing name, then use the front matter to distract the censor from taking too great an interest in the content.

While some could withstand such an examination, many, in particular those that “darkly figured forth” real persons and politics, could not. And that there was a growing audience that fed on such works is evident from the complaints by writers of attempts to read into their innocent tales personal and political comments that were simply not there. Among those who complained the loudest was Thomas Nashe, the worst offender of all, whose complaints have to be taken with the same grain of salt required for almost everything he wrote.

Human nature being much the same in every age, by the 1590s, when publishing had become a commercial industry generating a considerable volume of submitted manuscripts needing to be read by the censors, what could be more likely than when the stack got too high, the junior official in charge of weeding out problematic submissions was likely to give each a quick once-over, initial and return it to the publishers, only holding out for a closer look the one or two that were likely to cause real trouble. Thus by the 1590s, publishers would have been well aware that so long as the title page, introduction and first few pages looked kosher, a book had every chance of getting past the censor. Those who enjoyed these works were unlikely to blow any whistles, unless the material got so raw they they feared for their souls, or more likely were offended by satires about themselves or their friends. Some such scenario is undoubtedly behind Stephen Gosson’sattacks on the playwrights of Bishopsgate following the first rash of plays for the Children of the Chapell, the Queens Men, and Paul’s Boys in the early 1580s.

Profit or pleasure?

That nothing during this era was ever published purely for entertainment, but all must be utilitarian (even the most lascivious and violent, for these claimed to teach readers what to avoid) can be found in everything from the title page to the preface by the printer, to the introduction and poems by the author and his friends, to the dedication to some important figure and the various complimentary letters to the author, all meant to be taken as guarantees of the book’s legitimacy. Take it as a given, the more questionable the work, the more equivocal the introductory material, and more likely that the names and dates on the title page are less than 100 percent trustworthy. Efforts to obscure the real nature of a work are most elaborate in the early years, as we see in this excerpt from the “Letter to the Reader” that introduces Brooke’s Romeus and Juliet:

The glorious triumph of the continent man upon the lusts of wanton flesh, encourageth men to honest restraint of wild affections; the shameful and wretched ends of such as have yielded their liberty thrall to foul desires teach men to withhold themselves from the headlong fall of loose dishonesty.  So, to like effect, by sundry means the good man’s example biddeth men to be good, and the evil man’s mischief warneth men not to be evil. . . .  And to this end, good Reader, is this tragical matter written, to describe unto thee a couple of unfortunate lovers, thralling themselves to unhonest desire; neglecting the authority and advice of parents and friends; conferring their principal counsels with drunken gossips and superstitious friars (the naturally fit instruments of unchastity); attempting all adventures of peril for th’attaining of their wished lust; using auricular confession, the key of whoredom and treason, for furtherance of their purpose; abusing the honourable name of lawful marriage to cloak the shame of stolen contracts; finally by all means of unhonest life hasting to most unhappy death. This precedent, good Reader, shall be to thee, as the slaves of Lacedemon, oppressed with excess of drink, deformed and altered from likeness of men both in mind and use of body, were to the free-born children, so showed to them by their parents, to th’intent to raise in them in hateful loathing of so filthy beastliness. Hereunto, if you apply it, ye shall deliver my doing from offence and profit yourselves.

Whoever wrote this preface either had no idea what Brooke’s long narrative poem was really about, or was deliberately describing it in totally opposite terms. Rather than “thralling themselves to unhonest desire,” the love Romeus feels for Juliet is portrayed as a natural force over which neither the boy himself nor the Friar’s advice have any power. As for the Friar, not only is he not “superstitious” or a “naturally fit instrument of unchastity,” he is loving and wise, a genuine spiritual counselor, whom the poet describes as “beloved well, and honoured much of all.” Nor is there any “loathing of filthy beastliness” in his description of the young lovers’ wedding night, nor moral drawn against their desire for each other.  Instead the poet admits:

I grant that I envy the bliss they livéd in;
Oh that I might have found the like, I wish it for no sin,
But that I might as well with pen their joys depaint . . . . .

If Cupid, god of love, be god of pleasant sport,
I think, O Romeus, Mars himself envies thy happy sort.
Ne Venus justly might, as I suppose, repent,
If in thy stead, O Juliet, this pleasant time she spent.

The only possible reason for such a dishonest preface is that the publisher wrote it, or had it written, to distract the censor. Published in the early 1560s, when such works were still only a trickle, the same scenario continues to play out on title pages and in introductory material in almost every work of the imagination published throughout the Elizabethan and Jacobean era. As the trickle becomes a flood, these red herrings get briefer and more mechanical, but at the same time more cleverly worded.

Finally the constant reference to poetry or any sort of fiction as a frivolity appropriate only for young men before the serious matters of adult life banished such timewasters from their minds, was a judgement heard not only from conservative Reformers and older members of society but also from the poets and storytellers themselves, who were ever wont to apologize for what they invariably describe as “childish toys” written merely to pass the time, things not to be taken seriously by readers or authorities.

The Big Five

That the dominant force driving this revolution was led by five of the nation’s premiere aristocrats should not surprise us since lesser beings would not have had the protection of their status to keep them from being silenced at the outset, or murdered like the commoner Christopher Marlowe. That, in addition, Fate had arranged it so that the leader of this group was the ward of the Court official who was the primary enforcer of the English Reformation, or that his son was the man who later led the movement to destroy this leader’s fledgling literary establishment was said leader’s own brother-in-law, is one of those things that turns history into drama, or will once the story reaches readers who genuinely care about both History and Literature.

As peers these authors could not be punished without damage to the nation’s internal harmony, already strained to the breaking point over the changes in religion. That some of them needed, or at least badly wanted, posts at Court that not only gave them prestige abroad, but a voice in their government at home, made their preoccupation with literature a genuine sacrifice. Some, like Francis Bacon and Philip Sidney, badly needed the income. All this was denied them. In her standoff with her Protestant bishops, knights and rooks, the Queen, it seems, was powerless to defend or promote the pawns, the playwrights and composers who created her much needed “solace.” At least she always did what she could to see to it that they didn’t starve.

The weakness of their position may be one of the reasons Raleigh did not take literature as seriously as did Oxford, Sidney or Bacon, at least not until he ended up in the Tower and had nothing else to do. Bacon, raised in luxury at York House, only feltpoor, but like anyone who had ever served in the military, Raleigh had known real poverty. During the mid-80s while he was still revelling in the Queen’s favor, Sir Walter must have been aghast to see what Marlowe was doing to himself. (I can’t help but love Raleigh, perhaps because the historians hate him almost as much as they hate Oxford.)

By revealing the real Shakespeare, who he was, how he got his name, why his identity was hidden, we are revealing, not just the gifted, flawed, real human being who put pen to paper, but the nature of an entire era, and in many ways, the exciting truth about its history. To get a bit mystical for a moment: Hamlet is Shakespeare the Poet (his poem to Ophelia), the Court’s artistic director (his speech to the players), whose place in Celtic times had been that of Bard, poet priest and shaman King. His forbears murdered, he himself must turn to drama––“the play’s the thing”; equivocation: “now Hamlet, where’s Polonius?” “Not where he eats, but where he is eaten”; and underhanded tactics: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern “hoist by their own petard”––merely to survive. After 400 years of burnt toast, where’s the harm in taking this operatic scenario for the banquet it provides?

The schools have done us no favors by separating the English Department from the History Department. A nation’s literature is the soul of its history, its heart. With its literature cut off and separated from its history, that history withers into a lifeless list of names and dates. In Moliere’s Tartuffeis told the real story of the 16th- to 18th-century French bourgeois merchant class bamboozled by sanctimonious Jansenist (Puritan) posturing. In Cervantes’s Don Quixoteis the excruciatingly tragic and funny story of 16th-century Spain’s self-defeating romance with feudal chivalry.

Works like these need to be taught along with the history of their times, for separated, both lose nine-tenths of their life and their meaning.



3 thoughts on ““Tragical trifles . . . darkly figured forth”

  1. In noting just how cautious and equivocal in expression publishers and authors had to be (“No less pleasant than profitable”), Stephanie, you are doing us a great service, and illuminating why the writer of the “Shake-Speare” plays had to remain mysterious. I’ve also been long puzzled by what equivocations playwrights might have to resort to, given that they were potentially even more exposed to censure, “in the open” on the court, private, or public stage.

    Here is a publisher’s description of Arthur McGee’s “The Elizabethan Hamlet,” a book which to me may signify what equivocations even our “Shakespeare” relied on: “This original and provocative reinterpretation of Hamlet presents the play as the original audiences would have viewed it–a much bleaker, stronger, and more deeply religious play than it has usually been assumed to be. Arthur McGee draws a picture of a Devil-controlled Hamlet in the damnable Catholic court of Elsinore, and he shows that the evil natures of the Ghost and of Hamlet himself were understood and accepted by the Protestant audiences of the day.
    Using material gleaned from an investigation of play-censorship, McGee offers a comprehensive discussion of the Ghost as Demon. He then moves to Hamlet, presenting him as satanic, damned as revenger in the tradition of the Jacobean revenge drama. There are, he shows, no good ghosts, and Purgatory, whence the Ghost came, was reviled in Protestant England. The Ghost’s manipulation extends to Hamlet’s fool/madman role, and Hamlet’s soliloquy reveals the ambition, conscience, and suicidal despair that damn him. With this viewpoint, McGee is able to shed convincing new light on various aspects of the play. He effectively strips Ophelia and Laertes of their sentimentalized charm, making them instead chillingly convincing, and he works through the last act to show damnation everywhere. In an epilogue, he sums up the history of criticism of Hamlet, demonstrating the process by which the play gradually lost its Elizabethan bite. Appendixes develop aspects of Ophelia.”

    My apologies for the lengthy quote of a publisher’s blurb, but I think it’s a good description of the book’s contents, which I read some time ago; yet it raises further questions: how is it that, for all of Hamlet’s transgressions, aggressions, and suspicions, that he emerges from the play as a rounded, always brilliant, often likeable character whose death can enlist the audience in Horatio’s prayer for flights of angels to sing him to his rest? How is it that, for all Ophelia’s sinfulness, alleged by McGee, we mourn her mistreatment at the Prince’s hands, as well as her descent into madness and death? Why do we feel about as much sorrow for Polonius’s slaying as Hamlet himself does? I’ve even wondered if, on one level (giving McGee the benefit of the doubt about the anti-Catholic message), Oxford could have written the play to mollify court personages who thought he had drawn dangerously close to the Catholics like Howard and Arundel. On a deeper, more personal, level, could Oxford reassure himself that he was every inch the same old Edward de Vere, settling scores and telling unsavory truths about the court, Protestants like Burghley included?

  2. Thanks Tom,

    Here’s my view. In seeking a starting date for one of the plays I look for what was happening in Oxford’s life and at Court that might have driven him to write it. Tom Nashe mentions a version of Hamlet from 1589, which presumably would have been considerably different from the versions published over ten years later. For one thing, Burghley was still alive in 1589, (he’s named Corambis in Q1) and so was Leicester, a likely candidate for an early version of Claudius.

    The moment in Oxford’s life that to me best fits the plot of Hamlet was shortly after the death of Sussex in 1583. When Hamlet appears for the first time before the Court still dressed in mourning black, it suggests to me a possible scene in June of 1583, following Sussex’s funeral, when Elizabeth may have commented on Oxford’s attire with a remark similar to Gertrude’s to Hamlet:

    Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off,
    And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.
    Do not forever with thy vailed lids
    Seek for thy noble father in the dust:
    Thou know’st ’tis common; all that lives must die,
    Passing through nature to eternity.

    At a Court where almost everyone was related to almost everyone else, Oxford, despite his prestigious rank, was actually without much solid support for the first ten years. He had no older male siblings, no uncles or older cousins with important offices and a myriad of connections. All he had were his guardian William Cecil and the Queen, but neither really understood him or trusted him, while the Earl of Leicester hated him. With Sussex he had what must have felt like a surrogate father, a man closer to himself in taste and heritage than anyone else at Court.

    Largely due to Leicester’s jealousy, Oxford hadn’t been given much of a chance at Court until Sussex was appointed Lord Chamberlain of the Household in 1571. Although Leicester was only the Queen’s Master of Horse, it was he who had been taking care of her winter entertainments since her accession. With Sussex’s advent it’s clear from the Revels record that changes to the administration of the Court Stage began as soon as he came to Court. More plays were being performed during the winter holidays, some of them reflecting Oxford’s interests. Previously not allowed to leave England due to the Queen’s and Burghley’s fears that he’d desert to a Catholic nation, Oxford was allowed to have his year in Italy. With his return, the first public theater was built in Shoreditch, and the first private theater in Blackfriars. All of these developments took place while Sussex was Lord Chamberlain.

    Sussex and Leicester were old enemies. They managed to work fairly well together on the Privy Council, but when Sussex began pushing to get Elizabeth married to a foreign prince, Leicester went ballistic. (Number one, he wanted to marry her himself, and number two, he very much wanted to be known as England’s chief minister of foreign affairs.) When Sussex died, rumors were rampant that Leicester had had him poisoned.

    In my view, this would have been the moment when Oxford, heartbroken over the loss of his friend and patron, fearing the return of Leicester’s control, angry at the Queen for what seemed to him her cold-hearted attempt to return to business as usual. (Sussex’s replacement as Lord Chamberlain, two years later, would be his former vice-Chamberlain, Lord Hunsdon, who could not have been a more devoted patron, but Oxford would not have known that at the time of Sussex’s death.

    Thus the first version of the play, which I believe was produced in late 1583 or early 1584, within months of Sussex’s death, for a private audience of Oxford’s courtier friends, was born from a combination of anger at the Court, hatred of Leicester, and his own sense of loss. Oxford’s best work (Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Henry V, King Lear) seems always to have been written in response to some intense personal emotion. As time went by, and those most intimately concerned were gone where they could no longer be wounded by it (Leicester-Claudius and Anne Cecil-Ophelia in 1588, Burghley-Polonius in 1598) he revised it for public performance (and perhaps to stick it to Robert Cecil).

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