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Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2: Holding a Mirror Up to His Queen?

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Reflections (clockwise from upper left): Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Margaret; the Earl of Leicester and the Duke of Suffolk.

Hamlet’s eponymous protagonist tells a company of actors that the purpose of playacting is “to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature.” Logically, that means a playwright should write with the same purpose. How far did Shakespeare go in writing plays that portrayed real people and, in particular, those in the court of his queen, Elizabeth I?

The character Polonius in Hamlet is widely seen as an unflattering portrait of Lord Burghley, Elizabeth’s top adviser and the most powerful man in England during most of her reign. Hamlet’s mother, the adulterous Queen Gertrude, appears to reflect Elizabeth herself, while the evil King Claudius replicates her lover, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (in this blog post, I’ll refer to Dudley as Leicester).

Does Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2 hold another mirror up to Elizabeth and Leicester?

Shakespeare’s plays as looking glasses

Hamlet is not the only example of a Shakespeare play containing imitations of actual people. Many see the evil king in Richard III as the reflection of Sir Robert Cecil, the son of Lord Burghley, who stepped into his father’s shoes as Elizabeth’s lead counselor. Members of the French royal court appear in Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Other plays with characters that seem to echo Queen Elizabeth I include Antony and Cleopatra, Measure for Measure, Macbeth, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’ve also argued that Henry VI, Part I includes a character that parallels Elizabeth.

Looking into the mirror of 2 Henry VI

2 Henry VI chronicles the internal divisions in 15th century England that led to the War of the Roses, a struggle between two royal houses for the English Crown. Broadly speaking, the play emulates the factious environment of the English court in Shakespeare’s time.

A closer look at 2 Henry VI suggests that Shakespeare depicted particular members of the 16th century court, indeed the highest ranking one of all, Queen Elizabeth, along with her lover, Leicester.

In Act 1, Scene 3, Queen Margaret boxes the ears of the Earl of Gloucester’s wife. Past commentators have observed how the scene reproduces a similar incident when Elizabeth boxed the ears of Leicester’s wife. I also find similarities between the pair of lovers in the play, Margaret and the Duke of Suffolk, and the real-life pair of lovers, Elizabeth and Leicester.

A Pair of Power Duos

In the play, Margaret is unable to marry Suffolk because she’s married to the king. Elizabeth, too, was unable to marry her lover, Leicester, because he already had a wife. Margaret and Suffolk dominate affairs of state, a situation that parallels that of Elizabeth and Leicester.

Count De Feria, a Spanish ambassador in Elizabeth’s time, thought Leicester was one of three people who ran the country, the other two being Lord Burghley and Nicholas Bacon. Allison Weir, in her biography of Elizabeth, observes that Leicester “kept state like a prince, and enjoyed vast power and influence.”

In 1562, when Elizabeth was ill with smallpox and believed she was dying, she wanted Leicester named Protector of the Realm—in the play, Suffolk is mistaken for the Lord Protector.

Shakespeare’s sources for 2 Henry VI don’t describe Margaret and Suffolk as lovers. Peter Saccio, in his book Shakespeare’s English Kings, calls their love relationship a “Shakespearean invention.” Some may disagree, but in terms of the play’s plot, story, and dramatic tension, there seems little reason to make them lovers. The king isn’t jealous of Suffolk or very suspicious of the love affair, if at all. Nor do any of the other characters appear to know or care about the affair, except for the lovers. Just one scene shows the full passion of their love. This suggests that Shakespeare’s purpose was to mark the power duo of Margaret and Suffolk—through their non-historical romance—as representing another power duo, namely, Elizabeth and her real-life lover, Leicester.

Recently I had the pleasure to attend the American Shakespeare Center’s fine production of 2 Henry VI at the Blackfriars Playhouse in beautiful, historic Staunton, Virginia. The play, which ASC has appropriately titled “The Rise of Queen Margaret,” runs through November 29, 2016. I recommend seeing it. If you do, you can draw your own conclusions about Margaret and Suffolk.

Suffolk = Leicester

Other markers in 2 Henry VI link Suffolk and Leicester.

Saccio observes that “the unattractive portrait given [Suffolk in the play] reflects the very real hatred in which he was held by the end of the 1440’s, hatred that he richly deserved.” Saccio describes Suffolk as having “profited enormously from direct royal patents, perverted the financial and judicial operations of the crown to the benefit of himself and his supporters [and] robbed fellow landowners of their estates [. . .]” During the mid and late-16th century, Leicester was hated for many of the same reasons.

Shakespeare’s play describes Suffolk, metaphorically, as a poisoner. In Act III, Scene 2, the king tells him: “Hide not thy poison with such sugar’d words; Lay not thy hands on me; forbear, I say; Their touch affrights me as a serpent’s sting.” Later, Suffolk, after cursing his own enemies, himself exclaims: “Poison be their drink! Gall, worse than gall, the daintiest that they taste!”

Leicester was known as a notorious poisoner, a trait reflected in the character Claudius in Hamlet. A letter published in 1584 (later titled Leicester’s Commonwealth) lists the people whom Leicester allegedly poisoned. Whether or not true, his reputation as a poisoner, along with his love affair with the queen, links him to how the play describes Suffolk.

A Prophecy Twice Fulfilled

In the play, Suffolk hears a prophecy that he will “die by water,” and he’s later beheaded by a pirate at sea named Walter Whitmore. As with the Suffolk/Margaret love relationship, Shakespeare invented the prophecy. It’s absent from the historical record, as is the name of Suffolk’s executioner.

2 Henry VI is the only play in the Shakespeare canon with a character named Walter. Out of scores of names Shakespeare could have chosen, he chose one shared by one of Leicester’s worst enemies, Walter Raleigh, whom Elizabeth nicknamed “Water.” Raleigh’s career included piracy, the profession of the Walter who slays Suffolk in the play.

Leicester shares Suffolk’s prophesized fate in a couple of ways.

After the Spanish Armada, Leicester fell ill and died at his estate at Cornbury in Oxfordshire, very near a group of lakes the largest of which is called Lake Superior today. Some suggest he died of a malarial infection or stomach cancer. In any case, it’s fair to say he died “by water.”

It was also rumored that Leicester was poisoned. The Scottish poet William Drummond claimed that the poet-playwright Ben Jonson, thirty years after Leicester’s death, told him the earl was poisoned by his own wife. The late 19th and early 20th century English biographer Sidney Lee thought “the story seems improbable in face of the post-mortem examination, which was stated to show no trace of poison.”

The story seems improbable, and yet Leicester had plenty of enemies who might have loved giving him a dose, so to speak, of his own medicine. Walter Raleigh would have been one such enemy.

Leicester, while in the Low Countries leading the Crown’s military forces against the Spanish, had loudly complained that, in his absence, Raleigh was undermining his position at court. Leicester accused him, among other things, of failing to send reinforcements. An epitaph to Leicester attributed to Raleigh proclaims:

Here lies the noble warrior that never blunted sword;

Here lies the noble courtier that never kept his word;

Here lies his excellency that governed all the state;

Here lies the Lord of Leicester that all the world did hate.

The prophecy Suffolk hears that he’ll “die by water” is spoken twice, and it’s twice fulfilled: Suffolk is killed by the waters of the English Channel and by a pirate named Walter, which was pronounced ‘water’ in medieval England and was Elizabeth’s nickname for Walter Raleigh. If Raleigh was behind Leicester’s death, Leicester, too, would have twice died ‘by water’—by the lakes of Cornbury and by “Water” Raleigh.

My argument, of course, is just a prima facie case at best, and by no means absolute proof that Shakespeare’s Margaret and Suffolk mirror Elizabeth and Leicester. But given the departures Shakespeare makes from the historical record, his choices in describing characters and their relationships, and other plays in which he mirrors real people, there’s at least an appearance he did the same thing in 2 Henry VI.

Folger Library Displays America’s Shakespeare . . . And Disses An American Icon

Works of Shakspere

Beginning in the late 18th century, and throughout many decades of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Bard’s name was often spelled ‘Shakspeare’ or ‘Shakspere.’ The Folger exhibit, “America’s Shakespeare,” doesn’t explain why. Shown here is a Funk & Wagnalls edition from 1927.

I can see using Shakespeare to advertise a bookstore, but really, a sewing machine company?

Well, actually, yes. The New Home Sewing Machine Co. used Shakespeare for a 1890 promotion, which is part of the fun of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s current exhibit, “America’s Shakespeare,” on display through July 24.

It’s a fine exhibit that shouldn’t be missed. However, “America’s Shakespeare” does contain one blatant error that’s like a smear on an otherwise neat, handwritten letter. I’ll come to that later.

The exhibit shows how Shakespeare has permeated American culture over the centuries. One standout item is a recommended reading list penned by Thomas Jefferson that includes Shakespeare. Zoom forward to the 20th century and you’ll see Shakespeare in the movies and on television, even to the far reaches of Gilligan’s Island.

The exhibit displays posters for Shakespeare performances that span nearly 200 years. Quite a few of these placards spell the Bard’s name as ‘Shakspeare’ rather than ‘Shakespeare.’ The exhibit doesn’t explain why.

The short explanation: Some 18th and 19th century scholars concluded that the Bard’s real name was Shakspeare. Why? Because his surviving signatures show that he signed his name Shakspeare (or Shakspere), which is how it appears on his birth, marriage, and funeral records. Eventually, the scholarly consensus went the other way and ‘Shakespeare’—how the name was spelled when his plays were first published—came into dominance.

Which raises some questions: If the author’s real name was Shakspeare, why was it ever spelled Shakespeare? If, instead, his real name was Shakespeare, why would he repeatedly misspell it when he signed his own name? I know, some of you are saying Elizabethan’s didn’t care much about spelling. Yes, that’s true, but only up to a point.

In the word Shakespeare, dropping the first ‘e’ gives a short vowel sound to the ‘a’ (like “shack”) rather than a long sound (like “shake”). I’ve yet to see multiple examples of Elizabethan text where the ‘a’ remains long when the ‘e’ that follows a consonant is dropped. Without the ‘e’ to make the long ‘a’ sound, a sentence such as “My mate will bake a cake” becomes “My mat will bak a cak.” Elizabethans may have been bad spellers, but their spelling wasn’t that bad—they didn’t write gibberish.

So why would William of Stratford not sign his name ‘Shakespeare,’ the way it’s spelled on the plays? One answer, plain and simple, is that he wasn’t Shakespeare; rather, ‘William Shakespeare’ was a pseudonym for the actual author.

The top candidate for the true Shakespeare is Edward de Vere, a nobleman in Queen Elizabeth’s court. De Vere meets all the criteria for being the real Shakespeare. His life experiences closely match the stories, settings, and characters of the plays, and he was praised as a playwright during his lifetime. In a foreword to Charlton Ogburn’s book, The Mysterious William Shakespeare, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough states: “The strange, difficult, contradictory man who emerges as the real Shakespeare, Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, is not just plausible but fascinating and wholly believable.”

Twain

Mark Twain seriously doubted that William of Stratford was Shakespeare.

McCullough isn’t alone. Many have come to doubt that William of Stratford was Shakespeare. Mark Twain was such a doubter. In his last published book, Is Shakespeare Dead? (1909), Twain delivers, with humor, a cogent argument that the Stratfordian wasn’t the Bard.

Among other things, Twain observes that William of Stratford never signed his name ‘Shakespeare,’ so if he were the great author, he didn’t know how to spell his own name.

While the Folger exhibit is silent about why so many people, for so long, called the playwright Shakspeare, it does address Twain’s views on Shakespeare. Unfortunately, the exhibit sorely misses the mark.

Instead of addressing Twain’s argument about Shakespeare authorship on the merits, the exhibit belittles him by insinuating that he wasn’t serious in his disbelief that the Stratfordian was Shakespeare. Here’s how “America’s Shakespeare” puts it:

Mark Twain and his family read Shakespeare, and it has been said that he knew Shakespeare’s works “nearly as well as he knew the Bible.” Twain was fully aware how widely the English playwright was known in America. In Huckleberry Finn, he pokes fun at amateur productions of Shakespeare on the Mississippi River. Nevertheless, Twain came to question Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays. In his essay “Is Shakespeare Dead?” Twain proposes that we don’t know enough about Shakespeare to state unconditionally that he wrote the plays and poems attributed to him. But is Clemens fooling with us, as he writes under his pseudonym Twain? It’s hard to know.

It’s hard to know—really? Actually, it’s not: Those familiar with Twain’s views on the subject know he was sincere in rejecting the myth that William of Stratford was Shakespeare. Anthony J. Berret, a professor at Saint Joseph’s University and author of Mark Twain and Shakespeare, explains why. According to Berret, Twain thought writers drew their ideas from life experiences as Twain himself did, and there was little known about the Stratfordian’s life that could lead to the great works of Shakespeare. Berret writes:

Is Shakespeare Dead? is essentially a creative response to George Greenwood’s The Shakespeare Problem Restated (1908). Both Twain and Greenwood declare themselves heretics against the orthodox belief that Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the poems and plays attributed to him. They argue their point by removing all the myths and superstitions about [the Stratfordian] Shakespeare’s life and finding in the few known facts that remain no sign or promise of a distinguished literary career. […] In his copy of Greenwood’s book Mark Twain scored the passages which recounted these meagre details about [the Stratfordian] Shakespeare’s life, and he included their contents in chapters III and IV of his own book. [footnote omitted]. He applauded Greenwood’s careful separation of these bare facts from all the conjectures and assumptions that turned [the Stratfordian] Shakespeare into a scholar, a traveler, a soldier, a poet, a classicist, and an aristocrat.

Berret spends 20 pages discussing Twain’s interest in the Shakespeare authorship controversy. Anyone who reads them will see that, contrary to the statement in the Folger exhibit, it’s not hard to know that Mark Twain truly thought that the Stratfordian wasn’t Shakespeare.

Obviously, the Folger has the right to defend the opinion that William of Stratford and Shakespeare were the same man. But it’s wrong for the Folger to question the seriousness of a dissenter who ranks as one of America’s best 19th century authors. That Is Shakespeare Dead? was written under a pseudonym is irrelevant to whether its author seriously doubted that the Stratfordian was Shakespeare, and it certainly doesn’t show that Twain was “fooling with us.”

Rather, it’s the Folger that’s fooling with us, which is unfortunate given the otherwise engaging and not-to-be-missed “America’s Shakespeare.”

How Shakespeare Mirrored Queen Elizabeth in Joan of Arc

Left: Queen Elizabeth I, portrayed by Cate Blanchett. Right: Joan of Arc (15th century portrait)

Left: Queen Elizabeth I, portrayed by Cate Blanchett. Right: Joan of Arc (15th century portrait)

Shakespeare was brave. He seemed unafraid of mocking people, and really important people at that. In Hamlet, Polonius is the windbag who counsels King Claudius and Gertrude. He’s widely regarded as a parody of William Cecil, secretary to Queen Elizabeth I. Cecil was the most powerful man in England for most of the 16th century.

The most important person during Shakespeare’s lifetime was the queen. She, too, appears to have been one of his targets. Feminist writer Hannah Betts sees the queen reflected as the over-sexed Venus in Shakespeare’s poem Venus and Adonis. Marc Shell, in The End of Kinship, a book Harold Bloom calls the best full-length study of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, believes the playwright mirrored Elizabeth in the play’s heroine Isabella, a chaste woman caught up in a drama that has a strong theme of incest.

In a recent talk at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Georgianna Zeigler, the library’s Associate Librarian and Head of Reference, said Elizabeth might be seen in Shakespeare’s powerful (and, one can add, significantly flawed) female characters such as Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth. Other commentators believe the queen is represented as Gertrude in Hamlet, Portia in Merchant of Venice, and Titania in A Midsummer’s Night Dream.

I think another character Shakespeare intended to mirror Elizabeth can be added to the list: Joan of Arc in Henry the Sixth, Part One.

Joan of Arc: Queen Elizabeth’s Reflection

Category: Heroines. The answer is: Known as a virgin who had a special relationship with the French Duke of Alençon, this celebrated woman rallied forces to defend her country against foreign invaders.

If you hit the buzzer and said, “Who is Joan of Arc?” you would be correct. If you hit the buzzer and said, “Who is Queen Elizabeth the First?” you would also be correct.

How did Shakespeare link Elizabeth to Joan of Arc in his history play, Henry the Sixth, Part One? And why would he run roughshod over his historical source to do so?

A Woman with the Heart and Stomach of a Man

Henry the Sixth, Part One is a story of the battle for France late in the Hundred Years’ War, which lasted into the mid-15th century. The play also depicts the origins of the War of the Roses among England’s nobility. Historical records show that the play was well-received by audiences in 1592.

Joan of Arc dominates the play as France’s warrior-heroine. In Act One, she challenges the King of France to a fight: “My courage try by combat, if thou darest, And thou shalt find that I exceed my sex.” After winning the fight, she goes on to help rally the French forces against the English.

Queen Elizabeth, too, fits the picture of a strong female leader in wartime. In 1588, in a famous speech to her troops in Tilbury during England’s battle against the Spanish Armada, she famously said, “… I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too…I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.”

A female leader in wartime is one of several traits shared by Joan of Arc and Elizabeth. Though Shakespeare did not invent that parallel, an Elizabethan audience would not have missed it, especially as Henry the Sixth, Part One includes more such parallels.

Joan the Virgin, and the Virgin Queen

In the play, the French heroine is called ‘Joan la Pucelle.’ Pucelle is French for ‘maid’ or ‘virgin.’ After Joan has beaten the King, he woos her, and she tells him, “I must not yield to any rites of love, for my profession’s sacred from above: When I have chased all thy foes from hence, then will I think upon a recompense.” For Joan of Arc, duty to country rises above any desire to marry, even if it’s a king who’s wooing her.

Elizabeth was idolized as the Virgin Queen and she, too, claimed a similar duty to country. Although scholars speculate about whether the ‘virgin’ part of the ‘Virgin Queen’ was a myth, there’s no doubt she never married ─ married a man, that is. She told Parliament: “I have already joined myself in marriage to a husband, namely the kingdom of England.” Like Joan of Arc, Elizabeth refused to marry in the traditional sense, answering to a higher calling.

Joan, Elizabeth, and the Duke

A third link between Joan of Arc and Queen Elizabeth is the Duke of Alençon. In Henry the Sixth, Part One, which spans the years 1429-1431, John II, Duke of Alençon, fights alongside Joan, a comrade-in-arms.

Hercule François de France, who became Duke of Alençon in 1566, was the last of Queen Elizabeth’s serious marriage suitors. In her biography of the queen, Alison Weir writes that when Alençon visited the queen in 1579, “there was no mistaking the sexual chemistry between the royal lovers” and the queen “hated being apart from him.” After the English nobility nixed the idea of Protestant Elizabeth marrying the Catholic Alençon, the queen wrote a touching love poem to the duke to bid him farewell.

Shakespeare departed from Holinshed’s Chronicles, his main source for the play, in depicting Joan’s relationship with Alençon. In the final act of the play, Joan is captured by the English and put on trial. Desperate to have her life spared, she pleads that she’s “with child,” which follows Holinshed’s account of the trial. Holinshed describes how the judges imprison Joan for nine months, after which they examine her. They conclude she had been lying and wasn’t pregnant.

But Holinshed doesn’t identify the man Joan claims she became pregnant by. Shakespeare does. “It was Alençon that enjoy’d my love,” he has her say in the play. She then frantically alters her story and claims it was someone else.

Nowhere does Holinshed suggest the relationship between Joan and Alençon was anything but one of co-fighters against a foreign enemy. Alençon was married. According to the historical record, Joan (who was only sixteen years old at the time) promised Alençon’s wife that he would survive the war to see her again. Joan criticized soldiers for swearing, and she expressed displeasure about the prostitutes who followed the army. Shakespeare’s promiscuous Joan doesn’t fit this chaste image.

Shakespeare’s other source for Henry the Sixth, Part One was Edward Hall’s The union of the two noble families of Lancaster and York. Having not examined that work, I don’t know if Hall described Joan’s trial as Holinshed did. In any case, Shakespeare included another reference that all but confirms he was linking the play’s Duke of Alençon to the one of Elizabeth’s love life.

After Joan claims she’s pregnant by Alençon, Shakespere has another character remark: “Alençon! that notorious Machiavel.” Machiavelli, who was not yet born during Joan of Arc’s lifetime, was well known in the Elizabethan era. Three of Shakespeare’s plays include a reference to him. Machiavelli was associated with Catherine de Medici, the wife King Henry II of France and widely blamed for a massacre of Protestants in Paris in 1571. He dedicated his seminal work, The Prince, to Catherine de Medici’s grandmother.

Hercule François, the youngest son of Catherine de Medici and Henry II, and the Alençon whom Queen Elizabeth knew, played lead roles in major political events in France and the Netherlands in the 1570’s and 1580’s that involved the kind of secret treaties and deceit that would earn somebody the title of ‘Machiavel.’ By so labeling the play’s duke, nobles in the audience easily would have made the connection to the duke who courted Elizabeth, thus associating her with Joan of Arc.

In the scene of Joan’s trial, a character calls Joan a “strumpet,” another word for whore (which, of course, is the opposite of a virgin). Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, was also the target of verbal abuse. Reportedly, a parson in open church once called her a whore. Shakespeare, albeit subtly, seems to have done so as well in Henry the Sixth, Part One.

Of course, one would be wise to be subtle in dissing the Queen of England. In his study of Measure for Measure, Shell observes: “One cannot make an airtight case for Isabella’s being modeled on Queen Elizabeth; were that possible on the basis of what is said in [the play], Shakespeare might have been open to charges of treason.” The same would hold true of any work that mocked the queen.

Shakespeare’s Motive

Why would Shakespeare insult the queen? According to Shell, “Shakespeare apparently was not a great admirer of Elizabeth. Unlike most English poets of the age, for example, he did not write a word of direct mourning on her death.” Shell thinks that Shakespeare’s association with pro-Catholic forces may explain his negative disposition towards the Protestant queen.

That may be fine as far as explaining the playwright’s general attitude about Elizabeth, but one feels that something more personal is at work in Henry the Sixth, Part One. Calling the queen a whore (and adulterer) by associating her with Joan of Arc and identifying her sexual partner by name sounds more like an act of personal revenge ─ by a jilted lover for instance ─ than a missive launched by someone with a religious agenda.

The centuries-old traditional view of Shakespeare as a commoner from Stratford-upon-Avon doesn’t fit the jilted lover explanation. That doesn’t make the explanation wrong. Rather, it suggests that Shakespeare’s unflattering depictions of the queen involving sex call for a reexamination of the traditional view of him.