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

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

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

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

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

Shakespeare’s plays as looking glasses

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

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

Looking into the mirror of 2 Henry VI

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

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

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

A Pair of Power Duos

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

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

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

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

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

Suffolk = Leicester

Other markers in 2 Henry VI link Suffolk and Leicester.

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

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

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

A Prophecy Twice Fulfilled

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here lies the noble warrior that never blunted sword;

Here lies the noble courtier that never kept his word;

Here lies his excellency that governed all the state;

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

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

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

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.

Shakespeare and the Battle of Memes (Part II)

The signature of "William Shakspere" from his will. None of the Stratfordian's surviving signatures are spelled "William Shakespeare."

The signature of “William Shakspere” from his will. None of the Stratfordian’s surviving signatures are spelled “William Shakespeare.”

Memes are units of culture — languages, religions, books, plays, and songs, to name just a few. These are ideas that “catch on” or “go viral” and get passed from one person to another.

That’s why Shakespeare is a meme. Having been replicated for more than four centuries, it’s still going strong.

A memeplex is a group of memes that help each other replicate. The Shakespeare memeplex thus includes the author’s name, the texts of his plays, particular characters such as Hamlet and Falstaff, particular lines such as “to be or not to be,” and everything else in the Shakespeare universe that people keep replicating.

Like genes, memes are not per se right or wrong, good or bad. Rather, in the memotic perspective, a meme is either successful, meaning it keeps getting replicated and passed onto others, or it’s unsuccessful, meaning it’s forgotten.

The Shakespeare memeplex is a particularly interesting because it has two main varieties. By far the most successful one is the Stratfordian memeplex, which assumes that William Shakspere of Stratford was William Shakespeare. The second most successful is the Oxfordian memeplex, which assumes that Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, wrote under the pseudonym William Shakespeare.

My previous post gave two very different explanations for why Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus. One explanation comes from the Stratfordian memeplex, the other from the Oxfordian memeplex. This post will use the same approach to explain why William of Stratford – who is William Shakespeare in the Stratfordian memeplex – signed his name “Shakspere” rather than “Shakespeare.”

If he were Shakespeare, why would William of Stratford sign his name differently?

We know with absolute certainty that Francois-Marie Arouet was Voltaire, Samuel Clemens was Mark Twain, and Eric Blair was George Orwell. But we may never know beyond any reasonable doubt who was William Shakespeare. When it comes to proving the poet-playwright’s identity, the evidence is circumstantial, beginning with his name.

The idea that William Shakspere was William Shakespeare rests fundamentally on the circumstance that the two names are similar. As to why William of Stratford signed his name ‘Shakspere’ rather than ‘Shakespeare,’ the Stratfordian memeplex gives this explanation: Elizabethans didn’t care all that much about spelling. Let’s accept that as true. Other explanations, however, easily lead to the same result.

Imagine William of Stratford in 1593 gazing up after reading the dedication to Venus and Adonis, and telling the printer, “God’s blood, you spelt my name wrong! It’s Shakspere, not Shakespeare.”

“I thought it sounded better.”

“Wait, you are right. Do not alter it. Indeed, henceforth always print my name as Shakespeare.”

Or try this explanation: from the beginning of William’s meteoric rise to success, he first chose to go by Shakespeare, the Elizabethan equivalent of Joseph Conrad, whose real name was Teodor Josef Konrad Korzeniowski. ‘Shakespeare’ has a better ring to it than ‘Shakspere.’

Or maybe William wanted the plausible deniability that came with signing his name Shakspere while his plays bore the name Shakespeare. One can see Lord Burghley, the Secretary to Queen Elizabeth and the most powerful man in England at the time, confronting William:

“As people do, they are talking about your play, Hamlet, and not just talking about it, but gossiping about it, which is worse than just talking about it, and they are not just gossiping about anything, but gossiping about me, as they see similarities between Polonious, one of the main characters in your play, and me, gossiping how both Polonious and I are windbags that never stop talking. How dare you mock me so in your play, Hamlet, and not just me as Polonious, but also Queen Elizabeth as Queen Gertrude, and you not only mock us, as I have said, but you kill us both to boot. Just who do you think you are?”

“You have the wrong man, Lord Burghley. I am not William Shakespeare the poet, I am William Shakspere the grain merchant. See for yourself – here’s the church record of my birth.”

In this scenario, William of Stratford is using “William Shakespeare” as a pseudonym, to protect himself as the writer of Hamlet, a play some scholars believe mocks both Lord Burghley and Queen Elizabeth. This, too, explains why Shakspere did not sign his name Shakespeare.

The point here is that the Stratfordian explanation for why William of Stratford signed his name as Shakspere — no one really cared about spelling — is easy to vary. That makes it a bad explanation according to a test created by British physicist David Deutsch, which I described in my previous post. According to Deutsch, good explanations, unlike bad ones, are difficult to vary.

Step inside the Oxfordian memeplex and you’ll find a much simpler explanation as to why William of Stratford signed his name “Shakspere,” an explanation that’s difficult to vary which, applying Deutsch’s test, makes it a good explanation.

Here’s the Oxfordian explanation: William of Stratford signed his name as William Shakspere, and not as William Shakespeare, because he was William Shakspere, not William Shakespeare. As do his surviving signatures, his name appears as Shakspere in birth, marriage, and funeral records.

Forgery laws existed in Elizabethan times. I would bet that the penalty for signing a name that was not yours, especially on a legal document, would cost you a finger or two, maybe your hand.

If, as in this case, the Oxfordian memeplex has a good explanation for something while the Stratfordian memeplex has a bad one, does that necessarily help Oxfordians in the battle of the Shakespeare memes? No. The ultimate winner is the memeplex that keeps getting replicated while the other fades away.

For any meme to survive, people must find it useful to replicate that meme. Though it provides a bad explanation for why gifts appear under Christmas trees, the myth of Santa Claus survives because people find it useful.

The battle of the Shakespeare memes, I believe, will come down to which Shakespeare memeplex people find most useful – Stratfordianism or Oxfordianism. And it may take a very long time for time to tell.

In the Shakespeare Authorship Debate, Stratfordians Should Drop the “Conspiracy” Charge

250px-Edward-de-Vere-1575

Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Is he the subject of some “conspiracy theory”? The answer is no.

Those who defend the grain dealer from Stratford as the man who wrote Shakespeare – the so-called “Stratfordians” – have several labels for opposing schools of thought. One of them is “conspiracy theory.”

They should drop that label.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, a strong proponent of the Stratfordian point of view, states on its website:

“The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has fired up a campaign to tackle head-on the conspiracy theories that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was not the true author of the plays which bear his name.” […] The authorship conspiracy is much ado about nothing.”

In protest to the 2011 film Anonymous, which depicts Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, as the true William Shakespeare, the Trust orchestrated a “cover-up” campaign to shroud signs bearing the Bard’s name. The Trust explained:

“The cover-up is part of a campaign by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust to tackle the film’s conspiracy theory that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was a barely literate front man for the Earl of Oxford.”

However, in the context of the Shakespeare authorship debate, the “conspiracy theory” label is misplaced, except perhaps in a colloquial sense.

Black’s Law Dictionary defines “conspiracy” as follows:

“A combination or confederacy between two or more persons formed for the purpose of committing, by their joint efforts, some unlawful or criminal act, or some act which is lawful in itself, but becomes unlawful when done by the concerted act of the conspirators, or for the purpose of using some criminal or unlawful means to the commission of an act not in itself unlawful.”

As far as I know, it’s not a crime for an author to write under a pseudonym. During Elizabethan times, a nobleman writing plays for the public stage under his real name would have been frowned upon by his family and peers. Even now, just think how Prince Harry’s royal grandmother would react after reading a saucy “The Lass of Las Vegas” that he’d written under his real name. The prince might find himself a step closer to the throne.

Moreover, if “Oxfordians” have it right, the powers-that-be during Elizabethan times would have required Oxford to use a nom de plume, given some of the political messages conveyed by the plays.

Scholars, for instance, believe that Shakespeare based the character Polonious, the meddling, long-winded royal advisor in Hamlet, on Queen Elizabeth’s close confidant, Lord Burghley, and in the same play modeled the incestuous Queen Gertrude, who’s complicit in robbing Hamlet of the throne, after Elizabeth herself. The evil protagonist in Richard III is seen as mirroring Burghley’s son, Robert Cecil, who succeeded him as the Queen’s Secretary.

Burghley was Oxford’s father-in-law, Cecil his brother-in-law.

Charles Beauclerk’s “Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom” cites more examples of how Shakespeare’s plays can be seen as political dramas reflecting contemporary events in Queen Elizabeth’s court.

Oxford’s family, not to mention the Queen, thus would have good reason to want Oxford to use a pseudonym (“William Shakespeare”) and for everyone to stay silent about it. Given England’s accepted form of totalitarian rule at the time, few, if any of the cognazanti – probably not even Oxford/Shakespeare himself – would view the imposition of such silence as something unlawful, let alone as a “crime.” Ditto for the grain dealer acting as Oxford’s front man.

No crime, no unlawful means or purpose, no conspiracy, no “conspiracy theory.”

What Stratfordians really mean to say is that Oxfordians propose that there was a cover-up to hide Shakespeare’s true identity, which – forgive me for wanting to attach correct meanings to words – is different from a “conspiracy.” Only the act of concealing or hiding something in needed for a cover-up. Unlike conspiracy, no criminality or unlawful purpose is necessary. A pseudonym, by definition, is a type of cover-up.

Cover-up, yes. Conspiracy, no. Stratfordians should drop the “conspiracy” charge against their opponents.

“Shakespeare Uncovered” Takes On Hamlet and The Tempest

John Barrymore as Hamlet in 1922, after Sigmund Freud analyzed the Dane as mother-fixated. Barrymore agreed and, as Hamlet, was the first to kiss Queen Gertrude in her bedroom.

PBS aired the final two episodes of “Shakespeare Uncovered” on Friday, with David Tennant discussing Hamlet, and Trevor Nunn The Tempest.

It was fun watching film clips of various actors playing the Prince of Denmark as Tennant gave a straightforward summary and analysis those new to the play should enjoy.

Viewers also got to see a rare copy of the “Bad Quarto” of Hamlet, the first printed version of the play that’s only about half the length of subsequent versions. Actually, depending on one’s perspective, the “Bad Quarto” is very bad, or not so bad after all.

One theme of the Hamlet episode was how actors bring different interpretations to the lead role. John Barrymore, for instance, was the first to play “the closet scene” between Hamlet and his mother, Queen Gertrude, in her bedroom, kissing her on the lips, thus conveying the taboo sensuality that Sigmund Freud said was at the core of their relationship. In what one might call a classic case of Freudian projection, Hamlet repeatedly accuses Gertrude of being “incestuous.”

Yet, despite being touted as “telling the stories behind the stories” of Shakespeare’s plays, this episode of “Shakespeare Uncovered” was oddly silent about the sources for Hamlet. Instead, it spent a few minutes attempting to link the play to its assumed author’s biography, an approach I found unhelpful not only because it skipped over the play’s sources, but because it relied on too many unproven assumptions about Will of Stratford, the man that many (including historian David McCullough and retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor) doubt was Shakespeare in the first place.

Even though one may not get the “story behind the story,” this episode of “Shakespeare Uncovered” is worth watching. But as for the last episode in the series, which looks at The Tempest, well, that’s a different story.

Trevor Nunn’s discussion of what most consider to be the Bard’s last play is chockfull of biography about the man from Stratford, laden with qualifiers such “ we can’t be sure of this, of course,” that give his analysis a makeshift quality.

Nunn cites a particular event in Stratford Will’s relationship with his daughter, Judith, as a reference for Prospero’s relationship with Miranda in The Tempest. Besides not knowing precisely when The Tempest was written (or any of the plays for that matter), what we do know is that Judith was illiterate, an oft-cited reason why Stratford Will was not the author.

It’s unfortunate, because Nunn could have conveyed his feelings and emotions about Shakespeare’s farewell play, I think, without muddling his narrative with “biography” that smacks of fiction.

The episode also gets caught up in a contradiction of sorts. It relies on the orthodox theory about William Strachy’s account of a 1609 shipwreck in Bermuda as the source for the play (albeit with the qualifier “may have been”), but then spends a lot of time showing that the Mediterranean is the probable setting for “The Tempest,” staying silent about the appearance of the word “Bermoothes” in the play.

Indeed, recent scholarship about The Tempest demonstrates convincingly that it was written at least by 1603 for Shrovetide performance, and not derived not from Strachey but from Richard Eden’s 1555 Decades of the New World. It’s a shame that “Shakespeare Uncovered” doesn’t even touch upon this scholarship, suggesting a bias toward orthodoxy in a field that Shakespeare lovers ought to see as ripe for new discoveries.

All in all, I give “Shakespeare Uncovered” high marks. Here’s my ranking of the episodes (the links are to my reviews):

1. Richard II, with Derek Jacobi (Episode Three)

2. Henry IV and Henry V plays, with Jeremy Irons (Episode Four)

3. Macbeth, with Ethan Hawke (Episode One)

4. Hamlet, with David Tennant (Episode Five)

5. The Comedies, with Joely Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave (Episode Two)

6. The Tempest, with Trevor Nunn (Episode Six)

You can watch the complete episodes on the “Shakespeare Uncovered” website.

 

Shakespeare Matters: The Hamlet “Bad” Quarto

Thomas Keene played Hamlet in the United States during the 1880’s. This poster depicts the major scenes of the play, all of which are included in the “bad” quarto though it’s little more than half the length of later versions.

It’s been called a “rough draft” with “shortcomings,” “fragmentary and unreliable.” It’s the “bad” quarto of Hamlet, the first printed text of the play. Published in 1603, it’s just over half the length of the first “good” version that appeared in 1604.

No one knows with much certainty when Hamlet was written, with some believing it could have been as early as 1589.

The “bad” quarto famously mangles Hamlet’s soliloquies, such as: “To be, or not to be, that is the point.” It has other oddities which include giving no name to Hamlet’s uncle other than “King of Denmark,” the man who murders Hamlet’s father, marries his mother (Queen Gertrude), and becomes the new King. He’s called Claudius in the 1604 version.

In the “bad” quarto, the new King repeatedly addresses his nephew Hamlet as his son. Perhaps that’s not unusual since the new King is Hamlet’s stepfather. Yet in the “good” versions of Hamlet, the new King (Claudius) refers to Hamlet as his son much less often, and more often refers to him as Queen Gertude’s son (“your son”).

In an absorbing study of Hamlet, Marc Shell, a Professor of English at Harvard University, shows how Hamlet’s paternity is ambiguous, and that the new King could well be his biological father. With its numerous references to Hamlet as the reigning monarch’s son, the “bad” quarto perhaps intended to get that point across. We’ll likely never know why the later versions change or delete many of those references.

The Taffety Punk Theatre Company played up the strangeness of what it calls the “bad ass quarto” in a recent performance at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

The company’s “bootleg” production — for which the actors rehearsed together for the first time on the day of their one and only performance — had the crazy Prince of Denmark (played by the boyish and highly likeable Marcus Kyd) streak across the stage bad-ass naked in front of a packed audience. It was Shakespeare delightfully in the raw (full disclosure: I’m a Taffety Punk supporter).

Directed by Joel David Santner, the Taffety Punk show featured additional strong performances by Eric Hissom (King of Denmark), James Beaman (Ghost of Hamlet’s father), Todd Scofield (Corambis), Kimberly Gilbert (Ofelia), Shawn Fagan (Laertes), Esther Williamson (Horatio), Joe Brack (Rossencraft) and Tonya Beckman as (“Gilderstone”).

Yes, those are how the characters’ names are spelled in the “bad” quarto.

So just how bad is the “bad” quarto of Hamlet? From the viewpoint of the most powerful man in Queen Elizabeth’s court for most of her 45-year reign, the answer would be, very bad.

Many view the character named “Corambis,” the new King’s right hand man in the “bad” quarto, as a parody of Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who served as the Crown’s Secretary and Treasurer under Queen Elizabeth I. The numerous links between Corambis and Burghley include the character’s recitation of precepts to his son, Laertes, which sound very similar to those Burghley had published.

Later versions of Hamlet change the character’s name from Corambis to Polonius. In 1869, George Russel French was the first to propose that Burghley was Polonius.

Burghley’s motto was “Cor unum, via una,” Latin for “one heart, one way.” By simply substituting “ambis” for “unum,” the first part of the motto becomes “Corambis,” giving it the pejorative meaning of “double-hearted” (“bis” in Latin means “twice”). Burghley created the Queen Elizabeth’s spy service. In the turning point of the play, Corambis, who’s been spying on Hamlet and his mother, is murdered by the prince.

Corambis comes off as a vicious parody of Burghley, a long-winded, meddling, sanctimonious fool. Little wonder that subsequent versions of Hamlet changed the character’s name to Polonius.

If Corambis/Polonius was meant to represent the powerful Lord Burghley, it’s hard to believe that he (or his nearly equally powerful son, Robert Cecil, or both) wouldn’t have demanded the name change if not banned the play altogether.

To Burghley, a performance of what’s now called the “bad” quarto of Hamlet would have been bad news indeed.