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.

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

queens-lovers-rev-3_page_1

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.

 

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.