Bio-degradable Shakespeare

While looking through playbills for past Shakespeare Theatre Company productions, I came upon a mystery that involves a big flip-flop, and no, I’m not talking about a size 13 beach sandal.

The mystery is about something one would think STC takes very seriously, namely, the true identity of William Shakespeare.

There is, sir, a doubt

The novelist B. Travers once said, “The creative person should have no other biography than his works.” For many years the playbills for STC productions reflected that philosophy. From 1986-2007, only one playbill, in 1995, contained a Shakespeare biography.

Another Shakespeare biography appeared in playbills from 2008 to 2014. Remarkably, that bio raised doubts about whether the poet-playwright was the same Shakespeare who was born in Stratford-upon-Avon. The one-page text began by observing:

No man’s life has been the subject of more speculation than William Shakespeare’s. While Shakespearean scholars have dedicated their lives to the search for evidence, the truth is that no one really knows what the truth is. [Emphasis added].

After a brief account of the Stratford man’s birth, marriage, and children, the bio stated:

What we do not know is how the young Shakespeare came to travel to London and how he first came to the stage. Whatever the truth may be, it is clear that in the years between 1582 and 1592 someone calling himself William Shakespeare became involved in the London theatre scene and was a principal actor with one of several repertory companies [Emphasis added].

This bio began appearing in STC playbills in 2008.

The concluding paragraph described doubts about Shakespeare’s identity in even more direct terms:

In the 1800s, his plays were so popular that many refused to believe that an actor from Stratford had written them. To this day some believe that Sir Francis Bacon was the real author of the plays; others argue that Edward DeVere, the Earl of Oxford, was the man. Still others contend that Sir Walter Raleigh or Christopher Marlowe penned the lines attributed to Shakespeare. Whether the plays were written by Shakespeare the man or Shakespeare the myth, it is clear that no other playwright has made such a significant and lasting contribution to the English language [Emphasis added].

In 2014 much of this bio suddenly melted into thin air.

He’s a disease that must be cut away

During the 2014-2015 season, STC produced three Shakespeare plays: both parts of Henry the Fourth in March and April 2014, and As You Like It in October and November 2014.

In the middle of that season, STC’s bio of Shakespeare was heavily edited. It went from describing doubts about the playwright’s identity (April 2014) to expressing no doubts (October 2014).

During the 2014-2015 season, STC’s bio of Shakespeare was heavily edited.

Like a surgeon with a scalpel, the editor(s) removed all traces of uncertainty about Shakespeare’s identity, deleting from the first paragraph the phrases “the truth is that no one really knows what the truth is” and “someone calling himself William Shakespeare,” and adding “we know a great deal of information about Shakespeare’s life—far more than that of any of his contemporaries.” The editor(s), as if excising a tumor, also cut out the bulk of the last paragraph which named alternate candidates.

Here’s a redline version of the edits:

More than one-fourth of the previous bio disappeared. Ever since, STC playbills have included the no-doubt-about-it bio.

Sir, it is a mystery

What explains STC’s flip-flop? And why did it wait seven years to do it?

I noticed the altered bio in 2014, but only recently discovered what, at least in part, likely caused the change. It has to do with events that occurred in September 2014, just before the revised text appeared in October 2014.

What trust is in these times?

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, based in Stratford-upon-Avon, is a staunch defender of traditional Shakespeare biography. The Trust owns the house believed to be Shakespeare’s birthplace, which each year attracts hundreds of thousands visitors and generates millions of dollars.

It’s not difficult to imagine how the Trust would judge a playbill of a major U.S. theater company raising issues about Shakespeare’s true identity—doubts that strike at the core of the Trust’s raison d’être. And it seems likely that the Trust, if it had the opportunity, would do something about it.

In the summer of 2014, the Trust sent a team across the pond on a ‘Shakespeare on the Road’ tour. Here’s how the Trust described it:

In July and August, our team visited a range of Shakespeare festivals across the length and breadth of the US (with one notable Canadian incursion). We touched down on the 4th July at the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival in Kansas City and ended in Washington DC in early September. Over 63 days, we traveled over 10,000 miles (mostly by road), saw 42 Shakespeare productions and interviewed hundreds of the people who – year in, year out – make Shakespeare happen across the continent.

The material we gathered will be used for multiple outcomes: podcasts, radio and online documentaries, a co-authored book and solo-authored chapters and case studies. The road trip was mapped on this digital platform with roughly one hundred interviews, photos and short blogs to give a sense of the journey as it unfolded.

STC was the Washington, DC theater the Trust’s team visited in September 2014.

Around this same time, at an event in Washington to which 200 potential patrons were invited, the Trust launched Shakespeare’s Birthplace America, “a not-for-profit foundation that promotes and supports the works of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in the United States.”

The Trust’s team likely would have cringed at the bio in STC’s then current playbill, which included phrases such as someone calling himself William Shakespeare and named alternate candidates such as De Vere and Marlowe (neither of whom were born in Stratford-upon-Avon).

It’s difficult to believe that the Trust wouldn’t have discussed the bio with STC in September 2014, or even before. STC revised the playbill for its very next production, in October 2014.

The timing and surgical nature of the edits—to delete any notion that Shakespeare was anyone but the man born in Stratford-upon-Avon—suggests the Trust played a role in the bio’s revision.

STC, of course, has the right to change the content of its playbills and has no obligation to give the reasons.

In this case, however, for the sake of its credibility, STC might consider explaining its flip-flop, so patrons can understand the merits of why, after seven years, it suddenly stopped believing that doubts regarding Shakespeare’s identity were worth mentioning.

Another choice would be for STC to return to its earlier practice, in line with the B. Travers school of thought, and drop the Shakespeare bio from its playbills altogether.

Was Hamlet Banned?

Hamlet_Q1_Frontispiece_1603

Few contemporary references survive about Hamlet, a play published after Queen Elizabeth I’s death.

Many consider it the best play ever written. Actors have performed it thousands of times over the last four centuries:

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

And yet, was Shakespeare’s most celebrated work — the crown of the Western canon — banned during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I?

The performance record

Hamlet was first published in 1603, though no one knows precisely when Shakespeare wrote it. Only four pre-1603 references to the play have survived.

The first is contained in a preface written by Thomas Nashe to Robert Greene’s book of prose published in 1589. Nashe says of another writer, “[I]f you entreat him fair in a frosty morning, he will afford you whole Hamlets – I should say handfuls of tragical speeches.” The second reference is a record of a 1594 performance staged by Philip Henslowe at Newington Butts. The third is contained in a book written by Thomas Lodge and published in 1596, which refers to a performance just outside London. The fourth reference is the registration of Hamlet in the Stationer’s Register in 1602, which secured exclusive rights to print the play. There’s also evidence that Gabriel Harvey mentioned Hamlet in notes written in a 1598 edition of Chaucer, but it’s not clear when those notes were written and the edition has not survived.

So, during the first 13 years after Hamlet is known to have been written, the play is mentioned just four times in the surviving historical record. It’s not even included in Francis Meres’ 1598 list of twelve Shakespeare plays, which led G.R. Hibbard to conclude: “[Hamlet’s] absence from that list amounts to strong presumptive evidence that it had not been staged.”

Hibbard was referring to the first printed version of Hamlet that appeared in 1603. He’s among scholars that speculate there was an “Ur-Hamlet” written by someone other than Shakespeare, which was the play being referred to prior to 1602. (The prefix “Ur-” derives from a German word meaning “original”.) Other scholars, such as Harold Bloom, dismiss the “Ur-Hamlet” theory, maintaining that Shakespeare, and no one else, wrote the Hamlet referred to in 1589, 1594, and 1596.

One explanation for there being so few references to Hamlet before 1602 is that, even though the play was popular and performed with some frequency, records of those performances simply have not survived. That could very well be true, but for those believing that only Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, it still begs the question why the Bard’s best-known play isn’t on Meres’ 1598 list. And why did it take at least 14 years for Hamlet to appear in print, when at least eleven other Shakespeare plays ─ about a third of the canon ─ were published prior to 1603?

Corambis aka Polonious aka William Cecil

Another explanation for seeing Hamlet mentioned just three times prior to 1602 is that the Crown suppressed the play. It’s not difficult to understand why.

For 150 years, scholars have concluded that the character Polonious in Hamlet represents William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who was Lord Treasurer under Queen Elizabeth I.

A Machiavellian, Burghley was the most powerful man in England during the 40 years of Elizabeth’s rule. He was spymaster under Francis Walsingham. In Hamlet, Polonious is a pompous, meddling, long-winded councilor to Claudius, the man who has poisoned Hamlet’s father to marry Hamlet’s mother and become King of Denmark. Hamlet murders Polonious while the latter is spying him, a major turning point in the play.

In the first printed version of Hamlet published in 1603, the name for the king’s councilor was not Polonious, but Corambis, a name that resembles Burghley’s motto, “cor unum,” meaning “one heart” in Latin. “Corambis” translates as “two hearts,” meaning duplicity. Other Polonious-Burghley links include the words of advice Polonious gives his son in the play, which sound much like the moral precepts Burghley actually wrote for his son.

It is difficult to imagine that the most powerful nobleman in the queen’s court would stand back and allow himself to be lampooned on the public stage. It’s doubtful that Elizabeth would have tolerated Hamlet, either, given the very long and close association she had with Burghley. She spoon fed him while he was stretched out on his death bed, and went into deep mourning when he died in 1598.

Remember 1598?

It’s the year Francis Meres was publishing his list of Shakespeare’s plays. No doubt it would have been wise of him to exclude a play that mocked Burghley and, by association, the queen.

As Hamlet opens, Queen Gertrude has recently married her husband’s poisoner, Claudius. Queen Elizabeth’s long-time consort was Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, also known as a notorious poisoner. To at least some in the audience ─ courtiers in the queen’s court, for instance ─ the parallels to Burghley and the queen would have been unmistakable.

How could Shakespeare get away with this? The short answer is perhaps that he didn’t.

Muzzling the Dogs

Compared to Western democracies of our times, freedom of expression was very limited in Elizabethan England. The Crown controlled the press, licensing everything that could be printed legally, and it did so with great efficacy at least until late in the queen’s reign.

The Crown could ban performances of plays. It shut down The Isle of Dogs, a play written by Thomas Nashe and Ben Jonson. That play has not survived, but its subject matter was described as “lewd” and “scandalous,” and may have even satirized Queen Elizabeth.

Elizabeth likely would have been troubled about being a model for Queen Gertrude. Prince Hamlet repeatedly accuses Gertrude (his mother) of incest by marrying his uncle, Claudius. The subject of incest had to be an especially sensitive one for Elizabeth whose mother was executed on charges of incest and adultery. Elizabeth herself, as a young teenager, was caught up in a sexual scandal involving her relations with her stepfather.

After Elizabeth’s privy council heard about The Isle of Dogs, it wasted no time ending its performance. It’s easy to see how Hamlet, a play mocking William Cecil, the queen’s closest advisor, and therefore Elizabeth and Leicester by association, would meet a similar fate once the authorities found out. This could explain the spotty performance history of Hamlet and why it doesn’t appear on Francis Meres’ list. The play may have quietly resurfaced in 1594 after being suppressed a half-decade earlier, in the late 1580’s. Ultimately, however, the Crown would fail to keep Hamlet underground.

The Queen is Dead, Long Live Hamlet

Hamlet appeared in print only after the queen died. We know this because the title page of the 1603 quarto describes the play as having been “diverse times acted by his Highness servants in the City of London,” meaning the servants of the new king, James I.

By that time, neither Burghley nor the queen were around to protest. Burghley’s son, Robert Cecil, however, was still living, and serving as the new king’s secretary. If Cecil could not prevail in keeping Hamlet banned, the name Corambis nonetheless was changed to Polonious, which is how the name appears in the 1604 version of Hamlet and all subsequent editions.

The idea that Hamlet was banned, of course, is only a theory. If it’s not a good way of explaining the dearth of records showing the play being staged during Elizabeth’s reign and why Meres left the play off his list, it’s arguably a better explanation than murky ones based on an “Ur-Hamlet” and lost performance records.

The More One Reads Shakespeare, the Moor One Knows

Shakespeare mirrored contemporaries in his plays—including England’s most powerful rulers—and often in unflattering ways. He reserved a particularly sharp pen for Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester.

Joe Alwyn (here with Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth) plays Robert Dudley in the film “Mary Queen of Scots.”

The Eyes Have It

Leicester had the Queen Elizabeth’s favor from the start of her reign, achieving power which approached that of a king. She appointed him Master of the Horse and a member of her privy council, and made him General of the Crown’s army fighting Spain in the Netherlands. He also had command of the Crown’s forces during the Spanish Armada.

Leicester and Elizabeth are reflected as the Earl of Suffolk and Queen Margaret, the power duo in Shakespeare’s Henry the Sixth, Part Two.

Leicester was handsome. As Alison Weir has written, he “was almost six feet tall and very attractive; his skin was so dark as to earn him the nickname of ‘the Gypsy’, a name used by some to refer to his moral character rather than his face.”

As English troops awaited the Spanish Armada, Leicester wrote a letter to Elizabeth, signing it, “your most faythfull & most obedient R. Leycester” with “Eyes” above his signature.

Elizabeth’s nickname for Leicester was “Eyes.” He signed letters to her with an ôô symbol for the nickname. She also called him “Sweet Robin.”  The two spent a lot time together, often alone. Commentators agree that if Elizabeth had taken a husband, it would have been Leicester. One small problem: Sweet Robin already had a wife.

Bird Of Prey

In 1584, Leicester’s enemies published Leicester’s Commonwealth, a book in which they accused Leicester of many evil-doings, including adultery and murder, even listing his poison victims.

Leicester’s wife had been found dead at the bottom of a staircase, her neck broken. Leicester’s Commonwealth claimed the earl had hired someone to murder her and make it look like an accident. Leicester’s alleged motive was he would then be free to marry Elizabeth.

Few could rival Leicester as the realm’s number one domestic villain. Shakespeare wouldn’t have been alone in his hatred for “the Gypsy.”

Beware the Gypsy . . . and the Moor

The Middle English word gypsy derives from the Greek word for Egyptian, and was founded on the mistaken belief, prevalent in the Middle Ages, that “gypsies” were nomadic Egyptians when, in fact, the Romani ethnic group originated in India. In contrast, the term “Moor” was first applied to indigenous Muslims in Morocco, and later to Arabs and North Africans.

Elizabethans thought of gypsies and Moors as dark and evil. Shakespeare was no exception.

Eyes, Claudius

Scholars since 1898 have viewed Leicester as the model for Claudius in Hamlet.

In his lust for power, Claudius poisons his brother King Hamlet and quickly marries the king’s widow, Queen Gertrude, to become King of Denmark, setting the stage for Shakespeare’s great drama. Prince Hamlet, robbed of his kingdom, berates Gertrude, his mother, for marrying Claudius:

Have you eyes? Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed,
And batten [gorge] on this moor? Ha! have you eyes                            You cannot call it love […]

Shakespeare uses two “eyes,” one on each side of “moor” (a homonym for “Moor” whose middle letters resemble eyes, and suggesting dark skin like  “gypsy”), to paint the dark face of Elizabeth’s favorite. In the play, Claudius ends up accidentally poisoning his own wife, the Queen. Conceivably, Shakespeare was warning Elizabeth of the same danger if she married Leicester.

It’s no surprise that Hamlet appeared in print only after the deaths of Elizabeth and Leicester. Because the play mirrors members of Elizabeth’s court—and the queen herself, as Gertrude—I have argued the play was banned during her lifetime.

Moor sweetness

If Shakespeare, as many did, despised Leicester, why stop at Hamlet in dissing him?

The principal villain in Titus Andronicus is Aaron the Moor who, as Leicester was reputed to be, is an adulterer and murderer.

Like Claudius, Aaron engages in an illicit relationship with the Queen. In Titus, her name is Tamora, who invites Aaron to make love to her in a cave, something she says “Dido once enjoy’d.” In Virgil’s Aeneid, Dido was Queen of Carthage. In some sources, Dido is known as “Elissa,” a subtle but clear link to Elizabeth.

Queen Tamora gushes to her lover Aaron: “Ah, my sweet Moor, sweeter to me than life.” Like a pair of eyes, the words “sweet” and “sweeter” surround “Moor” and echo “Sweet Robin.” Aaron himself refers to his own “charming eyes.”

The protagonist in Titus labels Aaron a would-be poisoner:

Give me thy knife, I will insult on him;                                                Flattering myself, as if it were the Moor                                                    Come hither purposely to poison me

As a slam at Leicester, making Aaron a “gypsy” would have been too obvious. Instead, Shakespeare chose the synonymous disparagement, Moor, which when accompanied with “charming eyes,” poison, and Queen Tamora (aka Elissa), does the job as a marker for Leicester.

Unlike Hamlet, Titus Andronicus was printed and sold while Elizabeth was alive, albeit anonymously. Why did the publishers omit Shakespeare’s celebrated name? The reflection of Leicester and Elizabeth as the sinners Aaron and Tamora offers a plausible explanation.

. . . and Moor poison

In The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice, Othello commits the same act committed by Claudius and Aaron—premeditated murder—and poison is in the picture.

While Shakespeare makes Claudius an actual poisoner—who intentionally poisons King Hamlet and unintentionally poisons Gertrude—he initially makes Othello a poisoner in a figurative sense.

One character drills Othello about how he won Desdemona’s heart, asking him, “Did you by indirect and forced courses subdue and poison this young maid’s affections?” Later in the play, Shakespeare extends this theme by making Othello an actual, would-be poisoner, another possible warning to Elizabeth about Leicester.

In his state of extreme jealousy and anger, Othello rattles off different ways he could kill Desdemona, settling on poison. He tells Iago, “Get me some poison.” But without explanation, Iago says, “Do it not with poison, strangle her in her bed.”

If Leicester did murder his wife, such an explanation would go without saying: given his reputation as a poisoner, that method would have been far too incriminating.

Iago, whose machinations lead Othello to murder Desdemona and then to suicide, says:

The Moor already changes with my poison:
Dangerous conceits are, in their natures, poisons.
Which at the first are scarce found to distaste,
But with a little act upon the blood,
Burn like the mines of Sulphur.

In the end, Othello, is a victim of poison in a figurative sense as much as Claudius is in a literal one. Indeed, subtext in Henry VI, Part Two suggests that Leicester got some of his own medicine and died of poisoning.

Leicester “the Gypsy” was an army general. In that sense, his reflection in the military commander Othello is sharper than his reflection in Claudius and Aaron. All three of these “Moors” display the disturbing profile of a poisoner (or would-be poisoner), or adulterer, or both, and in all cases a murderer, a profile that matches the description of Leicester in Leicester’s Commonwealth.

Looking into Shakespeare’s mirrors . . . and into the future

As time goes on, researchers likely will identify in Shakespeare’s works additional reflections of his contemporaries and events of his day, corroborating Charles Beauclerk’s observation that the plays are “highly political documents” with significant ramifications for understanding the history of the Elizabethan era.

Studying Shakespeare’s methods for mirroring real people will enhance appreciation of his art and the understanding of themes in his plays, including the motives behind the choices he makes.

It will also advance the Shakespeare authorship debate, giving context to the issue of who was best positioned to create those mirrors and had the best motives for doing so—a grain merchant from Stratford-upon-Avon with no court connections, or a courtier who wrote plays and was on intimate terms with Queen Elizabeth?

From No Name to Shakespeare . . . or Not

Imagine you’re an author. Your first publication—a long poem—is a huge success. Within a year, you publish a second poem, another hit. You write plays, too, which have been staged and well-received. Since your published poems are doing well, you’re ready to see how the plays do in print. Readers will see your name on them, right?

Nope, not if you’re William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare plays, but no Shakespeare

William Shakespeare first achieved fame as a poet. His narrative poem, Venus and Adonis, was published in 1593 and went through seven printings in as many years. His other long poem, The Rape of Lucrece, appeared in 1594. It, too, had good success. Both poems had Shakespeare’s name on them.

His plays appeared in print beginning in 1594 with Titus Andronicus. However, that play didn’t name an author. For several more years, none of the first editions of Shakespeare’s plays showed he had written them.

In addition to Titus Andronicus, these anonymous plays were Henry the Sixth, Part 2 (1594); Henry the Sixth, Part 3 (1595); Richard the Second (1597); Richard the Third (1597); and Romeo and Juliet (1597).

It’s baffling why a publisher would leave off a best-selling author’s name from that author’s work. There are several explanations, but no definitive answer.

Shakespeare emerges as a playwright

Finally, in 1598, readers who frequented London bookstalls could purchase the first play attributed to Shakespeare: Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Over the next five years, other plays bearing Shakespeare’s name followed: Henry the Fourth, Part 1; Much Ado About Nothing; Midsummer’s Night Dream; Merchant of Venice; Henry the Fourth, Part 2; Merry Wives of Windsor; and Hamlet.

Oddly, however, further editions of most of Shakespeare’s plays printed before 1598 remained unattributed, including Titus Andronicus, Henry the Sixth Parts 2 and 3, Romeo and Juliet, and Henry the Fifth.

Most of these anonymous plays (including the five listed above) were not attributed to Shakespeare in print until a collection of his plays was published in 1623.

Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s first published play, had three editions over 17 years. None showed him as the author, though other plays did. Titus Andronicus wasn’t attributed to him in print until 1623.

Traditional Explanations

Why were some of Shakespeare’s most popular plays printed without attribution, even while others did name him as the author? Traditional explanations include:

  • Elizabethan plays weren’t thought of as literature until after 1600.
  • The title page of most plays during the 1590s didn’t name an author.
  • Some playwrights were never named on a title page while they were alive.
  • In the case of John Lyly, some of his plays were published over a dozen years until his name appeared on a title page in 1597.

When it comes to Shakespeare, however, these explanations are unsatisfactory. His name appeared on some of his plays after 1597. The question is, why not on all of them?

Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594), each of which showed Shakespeare as the author, were back-to-back best-sellers. Publishers were profit-motivated. They should have been keen to attach the poet’s name to his plays.

To increase sales, why not attribute Titus Andronicus, Henry the Fifth, Henry the Sixth, and Romeo and Juliet to William Shakespeare?

By 1598, Love’s Labour’s Lost had been printed with attribution to Shakespeare, followed by Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Merchant of Venice, and other popular Shakespeare plays. Yet second editions of most of the anonymous Shakespeare plays remained unattributed, including the second edition of Romeo and Juliet (1599).

These facts distinguish Shakespeare from the case of John Lyly. It simply makes no sense that publishers didn’t attribute Shakespeare’s plays because they didn’t consider them “literature.”

After 1598, it would seem foolish for publishers not to attach the Shakespeare brand to his previously unattributed plays—unless they had other reasons not to do so.

A Different Theory

The content of the certain plays may explain why Shakespeare’s name wasn’t attached to them, even after 1598. The plays in this category are Titus Andronicus, Henry the Sixth Parts 1 and 2, Romeo and Juliet, and Henry the Fifth.

In each case, one can argue that the play contained material that offended the authorities—in particular, Queen Elizabeth I—such that Shakespeare or the publisher, or both, concluded it was best the play’s author remain anonymous.

Shakespeare and Elizabeth: No Love Lost?

Shakespeare mirrored real persons in his plays. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, even the characters’ names mimic the people they reflect.

Scholars have long associated the windbag Polonius in Hamlet with Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth’s closest adviser. In the same play, Elizabeth can be seen as Queen Gertrude, the incestuous adulteress, and Elizabeth’s long-time consort, the Earl of Leicester, as Claudius, the notorious poisoner.

It’s easy to understand why Hamlet wasn’t published until after the deaths of Burghley, Elizabeth, and Leicester. I have argued that the Crown banned Hamlet during Elizabeth’s lifetime.

Marc Shell has observed, “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.”

In The End of Kinship, Shell speculates that the character Isabella in Measure for Measure is modeled on Elizabeth, though “[o]ne cannot make an airtight case . . . [W]ere that possible on the basis of what is said in [the play], Shakespeare might have been open to charges of treason.”

Mark Anderson, in Shakespeare By Another Name, calls Elizabeth “the leading candidate” for Lady Macbeth.

This may help explain why Measure for Measure and Macbeth, like Hamlet, didn’t appear in print until after Elizabeth’s death.

Elizabeth the Adulteress

Titus Andronicus (1594) is another play which appears to mirror Elizabeth and Leicester, in this instance in the characters of Tamora and Aaron the Moor. In the play, Tamora and Aaron engage in adultery, which produces a child.

Charles Beauclerk, in Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom, says:

Tamora, a composite of Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots, is ruled by her passions, creating chaos in government and devouring her own children. Her affair with Aaron the Moor threatens to become a national scandal when she is delivered of a child by him. Bearing in mind that the Queen of England used to call the Earl of Leicester her “Moor,” we can conclude that the incident is clearly meant to reveal one of the darker secrets of the Elizabethan state.

Though Shakespeare may not have been a big fan of Elizabeth, he likely had a close connection with her court. Both of his poems published in 1593 and 1594 were dedicated to the highly popular Earl of Southampton. Many believe Southampton is the “lovely boy” of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

Southampton’s dealings with Elizabeth were rocky—she imprisoned him for treason—and he may have had a not-so-positive attitude towards her similar to Shakespeare’s.

Readers knowing that the court-connected Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus could have more easily seen the parallel between Elizabeth’s relationship with Leicester on the one hand and Tamora’s relationship with Aaron on the other. Leaving Shakespeare’s name off the play would have been the wise thing to do.

Elizabeth the Amazon

Elizabeth and Leicester show up again in Henry the Sixth, Part 2 in the characters of Margaret and Suffolk, illicit lovers who dominate affairs of state and mirror the real-life power duo of Elizabeth and Leicester. There are a number of markers that identify them as such, which I discuss in detail in another blog post.

In the play, Elizabeth once more is mirrored as an adulteress and Leicester as a poisoner—a good reason for Shakespeare not to have his name on the title page.

Likewise, in Henry the Sixth, Part 3, Shakespeare continues to mirror Elizabeth as Margaret in an unflattering way. As I’ve shown in a separate post, Margaret is a cruel Amazonian warrior who leads one of the armies in the War of the Roses.

This could have been reason enough not to attribute the play, but there may be an additional one. As I’ve also demonstrated, Shakespeare, in Henry the Sixth, Part 3, may have been commenting on Elizabeth’s succession which, like Measure for Measure, would have subjected him to accusations of treason.

Elizabeth the Envious

In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo sees Juliet at a window above him and says:

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?

It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,

Who is already sick and pale with grief,

That thou her maid art far more fair than she:

Be not her maid, since she is envious;

Her vestal livery is but sick and green

And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.

The moon was a familiar symbol for Elizabeth. Percy Allen, in his 1932 biography of Edward de Vere (whom many believe was Shakespeare), observed:

[t]he references [in Romeo and Juliet] are unmistakable for when it is remembered that the Tudor livery was green and white, the envious moon, or Diana as she was so frequently called, whose vestal livery is sick and green,” can be none other than Queen Elizabeth.

In subsequent decades other scholars, such as Charlton Ogburn and Charles Beauclerk, have agreed with Percy, noting parallels between the story in Romeo and Juliet and de Vere’s love relationship with Anne Vavasour, one of Elizabeth’s maids of honor.

There’s strong evidence that de Vere and Elizabeth were also romantically involved. In this view, Shakespeare, through the character of Romeo, calls Elizabeth envious (not once, but twice) and in a rather vicious manner—“Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon.”

With such an insult aimed at the Queen of England, it would be no surprise that an author with court connections and/or his publisher chose to publish the play anonymously. Indeed, none of the four separate editions of Romeo and Juliet bear the author’s name.

Elizabeth the Queen, but who’s next?

Henry the Fifth (1600) was published during a time when factions in Elizabeth’s court were jockeying for position in preparation of her succession. She had only a few years left to live.

One of those factions favored Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, a charismatic soldier who got in a lot of trouble with Elizabeth after the military campaign he led in Ireland failed. Ultimately, Essex was executed.

Around the same time, the historian John Hayward wrote a book about how King Richard the Second was deposed. The book contained a dedication praising Essex. The Crown feared Hayward intended Richard of Second to serve as a model for overthrowing Elizabeth. For years Hayward was jailed in the Tower of London.

Many scholars agree that Shakespeare gives cryptic praise to Essex in Henry the Fifth. I’ve proposed that Shakespeare, in the same play, was supporting Essex’s ally, the Earl of Southampton (the same courtier to whom Shakespeare dedicated the long poems) to be the next King of England.

Shakespeare sent this message by using markers in the play—including the name Southampton and the earl’s military role in Ireland—which link him to King Henry (Southampton’s birth name was Henry Wriothesely). This also suggests that Shakespeare was showing (very subtly) that Southampton was Elizabeth’s son, a dangerous business indeed.

For these reasons, anonymity was the better part of wisdom when it came to publishing Henry the Fifth.

Of course, all of this is only a theory, based on the content of certain Shakespeare plays, to explain why they remained anonymous even after others began showing his name.

As time goes on, one may hope that research in this area extends beyond traditional explanations, as well as beyond orthodox assumptions about who Shakespeare really was.

Smooth Sailing for Stripped-Down Pericles

“For look how fresh she looks! They were too rough that threw her in the sea.” (Pericles, Act III, scene 2)

Wait, seven actors performing a Shakespeare play that has dozens of speaking roles?

How now, my lord?

This is how: cut characters and snip text, and then weave actors in and out of multiple roles. Fortunately, director Kiernan McGowan knows how to handle the scissors and loom. His trim version Pericles, which We Happy Few theater company performs at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop through June 8, clocks in at just 90 minutes, and it works brilliantly.

Grant Cloyd as Pericles conveys the character’s frequent incredulity with perfect aplomb, while Jenna Berk sparkles in an energetic performance as his lost daughter, Marina. Jennifer J. Hopkins, as Pericles’s wife, Thaisa, charmingly alternates between coy, funny, and sad. Kerry McGee delivers a wonderful rendering of the scheming, Lady Macbeth-like Dionyza. Jon Reynolds is convincing as the emotionally-conflicted Cleon, a governor with a conscience (playing the guitar, he also sings a great version of “Crimson and Clover”). Charlie Retzlaff plays Cerimon as an engaging eccentric, while David Gamble portrays Simonides with perfect intensity.

To their fine credit, each actor plays additional roles with an impressive range that clearly and convincingly differentiates the characters.

Pericles echoes themes and story lines found elsewhere in Shakespeare, such as the alienated man who believes he’s lost his wife and daughter, only to be reunited with them in the end. The Winter’s Tale tells such a story as well, with calumny a tension-raising element.

In Pericles, the theme of incest adds tension. Shakespeare is explicit in describing the illicit king-daughter relationship at the beginning of the play. It comes up again late in the second act, when a character recounts that lightning has struck and “shrivell’d up” the king and daughter, as well as at the end of the play. Shakespeare seems to have been fixated on the incest theme, which also figures prominently in Hamlet.

More generally, the theme of alienation crops up in other plays that include Coriolanus, Titus Andronicus, The Tempest, Timon of Athens, and King Lear.

Which brings us to a mystery: Nothing in the life of the man from Stratford to whom the Shakespeare plays are attributed connects him to such subject matter. By all accounts, he was a wealthy businessman who was successful in real estate and the grain trade. There’s no evidence he experienced any of the negative emotional issues we see in the plays, including Pericles.

Is it any wonder, then, that the University of London has begun offering a course on the Shakespeare Authorship Question?

Faithful-to-the-text rating for Pericles: 4 out of 5 stars

I used the Folger Shakespeare Library edition of Pericles to evaluate how faithful the We Happy Few’s production is to the play’s original text. I selected approximately 70 difficult words and phrases from the play, such as “gloze,” “lop that doubt,” and “our paragon to all reports blasted,” and then listened for them during the performance, an approach that added a somewhat objective measure to an otherwise purely subjective analysis.

We Happy Few’s production follows an abridged text that cuts a large amount of material from the original Shakespeare play. Still, the performance I attended retained about a third of the difficult words and phrases on my list (including all those shown above), and even some of the Latin phrases. For me, “faithful to the text” for the most part means replicating the Early Modern English in the retained portion of the play instead of “translating” it.  Thus, I give Pericles 4 out of 5 stars for being faithful to the text, lopping off just one of the five stars because of the play’s abridgment.

The Winter’s Tale: Shakespeare Wronged

Harold Bloom argues that Shakespeare “invented the human.” But the reverse is also true: humans invented Shakespeare.

And they have done him wrong.

Take, for instance,  how scholars have criticized Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.

For decades they concluded that the great playwright made significant blunders in the play. However, it was the scholars, not Shakespeare, who erred.

Italian architect, painter, and sculptor Julio Romano (1499-1546)

The Winter’s Tale is the only play in which Shakespeare refers to another artist by name. In Act Five, Scene 2, a character describes Hermione’s statue as

a piece many years in doing and now newly performed by that rare Italian master, Julio Romano, who, had he himself eternity and could put breath into his work, would beguile Nature of her custom, so perfectly he is her ape [ . . . ]

Scholars accused Shakespeare of ignorance since, according to them, Romano was an architect and painter, but not a sculptor.

One can still see Romano’s sculpture of the resurrected Christ gracing Baldassare Castiglione’s tomb in Matua, Italy.

The scholars were mistaken. In 1873, Karl Elze set things right. In his Essays On Shakespeare, Elze showed that Giorgio Vasari, an artist and biographer of other 16th century artists, described Romano as a sculptor in the first edition of Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, published in 1550.

I was thus surprised some weeks ago to find the Wikipedia entry for Romano flat-out stating that Shakespeare incorrectly called him a sculptor (the entry has since been corrected).

Did Shakespeare flunk geography?

Also wrong were scholarly conclusions that Shakespeare messed up the geography of The Winter Tale’s setting by giving Bohemia a coastline. As Richard Paul Roe explains in his brilliant book, Shakespeare’s Guide To Italy, the political boundaries of Bohemia once included territory adjacent to the Adriatic Sea.

And that’s not all.

Scholars also said The Winter’s Tale incorrectly places the Oracle of Delphi on an island, when it’s actually located on the mainland of Greece.

However, the short scene (Act III, Scene 1) that gives rise to this issue takes place after the characters have already visited the oracle. As Roe explains, the characters in that scene have returned from the oracle and are back in Sicily, and the “temple” they are describing is the Temple of Segesta, not the Oracle of Delphi.

The pitfall of biographical assumptions about Shakespeare

Traditional Shakespeare scholarship assumes the Bard was a man from Stratford-upon-Avon whose education was limited to grammar school and who never stepped outside England. This helps explain his “mistakes” about Romano, Bohemia, and Delphi.

These assumptions are part of the story line about the Stratford man, which also has him marrying an older woman after getting her pregnant. Stephen Greenblatt, in Will in the World, thus writes:

Perhaps, for whatever reason, Shakespeare feared to be taken in fully by his spouse or by anyone else; perhaps he could not let anyone so completely in; or perhaps he simply made a disastrous mistake, when he was eighteen, and had to live with the consequences as a husband and a writer. Most couples, he may have told himself, are mismatched, even couples marrying for love; you should never marry in haste; a young man should not marry an older woman; a marriage under compulsion—“wedlock force”—is a hell. And perhaps, beyond these, he told himself, in imagining Hamlet and Macbeth, Othello, and The Winter’s Tale, that marital intimacy is dangerous, that the very dream is a threat.

Shakespeare may have told himself too that his marriage to Anne [Hathaway] was doomed from the beginning. […]

Greenblatt is inventing Shakespeare. Nothing in the Stratford man’s known biography supports how Greenblatt reads his mind on the subject of marriage and then grafts the results onto The Winter’s Tale and other plays.

These examples of traditional scholarly views of The Winter’s Tale can make one reasonably skeptical of orthodox assumptions about who wrote Shakespeare. Indeed, such skepticism is rising. The University of London has begun offering an online course, “Introduction to Who Wrote Shakespeare,” which challenges those assumptions.

At present,  The Declaration of Reasonable Doubt About the Identity of William Shakespeare has over 4,000 signatories, which include Shakespearean actors Sir Derek Jacobi, Mark Rylance, Jeremy Irons, and Michael York, and retired Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and John Paul Stevens.

In years to come, as the Shakespeare whom humans have invented continues to be challenged and undone, one can expect discussion and analysis of the plays to be less tied to the biography of the Stratford man.

One small example: I recently attended a production of The Winter’s Tale at the Folger Theatre, and was pleased to see that the playbill repeated none of the assertions about Shakespeare’s “mistakes.” In fact, the playbill provided no biographical information about Shakespeare at all.

Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 3: Holding a Mirror Up to His Queen (Again)?

Queen Margaret (left), the Amazonian queen in the War of the Roses, reflects Queen Elizabeth (right) in Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays.

What inspired Shakespeare to write his plays? We know many of his sources, but it’s largely guesswork as to what motivated his choices. Shakespeare didn’t give interviews.

We can be certain, however, that he was very familiar with the royal court—it was the setting for most of his plays, and his main characters are mostly kings, queens, princes, dukes, and other members of the aristocracy. And we can be confident that Shakespeare personally knew at least one nobleman in the court of Queen Elizabeth I: the highly-popular Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton, to whom he dedicated two long poems. Southampton appears to be the “beauteous and lovely youth” Shakespeare describes in The Sonnets.

A good case can be made that Shakespeare held up the mirror to other real people in his plays, including Queen Elizabeth I in characters such as Queen Gertrude. Other authors reflected Elizabeth in their works, such as Edmund Spenser in The Fairie Queene. Yet writers had to be careful. England during Elizabeth’s reign was the equivalent of a police state, protecting the cult of personality that surrounded her, the Virgin Queen, a goddess-mother who chose to marry her country rather any mortal.

The Royal Pain of Royal Succession

The later years of Elizabeth’s of long rule were troubled. She was childless and had named no successor. Courtiers and the rising mercantile class dependent on royal favor and stability became restless. This was the environment in which Shakespeare wrote the Henry VI plays, dramatizing the 15th century War of the Roses in which the houses of Lancaster and York fought for the throne.

I’ve previously shown how Shakespeare, in the second part of the Henry VI trilogy, reflects Queen Elizabeth in the character of Queen Margaret, the Lancastrian queen who leads the fight against the Yorkists. Shakespeare extends that reflection in the third part of the trilogy.

The Amazons

The first marker in 3 Henry VI that identifies Margaret as Elizabeth is the image of the Amazon, the woman warrior. As Mary Villeponteaux has observed:

Many Elizabethan writers made direct comparisons between Elizabeth and Amazons […] [T]hese representations almost always look flattering on the surface, a good example being James Aske’s Elizabetha Triumphans, a celebration of the defeat of the Armada and one of the few contemporary sources for the story of Elizabeth addressing the troops at Tilbury.

In his biography of Elizabeth, J. E. Neale quotes a contemporary report of her presence at Tilbury which describes her as “full of princely resolution and more than feminine courage” and how she “passed like some Amazonian empress through all her army.” This is the same way Shakespeare portrays Margaret—she’s called an Amazon twice in the play—linking her to Elizabeth.

Rallying the Troops

Elizabeth visited the troops at Tilbury in 1588 as they prepared to repel the Spanish Armada. Shakespeare parallels this specific event by having Margaret rally her troops at Tewksbury. The unhistorical nature of this depiction of Margaret (she was actually lodged safely away from the battle of Tewksbury) strengthens the notion that Shakespeare deliberately mirrored Elizabeth in Margaret’s character. Further, although Tewkesbury is not on the coast and the battle did not involve invasion by sea, the fighting words Shakespeare gives Margaret employ the imagery of sailing vessels and “the rough winds,” “ragged, fatal rock,” and “ruthless waves”—the setting of the battle against the Spanish Armada, further strengthening the association with Elizabeth.

The Heart of Tiger-man

In her speech at Tilbury, Elizabeth famously proclaimed, “I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England, too.” Shakespeare uses a similar description for Margaret, a third marker showing that she represents Elizabeth. In the play, the Duke of York, just before Margaret stabs him (another unhistorical event invented by Shakespeare) calls her not only an “Amazonian trull (whore),” but also a “tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide”—a clear echo of Elizabeth’s description of herself.

Gentle Shakespeare, Why So Gentle?

The markers Shakespeare uses to identify Margaret as Elizabeth are subtle. One reason for that subtlety is the cruelty Margaret displays in 3 Henry VI—she mercilessly taunts York before slaying him. Shakespeare holds up a mirror to Elizabeth, Queen of England, but not too much, giving him plausible deniability.

But there may have been another reason why Shakespeare tread lightly in this regard.

In 3 Henry VI, the weak and feeble King Henry reaches an agreement with the Duke of York that passes the English Crown to him and his progeny after Henry’s death. Henry’s wife, Queen Margaret, and their son, Edward, are nonplussed by Edward being disinherited of the Crown, which leads Margaret (the Amazon) to raise an army to fight York. This story element drives the action of the play and points to the main difference between Margaret and Elizabeth: Margaret had a son, Edward, who was heir to Henry’s throne; Elizabeth had no offspring—at least none she acknowledged.

Much has been written about whether Elizabeth had children. A review of the evidence, including the history of her love interests, suggests that it’s at least plausible (i.e., more than just possible) that she did, even if it can’t be proved that it’s likely she did. Under the treason statutes at the time, anyone raising that subject risked a trip to the scaffold, which could explain Shakespeare’s light touch in portraying Elizabeth as Margaret.

Admittedly the question is speculative, but given the Elizabeth-Margaret reflection Shakespeare creates, it’s reasonable to ask: in the Henry VI plays, is he uncovering ever so gently a facet of the succession issue that vexed England at the turn of the 17th century, namely that Elizabeth was passing over legitimate claimants to the throne?

A similar theme appears in Hamlet, in which the prince’s mother is complicit in denying him the throne. More generally, the theme of the alienated, dispossessed ruler appears again and again in Shakespeare, in plays such as Richard II, King Lear, and The Tempest.

As time goes on, I believe more connections will be made between Shakespeare’s plays and the real people and events of his time, proving Charles Beauclerk, author of Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom, correct in his statement that Shakespeare’s plays are “highly political documents—the concealed history of the time, no less—with the power to overturn the assumptions of centuries.”

Shakespeare Safari

Two of the things I most like seeing in Washington, DC are Shakespeare performances at Harman Hall, the Folger Theater, and other venues, and the elephants at the  National Zoo.

I’m afraid, however, that the Bard and pachyderms have something else in common.

For years I’ve enjoyed reading Shakespeare’s plays in their original version before experiencing their live performance. Having first read the play, I much better comprehend what the actors are saying on stage and connect with the wonderful poetry, stories, and characters. I find pleasure in hearing the Early Modern English our ancestors spoke four centuries ago—it’s a form of time travel—and there’s an added bonus: reading Shakespeare is very good for the brain. 

However, I’ve begun noticing how theater companies seem to be “modernizing” or “translating” Shakespeare more and more. I recently tested that notion by reading Twelfth Night before seeing a Shakespeare Theater Company production.

As I read the Folger Library’s edition of Twelfth Night, I made a list of difficult words and phrases, such as “malapert,” “brabble,” and “passy-measures pavin.” My list numbered more than 100 such words and phrases, which I narrowed to 25. I took the list with me to the play and checked off the ones the actors spoke.

The results surprised me. Only about half of the words and phrases on my list made it into the performance, and there seemed to be neither rhyme nor reason (as Shakespeare would say) as to which words were modernized, translated, or cut.

A word such as “crowner,” which is fairly close to its modern counterpart, “coroner,” would be translated, but the word “malapert,” which means “impudent,” remained unaltered. Cut was the phrase “cons state without a book” (which means “learns by heart the phrases of the great”), but the Latin phrase “cucullus non facit monachum” (proverbial for “the cowl doesn’t make a monk”) stayed in, albeit with vulgarized pronunciation (“facit” became “f*** it”).

Overall, the cuts and translations—along with added dialogue and songs with lyrics not written by Shakespeare—struck me as significant changes. It made me wonder whether performances in past decades varied from the original text to the same extent.

The movement to translate Shakespeare is gaining momentum: the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for instance has hired 36 playwrights to “translate” 39 Shakespeare plays into “contemporary modern English” by the end of 2018. According to OSF’s website:

Each playwright is being asked to put the same pressure and rigor of language as Shakespeare did on his, keeping in mind meter, rhythm, metaphor, image, rhyme, rhetoric and emotional content. Our hope is to have 39 unique side-by-side companion translations of Shakespeare’s plays that are both performable and extremely useful reference texts for both classrooms and productions.

It seems to me that elephants and Shakespeare are each threatened with their own kind of extinction. For elephants, it’s extinction in the wild. For Shakespeare, it’s extinction of live performance of the plays in their original text. I have mixed feelings about “saving” both.

As sad as it is, one can view confining elephants in zoos and sanctuaries as an insurance policy that may save them from total extinction. On the other hand, are elephants in confinement—who at times exhibit unnatural behaviors such as pacing and swaying—really elephants anymore?

As for Shakespeare, modernizing or translating the plays to make them more accessible to audiences is a sensible, even laudable goal—otherwise live Shakespeare, at least in the United States, eventually could evaporate altogether. But over time, say several decades from now, what will live Shakespeare sound like? Confined to a prison of modernization, will Shakespeare still be Shakespeare?

Personally, I don’t think so. I can imagine a day when one will have to go on safari in England to find a live performance of untranslated Shakespeare.

Where’s Shakespeare?

Rape Of Lucrece, by J. Ber (1724). The watercolor is so delicate, the exhibit displays a reproduction.  Source: Folger Shakespeare Library.

“Painting Shakespeare,” the current exhibit at the  Folger Shakespeare Library,  includes some amazing paintings of scenes from Shakespeare.  My favorite: Rape of Lucrece by the 18th century French artist, J. Ber. The smallest painting in this not-to-be-missed exhibit, J. Ber’s wonderful composition of color shines like a stained glass window.

“Painting Shakespeare” runs until February 11, 2018.

The exhibit also displays several paintings of Shakespeare himself. But there’s one problem: none of them are thought definitively to be him. According to one of the exhibit’s information plaques:

The Zuccaro Shakespeare. Source: Folger Shakespeare Library.

“Only two portraits of Shakespeare are widely accepted as genuine likenesses: the engraving on the title page of the First Folio . . . and the sculpture on his memorial in Holy Trinity Church at Stratford-upon-Avon. Both are undeniably dull, making contenders such as [the Zuccaro Shakespeare, shown here at the left] an attractive alternative . . . [W]e now know the artist was not Frederico Zuccaro (1540/41-1609), and the sitter was not Shakespeare. Someone in the 18th century painted a heavy moustache, pointy beard, and small earring, and the inscription ‘William Shakespeare’ to disguise a now-unknown man. Conservation treatment in 1988 restored the painting to its original look.”

So, no painting of Shakespeare we’re sure is him? Now, that’s curious.

We have genuine paintings of a whole slew of 16th and 17th century English poets and playwrights—such as Ben Johnson, John Fletcher, Michael Drayton, Philip Sidney, John Donne, and Christopher Marlowe—but none of the greatest of them all. Zounds! Why not? Where’s Shakespeare?

It’s a question “Painting Shakespeare” doesn’t answer. But wait! Maybe the Folger does have a true portrait of Shakespeare after all. It’s called The Ashbourne Portrait and it hangs in the Founders’ Room at the library. I once saw it on a tour.

The Ashbourne Portrait. Is it Shakespeare? It might be.

The three-quarter length portrait of an Elizabethan man in high ruff, his fingers gently clasping a book, his wrist supported by a skull, was discovered in 1847 in Ashbourne, Derbyshire and identified as Shakespeare. The Folger acquired the painting in 1931 and displayed it as a portrait of the Bard, despite analysis showing that the picture had been overpainted to look like the Droeshout engraving of Shakespeare that appears in the First Folio.

Left: Ashbourne Portrait. Right: Droeshout engraving.

Most notably, the hairline had been raised to make the Ashbourne sitter look significantly more bald. One can still see the shadow of his overpainted hair.

You decide: does the face in the Ashbourne Portrait (center) more resemble Edward de Vere (on left) or Hugh Hamersley (on right)?

In 1940, an infra-red photographic analysis of the Ashbourne Portrait confirmed that the portrait had been altered in several ways and supported a conclusion that the sitter was Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. For the Folger, this wasn’t good news: Edward de Vere is the top alternative candidate for the man who wrote Shakespeare.

Over the next thirty-nine years a series of controversial events (including a lawsuit) led to the Folger’s announcement, in 1979, that the Ashbourne Portrait was neither Shakespeare nor Edward de Vere . . . but Sir Hugh Hamersley, who was the Mayor of London in 1627!

The Ashbourne Portrait has a fascinating story behind it (and, apparently, on top of it, thanks to to the overpainting) so it’s a shame it’s not part of the current exhibit. But the Folger’s decision to keep it out of sight is understandable. The Shakespeare Authorship Question can spark contentious debate—take a look at the one Alexander Waugh and Sir Jonathan Bate just had—and I imagine the Folger, realizing this, deemed it too controversial (even risky) to place the portrait in public view.

Moreover, the Shakespeare Authorship Question is not what “Painting Shakespeare” is about. Indeed, as far as I know, the Folger has never presented a program or exhibit about the authorship issue. Perhaps it should.

The Bard On Trial: Did Shakespeare Kill The Heroic Ideal?

The Stratford man’s thin biography unravels Professor Edmundson’s case against Shakespeare

Is Shakespeare an assassin? The answer is no.

In his book Self and Soul (2015), University of Virginia Professor Mark Edmundson charges Shakespeare with a murder of sorts: “Repeatedly Shakespeare kills the Homeric hero (or his descendent) on the stage. Then he revives that hero again . . . for one sacrifice more in another brilliant play.”

Mr. Edmundson describes two versions of the Western hero, one embodied in Achilles, the other in Hector:

“Homer’s Achilles wants to attain eternal life in the minds and hearts of other men, warriors in particular. What matters to him is his reputation as a fighter, and he will risk anything to enlarge it. […] Hector is the model for what later generations would call the citizen soldier. […] Though he is a formidable warrior, Hector is also an accomplished statesman and loving husband and father.”

Mr. Edmundson clearly laments the fading of the heroic ideal in contemporary culture: “There are still true warriors in our culture, still men and women who would emulate Hector or Achilles, but there are not many of them, and there are probably fewer all the time.”

Shakespeare, according to Mr. Edmundson, is largely to blame. The Bard’s crime was to help demolish the Homeric ideal and clear the way for “a worldly culture, a money-based culture geared to the life of getting and spending, trying and succeeding, and reaching for more and more.”

Enough Flaws to Go Around . . . and the Exceptional Exception

To back up his charge, Mr. Edmundson analyzes six Shakespeare tragedies in depth. Each one, he argues, is the playwright’s attempt to kill the heroic ideal by using a flawed martial hero as the protagonist.

For instance, he believes that Othello—a confident, successful soldier on the battlefield— falls victim to a maddening uncertainty over Desdemona’s love. Similarly, Macbeth, another warrior-hero, loses control as Lady Macbeth drives him to prove his manhood by murdering a king. For Mr. Edmundson Troilus and Cressida paints a demeaning portrait of Achilles (“a besotted fool”) and Hector (“a fraud”), as well as other heroes who appear in The Iliad. He draws similar conclusions about Titus Andronicus (“once valiant” hero becomes “mad, disfigured animal”), Julius Caesar (“a timid, superstitious, uxorious man, vain and befuddled”), and Coriolanus (“emotionally, a large child” whose mother “dominates and oppresses him”).

In Mr. Edmunson’s view, the courage shown by Shakespeare’s war heroes merely compensates for their psychological defects. According to the professor, “Shakespeare’s objective, one suspects, is not the destruction of an individual figure, like Othello. Shakespeare’s objective is the destruction of an ideal.”

In essence, the professor argues that Shakespeare attacks the heroic ideal by picking on battlefield champions and giving them deep psychological flaws.

Granted, Othello, Macbeth, Coriolanus, and other martial heroes in Shakespeare have such flaws, but so do other main characters who are not martial heroes.

For example, consider jealousy arising from a character’s misperceiving things and leaping to conclusions. In Othello, one of the plays Mr. Edmundson discusses in detail, the hero’s misunderstanding about a handkerchief feeds his jealousy that drives the tragedy. But Leontes in A Winter’s Tale suffers a similar flaw, and so does Claudio in Much Ado about Nothing. The consequences for them are less tragic yet nevertheless unpleasant. Leontes is a king and Claudio a lord, but neither is a soldier. Mr. Edmundson cites other examples of flawed characters who are not warriors (e.g. Polonius, Duke Theseus, Shylock, and the Duke of Milan).

In short, Shakespeare doesn’t single out heroes of war.

If one wishes to generalize, the better conclusion is that Shakespeare intended to show how humans, regardless of job category, misinterpret reality and jump to false conclusions, not that the heroic ideal must be discarded. In the world to which Shakespeare holds up a mirror, men can be martial heroes, but they’re still human. Why shouldn’t they have the same flaws exhibited by characters in Shakespeare’s comedies and romances?

And then there are the exceptions which Mr. Edmundson himself acknowledges do not support his charge that the Bard is the assassin of heroism.

The exceptional exception is Hamlet. Mr. Edmundson finds Hamlet to be “often a true thinker” and “a warrior, also, though a rather conflicted one,” and Hamlet’s tragedy as “the destruction of hope for humanity to live for principles larger than the given individual.” But if Mr. Edmundson is correct in his overall thesis, it would make no sense for Shakespeare to create Prince Hamlet—his greatest character, perhaps the greatest in all literature—if Shakespeare was intent on destroying noble ideals.

Shakespeare unabashedly promotes the heroic ideal, rather than destroys it, in Henry V. One need only recall Henry’s Saint Crispin Day speech, a brave call to arms that urges men to join him in sacrificing their lives for their country.

Mr. Edmundson’s answer? King Henry is only acting, faking the role of leader and hero. Personal gain is what motivates Henry, not the greater good. This interpretation, however, simply does not square with Henry’s actual words, which are a direct assault on materialism in favor of sacrifice for a noble cause:

If we are mark’d to die, we are enow [enough]
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.

Shakespeare’s motive

Concerning Shakespeare the man, Mr. Edmundson is a Stratfordian. That means he believes that the Bard was a grain merchant from Stratford-upon-Avon. The name of that grain merchant, incidentally, was Shakspere, not Shakespeare, and doubts persist whether Shakspere was the great poet-playwright. The doubters include Pulitzer prize-winning historian David McCullough and former Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and John Paul Stevens. Such doubters believe ‘Shakespeare’ was the real author’s pseudonym.

To be clear, in this post I’ll refer to the man from Stratford as Shakspere, and the person who wrote the plays (whoever he was) as Shakespeare. Remember, Mr. Edmundson assumes Shakspere and Shakespeare are the same person, regardless of the name difference.

Mr. Edmundson finds Shakespeare’s motive for killing the heroic ideal in the biography of Shakspere, the man from Stratford. Citing Shakspere’s “career as an actor and a businessman,” Mr. Edmundson observes:

“[Shakspere/Shakespeare] writes so much and so well in part because he writes with the concentrated energy of a world-transforming movement. He expresses—in a sense he is—the power of a rising middle class, a class tired of the arrogance of nobility but still fascinated by what is (or what might be) noble. This is a class that disdains high heroic honor but delights to see it rendered—and undone. […] How could an upwardly aspiring merchant’s son from the provinces not sustain a measure of resentment for aristocrats and their pretensions? Or, more to the point, how could the middle class of London—rising, prospering—not take delight in watching one or another of their antagonists being undone?”

With his assumption that Shakspere was Shakespeare, Mr. Edmundson concludes that the playwright’s motive behind most of the tragedies was a desire to destroy the heroic ideal—and the arrogant, noble class to which it belongs—so the middle class could rise and flourish with its pragmatic, self-centered, materialistic culture. But just how strong is the evidence for that motive?

Shakspere’s biography

The professor’s argument rests fundamentally on two assumptions: first, that Shakspere was Shakespeare; and second, that Shakspere, a member of “the rising middle class,” had a proverbial axe to grind with the nobility. The first assumption is doubtful, but even if it’s accepted, the second assumption lacks what lawyers call a foundation for evidence.

The truth is, even if Shakspere was a “businessman,” we have no clue what he thought about the noble class.

Aside from six signatures, we have nothing written in Shakspere’s hand. We don’t know whether he attended any university, or even grammar school for that matter. Shakspere’s will makes no mention of books. We don’t know whether he read The Iliad—or any other book for that matter. If Mr. Edmundson has direct, tangible evidence that Shakspere wrote anything other than his own name (which he spelled Shakspere, never Shakespeare), or went to school, read books, or otherwise was familiar with Plutarch’s heroes, I would very much like to see that evidence. Otherwise, the motive he assigns to Shakespeare lacks a foundation, and his charge against Shakespeare should be dropped.

Shakespeare: Nobility’s Friend or Foe?

Mr. Edmundson seems to forget that, during Shakespeare’s lifetime, the Crown controlled the press. Freedom of expression, as we know, did not exist. If Shakespeare really was trying to undo the nobility, it is difficult to imagine nobles of Queen Elizabeth’s court tolerating their undoing in play after play, or not catching on to Shakespeare’s attacks while his “middle class” audience understood his motives perfectly well.

Shakespeare first won fame with his long poem, Venus and Adonis, which was followed by a second poem, The Rape of Lucrece. Both poems were dedicated to Henry Wriothesely, the 3rd Earl of Southampton, a rising nobleman in Elizabeth’s court. Southampton is also widely regarded as the “lovely youth” of the Sonnets. If Shakespeare truly was bent on attacking the noble class, it would be extremely incongruous for him to dedicate poems to a nobleman and praise him in poetry, yet then assault the nobility in plays.

Mr. Edmundson argues that Shakespeare is writing for a rising middle class, but that’s difficult to see in the way he portrays commoners. Most often, commoners in Shakespeare are, in a word, silly. As Joseph Sobran observes: “Shakespeare typically makes his common characters buffoons. He presents them in an entirely different way from his noble characters. They are usually illiterate and illogical. They speak in malapropisms and mangled classical references. Their inmost thoughts are preposterous.” Following Mr. Edmundson’s way of thinking, Shakespeare takes aim at commoners as much as he targets nobles.

And if Shakespeare truly disdained nobles and wrote to support the interests of a rising middle class, why didn’t he ever write a play featuring a commoner as the hero, someone who overcomes obstacles nobles have put in his way? Shakespeare in fact did just the opposite: in the Induction scenes of Taming of the Shrew, a nobleman makes a total fool out of Sly, a commoner.

Seeing the plays through the lens of Shakspere of Stratford’s (scant) biography leads to distorted analyses about Shakespeare, such as the conclusion that King Henry the Fifth was faking his heroism. Such an approach demeans Shakespeare and does a disservice to his audience. Stratfordians would do better discussing what Shakespeare wrote leaving aside unfounded speculation about his socioeconomic motives.