Taking a break from my normal writing schedule, I just got a book from the library on a subject that I need to know more about, the Roman Stage. It’s called The Roman Theatre and its Audience, by Richard C. Beacham. Published in 1992 by Harvard U Press, it’s available from Amazon in paperback for $21, but doubtless is also freely available through local libraries (Interlibrary loan) in the original hardback edition. Written in a comfortable and accessible style by an expert in the field of theater design, Beacham can help answer questions about Oxford’s knowledge of the Roman Stage and its playwrights.
If three or more of you are interested, perhaps we could have a sort of online reading group. We could set a deadline for finishing the book, and then begin a series of discussions here––much like the comments that follow one of my blogs, only this time without a blog––about the Roman Stage and its relevance to the public stages that came into being with Oxford’s return from Italy in 1576 and what plays may have been written for them rather than for the Court. This way we would all have the same frame of reference.
If some of you have teaching or other commitments that will ease in June, we could agree to begin at a particular time as well.
Long ago, in the timeless realm we call Literature, a certain fox, we’ll call him Reynard, dragged a stinky red herring across the trail of a certain Court poet, sending the yelping hounds who were after his identity up a false trail, where they’ve been barking up one wrong tree after another ever since. That red herring was the name William Shakespeare. Dragged across the poet’s paper trail––the published plays that in performance, twenty years earlier, had launched the London Stage, it did what it was meant to do, it gave the author and his company the freedom they needed to keep on producing the plays that gave the actors a living and their world a good cry, a much needed belly laugh, and those inclined to philosophy something to think about.
This red herring was successful in protecting the true author from the rage of the puritans who ran the nation, uptight ideologues, hungry for social power, who feared and hated the forces unleashed by the London Stage, forces that we know today as the English Literary Renaissance. Unable to control it they sought to kill it. This protective maneuver on the part of the Company, probably born of exigency, a dodge put into effect during a moment of desperation, perhaps not intended to last as long as it has, has in fact lasted for centuries.
Despite the evidence that’s been provided over the past 200 years, it seems we are still stuck in a scenario where the hounds continue to chase each other around in circles, only now there’s a herd of authorship scholars who follow after them, their shouts unheard in the clamor. Isn’t it about time we put an end to this absurd waste of energy?
I say leave the hounds to their sport, stop confronting the ersatz gurus of the Birthplace Trust on their territory, something that does nothing but distract us from the real field of inquiry. Leave the English Departments to their publications and pronunciamentos, and take the issue to where it should have been from the begining, to the political history of the period when Shakespeare was writing. When you haven’t enough data on a topic of interest, you turn to what we call “proxy data,” material that surrounds the issue, that doesn’t touch on it directly, but that if put in place, shows the shape and nature of what’s missing. If you can’t find enough material to work from the inside out, work from the outside in. It’s time to turn away from the failures of the university English Department, and walk across the hall to the History Department.
We have the plays; what does it matter who wrote them?
It matters!! Only a culture that has allowed its literature to become divorced from its history could tolerate such a remarkably stupid credo. Divorced from history, from the ground out of which it grew, literature loses its relevance. Divorced from literature, the stories that bring a particular time and place to life, history loses the pulse of life. Bereft of the human drama that gives it meaning, history is little more than a laundry list of dates and names. Divorced from each other, both lose their purpose, their true meaning.
This divorce was actually taking place during the time that Shakespeare (we’ll have to call him that), was writing and his Company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later the King’s Men, was producing his plays. Ancient studies were being divided: religion into superstition on the one hand, the early Church fathers on the other; alchemy into philosophy on the one, the science of chemistry on the other; astrology into folk psychology and medicine on the one, the science of astronomy on the other. Similarly history was being divided into story on the one hand, historiography on the other. This division of inherited materials into literature over here and history over there was eventually enshrined in the university curriculum, and from there into the secondary schools where it continues to discourage young people from developing an interest in either Literature or History.
The storehouse of Sin
In England the division was amplified by the passions of the Reformation which saw the division as a conflict between God and the Devil, with God on the side of History, and the Devil on the side of literature. History was truth, while Literature, which they called Poetry, they saw as a tissue of lies, deadly lies that entrapped men’s souls and led them down the primrose path to the fiery furnace. The respected Shakespeare scholar, Prof. Lily B. Campbell, is one of the rare English profs who could see the forest for the trees. As she wrote in Chapter X of her Shakespeare’s Histories (1945): “History versus Poetry in Renaissance England”:
In order to understand the place of history in the English Renaissance we must turn to the attacks made upon poetry . . . first by the adherents of the Reformation and later by the Puritans . . . . These attacks on poetry are not today so well known as are the defenses of poetry and particularly the great defense offered by Sidney. Nevertheless, the defenses of poetry cannot be fully comprehended unless we remind ourselves that defense is always organized to resist attack. (85)
One of the earliest attacks came in 1569, shortly after the plays in question began to escape the Court for which they were written to entertain the public at the London theater inns. As James Sanford wrote in his translation of Cornelius Aggripa’s 1530 Vanity and Uncertainty of the Arts and Sciences:
Poetry, as Quintilian writeth, is another part of grammar, not a little proud . . . that in times past the theaters and amphitheaters, the goodliest buildings of men, were erected not by philosophers, not by lawyers, . . but with exceeding great expense by the fables of poets, an art that was devised to no other end but to please the ears of foolish men with wanton rhythms, with measures, and weightiness of syllables, and with a vain jarring of words, . . . to deceive men’s minds with the delectation of fables . . . . Wherefore it [the Stage] doth deserve to be called the principal author of lies, and the maintainer of perverse opinions.
In November 1577, Bishop Thomas White preached against the Stage from the pulpit at Paul’s Cathedral, a sermon that, when printed, filled 98 pages. “See,” he cried:
the multitude that flocketh to them and followeth them; behold the sumptuous theater houses, a continual monument of London’s prodigality and folly. But I undersand that they are now forbidden because of the plague. I like the policy well if it hold . . . for a disease is but . . . patched up that is not cured in the cause, and the cause of plagues is sin,. . . and the cause of sin are plays; therefore the cause of plagues are plays.
In 1579, former playwright Stephen Gosson wrote in The School of Abuse, a pamphlet that the Church saw to it got published in the thousands and distributed all over London:
Cooks did never show more craft in their junkets [desserts? sauces?] to vanquish the taste nor painters in shadows [paintings] to allure the eye, than Poets in Theaters to wound the conscience. There set, they abroche strange consorts of melody to tickle the ear, costly apparell to flatter the sight, effeminate gesture to ravish the senses, and wanton speech to whet desire to inordinate lust. . . . Let us but shut up our ears to Poets, Pipers and Players, pull our feet back from resort to Theaters and turn away our eyes from beholding of vanity, the greatest storm of abuse will be overblown and a fair path trodden to amendment of life. Were not we so foolish to taste every drug and buy every trifle, Players would shut in [up] their shops and carry their trash to some other country.
Writers of fiction fought back. First Thomas Lodge in 1578 against Gosson’s diatribe: “Who then doth not wonder at poetry? Who thinketh not that it procedeth from above?” As Nashe snarled at Sanford in Piers Penniless (1593):
As there be those that rail at all men, so there be those that rail at all Arts, as Cornelius Agrippa [in his] De vanitate scientiarum, and a treatise that I have seen in dispraise of learning, where he [Sanford] saith, it is the corrupter of the simple, the schoolmaster of sin, the storehouse of treachery, the reviver of vices, and mother of cowardice, alledging many examples, how there was never man egregiously evil but he was a scholar; that when the use of letters was first invented, the Golden World ceased, Facinusque inuasit mortales: how study doth effeminate a man, dim his sight, weaken his brain, and engender a thousand diseases.
To no avail––the Crown had departed from the Reformation’s humanist creators, following the Church into the art-hating tenets of Calvinism. Campbell quotes “the most direct attack upon poetry as lying” with which she was familiar, the translation by Sir Edward Hoby of a French diatribe titled Politic Discourses upon Truth and Lying (1586) which he dedicated to his uncle William Cecil, patron and overlord of the English press. Campbell comments:
the description of poetry as poison mixed with honey, the emphasis upon pleasure derived from poetry as suspect, the reiteration of Plato’s contention [in The Republic] that passion and vice are replenished by poetry, are all familiar, but it must be noted that all other charges are made subordinate to the main thesis of the chapter that poetry is lying. (92)
As Sidney, whose response to Gosson in 1580 was finally published in 1590, put it: “Now for the Poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth: for as I take it, to lie is to affirm that to be true which is false. So. . . the historian, affirming many things, can . . . hardly escape from many lies.”
Campbell notes that Hoby’s Chapter 36 is dedicated to the consideration “of backbiters, mockers, and evil speakers, and why the comedians, stage players and jugglers have been rejected,” and that plays “infecteth more the spirits and wrappeth them in passions then drunkenness itself.” She quotes:
And for as much as comedies are compounded of fictions, fables, and lies, they have of divers been rejected. As touching plays, they are full of filthy words, which would not become . . . lacqueys and courtesans and have sundry inventions which infect the spirit and replenish it with unchaste, whorish, cosening, deceitful, wanton and michievous passions . . . . And for that besides all these inconveniences, comedians, and stage players do often times envy and gnaw at the honor of another, and to please the vulgar people, set before them sundry lies and teach much dissoluteness and deceit, by this means turning upside down all discipline and good manners [so that] many cities well governed would never at any time entertain them. (92-3)
Thus wrote Burghley’s nephew in 1586, when the London Stage was in its ninth year, teetering on the verge of disaster. Written while the nation was suffering the increasing severity of Burghley’s war on Catholic recusants and puritan dissidents, six years after his brutal execution of St. Edmund Campion and nine before the equally brutal execution, by his son Robert Cecil, of the Jesuit poet Robert Southwell, we should consider that perhaps it was less the poets’ “filthy” language that inspired this outburst on the part of his nephew than how they did “often times envy and gnaw at the honor” of the Cecils.
Though Burghley may have tolerated the Stage back in the 1560s when Philip II blamed him for the satires that were defaming his Spanish Majesty, it’s clear that by 1586, he was in the mood to trim both the London Stage and the commercial Press; perhaps cut them to the ground; perhaps uproot them entirely. It’s Polonius, accepted by all as a portrait of Burghley, who critiques the dedication of Hamlet’s poem to Ophelia: “To the beautified Ophelia”; “That’s an ill phrase,” says Polonius, “a vile phrase; beautified is a vile phrase.” We can be sure that this exchange has far more meaning than today’s so-called critics would give it.
Seen from the perspective of English history, the Renaissance, when it finally arrived, had to find its way past the Reformation fears of Satan. This is the major reason for the form that it took in England, and for most of the literary anomalies that academics have failed to explain, including, first and foremost, the mystery surrounding the identity of the playwright who is easily found, had the slightest attention been paid to the evidence of history, deep within the Court community. Had there been any genuine attention paid to the history of the period, it would also be clear long since that Shakespeare was not alone in this, but that most of the literature produced during this first early Spring of England’s Literary Renaissance was produced by men and women who took almost exactly the same route he did, hiding their identities behind a flock of standins, supernumeraries, and initials.
Forget the English Departments
We need to approach the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare, of which his true identity is but one, others pertaining to the identities of the authors who wrote under the names Edmund Spenser, Thomas Nashe, Thomas North, Arthur Brooke, John Lyly, Robert Greene, and a dozen others. History will show where these are located in time, and who besides the authors were involved, the powerful and wealthy patrons who made these efforts possible, the publishers and printers who took risks in publishing them, all easily located once the background of dates, current events, known personalities and conflicts are in place. With the stage set by history, we’ll have a picture that no one can argue with.
But to do that we need the help of historians. Those readers who seek an end to the questioning, the beginning of certainty, join in the quest for history majors, free thinkers who can see beyond the limits proscribed by the Stratford biography, probably located in London, certainly in England, individuals with access to the archives where documents never explored by authorship scholars remain to be examined. We need patrons with the wherewithall to provide funding for such a project, who can keep it moving until the university History departments––yielding to the thrill of establishing the great Shakespeare at the Court of Queen Elizabeth––open their doors to the authorship question.
Urge schools to combine literature with history.
By bringing a piece of the story of our lives to life with not just the events of the time, but the way the writers and artists who lived it then saw it, by accenting the story part of history, by connecting stories to the events that gave them birth, we’ll be putting the Humanities back on the road to importance. We’ll be turning fear into understanding, existential despair into acceptance and love, something has been the goal of literature ever since Plato set out to tell the world the truth about Socrates.
It’s time we told the truth about Shakespeare to those who are ready to hear it, and quit trying to tell it to those who are committed to ignorance.
Long before Plato, it was the poet Pindar who set the standard for poetry for the ancient Greeks. Both Shakespeare and Pindar are seen as the great poets of their nations and both were located at similar points in their nation’s histories. Both wrote during times of great national stress, Pindar during the threat to Greece from the Persian Empire (502-452 BC); Shakespeare during a similar threat to England from the south, Spain, and from the East, the Ottoman Empire. Much of Pindar’s work can be seen as an effort to broaden narrow local sentiments into a panhellenic awareness of what was good and beautiful in all of life; similarly Shakespeare worked, through his histories, to raise English awareness of themselves as citizens of a great and unique national culture rather than parishioners of a particular faith or servants of a particular lord.
The careers of both took place at the very beginning of the supernovae of culture that would blaze their times forever in the hearts and minds of artists, scientists, and philosophers though subsequent ages. Both lived at the moment when their cultures first began to experiment with democracy, and neither were particularly happy with the prospect. Both loved Nature, their works are suffused with their experience of Nature. Speaking, or rather singing, a chorus, Pindar gave his audiences the grand view, the opportunity to see life and events from the highest pitch, as did Shakespeare, speaking through his protagonists.
In reading (online) what Charles Fennell, Fellow of Jesus College Cambridge and author of the 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica article on Pindar, has to say about the ancient poet, his descriptions match so closely with what we know of Shakespeare that it seems worthwhile to quote him. Of Pindar’s style, Fennell quotes another scholar’s comment on his “‘pre-eminent rapidity of thought’ as “of an eagle’s flight or of very lightening.” And that his works everywhere show “impassioned animation and marvelous reserve of power.” He continues:
They show traces of humor and tenderness, of the latter to a surprising extent, considering the nature of his themes. Several passages suggest forcibly that the poet was fond of festivity and good cheer. . . . His vividness of conception and appreciation of delicate touches of character are, I venture to say, unrivaled in the whole range of Greek and Latin authors. . . . He seems to have cherished a deeper love of Nature, especially of trees and flowers, than is generally to be discerned in Greek literature. He is a most effective word-painter, producing his pictures by a few bold strokes. (xiii)
Fennell’s comments on Pindar include: “the simplicity of his structure, the grace and freedom of his forms of expression, the impetuous, elastic movement of his verse.” He comments on his use of proverbs and his “rich” use of metaphor.
In elaborate embellishment of an idea and in brief statement he was equally a master [as was his] extraordinary skill in transition . . . and his occasional abruptness. One of the most conspicuous features of his poetry is its manifold variety both of form and tone. He thoroughly appreciated the effectiveness of contrast, passing from solemn [to] almost jovial, from jubliant strains of triumph to impressive warning or tranquil narrative, with diction now exuberant and luscious, now severely plain. We generally find a continuous flow of . . . lightly connected clauses and sentences, but sometimes emphasis is gained by abrupt disconnected utterances. Our appreciation of the ease and spontaneity of Pindar’s style must not blind us to the fact that, besides genius, he exhibits and glories in consummate art. When most discursive and impetuous, his thoughts are thoroughly under control. (xiv-xv)
All this was just as true of Shakespeare, and just as unusual at his time, in fact, it may be that no one writing in English has ever surpassed him in any of these qualities, certainly not in all of them. “No doubt the compounds and derivatives found only in Pindar, or of which his use seems to be the earliest, were coined by him . . . .” Shakespeare is thought to have coined between 3,000 and 6,000 words, most still in use today. There also seem to be many similarities in syntax. Fennell continues:
Though not a bigoted oligarch, he was a thorough aristocrat, insofar that he believed in the superiority of the well-born in physical and moral capabilities, but he had a clear view of the rights of the commonalty, and the responsibliities of nobles and rulers. On such points he spoke out boldly though gracefully, even to the most absolute of those whom he addressed. (xvi)
Difficulties with understanding Pindar have mostly to do with the rapid stream of thoughts and images that he force-fit into the poetic forms he used, many of them so fleeting that translators must do a lot of guessing. As Fennell put it, “He deals in divers kinds of abbreviations, fresh combinations of words, inversions, and extensions of meaning . . . .” We see much the same situation with Shakespeare, in some cases where his syntax simply cannot contain the fullness of his thought at the speed with which he wishes to impart it; in others because the beauty of certain sounds takes precedence over precise meaning.
As with Shakespeare (and Homer), the authorship of Pindar has been the subject of argument, but the fact that the voice heard in the odes remains the same and uniquely his has quieted most disputes, as should the same qualities in Shakespeare. As for the actual name itself, so many ancient writers were given names that varied from the names given them at birth, changed either by themselves for some reason, or more often by those who came after, many of whom spoke and wrote in different languages, a shape-shifting that would have been obvious to Oxford from his first ventures into Greek and Latin.
Written Greek poetry begins with Pindar, possibly only as he was nearing the end of his life. Just so Shakespeare’s works, that had initiated the English literary Renaissance, were published only towards the end of his (Oxford’s) life, and only published in full after he was gone.
Most interesting to those who seek among Shakespeare’s works for clues to his own beliefs is Pindar’s obvious belief in the life after death, his acknowledgement of a destiny that lies outside Time, and so may be involved in the unfolding of events. Is it this, or something like it, that Shakespeare refers to when in Sonnet 59 he says
If there be nothing new, but that which is Hath been before, how are our brains beguil’d, Which, labouring for invention, bear amiss The second burthen of a former child! O, that record could with a backward look, Even of five hundred courses of the sun, Show me your image in some antique book, Since mind at first in character was done! That I might see what the old world could say To this composed wonder of your frame; Whether we are mended, or whe’r better they, Or whether revolution be the same. O! sure I am, the wits of former days To subjects worse have given admiring praise.
Pindar saw great events, the victory at Marathon, Shakespeare saw the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Pindar’s poetry was written to be sung, whether by a single singer or a chorus. Shakespeare is full of song lyrics and breaks for music. Ovid, beloved of Shakespeare, showed his reverence for Pindar by naming the muse of his Ars Amatoria Corinna, the female poet who (it is believed) taught Pindar to write.
For want of a better term, I’m calling it “the wobble.” This is the period we’re in right now, the one we call the winter stolstice, that goes from, roughly, the 21st of December to the 6th of January, during which the earth changes its orientation to the sun. Life on earth experiences this as the return of light, sun and warmth. Days, which until now have been getting shorter, will begin to get longer, a process that will continue until the 21st of June, the summer solstice, when they will begin to shorten once again.
The interesting thing about this period, or one of the interesting things, is how the change occurs. Like so many changes, it does not happen all at once. If you check the times of sunrise and sunset you’ll see that as the day begins to expand on December 21st, it’s only the sunset that stops happening earlier and begins to happen later, while sunrise actually continues to take place a little later each day, as it has been doing since June, only changing to earlier on January 6th or 7th, when sunrise and sunset together begin the six month process of expanding the day at both ends, sunrise getting earlier each day while sunset gets later. It’s as though the morning continues on its downward path for another two weeks while the afternoon and evening are already turning towards spring.
Humans and animals experience this as a time of instability. With the planet undergoing the stress of a change of direction, everything on earth experiences a slight sensation of going too fast around a corner. This sensation is too slight to feel or see, but it is constant from the 21st of December until the 6th of January, known to the folk as Twelfth Night and to the Church as the Epiphany.
That the forces that pull and thrust the earth in its path around the sun (forces that are still very poorly understood by science) are in something of a conflict during this two-week period is reflected in the symbol of Janus, the Roman god of transitions for whom January is named, which shows a head with two faces, each looking in the opposite direction. This is said to represent this period as both looking to the past and to the future. It can also be seen as looking to the Spring, the springing up of life, while continuing to mourn theFall,into dearth, that is, seeming death.
The European peoples tradition has set the turn of the year, New Year’s Eve/Day, at a midpoint during this process. While the traditional solstice point is the 24th of December, opposite to the 24th of June, in ancient tradition the summer solstice, or Midsummer’s Day (note that for centuries it was also the Feast of St. John the Baptist, and that it is also the date in 1604 when the Earl of Oxford is supposed to have died). Because the actual moment of transition can occur anywhere from twelve to forty-eight hours out of step with the dates assigned by the calendar, the 24th was the earliest that the ancients could be certain the transition had begun.
Ten lords a-leaping
Some readers may already have connected this period with the “Twelve Days of Christmas,” which demarked, as the old carol describes, the period of holiday gift-giving, beginning on the day after Christmas and completing on the sixth of January, the twelfth night after Christmas. It cannot be coincidence that this period conforms exactly to “the wobble,” the two week period when the forces that drive the planet are in conflict with each other, with the earth pulled one way from midnight to noon and another from noon to midnight, until the dayward pull completes its takeover on January 6th or 7th. That Shakespeare, and the ancient astronomers and astrologers, were acutely aware of this process cannot be denied.
That the two faces of Janus, the source of the name January, are turned away from each other, suggests that these two forces––if conscious of each other, are in some conflict with each other––fits with the fact that wherever we have history of other times and in other parts of the world, this period has always been an upside-down time of reversal, a two week period during which social and religious conventions are turned around, when the everyday face of law and social propriety is forced to acknowledge humanity’s need to cut loose, as in the Roman Saturnalia.
During prehistoric times, before records were kept, there must have been rituals associated with this period that, in Christian times got turned into those holiday rituals of which we do have reports, such as the Boy Bishop in the parishes, or the Lord of Misrule at the colleges, and the Feast of Fools in France. In the rural areas it was the time when mummings and disguisings allowed the folk to drink and carry on like sailors “on liberty,” misbehaving in ways that normally would not be tolerated.
There were several other moments of the year when such license was allowed: Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, also known as Shrovetide and Carneval; May Day, May first; Midsummer’s Eve, June 23rd; and October 31st, All Hallows Eve (our Halloween); but most of these were but a single day or night, nor did they carry the upside-down quality of reversal. These rituals were, at least in retrospect, an effective way of allowing groups to blow off steam before situations got so desperate that they led to riot or murder.
Apart from the merry-making, the quality of reversal that marked the twelve days of Christmas gave the meek a chance to pretend they had already inherited the earth while authorities were reminded that their superiority was merely a temporary, or temporal, condition. It was preeminently a time when satires were rife, whether impromptu performances by mummers, or, in the cities, effigies of authorities to be mocked by the crowd. Unfortunately, the Reformation, that saw these “may games” first, as something conjured up by the Devil to drag mankind into the fiery furnace, and second, dangerous to authority, was so successful in eradicating them that very little information has come down to us about their nature, leaving folklorists just bits and pieces here and there with which to put together a scenario. As Shakespeare put it, twice: “For O, the Hobby Horse is forgot!”
Enter Shakespeare, laughing
Once the academic bonds to Stratford are broken so scholars are free to seek the poet and his works as they actually appear in history, it will become clear that the literary revolution he inspired by way of the London Stage was Nature’s way of providing the unhappy English, bereft of their beloved holiday traditions, with a viable substitute. As is clear from the record when we allow ourselves to read it directly, the London Stage was born as an outflow of the Court Stage, which is obviously where he began his career in the late 1560s to early 1570s. The plays that most agree are his earliest are the comedies with which the Master of the Revels began replacing masques as the primary winter holiday entertainment for the Court in the late 1560s and early 1570s.
Masques, the Court’s version of the mummings and disguisings of the Middle Ages, were inclined to get rowdy. With plays the audience remained quietly in their seats, transported to Prospero’s Magical Isle, to Illeria or Athens, through the magic of genius storytelling (these plays would not be labelled as by William Shakespeare until the late 1590s when the actors, forced to publish, needed a name for the title pages). Thus Elizabeth was able to provide her Court and its foreign visitors with a more intellectual version of the pleasures of an old-fashioned winter holiday while maintaining the dignity required by an unmarried female monarch and the first Reformation Court in Europe.
When these comedies began migrating from the Court to the London theater inns, the public, starved for entertainment, responded with such enthusiasm that entrepreneurs like Jame Burbage and Philip Henslowe saw the creation of yearround public stages as a viable business opportunity. By replacing the uncertainties of passing the hat or the promises of patrons with a box office at the door, Burbage, a member of the Carpenter’s Guild and a part time actor with the Court-based company known officially as Leicester’s Men, hoped to guarantee a professional living for himself and his fellow amateurs. Thus did the first versions of Love’s Labour’s Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, Much Ado and Twelfth Night, migrate from the Court to the London Stage, opening the door for the great histories and tragedies that would follow in times to come.
“No more cakes and ale”
All of these comedies show traces of their origins as Court entertainment for one or another of these periods of festal license, some containing stage directions that show breaks for music and dancing, even, as in The Tempest, for a possible feast. Most notable is Twelfth Night, where the subplot follows the traditions of this anomalous holiday period in the antics of Sir Toby, Maria, Feste and Fabian, while their battle with Malvolio reflects the war the actors were fighting with the London mayors and those Court officials who wanted them shut down. The “reversal” involved shows their success in getting the Countess to have her steward, Malvolio, incarcerated as a lunatic, and in Feste’s undoubtedly hilarious imitation of a Reformation prelate.
But the solemnity of Feste’s question, directed at Malvolio, “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there will be no more cakes and ale?’ is posed, if not so directly, by all these holiday plays. Malvolio’s curse, with which the play ends: “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!” seems astonishly prophetic, considering how a few decades later the puritans would succeed in shutting down all the theaters in England, and that even after they reopened two decades later, Shakespeare would not be seen again in the form in which his plays were originally written for another 200 years! Perhaps by the time another benchmark arrives in another century we’ll have begun to accept the fact that the plays were written by a courtier, and not the illiterate William who gave nothing to the enterprise but his wonderfully punnable name and twenty years of sturdy silence.
Twelfth Night on Broadway throughout January
Although it’s most likely that it’s through serendipity alone and no occult design that this play in which the ancient reversal tradition is perhaps the strongest of all Shakespeare’s plays, is playing on Broadway during this year’s “wobble.” With that genius of the Shakespeare stage, Mark Rylance, in a starring role, this is one of those theater events that, for those of us who like our Shakespeare authentic, is not to be missed. Done to perfection in a sort of faux-sixteenth century style, nothing could be more “reversed” than the fact that Rylance has chosen to play Olivia rather than Sir Toby or any other of the male roles (with the marvelous Stephen Fry as Malvolio). This, plus the fact that all the female roles are played by males, however attributed to authenticity (all female roles were played by male actors in Shakespeare’s England), does not explain their Kabuki-like makeup or perambulation . For what’s most “authentic” about Mark’s approach is that, like Shakespeare, he takes what the past has to offer and by mixing it with something unexpected, achieves effects that no one else would dare to attempt.
Thus Rylance, whose brilliant treatments of Shakespeare were the major contribution to the success of the New Globe Theater while he was presiding as its Artistic Director for its first ten years, during which he used his, and its, popularity to awaken the public to the authorship question, shows himself again to be the grand master of reversals during this winter holiday wobble. On nights when he’s not playing Olivia he’s playing Richard III as a sort of royal Mr. Punch.
Here I am backstage at the great and beautiful Belasco Theater with this dear, generous, and incredibly gifted friend (photo taken by my daughter). God bless great actors, especially those who can make us laugh!
Passing the hat
As this time of year has always been devoted to requests for donations by worthy causes, I hope mine qualifies with some of you as worthy of support. I’m asking those readers who believe what I’m doing is contributing to the world’s knowledge (politicworm gets hits every day from all over the world), not only about Shakespeare and his works, but about the history of the period when he lived, I would be most appreciative of a little help in getting books that I need to have available for reference that I can’t get online, and that the library won’t let me keep longer than a month.
Should you feel inspired to help in this way, you can do so by purchasing a gift card through Amazon.com for politicworm at gmail.com. Any amount is greatly appreciated. You can take the option of putting your name on it, which means I can thank you personally, and if you wish, include you in the acknowledgements in the book that hopefully will be done this coming year. If you wish to remain anonymous, whether to me or to my readers, you just leave the name space blank (but of course I’d much prefer to know who you are).
Meanwhile I’m grateful to everyone who subscribes to this wobbelog. And to all who comment on my posts, who give me encouragement, inspiration, and food for thought, a fun and exciting winter wobble and a healthy and prosperous rising year.
Did anyone see the BBC series “The Hollow Crown” on PBS? If so, what did you think of it? Unfortunately I missed the first two, Richard II and Henry IV Part One, but did manage to see a fair amount of 2HIV and Henry V. “Fair amount” since sleep, which generally overcomes me shortly after 9 PM, took me captive, despite the charms of Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal. What did I miss? From what I saw I thought both productions were good in some ways, but truly terrible in others.
The good was largely Hiddleston as the prince. A product of Eton and Cambridge where he majored in Classics, he has a princely accent and attitude, a wide range of expression, and is the right age for the character. Moving easily from moody pensiveness to rage to hilarity, he finds in Hal the depth of character and range of emotion that are the hallmarks of Shakespeare’s greatest characters. This carries him through the complexity of the speeches––though some could have used cutting: I cringed to think that, as King, Hal would have kept the Mayor of Harfleur on his knees through that long pompous threat of what would happen to babes and daughters if the Mayor refused to yield the town. But we must remember that this is very early Shakespeare.
Jeremy Irons is a good Henry IV; the action is interesting and well-conceived, the camera-work expressive and unobtrusive, and the costumes remarkable for achieving a blend of period authenticity and what a modern viewer can relate to, at least for the courtiers. Unhappily however, this last does not extend to the inhabitants and setting of the Boars Head Tavern, for what’s truly awful about this production––and recent film versions as well––is the way Falstaff and his friends are portrayed as the scum of the earth, dirty, disheveled, dressed in rags, hanging about in a filthy tavern overseen by a slovenly madam who keeps a company whore even more ragged and slatternly than she.
Most awful is what this bucket-load of grunge has done to the image of Falstaff that has accrued over the centuries. Here is the blurb with which Sparknotes online promotes the series: “A fat, cheerful, witty, aging criminal, [Falstaff] has long been Prince Hal’s mentor and close friend. He pretended to have killed Hotspur at the Battle of Shrewsbury, and Prince Hal–the actual killer–agreed to go along with the lie. For this reason, everyone gives Falstaff much more respect than he deserves.” Obviously this is what the author of this blurb has gotten from watching the series––Falstaff is a criminal and Hal is a killer!
Why on earth would the Prince of Wales, soon to be crowned as the great Henry the Fifth, choose to spend so much of his time with this unpleasant old rascal, dressed and directed as though he were a drunken Salvation Army Santa Claus. His seedy surroundings, immense bulk, fusty beard, and rapid delivery distract from Shakespeare’s text, which tells a very different tale. Unfortunately the audience, unless it already knows the play, will not find it easy to catch the import of the text, since the current practise of running lines at an unnatural speed in film productions, where action must replace the precision and clarity of a traditional stage performance, turns Falstaff’s wicked tongue and wit to the mutterings of a crazy old fool. The idea that the Prince of Wales would prefer to spend his time in such a setting and with such an “old criminal” is so absurd that the viewing audience is more or less lost from the start. What were the producers thinking?
If it was to create a contrast with the Court, that fails, due to two other bad things, namely the dull color palette and the choice of a vast empty hall as the King’s presence chamber. Just about everything in the film, whether in the Court or the Tavern or on the battlefield is either brown, black, or gray; there isn’t a spark of bright color anywhere. Where is the splendor with which the late medieval royalty surrounded itself, the purple, carnation, scarlet, gold and white, the “peach-color” of Poins’s stockings, the sun shining through stained glass windows? Shot in the winter, with the trees bare and the sky gray, the outdoor scenes are just as bleak as those indoors. As for the crew gathered in the Boars Head Tavern, it would seem that modern directors seriously mistake the intense teasing and rude familiarity of people who have no fear of seriously offending each other as the brawling of thieves and streetwalkers.
Ignorant of the times, the ambiance they seek to recreate has caused Shakespeare’s meaning to escape them. Why does it never strike them to wonder why Falstaff is so revered? If he’s the shambling old nonentity he’s portrayed, why does the royal prince, with his princely education, desire his company? Why does the hostess of the tavern pressure him to marry her? Why does Doll Tearsheet demonstrate such love for him? How can Falstaff dare to consider himself the Prince’s “true father”? Bereft of the stature and bearing that the text suggests, missing the meaning of the rapid fire delivery, how are we to take Falstaff’s claim that he is not only witty in himself, but is the cause of wit in others?
If we pay attention to the text we find that this old stumblebum speaks to those around him with the arrogance and self-importance of a courtier (more notably in Part Two) , an attitude rendered ridiculous here by the seedy setting, his short stature, unkempt hair and undistinguished garb. No more than a knight, where does he get the aristocratic attitude that he deserves to have whatever he wants? Attempting to purchase satin for a suit, he curses the system when told he hasn’t the necessary security (credit). Ignoring the Lord Chief Justice, he invites this high official’s companion, the poet Gower, to dine, despite his obvious inability to pay the bill. Nor is this attributable to a lunatic’s Napoleonic complex, for were he the lowlife he’s portrayed, the Lord Chief Justice would hardly take the time to seek him in person, but would send a constable to fetch him for questioning (about the Gad’s hill robbery). Confronting him, he would hardly waste words in one of Falstaff’s wit battles––he would simply have him arrested.
If Falstaff is in fact what his name tells us he is, someone who has carried the staff of high office and who has failed that office, then everything falls into place. It makes sense of Hal’s interest in him. It makes sense of the scene in Part One where, before the battle, Falstaff joins readily in easy conversation with the King. It makes sense of Mistress Quickly’s eagerness to marry him, for, however poor in cash, someone in high office would have estates to support him. If Falstaff doesn’t see to his estates the way he should, that’s another aspect of his failure. It makes sense of Hal and Poins’s devotion, the sort that rebellious youths are often inclined to give a fallen idol. As for Poins, depicted here as only the best of the bad lot that congregate around the depraved Falstaff, as Shakespeare suggests, he’s Hal’s close and intimate friend––if not a peer himself, then close to it. Ned Poins, named for a leading family of the day (usually spelled Poyntz) would not be hanging about in the Tavern, waiting for the Prince to appear, he would accompany him, going and coming.
As for Bardoph and Nym, Shakespeare does not intend them to be taken as Falstaff’s equals; it’s clear they are his servants. A captain himself, Ancient Pistol is his sergeant, Peto his lieutenant. All rely on his patronage, however uncertain. Falstaff claims that he “bought” Bardolf at Paul’s Cathedral, where masterless men were known to gather in search of employment. The little page treats Bardolph rudely, like one on his same level. That Falstaff is meant to be elegantly dressed is clear from the comments by Hal and Poins on how Falstaff has turned the page into his “ape,” that is, he has dressed the boy like himself, and has encouraged him to join in the verbal fencing that they call wit.
Along with the anomalously huge and empty presence chamber, there’s the anomaly of the Boar’s Head Tavern. Where did the directors of this production get the model for this dilapidated, low-ceilinged dump, tucked behind a battered old door like one of the blind pigs of Prohibition, lacking any touch of decoration or charm. Don’t they bother to read any history at all? The Boars Head Tavern was famous in its time as the finest inn in London. Where is there any evidence of the “plate” and the “tapestry of her dining rooms” that Mistress Quickly fears having to pawn unless Falstaff pays his bill? When she says, protesting the presence of his “swaggering” servant, “I must live among my neighbours: I’ll no swaggerers: I am in good name and fame with the very best,” what could be “the very best” in such a place, and why should her wretched neighbors care, or she care what they think?
Of course, there were “stews” in London, neighborhoods where gangsters and their molls held sway (as Robert Greene depicted in his “renunciation” pamphlets), but this would not have been the sort of hostel where one might rub elbows with the Prince of Wales and his friends. When, joking, Falstaff says he’ll get a wife from “the stews,” meaning the slums, would that make sense if his tavern was located in a slum? Would Shakespeare waste the opportunity to adorn Doll Tearsheet with the finest up-to-date attire, or an exaggerated version of it, rather than what the BBC has given us, a beautiful actress made to look worse even than the lowliest streetwalker, who at least would be doing her best to dress in a way that she hoped would attract men. This Doll, her hair uncombed, her colorless dress torn and unmended, qualifies for nothing better than an inmate of Bedlam. What happened to the “fair hot wench in flame-colored taffeta,” with which Hal teases Falstaff?
Far from the grungy dive it’s depicted here, the historic Boars Head Inn, located in central London in a neighborhood dominated by the halls of the powerful and wealthy trade guilds, was a classy establishment, probably from the very first. History informs us that it was in the reign of Richard II, shortly before the period of the Henry IV plays, that one William Warder gave a tenement called the “Boar’s Head” in Eastcheap to a college of priests, founded by Sir William Walworth, for the adjoining church of St. Michael’s in Crooked Lane. According to John Stowe, during Shakespeare’s time Eastcheap was “butcher’s row,” where the public houses had the most delectible roast meats to offer, and where, as Mistress Quickly suggests, it was possible to order meat during Lent. Lasting well into the 18th century, the Boar’s Head, that is, the one that replaced Shakespeare’s after it was destroyed in the great London fire, was noted as, “the chief tavern in London,” frequented by the likes of Alexander Pope and his brilliant coterie.
Who was Falstaff?
As for the historic Falstaff, unable to locate a model in history or literature that fits the Stratford biography, academics usually attribute this greatest of all his comic characters solely to Shakespeare’s imagination, but we heretics have a wider fund to draw on. For instance, since we can accept that Shakespeare was fluent in French, the idea that the relationship between Hal and Falstaff was inspired by the violent and scatalogical wordplay of Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel––while rejected by the academics because Rabelais wasn’t translated into English until the mid-17th century––works well for us.
The first character to play the role of Hal’s quarrelsome foil was Dericke, the clown from the very early play The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth. Since documentation shows that members of the Queen’s Men, Richard Tarleton and William Knell, played Dericke and Hal respectively, we know that Famous Victories dates back at least to the 1580s (historian Ramon Jiménez puts it as far back as the 1560s). But while Dericke is a standard vice figure left over from medieval times, Falstaff is clearly one of Shakespeare’s departures from tradition. Among these departures was his method of creating important characters by conflating the traits of persons familiar to his Court audience with figures from literature and history.
That the Sir John Falstaff of the Henry IV and V plays was originally Sir John Oldcastle is clear from, among a number of other clues, the appearance of “Old” as a character in the sloppily printed 1600 quarto of Henry IV Part Two, the phrase “Old Lad of the Castle” that remains in Henry IV Part One, and the Oldcastle (also known as Jockey) who joins the Gads Hill gang in Famous Victories. Since there is also clear evidence that the Falstaff of Merry Wives was originally the same Sir John Oldcastle, we can assume that both plays were written (rather rewritten) at the same time, and that both saw the character’s name changed from Oldcastle to Falstaff in the mid 1590s (more precisely, late 1596 or early 1597) and for the same reason, because the Queen insisted that it be changed.
We have no reason to doubt that Her Majesty (and the entire Court audience), saw Shakespeare’s Oldcastle as a satirical character intended by the actors and their playwright to embarrass their newly-appointed patron, Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household, William Brooke Lord Cobham. As Alice Lyle-Scoufos demonstrates in convincing detail in her Shakespeare’s Topological Satire (1979), Shakespeare combined damaging traits and events from Cobham’s life (including the true incident of the robbing of the Spanish courier by his sons during Oxford’s time at Cecil House) and the life of his renowned ancestor, Sir John Oldcastle (burnt at the stake as a traitor by Henry V) on purpose to demean Lord Chamberlain Cobham and show his son-in-law, Secretary of State Robert Cecil, that he (Oxford) wasn’t about to be bullied into silence.
As a character in the Henry IV and V plays, Sir John Oldcastle is historically accurate. The historic Oldcastle had in fact been a friend to the historic Prince Hal, one who, for reasons of religion, turned on his former friend once he became King. It was Shakespeare’s depiction of Oldcastle as a braggart, liar and thief that was taken by all, including the Queen, as a blow aimed at Cobham, whose appointment to the office of Lord Chamberlain was understood by the actors and their playwright as a means of restraining them from engaging with the parliamentarians due to gather in the West End in the fall of 1597. The truth about the historic John Oldcastle is still a problem for historians since early Crown historians saw him as a heretic traitor while early Reformation historians saw him as a saint, a precursor of the martyrs who inspired the Reformation. Shakespeare obviously preferred the former interpretation.
Not only was Cobham the unwanted intruder who, following the death of their original patron, Lord Hunsdon, in 1596, had replaced him, he was the previous owner of the rooms in the Blackfriars that had been the first Blackfriars theater and that had for a time included the great Parliament Chamber. It was this chamber that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men had just rebuilt as a large indoor theater with which they planned to entertain the parliamentarians who would be gathering the following October, the theater that Cobham, his son-in-law Robert Cecil, and Cecil’s father, Lord Burghley, now the dominating force on the Privy Council, had ordered closed. Furious, the Company responded with rewrites of the plays in which Oldcastle, now a leading character, combined traits of Cobham, his troublesome heir and their treacherous ancestor.
By renaming the character Falstaff, the Company may have created a disconnect with the likeness to Cobham, his ancestor, and his heir, Henry Brooke, but they did nothing to reform his character. As detailed by Scoufos, that Falstaff’s more despicable characteristics, his cowardice, his taking bribes so only the poorest and least battle-worthy recruits were taken up for the army, derive from the Oldcastle character, seems undeniable.
However, there is a side to Falstaff that doesn’t seem to fit with these aspects of his character. His cowardice and lies, for instance, don’t fit with the respect inherent in Hal and Poins attentions; they tease and mock him, but something keeps them coming back. Despite his inability to live up to his promises, the women continue to support and care for him. Despite his penury and choleric temper, Bardolph, Nym and Pistol show no desire to find another patron. His craven cowardice on the battlefield doesn’t fit with his reckless courage when confronted by authority, or his contemptible lies with his monumental self-opinion. There seems to be a disconnect between his meaness on the one hand and his largeness of heart on the other (more noticable in Part Two than in Part One or Merry Wives). Such contradictions may add to our fascination when properly acted and directed, yet they raise questions about his models. Perhaps Falstaff is the result of Shakespeare’s conflation of the Oldcastle personality with yet another individual from the period.
Oxford and Falstaff
For answers we turn to historical dates and the biography of the Earl of Oxford. We know that Milord was in trouble in the early 1590s, as were his actors and all the acting companies, due to the death of Sir Francis Walsingham and the rise of Oxford’s dangerous brother-in-law, Robert Cecil. We can assume that during 1592 and ’93, Oxford was busy revising his earlier works for the benefit of a new company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, launched in June of 1594 under the auspices of Lord Chamberlain Henry Hunsdon. We know that the Henry IV and V plays are among the earliest of these, reformed and expanded from disassembled scenes from the extremely early Famous Victories (or perhaps later versions now lost). In seeking who might have been the first personality to transform Dericke into a modern character, the one who immediately comes to mind is the intemperate and profane Sir John Perrot. So perfectly does Perrot conform to those qualities in Falstaff that don’t fit the Oldcastle image that the identification seems without question.
Perrot was a major figure at Court from his first arrival during Henry’s reign to his final quietus in the early 1590s. Tall, handsome, with the strength of a bull and the will of a lion, his likeness to the king helped strengthen the common belief that he was Henry’s byblow as reported by Sir Robert Naunton (though denied by his ODNB biographer). Since Naunton was married to Perrot’s granddaughter, he would seem to have more authority than the ODNB biographer (the author of the old DNB bio accepts Perrot’s royal patrimony.) From Perrot himself, when incarcerated and facing charges of treason, comes the quote: “God’s death! Will the queen suffer her brother to be offered up as a sacrifice to the envy of his frisking adversary?” Described by a recent academic as “a bluff, heavyset man with a reputation as a hell-raiser,” the old DNB notes that he “held various offices under Elizabeth” and “united great physical strength to a violent and artibrary disposition.” This sounds like the Falstaff beloved of Hal and Poins, of Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet.
Although Perrot’s holdings in Wales and his various military and naval commands frequently took him away from London, he was enough of a figure at Court during Oxford and Rutland’s time at Cecil House and later at Court for them to have played the same role with Perrot that do Hal and Poins with Falstaff. Oxford would have been attracted to Perrot for several reasons. For one, he would have been the very sort of bad example that was attracting him in his teens and worrying Burghley. For another, while in his teens, Perrot had lived for a time under the same roof with Oxford’s father, the 16th earl, so he had the kind of personal knowledge of his father that would be precious to a youth in search of an identity. When first at Court and residing with the King’s Lord Treasurer, William Paulet, Marquess of Winchester, Earl John, then in his early 30s, had been remanded into Paulet’s keeping, doubtless as punishment for his reckless treatment of his (first) wife and his finances (DNB).
Then, in the early 1590s, while Oxford was suffering the slings and arrows of Robert Cecil’s rise to power, Perrot too fell victim to the Cecil roundup and destruction of their rivals. Taking seriously the complaints of Perrot’s enemies, in 1590 they saw to it that he was incarcerated in the Tower and convicted of treason, where he died in 1592 from what many believed was poison (ODNB). Thus it makes sense that in reaching for a replacement for the out-dated Dericke and other clownish characters from Famous Victories, Oxford did for Perrot what he did for his old tutor Sir Thomas (in Romeo and Juliet, Woodstock, and The Tempest), he brought his bombastic wit and defiance of authority to life for an audience that knew him very well.
So which came first, Oldcastle or Perrot? Certainly it would have been Perrot, conceived in 1592 or ’93, shortly after his assassination. The character thus created was altered for the worse in 1596 when the Lord Chamberlain’s Men decided to use the Merry Wives and the Henry IV plays as a means of attacking the hated Cobham, causing the Queen to demand that the name be changed. It would have been at this time that the weight ascribed to Falstaff was added, most likely a characteristic of Lord Cobham (in the only portrait I could find he is hidden behind a phalanx of women and children). As for the Falstaff of TheMerry Wives, it’s unlikely that he ever had anything of Perrot in him. Merry Wives was most likely revised in 1596, when the Company used it to satirize Cobham’s cheating and conniving and his heir’s scandalous mistreatment of the women of the Court.
In questioning the source for Falstaff, a third influence can also be detected, the intrusion of the author’s own feelings and attitudes. By the 1590s, although Oxford was only in his forties, it’s clear from the Sonnets that he was beginning to feel his age. While in his twenties and thirties he would not have felt much compassion for the aging roysterer. But with the loss of Fisher’s Folly and his crew of writers and secretaries in 1589, the loss of the credit that enabled him to produce plays and publish poems, even, if the evidence offered by Alan Nelson and Mark Anderson is accurate, that for at least a year or two from 1589 to 1591, before the Queen arranged for his marriage to one of her ladies in waiting, he was living in much the same circumstances as Falstaff, in an upscale boarding house in London with Julia Penn as his Mistress Quickly––he must have felt a kinship with his fallen protagonist.
There’s not enough room here to detail all the factors that put these identifications beyond doubt. That will have to wait for another venue. But at the least we can assure the readers that someday, if all goes well, and a new generation of Shakespeare scholars are finally on track towards the truth, they will find the clues to these identifications thick on the trail.
There they go again! Several days ago the New York Times announced that a Texas U English prof has “discovered” Shakespeare’s hand in the early modern play by Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy, with the British newspaper, The Guardian, adding its tuppence. And so the world watches (well, some of it watches) while a gaggle of academics and media geese chase each other around yet another well-worn track in the race to identify Shakespeare’s hand, as though it hasn’t all happened so many times before.
Yet each time the trail gets more muddied, and things once known now seem utterly forgot. Since when, for instance, did the British Library succeed in proving that Hand D in the manuscript “The Play of Sir Thomas More” is in fact Shakespeare’s own? Through what new discovery or process of analysis has this now been determined? The media perps don’t say, of course, probably because they don’t know that neither this nor anything else in any play manuscript is in Shakespeare’s hand because, first, except for this and one or two others in manuscript, there simply aren’t any manuscript plays from that era for comparison; and second, there’s no existing document of any sort confirmed to be in William’s hand with which to compare them even if there were.
So professor Bruster’s great discovery, as with most of the Shakespeare discoveries that emerge from Academia, is based on something that is based on something that exists only as a theory. To rely on Dover Wilson’s notions about Shakespeare’s handwriting, again, based not on any solid evidence of his handwriting (which again, does not exist), only on the results of several levels of transmission, from author (or his amanuensis) to stage manager (who created the stage director’s copy) to editor to typesetter, is, frankly, absurd. Only someone in Wilson’s position, regarded as an expert and so desperate for conclusions (and certain that anything he says will be believed) would attempt to state as fact anything based on such a shaky foundation.
In fact, the common assumption by scholars who have spent their lives studying the matter has always been that the additions to the 1602 edition of The Spanish Tragedy were created by Ben Jonson for stage owner Philip Henslowe, as noted twice in Henslowe’s Diary: on the 25th of September 1601, Henslowe lent Edward Alleyn 40 shillings to give Jonson for “writing of his additions in ‘geronymo’” (Hieronymo was Henslowe’s term for what today we call The Spanish Tragedy); and again on June 22, 1602, more money for “new additions for ‘Jeronymo’” (R.A. Foakes, 182, 203). As for Shakespeare, neither here nor anywhere else in his diary does Henslowe ever use the name, or anything that sounds remotely like it, even though it’s clear he produced several of his plays.
In fact, although it’s clear that Ben Jonson, not Shakespeare, made those additions to the play in 1602, the play itself was not only NOT WRITTEN by Thomas Kyd, it was surely written by Shakespeare, that is, by the man who used the name Shakespeare, and who then went on to write Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, and so forth. The attribution to Kyd is based on a pun made by Thomas Nashe in 1593 and a statement made by Thomas Heywood in 1612, in his Apologie for Actors. Only a couple of other published works bear Kyd’s name, equally questionable, none of them worthy of the term literature. By the time the twenty-something Heywood began working for the Lord Admiral’s Men in the mid-90s, Kyd was dead, destroyed by the same government sting that rid the Crown of Christopher Marlowe. Attributing works of literature to the dead was a standard means of getting questionable works into print.
For those who have steeped themselves in the master’s language and how it grew from early (Titus Andronicus) to late (King Lear), there can be no doubt that The Spanish Tragedy was one of Shakespeare’s early plays, one that is, or should be, tremendously valuable to scholars since it was never rewritten as were most of his other plays from the 1580s. A number of reputable analysts have noted the many similarities that place it close to Hamlet, probably just preceding it. The only reason that Academia refuses to admit this is that it’s too early for the Stratford biography.
Whatever the reason, if this should lead to a major company introducing a good production of Spanish Tragedy it will be worth the kafuffle. For no matter what nonsense gets written about Shakespeare, the plays themselves are still “the thing.”
Edward de Vere was something of a pedagogical experiment. In their Platonic desire for a Philosopher King, so eager were the humanistic reformers to educate the nobility, that, following Quintilian, Vives and Elyot, they sought to begin them as early as possible on Latin so that they would begin to absorb the wisdom of the ancients and early Church fathers while still young enough furnish their adult minds with the noblest and most idealistic thoughts. So while the Marian reign had its horrors, it did produce one benefit––to humanity that is––it sent the four-year-old heir to the Oxford earldom, in many ways the most important domain in England, to Sir Thomas Smith, the most highly qualified Reformation teacher in the nation. No doubt many were watching to see the outcome of this kind of training. This being the Reformation, you can believe that not all were pleased with the results.
Oxford himself must have experienced this interest as pressure, subtle perhaps, but still pressure, as seen, for instance, in the kind of criticisms and suggestions offered by Roger Ascham in his book, The Scholemaster, written for Cecil right at the time that he was first responsible for educating Oxford and Rutland. Oxford must have been aware from very early that all eyes were on him. “To whom much has been given, much is required.” What a disappointment it much have been to men like Cecil and Ascham and even to Smith when instead of another well-behaved, pious Sidney, who hadn’t begun his studies until the great age of seven, their prime experiment turned to poetry and plays, his vast education little more than grist for the mill of his comedies and love songs.
No doubt his elders gave him time. Poetry was a pastime of youth, something that, as with Thomas Sackville Lord Buckhurt would surely pass when the weight of mature responsibility awakened him to more important things. But as Oxford matured, his interest in literature only deepened. Scorned for his early efforts to join the international community of scholars, he channeled his talents into writing entertainments for the Court. This Cecil tolerated, probably because they pleased the Queen, perhaps also because he saw opportunities for help with the onerous business of creating the propaganda that was one of his most important weapons in the fight to destroy the political power of the Catholics.
As a peer, born to be a patron of the arts, Oxford had fallen into the trap that Elyot and other pedagogues had warned about in educating the nobility, he became an artist himself, and as an artist, as is always the case with a true artist, he held nothing higher than Art. This included rank and all the distinctions and constraints that it held dear. Clear to him from reading Plato was the distinction between the external world and the truth he felt within himself: “for I have that within that passeth show.” They wouldn’t give him the military command his patrimony required, nor the role in the government for which his training had prepared him, so he would fulfill the one thing he had, besides his rank, his inherited office of Lord Great Chamberlain.
The chamberlain of a Tudor household was a sort of glorified butler, one who ate at table with the family rather than with the staff. Often a member of the family from a lesser social level, or one whose family was tied in some way to the fortunes of the family he served, he was responsible for the smooth running of the household, including its removals to other locations and its entertainments at the three big turning points of the year, Christmas/Carneval, Easter/May Day, and Midsummer/St. John’s Day. At the Tudor Court, the Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household had the same functions, plus the honor and responsibility of serving as a leading member of the Privy Council. It was an appointed position, and although as with all such offices it was often given to the heir of the former Lord Chamberlain, that was only because having been raised at Court, he was often in the best position to fulfill the office.
England’s Lord Great Chamberlain was, and still is, a very different kind of office. Except for a brief time during the reign of Henry VIII, it’s one of a handful of inherited positions, a vestigial remain from the Middle Ages, when even then all it signified was that this fellow, his father before him, and his heirs after him, was the official best friend of the monarch. Since the earliest days of the Norman hegemony all that’s required of the LGC is that he appear dressed appropriately for processions in which his place comes after the Lord Privy Seal, and before the Lord High Constable, and that he act as personal attendant to the monarch at his or her coronation, something that generally occures no more than once or twice in a lifetime, or with a particularly long-lived monarch, not even that. From the very beginning this honorary office had belonged to members of the Vere family, as it still does today, having been shifted to descendants of Oxford’s sister Mary’s husband, Sir Peregrine Bertie (the Earls of Lindsay), when Oxford’s line died out with the death of the 20th Earl.
Looking around for something that could define his ambiguous role in his community, Oxford took advantage of this rather empty office, turning it into something genuine and powerful. It was probably as surprising to him as to anyone else when out of his genius and the great need of the English public for entertainment was born the Fourth Estate of modern government, what we call the media, which, in those days consisted of the London Stage and commercial Press.
There may be a kernal of truth to the rumor that Oxford ruined his patrimony out of revenge at Lord Burghley, though the proper wording would be out of the necessity to find something for himself in what he’d been left by his father. Awakening gradually to the horrible mess left by that foolish father; aware, probably from the start, that Burghley, his one and only financial advisor, was more concerned about his own family, their wealth and prestige, than he or they were about him; raised by the parsimonious Smith, whose ascetic diet and modest dress were the foundation of a lifestyle that, once the peacock period of Oxford’s twenties was over, required little more than a secretary, ink and paper; he used his wealth, whatever it was (he could never be sure) and his credit as a peer (for as long as it lasted), to praise his friends, wound his enemies and influence national policy by way of his favorite audience, the lawyers and parliamentarians of the West End. When his own credit and wealth ran out, he turned to the “angels” that every theatrical enterprise requires, chronologically: the Earl of Sussex, Sir Francis Walsingham, Lord Hunsdon, the Earl of Southampton and the third Earl of Pembroke, all of whom play an important role in their patronage of the great experiment we call Shakespeare.
It seems that a watershed moment for Authorship Studies took place a year and a half ago at the 2011 World Shakespeare Congress in Prague, when Dr. Stanley Wells, the eminence grise of Shakespeare Studies, General Editor of the Oxford Series and honorary President of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, not only mentioned an article from the 2002 edition of The Oxfordian, but dwelt rather heavily on it in his lecture––even more surprisingly, naming its author, Andrew Werth, and the fact that he’s an Oxfordian; “For which we mustn’t condemn him,” said Wells, provoking an appreciative titter from the audience. Hey, after centuries of being ignored, a little paternalism ain’t so bad.
The article in question, “Shakespeare’s Lesse Greek,” makes the case for the author’s knowledge of Greek, still widely regarded as an impossibility. In an easy style, devoid of mind-numbing geek-speak, author Andrew Werth laid out the facts that make it evident to all but those indoctrinated from undergraduate days with Stratford cult beliefs, that there’s enough evidence of Shakespeare’s knowledge of Greek literature that during his time were not yet translated into Latin or English, that suggests that Ben Jonson’s dismissive phrase in the First Folio: “though he had small Latin and less Greek . . .”, was either a cheesy attempt to damn his rival with faint praise or, simply––for whatever reason––flat out lie about his education.
Some of Werth’s points are dismissed by Wells as “vitiated” by recent “discoveries” of Shakespeare’s collaboration with writers like Fletcher, Jonson, and Peele (our turn to chuckle) . Yet, said he, “in other respects they seem strong.” As indeed they are! Good for you, Dr. Wells, and good for me and Andy, and Dan, and Charles, and Bill, and all those who, years ago, when The Oxfordian was still in the planning stage, saw a moment like this as the very goal at which such a journal would be aimed. There’s no way to know how Andy’s article reached Dr. Wells, but reach it it did! And where one has gone before, others will surely follow.
Wells focuses in particular on the section of the article in which Werth deals with Sonnets 153 and 154, the final two of the collection. As a pair, these two form a category all their own. Though the versification of these two is no different from the rest of the sonnets, the subject and tone are unique. The characters addressed in the first two long sections do not appear, nor are these final two cast in the same intimate and passionate mode as the rest.
Obvious translations, Wells mentions Helen Vendler’s theory that they were school exercises, another example of the current academic eagerness to amplify the capacities of the Stratford grammar school to the level of a university (and not a little ridiculous considering the poems’ naughty sophistication), but on point as impersonal examples of a poet’s expertise, the kind that, in Shakespeare’s time were the mark of an accomplished courtier. Poems like these were usually written as a graceful gesture, possibly for the birthday of a patron, or for someone to whom the poet wished to demonstrate his ability to deal with a mundane topic in the most elegant possible manner. First written by a fifth century Greek, the pair migrated from one collection to another, sometimes included, sometimes not. Typical of the kind of divertissment on a minor topic that characterized such poems, these focus on the baths that the Greeks and Romans used as both healing founts and places where men could relax together.
Scholars have tracked Shakespeare’s source for this pair to the Greek Anthology, a collection of epigrammata first accumulated sometime in the first century BC, and added to over the years, most notably in the tenth and fourteenth centuries, primarily in manuscript and almost always in the original Greek. Since the beauty of an epigram lies in a tight blend of sense and sound that resists translation, the anthology had continued its passage through time mostly in its original language, with copiers doing as did Shakespeare, rendering personal versions in their own languages, until 1603 when a Latin version was published in England. (Werth explains this in some detail in an end note on page 27.)
Thus the problem for the Academy has always been, where and how did Shakespeare come across these epigrams, and in what language? Although almost as frequently referenced by poets as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, it’s hard to locate anything resembling a solid publishing history for this famous anthology, for with its long history of manuscript distribution, of divisions of text in one version, amalgamations of texts in others, what’s most likely in my view is that the poet transcribed the originals from a manuscript in Greek, either one he himself owned, or that he borrowed from a friend.
Oxford and Essex
My personal view is that these two sonnets were written in 1589-91 as a gesture of friendship towards the Earl of Essex during his rise to power. After inheriting Leicester House in 1588, Essex enlarged and extended it. In 1590 it was recorded as having 42 bedrooms, a picture gallery, a banqueting hall, a chapel, and outbuildings, among them an old Roman bath built on a freshwater spring just steps from the river. I recall seeing early photos of it in a book, which one I can’t remember (along, alas, with a great deal else). It may be the one that still exists at the end of Strand Lane, just north of the Temple gardens. Wikipedia dismisses the possibility that this is the bath in question because it lies where history places property belonging to the neighboring mansion, Arundel House, but so much has changed over the years on this valuable bit of turf, where boundaries that defined the original houses would change with the fortunes of their owners, so what belonged to Essex at the time may well have included it. Certainly his name is all over that area. Or there may have been another bath built over a second spring nearby.
As part of his campaign to raise himself at Court, Essex in the early 1590s was patronizing all sorts of people and projects at the same time that Oxford, having suffered a series of disasters, was in desperate need of support for his Stage. Already pouring his poetic energies into sonnets for the young Earl of Southampton, that he would have recast these choice bits of literary caviar into sonnet form as a means of asking Essex for his patronage is as likely as anything. If, as has been suggested, the poems refer to baths as a cure for the pox, for which Essex is thought to have required medication from the physician Lopez, this would date them to the period in question, before Oxford’s marriage to Elizabeth Tresham in 1592, certainly before 1594 when Essex turned so viciously on Lopez, or 1596 when he was in disrepute for having an affair with Oxford’s daughter, the Countess of Derby. Whoever was responsible for publishing the Sonnets in 1609 must also have had a copy of these poems, and wanting to make sure they got published, stuck them on the end, after the two major sections.
Before exploring Werth’s argument for Shakespeare’s Greek, Wells spent time discussing the importance and universality of Latin. T.W. Baldwin having assured him that Shakespeare must have been competent in Latin due to the probable curriculum of the Stratford grammar school, Wells is happy to accept evidence that allows the author at least some education. According to Wells, the townsfolk of Stratford were wont to converse with each other in Latin while the boys at the Stratford grammar school were so fluent that they were not allowed to speak any other language during school time. Optimistically he adds, “when we discover Shakespeare’s own letters, they will probably be in Latin.”
Certainly there were people in Stratford, and in every English town of any size, who could read and write and even speak Latin, but it would have been a fairly narrow circle consisting of the schoolmaster, his assistant, the town clerk, perhaps even the vicar and a handful of local bookworms. Sixteenth-century Stratford was hardly an intellectual center. It was a manufacturing town whose only importance beyond its own neighborhood was the market it held once a week, primarily to sell wool and other smelly products of sheep-raising like leather, charcoal and paint. To that end, it also brewed and sold a good deal of ale, another smelly process. Students at Eton may have been required to speak Latin at all times, but Eton was a boarding school, which Stratford was not.
According to Wells, what Shakespeare didn’t learn from the Stratford School he learned from the University Wits: Marlowe, Peele, and Nashe, who kindly provided the poor fellow with a “surrogate university,” then were happy to collaborate with him on those plays that seem to lack the necessary Shakespearean verve. That the Wits, who were so committed to mentioning each other in their dedications, never thought to mention their brilliant student and collaborator from Stratford has apparently not struck the good professor, at least, not hard enough to give him pause. As for the local grammar school, surely it was capable of bringing bright boys up to the level where they could enter one of the universities, even further for a particularly brilliant boy, but again, there is absolutely no evidence that William was such a boy. What evidence there is suggests he was unable to write even so much as his own signature.
That Shakespeare understood the lingua franca of all of Europe fits with Wells’s chosen topic: “Shakespeare as a Man of the European Renaissance.” But oh dear, there’s that darned biography again! While thoroughly Renaissance in his writing, it seems Shakespeare was “circumscribed” in almost every possible way. He was not, like Sidney, a courtier, warrior, patron, the embodiment of chivalric ideas, etc. He never travelled. Nor was he versatile, like Bacon, a philosopher, equally fluent in Latin as in English and author of many varied works. According to Wells, Shakespeare was “exceptionally limited”; circumscribed in both ambition and accomplishment, he wrote no books, no stories, nothing but a few poems and plays for the public.
With Oxford as author, such peculiarities vanish. The author is fully revealed as the thorough-going Renaissance man his works suggest. Half the translations on which he based his plays and poems were more likely than not his own doing, published under other men’s names, as were half or more of the plays and novellas attributed to those University Wits that have no biographies to speak of, as well as the Italian tales from books attributed to William Painter, Thomas Lodge and George Pettie. With Oxford, Gulliver stands tall, and the Liliputians diminish to their proper stature.
While Andrew Werth, then an undergraduate at Concordia University in Portland, Oregon, has gone on to higher things (a career in music), his opening thrust has since been followed up on by Dr. Earl Showerman, whose series of articles for The Oxfordian and the online journal, Brief Chronicles, dig deep into the facts surrounding Shakespeare’s knowledge of Greek drama, adding immensely to Werth’s opening salvo.
Stanley Wells, now in his eighties, is perfectly positioned to open the Academy to the Authorship Question by letting it be known that he would like to see it allow the question a place in the scholarly dialogue that takes place in journals and at conferences. Authorship scholars have been shamefully mistreated for centuries. If someone of Wells’s stature could tilt the scales a little our way, giving us a chance to speak at conferences and in mainstream journals about what we’ve discovered, Shakespeare Studies would take on a terrific new attraction for students, genuine research would begin, and whatever the truth may be would eventually come to light.
We may not have it ourselves, not the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but what we do have are solid answers to most if not all of the questions that academics have been asking ever since English Departments first came into existence at the universities, which in some cases was not until the second decade of the twentieth century.
A right jolly old elf, Wells has the power and possibly the wisdom, to see the potential to Shakespeare Studies of the truth about the authorship of the Shakespeare canon. Who knows, people might actually begin to read again the classic sources that inspired Shakespeare and so many other great writers. Who knows, those of us who still see ourselves as humanists might live to see another literary Renaissance, something our culture is so badly in need of.
Here’s Wells’s lecture at the World Shakespeare in Prague, July 2011.
(Many thanks to Earl and Marty for passing on the information.)
What has Shakespeare to do with Christmas? He only mentions it twice by name, and then only in passing. It’s clear from the name that Twelfth Night takes place during the Christmas holidays, but nothing in the play itself connects the behavior of Sir Toby and his friends to a particular holiday, at least not to us today. Yet of all the paths that lead to our present celebration of Christmas, the one forged by Shakespeare is the widest and surest, leading as it did through the barren desert of the puritan Reformation to give back to the English, not the feudal style of merry-making, but through his creation of the London Stage, the joys of Theater and all that has developed from it, school plays and amateur theatricals, films and television. While the Stage began as a compensation for the loss of the old processions, it shows its origins through the furnishings of many of his plays.
No more cakes and ale
The puritans who represented the more extreme beliefs that were brought to England in the 1540s with the Swiss Reformation did not condone the kind of merry-making that had always been associated with Christmas and the period after it leading up to Lent. With their insistence on a lifestyle and a form of worship that adhered to what they believed came directly from the Bible, they regarded all festivity as evidence of papistical excess, a backsliding into the evils of Sodom and Gomorrah, the worship of Baal, of witchcraft, sorcery. Following Calvin, the reformers eliminated all but four of the scores of feast days associated with the Catholic saints. While Christmas was one of the four, it was a Christmas sadly bereft of its pagan trimmings––no decorating of trees, no burning of yule logs, no St. Nicholas, no mistletoe, no wassail bowl, no filling the halls with boughs of holly––no fa la la la la.
The church itself, once their beautiful and beloved halfway house to Heaven, was no longer festive. Painted walls were whitewashed over. The gorgeously carved rood screens and statues of the saints were broken up and burnt in bonfires in the streets. The stained glass windows that portrayed the lives of the saints were smashed to smithereens. The gold and silver candelabra were appropriated or stolen; the use of candles for anything but necessary light was denied. The raised altar was replaced by a plain table in the center of the nave. Priests were not allowed to wear anything but black. Processions were forbidden.
Difficult as this was to bear throughout the year, it was hardest of all during the holiday period that included Christmas, for centuries the major moment when the laboring classes got a much-needed break from the year-round struggle to wrest sustenance from the soil and the sea. Most of northern Europe was frozen from mid-November through mid-March. Forced indoors, farmers and fishermen spent the winter months mending gear, visiting friends and relatives, eating, drinking, dancing and singing––in other words, making merry. Beloved traditions reflected origins in Stone Age rituals, in particular the processions that circled through the parish, from and back to the church again: mumming and disguising, the Boy Bishop, the Hobby Horse, the Morris Dancers, the Green Man––all forbidden. Bishops who sided with their parishoners ended up in the Tower.
Although the rural districts far from London were better able to keep some of the old antics, Londoners, closely watched by a series of die-hard puritan Mayors, could not get away with anything that hinted at a return to making merry. When the boy king’s death in 1553 put his Catholic sister on the throne there was a brief reprieve. But with Elizabeth’s coronation in 1559, the reformers returning from their exile stepped directly into important political positions, their determination to see reform strengthened by having spent the years of Mary’s reign in Frankfurt, Strasburg or Geneva, listening to the most adamant creators of the Protestant Reformation.
An Elizabethan Christmas
When it came to Christmas and other holidays, Queen Elizabeth was in something of a hard place. She owed her throne to the reformers, yet personally she was drawn to the Old Faith and its lavish celebrations, in particular music and dancing. She was also bound to provide a festive atmosphere for the visitors and ambassadors from countries that still kept holidays in the old style. A compromise was achieved early in her reign by switching from the expensive masques that had been the Court’s version of mumming and disguising to the more sedate, seated observation of holiday plays, interspersed with musical interludes, mostly provided by members of her staff and paid for by her courtiers. The acting and singing were done by the boy choristers who sang for her and her entourage in the palace chapel during devotions, then entertained on a dais in the dining hall , the instrumental music provided by her staff of England’s most accomplished musicians. With costumes provided by the Revels department, it was all done on the cheap.
All elements of this entertainment came from within the Court and its circle of providers. Where then did the plots and characters, the text of the plays come from? Though plays consist of nothing but talk, and talk is cheap, these plays were not all that easy to write. They had to be entertaining without overstepping the bounds of Court etiquette or offending a laughter-loving but hypersensitive female monarch. Plays require conflict to be interesting, but for these plays the conflict could not reflect the grim religious and political issues that were what she dealt with day to day. They had to be funny without being bawdy. In short, to succeed, they had to be written by someone aware of what would please and what would not, in other words, an intelligent and sensitive Court insider.
Unfortunately the strictures of the Reformation had left the English literary community at one of the lowest points in its history. Known to historians as “the drab era,” the poetry was crabbed and dense, its themes morose and depressing. This was not surprising considering that the Reformation tended to see poets (playwrights were called poets) as liars, and poetry (anything that qualified as imaginative literature) as an instrument of the Devil. As with most Renaissance courts, all good courtiers wrote poetry just as they played the lute or virginals and could sight-sing complex madrigals, but these were pastimes and unfortunately writing witty plays requires rather more than an hour or two snatched from running at the ring or playing Primero.
Along came Shakespeare
Of course he wasn’t known as Shakespeare then, in fact he wasn’t “known” at all. He was a member of one of the Court coteries that prided itself on its writing, but which member wasn’t always clear, except within the coterie itself. Fearful that being labeled a poet would mean loss of any hope of advancement, at least one gifted young writer openly condemned it as a “toy,” vowing to give it up. But the youth who would someday be published as Shakespeare had that ineffable gift that time and again meets the moment with just the right stuff. Protected by his high estate from the slurs of the less able, he began providing the kind of dramatically exciting and witty entertainment for the winter holidays at Court that would someday make it one of the most famous in Europe.
The talented boys who performed these plays came from the middling levels of society. Usually discovered by their grammar school teachers, they were brought to Court or to Paul’s Cathedral, given the equivalent of a basic grammar school education, and trained to work with her musical consorts, singing the complex works of composers like William Byrd so that the Queen and her entourage could move through the day accompanied by music, as we do today by means of ipods and radios.
Clever lads, the boys easily memorized the lines given them to perform these early comedies. Enchanted by their little satin suits and mammoth ruffs as they trilled the witty lines that they themselves may not have fully understood, they would continue to be the favorite entertainers of the childless Queen throughout her reign. However, since she was also a tightwad with everyone but her male companion of the moment, she and her ministers looked aside when the boys and their masters would continue to perform a play written for a Court holiday in the halls of wealthy householders whose donations helped to defray the cost of the boys’ upkeep.
Thus it was that the great breakthrough occured. What began as a few holiday plays in the London homes of the wealthy spread, bit by bit, to more public venues like the little stage at Paul’s Cathedral where the choristers trained to sing the Service were allowed to entertain the public during the holidays. There’s nothing more exciting for a theater company and its patrons than an enthusiastic audience, so the temptation to go commercial was hard for these financially struggling music masters to resist. That, plus the fact that Londoners were desperate for entertainment, plus the most important fact of all, that the plays were so good––so much better than the silly antics that in former years had been provided by amateurs recruited from the City guilds to provide holiday entertainment for the City.
Birth of the London Stage
Starved by the Reformation for the merriment they craved, the London public had begun to frequent the theater inns in ever-increasing numbers. City inns built on a square, surrounded on three sides by two or three stories of rooms accessed by an open passage that faced the central courtyard, were able to show plays performed on the second level overlooking the courtyard. Performances at the inns lasted through the winter holidays, ending with the beginning of Lent, and beginning again in June. By adding this to travelling on the circuit to the bigger towns, actors began to get the kind of work that they could count on throughout most of the year.
Seeing this, patrons of the major companies, some of them members of the Queen’s Privy Council, began to plan how to take advantage of this growing public audience and the growing mastery of their acting companies. Politicians at heart, they saw the advantage of going with the flow, working it to their own advantage. The Church on the other hand hated it, and fought the growth of the London Stage with every weapon it could muster, but it had only itself to blame for denying its parishoners their beloved season of good cheer.
In 1575, royal permission was finally granted to the young lord with the golden pen to travel to France and Italy where he could discover methods of theater production along with ways that it might work for, not against, Authority. Persuaded by the Queen’s Lord Chamberlain, the Earl of Sussex, Elizabeth and her chief minister, Lord Burghley, saw an advantage in promoting a theater that could be monitored and controlled as opposed to fighting the one that was growing helter skelter without their consent. Within days of the young lord’s return in 1576 the first purpose-built year-round commercial stage began rising on a well-travelled road just outside the City in an ancient Liberty where the puritanical City fathers had no control. That summer the adult company that gathered around the builder of the theater, James Burbage, began entertaining the public, two to three thousand at a sitting. And whose plays do you think they were performing?
Six months later, a little stage in a school created to train the Children of the Queen’s Chapel in their holiday entertainments for the Court opened in the old Revels offices in the Liberty of Blackfriars, also outside City control, at the edge of the most important audience in England, the lawyers and parliamentarians who spent their days in or near the law courts of Whitehall in what today is known as London’s West End. And whose plays do you think the boys were performing there? And possibly also––occasionally, advertised only to a select few through word of mouth––by Burbage’s adults.
Thus it was that the youth with the gifted pen whose plays would someday be published under the name Shakespeare, began gathering the audiences that would make the London Stage the wonder of the western world, spreading his magic first to Germany, then to all of Europe, then to the world. Born from the Queen’s need for cheap entertainment at the winter holidays, “speaking daggers” on government policy at the little stage at Blackfriars to the members of parliament during their Christmas break, Shakespeare brought to a nation starved for happiness in the winter holidays the London Stage and with it the English Literary Renaissance.
That Shakespeare understood and rebelled against the Reformation’s idea of what constituted good writing is clear from Oxford’s prologues to Clerke’s Latin translation of Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano (The Courtier) and to Bedingfield’s Cardanus Comforte. The ideal held out for writers by the Reform community was Thomas Hoby’s English translation of Castiglione’s Courtier. Try reading a bit of it, or something by George Turburville, and you’ll see what Oxford was confronted with by his contemporaries as he came of age. Luckily he had been trained to a higher level by his tutor, Sir Thomas Smith. Luckier yet he had that adventuresomeness of spirit that allowed him to fly free, not only of the turgid style of his contemporaries, but of the ancient styles learned at his tutor’s knee, ever seeking a fresher vision, a more direct and immediate means of communication.
For O, for O, the hobby horse is forgot!
Did Shakespeare see his career as saving Christmas and all holidays for a people beaten into submission by a heartless, sin-obsessed Authority? Perhaps not, but it seems likely that among the various forces that drove him over the years, one was the need to save for posterity some of what was good about the feudal culture that was under such severe attack by the Reformation, if not merry-making specifically, then the kind of hospitality, the noblesse oblige, that saw to it that widows and orphans were not forgotten, that everyone shared in the holiday, no matter how poor, when the true spirit of Christ, that “inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” was not just cold words preached from a lofty pulpit, but actively lived at all the major turning points of the year.
In the upper Thames valley, where as a boy he had lived with Smith during Mary’s reign, the wild antics of the Hobby Horse and the Green Man could still have been seen in nearby towns and villages on Shrove Tuesday, May Day and Midsummer’s Eve. Before Hamlet sits to watch the play that will catch the conscience of the King, his otherwise pointless cry, “For O, the hobby horse is forgot” must refer to the role of the Hobby Horse, some rural Robin Hood dressed in a horse costume, whose joyous duty it was to whinny as he charged at the homes and businesses of local evil-doers (bullies, wife-beaters, malicious gossips, avaricious money-lenders, loose women) as the rowdy procession passed them, to roars from the jeering crowd. Was Hamlet using the play as in former times Oxford had seen when the Hobby Horse, given license by the ancient tradition, took the opportunity of the procession to humiliate persons whose behavior was causing trouble within the community?
As the provider for so many years of the plays that took the place of the ancient forms of public merry-making, it’s not surprising that many show their origins in the old holiday folkways. The sub-plot of Twelfth Night reflects what must have been a frequent situation during this time in many wealthy households, the battle between a widow’s overly rightous steward, and her old party dog of an uncle, with the jester, Feste––in Shakespeare’s position––caught between the two. As Sir Toby puts it to the “baffled” Malvolio, “Dost think because thou art virtuous there will be no more cakes and ale?” The Merry Wives’ torments of Falstaff end with what Oxford must have seen as a child in the villages in and around the Forest of Windsor near where he lived with Smith, a holiday ritual associated with the running of the stag, a relic of England’s Celtic origins. That Shakespeare loved these holiday rascals is clear from how often they appear on stage and how long they stay there. Falstaff and Sir Toby, if not based on the same individual, are certainly cut from the same cloth, as is Mine Host, and Bottom with his merry shout: “Where are these lads! Where are these hearts!”
With his constant focus on love, many of the ancient traditions touched on by Shakespeare were courting rituals. In As You Like It, the love poems Orlando pins on branches of trees would seem to reflect a courting tradition, though on what occasion remains a mystery, possibly St. Valentine’s Day. The forest adventures of the couples in A Midsummer Night’s Dream reflect a similar tradition from ancient celebrations of May Day when girls would go into the wooded meadows alone, ostensibly to gather flowers for “Mary’s Day,” whence they would be pursued by the young men of the village. This tender means of providing courting couples with an opportunity to meet privately in a romantic spring setting, was of course abhored and forbidden by the reformers, represented in the play by one of the fathers. Other Reformation figures include Malvolio and Angelo from Measure for Measure. Angelo’s message seems to be that it’s better to let the Old Nick come out in company for a few weeks a year than to keep it bottled up for years, finally to explode into some gross indecency with its aftermath of remorse.
True to the spirit of the masque, of the mumming and disguising that accompanied not only Christmas, but several of the ancient festivals, the great English Lord of the Dance hid his identity from the Blatant Beast, Spenser’s personalization of the Reformation, behind a sober mask contributed by a “prudent” burgher from the midlands, until his Book of Gladness, published in 1623 by the patrons who loved and cherished his work, spread it throughout England and from there to all the nations of the world.
Passing the plate
Those readers who enjoy these comments on Shakespeare, his identity, and how the English Literary Renaissance managed to find its way to the light despite the efforts of Reformation politicians to stamp it out, may find it in their hearts and pockets to help with this effort. Unsupported by any organization or university, I’m sometimes at a loss to get the books I need or an occasional month’s membership to the online DNB. If you’d like to make a modest contribution towards this effort, here’s how.
Thanks for your interest. It’s what keeps me going.
So many things about Shakespeare make no sense. Constantly repeated in the traditional history of the British Stage is the notion that he showed no interest in his plays once they were performed. That his name appears nowhere in any record of publication apart from title pages, that there’s no record that William of Stratford was even in London for almost a decade before his death in 1616, suggests to those attempting to explain this unique behavior on the part of a theatrical impresario that he was somehow “above” dealing with publishers.
In fact, as more recent studies have emphasized, nothing could be further from the truth. As one of the literary giants of all time, Shakespeare understood very well the importance of getting his work published. The idea, put about by biographers, that he took no interest in the publication of his plays, or by Walter Greg and company that they were utterly dependent on the whims of various actors and reporters who rewrote them for publication, violates common sense.
First, all but one or two of Shakespeare’s plays as published, whether in quarto or in the collected works known as the First Folio in 1623, are much longer than could be easily fitted into the traditional two hours “traffic” on the stage. Why write so much more than what can be produced? The answer is simple: while actors may have had no more than two hours, readers had as much time as they required. From 1594 on, Shakespeare had two venues for his stories, the stage and the press, and prepared for both according to their differing requirements; if all we have are what he prepared for publication, in some cases with changes added by later editors), well, that’s the nature of publishing (some of the so-called “bad quartos” may in fact be the texts that the actors used). If the print quality of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece are far beyond that of most of the quartos, it simply argues that he had more control over the publishing of his poetry than he did over his plays. It does not mean he sat back while––per Greg and countless editors––the actors rewrote and published his writing.
Second, the commonsense explanation for the many differences between the quartos, or pamphlet versions of his plays published between 1594 and 1619 and between them and the 1623 Folio versions, is that the varying qualities of the quartos testify to the period when they were written, the worse the earlier, the better the later. Why replace this commonsense explanation with elaborate theories of reprehensible printers and unidentified spies and actors? Because the dating scheme forced on the academy by the Stratford biography won’t allow for texts that reflect styles as early in some cases as the 1570s.
This is not to say that no play text was ever pirated or rewritten by later playwrights. The effort by intelligent scholars like Brian Vickers to prove that other hands are to be found in a few of the plays can’t be discounted. But it should be noted that none of these are among Shakespeare’s best, or even his better plays. If the explanation for the variations in style in Titus Andronicus are due to later revision, not by the author but by some other writer, well, so what? The importance of Titus has little to do with its value as a performable play, more in what it tells us about where Shakespeare began, a question for literary history based on text and publication, not on whether or not we would enjoy seeing it performed today. While Vickers suggests that Shakespeare collaborated with George Peele, his evidence works equally well as the later addition to an early original once Shakespeare was gone to his ancestors. There’s no need to think, as he seems to, to see them sitting down together and discussing who will write what scene.
The same is true of Two Noble Kinsmen, what value it may have coming chiefly from the fact that Shakespeare’s name appears on its title page. That TNK tells the same story from Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale as was told by a play titled Palamon and Arcite performed for the Court at Oxford University in 1566 (during which Oxford got a Master’s degree), and that a (lost) play by the same name was performed by the Admirals’s Men at Henslowe’s Rose Theater several times in the fall of 1594, the first time labeled “ne” for “newly emended,” are facts that to someone under no pressure to conform to the Stratford dates might suggest point to a single play, one written in 1566, revised by its author in 1594, and again in 1613 by John Fletcher, rather than three separate plays based on the same source. This desire to break up a work based on a particular story involving the same cast of characters into a series of works by a series of early (unnamed) writers is based, not on any hard evidence of such a process ever having actually taken place, but purely on the need to limit Shakespeare’s terminus a quo to the 1590s before which time William of Stratford was simply unavailable.
The importance of the Court
Another impression we get from traditional histories of the English Literary Renaissance is that it had only a marginal connection to the Court, and that the Stage that played so important a role in the language that emerged from Shakespeare and Marlowe grew solely out of the efforts of working class entrepreneurs like Jame Burbage and Philip Henslowe, the Court and courtier patrons stepping in to protect them only that the Queen might have her “solace” over the Christmas holidays. According to this scenario, plays performed at Court by the adult companies were, as are plays today, written for the public as commercial ventures, some enjoyed by the Queen and her minions, but none written specifically with them in mind.
Why this should be true of the adult companies when it’s obvious that plays were being written specifically for the children’s companies to perform for the Court isn’t addressed. It’s clear from the Revels accounts that what the Queen preferred for her solace were comedies performed by her young choristers. Eight of these survive, written for the chorus boys from Paul’s Cathedral and attributed to John Lyly. For the dozen or more plays performed by other boy companies throughout this period we have but one text and no authors. The Court was also the souce for a great deal of poetry that if the academics are to be believed, developed in a vacuum apart from what Shakespeare and Marlowe were writing. Prof. Stephen May’s 2002 The Courtier Poets ignores the fact that London was a small city and that the plays of both poets were not only popular with the public, but were also frequently performed at Court.
Common sense should also tell us that in a culture like the England of the sixteenth century, nothing could prosper without noble patronage, certainly nothing on the scale of the three-story theaters that dominated the landscape and that faced the kind of violent opposition that Book IV of E.K. Chambers’s The Elizabethan Stage describes. The idea that Burbage and Henslowe could build their theaters where they did and keep them going for as long as they did without more assistence from their Privy Council patrons than simply the occasional letter of support is absurd. That the obvious battle over the London Stage was connected with a similar battle within the Court community and the Privy Council over its identical twin, the Court Stage, should be obvious, and would be if the English Departments who are supposed to be the guardians of truth about our literary past kept so much as half an eye on its history.
Accompanying this astigmatism is the even bigger blind spot relating to the close proximity of the Blackfriars theater to the politically influential West End. With the perfectly located public theater on the major thoroughfare into and out of Central London, one might think that this location too was the result of careful planning. But such gaps are endemic in a study that either cannot or will not see the connection between the works of Shakespeare and the politics of Elizabeth’s Court. Literary critics continue to chase their tails around Stratford while evidence of Shakespeare’s connection to the Court lies unobserved in open view.
That Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, whose patron was the Queen’s Lord Chamberlain, Baron Hunsdon, whose job it was to oversee Court entertainment, next to the Queen and the Principal Secretary, the most powerful man on the Privy Council, his fingers in every political pie, his hand close to if not actually on the rudder of the Ship of State, that this was just another acting company, its popularity the only factor in its importance, is the result of Hunsdon’s efforts and those of other powerful men and women, to keep his company’s connection to the Crown as hidden as possible for political reasons should be obvious to anyone with any grasp of the history of the period.
However modest its origins were made to appear, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men was in fact England’s Crown company, following the dissolution of the Queen’s Men in 1589, the second ever to be created, its official status reaffirmed when, following Elizabeth’s death and the accession of King James, it was renamed the King’s Men. Their sharers included James Burbage head of the first company ever to get a license, his son, plus the top players from both leading companies of the time.
How can the so-called critics be so obtuse as to miss the connection between the most celebrated plays of the day and the politics that raged around them and their audiences? How can they fail to understand that the London Stage was the sixteenth century equivalent of America’s John Stewart and Stephen Colbert, England’s Chris Morris? Forced by the Stratford bio to date the plays ten to fifteen years out of sync with events, they continue the mystification that was first conceived by men like Hunsdon and Burbage, Howard and Henslowe, to hide the connection between the London Stage and the Crown. How can they fail to see that the elimination of Marlowe was the act of an angry Crown towards one who brazenly and wantonly violated its unwritten agreement to treat the Crown and its religion with respect. If not the English Departments, who will write the true history of this period during which poets, one in particular, stood at the forefront of a groundswell moving inexorably towards not just talking about, not just demanding, but actually getting, freedom of speech.
While Moliére was the intimate friends of the French King’s brother, a member of French Court society; while the Poet Ronsard was born into French Court circles, the intimate of three French kings; while the Italian poet Tasso, a nobleman at the Courts of the Princes of Urbino and Ferrara, was the familiar of their highest circles; while the playwright Ariosto was the familiar of the Cardinal d’Este and the Duke of Ferrera; while the playwright Machiavelli was the familiar of the Medici; the orator Cicero the colleague of Caesar and Mark Antony; the poets Ovid and Virgil known at the the Court of Caesar Augustus; Lord Byron the intimate of the highest members of Regency society––why was the great Shakespeare never seen at Elizabeth’s Court? Why was he never even introduced?
Why does Spenser who wrote about the Court and clearly wrote primarily to entertain it, never appear at Court? Yes, there are Court figures who feature in the story of the birth of modern English literature: Sidney was an important writer as was Raleigh and Bacon, Harington and Donne. But what about Spenser? Wouldn’t it make sense that he was brought to Court, like these others, and not left to suffer the slings and arrows of outraged Irish kerns in the wilds of County Limerick?
And what about the great master, the greatest of all, Shakespeare, whose plays were performed at Court for decades? Why is Shakespeare never found at Court?