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.
“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:
“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 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.
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.
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!
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 Stratford man’s thin biography unravels Professor Edmundson’s case against Shakespeare
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.
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?
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.
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.”
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.”
One thing I love about Washington, DC is its abundant offerings of Shakespeare. And not just abundant, but diverse. One can enjoy large mainstream productions by the Shakespeare Theatre Company and the Folger Theatre, as well as small offbeat productions by the Taffety Punk and Brave Spirits theatre companies.
Taffety Punk, in particular, presents some of the most innovative Shakespeare in town. Once a year, the company takes over the Folger Theater to present a “Bootleg Shakespeare” play. The actors assemble and rehearse for the first time on the morning of the one-time-only performance. These wacky, often rough and uneven productions have a delightful energy that attracts packed houses year after year. Last Monday night’s Bootleg Shakespeare was no exception.
Directed by Lise Bruneau, Taffety Punk’s Pericles included many strong performances. Joel David Santner was flawless as the young Pericles. Smiling with his arms outstretched as he slowly bounced over imaginary waves, he seemed to enjoy his many sea voyages, each time drawing laughs. Santner displayed great chemistry with Esther Williamson who played Pericle’s wife, Thaisa. Ashley Strand’s performance as Simonides, Thaisa’s father, was outstanding.
While the Taffety Punk crew played Pericles mostly for laughs, Chris Genebeach gave a moving performance as the older Pericles reunited with his daughter, Marina, played by Amanda Forstrom in yet another fine performance.
Amy Domingues’ cello added a haunting, beautiful tone that gave the production a pleasant continuity.
If not the filthiest of Shakespeare’s plays, Pericles certainly ranks as one of his strangest – which makes it perfect for Bootleg Shakespeare. The play begins with a story of incest involving a King Antiochus and his daughter. With their violation of the sexual taboo stated in direct terms, the king and daughter repeatedly are vilified as sinners. Fire from heaven eventually “[shrivels] up their bodies.”
Pericles was first published in 1609, but we don’t know when Shakespeare wrote it. Sources for the play date from the 14th century. Charlton Ogburn placed Shakespeare’s original composition in the late 1570’s. If Shakespeare did write Pericles during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, I believe she would have banned it.
Incest had to be a very sensitive topic for Elizabeth. Her mother, Anne Boleyn, was executed for that crime. A contemporary account of a relationship between young princess Elizabeth and her stepfather, Thomas Seymour, strongly suggests incest.
And there’s another reason why Elizabeth would have disliked Pericles.
In 1648, when she was just 14, Elizabeth’s translation of Margarite de Navarre’s The Mirror or Glass of the Sinful Soul was published. Elizabeth’s book is a spiritual meditation on “universal kinship,” the idea that since everyone is a child of God, every carnal relationship is incestuous. An odd text indeed for princess Elizabeth to be translating in her stepparents’ household.
The Queen easily could have thought that Shakespeare’s Pericles was mocking The Mirror or Glass of the Sinful Soul. Here’s an excerpt of the text that Pericles reads about the princess daughter’s relationship with her father:
I sought a husband, in which labour
I found that kindness in a father:
He’s father, son, and husband mild;
I mother, wife, and yet his child.
And here’s an excerpt from Elizabeth’s The Mirror or Glass of the Sinful Soul:
O what union is this, since (through faith) I am sure of Thee. And now I may call Thee son, father, spouse, and brother. Father, brother, son, husband.
In the fourth act of Pericles, Bawd orders Bolt to “crack the glass of [Marina’s] virginity” (emphasis mine). To me, Elizabeth could have viewed this as a swipe at her, the celebrated Virgin Queen and author of The Mirror or Glass of the Sinful Soul. The Queen died six years before the first edition of Pericles appeared.
Given her personal history, it’s not difficult to see why Elizabeth might have banned Pericles. It would explain the puzzle of why the play has romantic elements that sound, as David Bevington has observed, oddly old-fashion for a 1609 publication date.
Leave it to Taffety Punk to make an odd play even odder. Chris Marino as the incestuous King Antiochus looked like the spawn of Goldilocks and the Mad Hatter. Kimberly Gilbert was the dominatrix version of the brothel manager Bawd, Southern-style. Her fire-red bodice looked about two sizes too small, pushing her flesh into her armpits (hope she didn’t hurt herself). With a hilarious drawl and whip in hand, Gilbert’s Bawd dominated all the scenes she was in – and the other people in them. Her side kick, the pimp Bolt (James Flanagan) was equally hilarious. Flanagan articulated his lines like a Mississippian with great comedic aplomb.
Based on what I saw Monday night, I have little doubt that had Taffety Punk performed Pericles during Elizabeth’s reign, she would have ordered all the players shackled and flogged – and some of them might have enjoyed it.
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.
My favorite Hamlet quote is “…there is nothing either good or bad except thinking makes it so.” How true that is – I chuckle at Nabokov’s 1956 afterword to Lolita, in which he describes themes that “are utterly taboo as far as most American publishers are concerned,” including “a Negro-White marriage which is a complete and glorious success resulting in lots of children and grandchildren; and the total atheist who lives a happy and useful life, and dies in his sleep at the age of 106.” Fifty-seven years on, today’s dynamic culture (namely, Western Culture) would treat such themes as “bad” not on moral grounds, but because they’re boring.
I’ve begun to apply Hamlet’s insight to my own thinking. For instance, just what makes a “good” explanation good, and a “bad” explanation bad? Why do I care? That explanation begins in 1995.
My father died while I was going through a divorce. The pain peaked at the funeral as I sat in the front row and the preacher lauded my parents’ long marriage then, looking in my direction, chided those who “crumple up marriages like paper and toss them into the garbage.” During that awful time, I took solace in a book called “The Physics of Immortality” by Frank Tipler, a physicist at Tulane University. His book impressed me, and I arranged to meet him in New Orleans.
“How do you deal with religious fundamentalists who dislike your book?” I asked him.
“Oh, I don’t even try talking with those people.”
It was easy to understand why. Tipler’s book, which includes a 100-page long “Appendix for Scientists,” argues that our descendants in the far, far future – and I mean really far, like a trillion years from now – will resurrect every human being that ever lived and (bonus!) their pets along with them. This allowed me to finally let go any thought of one day freeze-drying Sebastian and Viola. I also found it easier to follow John Lennon’s instructions to “imagine there’s no heaven,” since Tipler’s theory does not mean that heaven will never exist, it just doesn’t exist yet. Ditto for God. For Tipler, heaven is a technical problem that will only take a bit longer to solve than, say, world hunger.
Tipler’s far future sounds fantastic, sure, but who in 1956, or even 1995, could have imagined being able one day to order an IPOD from Amazon.com over the Internet that a robotic drone can deliver to you in an hour? Not even Ray Bradbury, I bet.
A lot of people, of course, howled at Tipler’s ideas. But one who didn’t was David Deutsch, the British physicist and pioneer of quantum computing. Deutsch found merit in Tipler’s cosmology that predicted the eventual collapse of the universe into a Big Crunch, which would allow its inhabitants to create a computer that resurrects everyone and their cats, dogs, and parakeets. Years later, Deutsch saw the evidence that our universe will expand forever and never collapse. He now rejects Tipler’s predictions, but circa 1995, he was on board the train to what Tipler called “The Omega Point.” So was I.
I’ve kept track about what Deutsch is up to. He gives great TED talks. His 2011 book, The Beginning of Infinityanalyzes the difference between good and bad explanations. With Hamlet’s line in mind, I began applying Deutsch’s analysis to Shakespeare, or more precisely, the Shakespeare authorship debate, which is a battle of memes.
A meme, a word created by Richard Dawkins, signifies a unit of culture and, like a gene, it can be replicated and passed on from one person to another. An example of a successful meme is the Beatles song Yesterday, which cover artists have replicated thousands of times.
Deutsch describes a “memeplex” as a group of related memes that facilitate each other’s replication. The Shakespeare “memeplex” would be the collection of Shakespeare-related memes – the name ‘William Shakespeare,’ his poems and plays, individual characters, and all those words and phrases created by Shakespeare which have been repeated billions of times, such as “bedroom” and “I have not slept one wink” – which go together when I forget my Melatonin.
The war that rages in the vast territory of Shakespeare is one between two, and in many ways opposite, Shakespeare memeplexes, each of which attempts to explain who Shakespeare, the man, actually was. Stratfordianism holds that a commoner with the first name William, and who signed his last name as Shakspere – the same way it appears in his birth, marriage, and funeral records – was the poet-playwright, William Shakespeare. Oxfordianism holds that Edward de Vere, a high nobleman in Queen Elizabeth’s court, wrote under the name William Shakespeare, which appeared in print as Shake-speare, the hyphen signaling that it was a pseudonym.
So after reading Deutsch on good and bad explanations, I was filled with excitement, to use another word created by Shakespeare, and anxious to put the Shakespeare memeplexes to the physicist’s simple test: a bad explanation is one that is easy to vary while still accounting for what it purports to account for, while a good explanation is one that is hard to vary.
Deutsch gives the example of the Greek myth that explains winter. In that myth, Hades, god of the underworld, kidnaps and rapes Persephone, whose mother, Demeter, negotiates the terms of her daughter’s release. Persephone must marry Hades and return annually for a conjugal visit. Each year, when that time comes, Demeter becomes sad and makes the world cold.
Though the myth explains winter, Deutsch calls it a bad explanation because all its details are easy to vary with the same result. A Nordic myth, for instance, explains winter in terms of the fortunes of Feyr, the god of spring. The world is warm when he’s winning, cold when he’s losing. But Deutsch’s words here are better than mine:
The reason those myths are so easily variable is that their details are barely connected to the details of the phenomenon…Whenever a wide range of variant theories can account equally well for the phenomenon they are trying to explain, there is no reason to prefer one of them over the others, so advocating a particular one in preference to the others is irrational…That freedom to make drastic changes in those mythical explanations of seasons is the fundamental flaw in them.
The true explanation of seasons is based on the tilt of Earth’s axis of rotation relative to the plane of its orbit around the sun. It is a good explanation – hard to vary – because all of its details play a functional role.
All of this got me to asking, why did Shakespeare write Titus Andronicus? Are there better ways of spending my time? Probably.
It’s impossible to know what motivated Shakespeare to write Titus Andronicus. Trying to establish a person’s intent about anything is fraught with risk, even if you ask her why she ordered the crunchy grasshopper carrot cake and she happily tells you why. There’s only one person who can read your mind, and it’s not me. So the attempt to divine Shakespeare’s motives for writing Titus Andronicus – especially since nobody can ask him, given his death either in 1604 or 1616, depending on which Shakespeare memeplex you prefer – is a little like trying to understand why prehistoric cave dwellers in southern France painted pictures on their living room walls during their spare time.
Still, we can’t resist.
Stratfordians and Oxfordians give competing explanations for what prompted Shakespeare to write his first tragedy. The two camps loathe each other. Stratfordians launch ad hominem attacks against Oxfordians who, in turn, accuse Stratfordians of intellectual dishonesty.
Theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck recently lambasted two Canadian universities for participating in a conference exploring Oxfordianism, publicly chastising York University Professor Don Rubin, an Oxfordian who teaches a course on the authorship question, for his “fringe views.” Oxfordians charge Stratfordians with a bias fed by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and piles of money: millions of tourists have streamed through Stratford-upon-Avon to see where “William Shakespeare” was born, which Oxfordians equate with trekking to the North Pole to see where Santa Claus works.
Just think what would happen to Amazon.com’s sales if there were no Santa Claus – not even the myth – and how it would change the very idea of Christmas. Well, it would turn retail sales into a bloody disaster, which brings us back to Titus Andronicus.
In the Stratfordian memeplex, Shakespeare wrote his gory story of murder and mutilation, packed full with references to Ovid and Seneca, to match what others were writing at the time and showcase his learning. In 1949, Margaret Chute wrote this about Titus Andronicus: “Shakespeare was trying to write a ‘noble Roman history’ and conform to the best standards of the classical drama as they were understood in his day.” Fifteen years later, A.L. Rowse, in his biography of Shakespeare, explained that while Shakespeare was writing the play, “…his mind was filled with memories of his school-work…Titus is a well-constructed play on a tight and somewhat rigid scheme, for the craftsman is imitating someone else.”
One can imagine William entering London after days of riding on horseback from Stratford. He heads straight for The Mermaid Tavern and finds Christopher Marlowe at the bar. The two playwrights throw back sherry-sack and talk shop.
“So, Willie,” says Marlowe, “I wager you can’t come up with a conceit the groundlings could love more than The Spanish Tragedy.”
“Bet I can.”
“Bet you can’t.”
“Bet I can.”
“Bet you can’t.”
And so forth. This “To Prove Himself” explanation of why Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus is easy to vary. Take Marlowe out of the picture and put William back in Stratford. Unlike most boys, he loved school and has stayed in touch with his teachers.
“Thanks for stopping by the old schoolhouse, Willie.”
“Nice to see you again, professor.”
“I caught Comedy of Errors when I was in London. Loved it – ever think about doing something a little different, old chap? You know, challenge yourself and give tragedy a go, along the lines of Seneca, for instance, with a good dose of Ovid?”
“What a wonderful idea.”
And so on. Or leave the other adults out of it and replace them with Willie’s first daughter, Susannah, who would have been around twelve at the time. Her father, being the intellectual, decides she must see more of the world, so he takes her to London. One afternoon, as they exit The Globe theatre, she says to him:
“O, I just loved The Spanish Tragedy, father. Why can’t you write a play like it?”
You could probably come up with a few of your own variations of this “To Prove Himself” explanation, or a few hundred. All you have to do is imagine – it’s easy if you try – which is why the “To Prove Himself” explanation is a bad one based on Deutsch’s definition.
It’s a different story when you enter the Oxfordian memeplex and assume that William Shakespeare was Edward de Vere’s pseudonym. Mark Anderson, one of de Vere’s recent biographers, explains that banishment plays an important role in the latter half of Titus Andronicus, which corresponds to “the shame and scandal” of de Vere’s exile from Queen Elizabeth’s court. Charles Beauclerk has a similar explanation, showing how the play reflects the disempowerment and brutal silencing of political adversaries. In short, de Vere alias Shakespeare wrote Titus to express his feelings about things that actually happened to him.
This “It Happened to Him” explanation is based on known facts about de Vere’s life and is thus difficult to vary. But the point here is not necessarily to come up with the singularly correct explanation for something, but to compare explanations in analytical terms of “good” or “bad,” which means that some explanations will be “better” than others.
The “It Happened to Him” explanation by itself does not prove that de Vere was Shakespeare, nor does the “To Prove Himself” explanation prove that William of Stratford was the great poet-playwright. But the first explanation happens to be the better one for why Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus, in my neither good nor bad opinion.
Maybe my mind will change at the Omega Point, when I can ask him.
Yesterday morning I arrived at the Folger Theatre just after 11. The line of people waiting to get free tickets to Taffety Punk Theatre Company’s “Bootleg Shakespeare” production of Love’s Labour’s Lost already stretched around the building into the Elizabethan garden, that is to say, the line was long, lengthily extended, occupied by a large number of persons standing, meaning on two legs without moving, motionless as it were, except for their lips.
I know, my Holofernes imitation needs work, but so much for that.
“He’s nuts,” said a woman to another woman ahead of me in the line. She sounded like an actress. “He wants to play the lead role in Hamlet and direct himself, too. I told him nobody can play Hamlet and direct at the same time.”
“Kenneth Branagh did it,” I said, unable to hold my tongue. “Branagh played Hamlet in the film he directed. It’s the gold standard for Hamlet.”
“The guy I’m talking about is only sixteen,” she said. She looked just a few years older than that.
“You’re right,” I said, “sixteen is a little young.”
I put on my headphones and minded my own business. Then I thought maybe sixteen wasn’t too young. After all, some scholars (some of which probably are smarter than Holofernes) think that William of Stratford wrote Hamlet in 1589, when he was only twenty-five, if you can you believe that.
It makes sense to call Taffety Punk’s annual Folger event “Bootleg Shakespeare,” because the company breaks rules. Actors rehearse together for the first and only time on the day of the first and only performance. Costumes and props are strictly make-shift, and the director sits in the front row with the playbook, prompting actors when they forget a line. Whenever the director shouts “flourish,” the audience shouts back, “toot-toot-la-doo!”
These are rowdy affairs. Last year’s spectators watched Hamlet run around the stage buck naked. “Bootleg Shakespeare” always proves to be a unique experience.
Last night’s Love’s Labour’s Lost was no exception. Directed by Lise Bruneau, the strong cast was led by Tonya Beckman (Princess of France), Dan Crane (Prince of Navarre), Esther Williamson (Rosaline), Shawn Fagan (Berowne), and Jamie Beaman (Boyet).
In my opinion, Eric Hissom (Don Adriano de Armado) and Kimberly Gilbert (Moth) stole the show.
With a thick yet completely intelligible Spanish accent, Hissom shifted easily between grandiosity and melancholy playing the magnificent, love struck Armado, to uproarious comic effect. Gilbert, as the page Moth distracted by reading the Kama Sutra, was his perfect foil.
Max Reinhardsen as Costard was also excellent, as was Victoria Reinsel as Jaquenetta. Dressed like Daisy May in low-cut red polka dots and blue jean hot pants, she was sultry as sultry gets. The venerable Ted van Griethuysen entered an appearance as Marcarde.
The Folger Theater looks like an Elizabethan Renaissance playhouse. Small and intimate, it’s the best venue in town for seeing Shakespeare, in my opinion. Watching “Bootleg Shakespeare” there, admiring the actors who’ve rehearsed only briefly with each other, I imagine this must be a little like what 16th century playgoers at The Globe experienced, where the players staged a different play every day.
“Bootleg Shakespeare” is a must see — but you’ll have to wait until next year. Stay informed about next summer’s production by visiting Taffety Punk’s website and signing up for the newsletter.
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.”
“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.
I recently enjoyed the Folger Theatre’s fine production of Shakespeare’s Henry V starring Zach Appelman as the King. Appelman’s amazing performance makes me think he’s our next great Shakespearian actor, joining the ranks of Olivier, Gieguld, and Branagh.
I read Henry V before watching Appelman conduct his tour de force on the imaginary battlefields of 15th century France.
For me, each new reading of a Shakespeare play is like listening to a Mozart or Beethoven symphony: something new always emerges, some quality or insight about a character not captured before, a phrase that strikes me (“Every subject’s duty is the king’s; but every subject’s soul is his own”), or fresh appreciation for the breadth of the author’s word craft which, in Henry V, he extends à la langue français.
This time I discovered something that perhaps heretofore has gone unnoticed: it’s possible that Henry V was promoting a candidate to succeed Queen Elizabeth I to the English throne at the end of the 16th century.
The Chorus, at the beginning of Act V of the play, describes throngs of English citizens welcoming back Henry (“Harry”) who’s returned victorious from France. The Chorus compares this homecoming to one Caesar received:
“The mayor and all his brethren in best sort,
Like to the senators of the antique Rome,
With the plebeians swarming at their heels,
Go forth and fetch their conquering Caesar in:
As, by a lower but loving likelihood,
Were now the general of our gracious empress,
As in good time he may, from Ireland coming,
Bringing rebellion broached on his sword,
How many would the peaceful city quit,
To welcome him! much more, and much more cause,
Did they this Harry.”
Scholars have long agreed that the Chorus’s speech is a contemporary reference to the campaign of Robert Devereaux, the 2nd Earl of Essex, to quash rebels in Ireland, which dates the play to around 1599. In the above-quoted text, Essex would be the “general,” and Queen Elizabeth I “our gracious empress.”
I’ll come back to the Chorus’s speech. For now it can be observed that Elizabeth in 1599 had about four years to live, with her succession undecided.
To say it was difficult to discuss who should be England’s next ruler while Elizabeth was still living is an understatement. Under the treason statute at the time, it was a crime punishable by death to suggest that anyone else should be the reigning monarch.
If someone wanted to promote a candidate for King without being hanged or beheaded, then subtlety and plausible deniability, expressed through words and phrases with double meanings, would be the order of the day.
Of course, the double entendre was something Shakespeare was very good at.
These circumstances show that Shakespeare held Southampton very dear and would have been highly interested in his future.
As mentioned above, the Chorus’s speech in Act V contains a contemporary reference to the Earl of Essex’s military campaign in Ireland. Southampton accompanied Essex on that campaign, a fact that leads to the “new” thing I noticed.
The line, “the general of our gracious empress,” has long been thought of referring to Essex and the Queen. On the other hand, Southampton’s title in Ireland also was “general” – General of the Horse. That the Chorus is referring to Southampton in the speech rather than to Essex is further supported by the last three lines:
How many would the peaceful city quit,
To welcome him! much more, and much more cause,
Did they this Harry (my empahsis).
Admittedly, one can interpret the word “this” different ways, but my point is that the “him” in the second line could refer to another “Harry,” i.e., the “general” Henry, the Earl of Southampton, whom Shakespeare is comparing to “this” Harry, i.e., Henry V.
Under this interpretation, the Chorus is expressing the hope that Southampton returns victorious from Ireland to the same type of welcome that Henry V received when he returned from France.
And then there’s the Chorus’s speech that begins Act II, which describes the traitors’ plot to kill Henry V:
And by their hands this grace of kings must die,
If hell and treason hold their promises,
Ere he take ship for France, and in Southampton.
The first meaning of “Southampton” is the city from which Henry V embarked for France. However, I believe it would have been difficult for the audience – at least for any courtier – listening to the play in 1599 not to think of Henry, Earl of Southampton as well.
Moreover, there is a logical interpretation attaching this second (or double) meaning to “Southampton” in the speech quoted above.
For “this grace of kings” to die “in Southampton” would mean that it must first be living there, and if the audience considered “Southampton” in the sense of the earl, it could interpret the Chorus’s statement as meaning that “this grace of kings” lives in Henry Wriothesely who, if he were to ascend to the throne, would be crowned Henry the Ninth.
If you think my argument is a stretch, you’re right, it is. But given the treason statutes, in a sense it has to be. Shakespeare would have had to be cryptic if he were advertising Henry Wriothesely as a candidate for the throne.
If Shakespeare was suggesting that the “grace of kings” resided in Southampton, the “general” he hoped would return from Ireland to be greeted like a King, what possible claim could Southampton have had for the throne?