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William Shakespeare is one of the world’s greatest dramatists. Before he consolidated his position in that field he took a detour to another. This is a look at what happened.
William Shakespeare was the son of a Stratford glover, John Shakespeare, who had been in his son’s youth an upwardly mobile businessman and a civic dignitary holding an office similar to Mayor of the town of Stratford. In terms of the class structure, John’s father Richard was lower class, a peasant, though eventually a wealthy one, but John himself was middle class, a status helped by his marriage into the Arden family in 1557, local gentility. John and his wife Mary Arden were to have eight children, the eldest son, William, born shortly before 26 April 1564. John began to incur heavy fines from 1577, and was expelled from Council in 1586, at the time William attained his majority. The loss of his fortune may have been through fines incurred by his non observance of religious rites, for John is thought to be an ‘old believer’, one who adhered to the outlawed Church of Rome (most of the population did, but were willing to pay lip service to the Church of England). But John’s apparent poverty may have been the result of settling his fortune on each of his children before his death and suffering the consequent cash flow problem as a result.
At school from age five, and the grammar school aged 11, Shakespeare would have received an excellent education, under a system that was then the best in Europe. It was founded on Latin and Greek. Shakespeare throughout his work shows a great knowledge and love of classic Greek and Roman works: in our terms he was a scholar, and this is alluded to in Ben Jonson’s famous obituary, in the seemingly derogatory “small Latine, and lesse Greeke”, which far from depreciating Shakespeare’s knowledge, vaunts Jonson’s own (insert a silent “compared to mine” into the verse). Perhaps William’s father’s loss of fortune was the reason William did not attend university.
The matter of Shakespeare’s lack of a university degree, alluded to by lesser playwrights of the time, has influenced those who believe Shakespeare not to have written the poems and plays published under his name, on the grounds he was not well educated enough to do so. This is an untenable claim that poetic genius is a matter of education, and a further claim that self education somehow doesn’t count. The fact that most of the world’s great writers don’t have a university degree is simply ignored in making this claim. In Shakespeare’s time, Christopher Marlowe had trouble getting his degree from Cambridge, and Ben Jonson had no university education at all, going straight from school to work as a bricklayer. Yet Jonson was judged one of the most learned men of his time.
During Shakespeare’s youth the practice of theatre, based on the travelling troupe and with material formed into morality plays recounting stories of the Bible, had entered a decline. Slowly, the practice of literary adaptations, written by scholars and performed in aristocratic households, took the place of the earlier popular theatre. It was quickly supplemented by adaptations from European theatre, and new works written by university educated writers who nevertheless pitched their work at a popular level. Plays came to be performed in the yards of inns, and there was much concern expressed by Puritan writers and churchmen that this practice led to immorality. Authorities also realised it helped spread the plague, which attacked the English people throughout the 16th century (1564, 1592-3, 1603, 1623, leaving 100,000 dead). However, the acting troupes also performed at court, and to facilitate this practice they were formed into groups under the patronage of powerful aristocrats who could protect them against censure and persecution from civic authorities and the Church. Actors were thus both highly skilled professional performers, and little more than rogues and vagabonds to be punished whenever possible. But the audience for the morality plays was still there, increased enormously by an overall fourfold increase in population, much of it concentrated in London. Fortunes could be made playing to the groundlings, and the licensed companies did so, in the process commissioning new plays to feed a voracious public appetite. It was at this precise moment that Shakespeare entered the London theatrical world.
Before he is lost sight of in the record, William married Anne Hathaway 28 November 1582. She was a local farmer’s daughter, and had a child Susanna about six months later. Two years later again, the twins Judith and Hamnet were born, and baptised 02 February 1585. William was just over 21. His father John may then have made him a bequest, and left himself a nominal pauper.
London was a two day ride on horseback from Stratford, a relatively short journey for the times. That Shakespeare maintained premises in London as well as Stratford, where his family lived, has been made much of by those wishing to speculate about the nature of his marriage. There is no information available on this topic, but the arrangement was not unusual (what took Shakespeare two days to travel takes two hours or less today).
Shakespeare throughout his life seems to have been skilled in forming friendships and acquaintances. Most contemporary references to him mention his charm and agreeableness. One early friend in London seems to have been the novelist and playwright Robert Greene (1558-1592, died age 34), whose impoverished and dissolute life led him to renounce his evils ways in a deathbed repentance published as A Groat’s Worth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentance in 1592, just a few months after his death. Another friend and influence may have been the poet, dramatist and spy Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593, died age 28), whose work Shakespeare greatly admired and imitated. Marlowe died in 1593, murdered by members of the Elizabethan secret service that had employed him, to keep his mouth shut. Shakespeare himself was then 28 years old, an undeveloped novice who had refurbished a number of history plays and had a series of surprise hits with them, but whose mastery of verse and development of character was still at the journeyman stage. All three men quoted each other’s work. It is perhaps overlooking the purpose of Greene’s work to see his references to Shakespeare as derogatory or hostile. Earlier still were the plays of Thomas Kyd (1558-1594, died age 36), whose Spanish Tragedy of 1589 was one of the most influential works of the period. Shakespeare could have known Kyd also. It is interesting to see him later fall back on the plot of The Spanish Tragedy for much of the plot of his version of Hamlet. It obviously made a great impression.
It seems likely from Greene’s reference in his Groatsworth pamphlet, and from Shakespeare’s references, both overt and stylistic, toTamburlane (1587) and The SpanishTragedy, that Shakespeare was a part of the London theatrical scene by 1590, five years after the birth of his twins at Stratford, and at age 26. Was he fleeing from an investigation of his family affairs by the local council at Stratford, or seeking employment in the theatre? Or elsewhere?
Of the surviving plays of Shakespeare, eight probably predate the closing of the theatres because of the plague, in 1592. These are the three parts of Henry the Sixth, big hits for the company Lord Strange’s Men, Richard III, Edward III, and perhaps Titus Andronicus, The Taming of the Shrew and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Eight plays in two years for a novice seems a lot, and in fact in the period 1590-1592 Shakespeare is likely to have been a hanger on, a companion of Kyd, Peele and Marlowe, not yet a member in any capacity of any theatrical group, but whose name was put forward to help in the re-writing and re-furbishing of older plays. His later fame helped ascribe these early plays completely to Shakespeare, but William could only have had a hand in them. Perhaps it was his contribution that made them popular, perhaps not. He may have re-written them afterwards for later revivals.
If this is the case, Shakespeare must have arrived in the capital equipped with at least a moderate fortune to support himself and not been dependent on occasional earnings from play performances (quite small amounts went to the writers). And quite likely it was not to pursue a career as a playwright. He might have been mad about Tamburlaine and The Spanish Tragedy, but an actor dramatist was a step down the ladder for a respectable, prosperous burgher’s son, someone who was proud of his learning and erudition. Shakespeare had more ambitious models, such as Philip Sidney (1554-1586, died 32), author of the sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella, and the pastoral Arcadia; and Edmund Spencer (1552-1599 died 47), author of the Faerie Queene. These works were the summit of Elizabethan poetry. Shakespeare probably had in his bag early versions of two long poems called Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, and it was his ambition to publish them. But he needed a patron. Learned poems were not a popular art form, and needed the cachet of a famous patrician sponsor to succeed with the appropriately aristocratic audience of the royal court.
Henry Wriothesley (Risley), 3rd Earl of Southampton (1573–1624), was nine years younger than Shakespeare, and when William came to London about 1590 had just been presented at court, aged 17, where he became an intimate of the Earl of Essex, and set up a school of writers and thinkers similar to Sir Walter Raleigh’s ‘School of Night’. A friend of Robert Greene, the playwright and pamphleteer Thomas Nashe (1567-1601 died aged 34), who was associated with Lord Strange’s men, for whom Shakespeare had written the Henry VI plays, was patronised by Southampton, and may have made the introduction for Shakespeare.
Shakespeare, with his charm and sweetness of manner, quickly became part of the Southampton literary circle. He appears to have learnt a lot from John Florio, one of Southampton’s school and the translator of Montaigne. Reports of Southampton at this stage of his life paint him as an assertive and at times quarrelsome homosexual, with a decidedly feminine appearance he may have emphasised. He may have found Shakespeare physically attractive, and played a part in the composition of Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence. Passionately expressed friendship between men, as the wearing of earrings and facial cosmetics by them, was a fashion of the time, and must not be over-emphasised. The relationship between Southampton and Shakespeare is as unknown as that between Shakespeare and his wife Anne.
By 1593 Shakespeare had established his place in Southampton’s circle, and was able to publish his two treasured poems, beginning a career he perhaps hoped would make him a successor to Philip Sidney.
Venus and Adonis was first published in 1593 by Richard Field, a Stratford man. Richard may have provided Shakespeare with introductions to the literary world of London when William first arrived there in 1590. The Fields and the Shakespeares knew each other well. The poem is dedicated to Southampton, in obsequious terms quite conventional for the times, that suggest the two men had not actually met at this stage. Southampton’s name may have done the trick: he was a brilliant new presence at court, and his poetic circle was fashionable. There were eight editions of the poem over the next ten years, which made it a best seller. Shakespeare had tried his hand at popular theatre over the previous two or three years, and been enormously successful. Now he had succeeded at ‘real’ poetry as well, and had become a famous name, a luminary in a trendy court circle.
The poem is based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It is hard for modern readers to realise just how much prestige Roman civilisation and Roman art once had in Europe. For most it was the epitome of culture. None wiser than Horace, more splendid than Cicero, more moral than Seneca. Of them all Ovid was by far the most popular, with Shakespeare as with most Renaissance scholars. Shakespeare seems to have used his memories of the Latin, but had a copy of Arthur Golding’s brilliant translation of 1567 at hand. The poem succeeded partly because of Ovid’s narrative flair, partly because it was based on a prestigious cultural icon, partly because of its rapturous and splendid versification, and partly because it was extremely erotic.
The relationship between patron and patronised went both ways, and the success of Shakespeare’s poem would have conferred prestige on Southampton. The two men would have become closer. By the time Shakespeare was ready to publish The Rape of Lucrece in 1594 the men seem to have been friends. Lucrece was based on another poem of Ovid, the Fasti, was published first by Richard Field, and went to six editions in Shakespeare’s lifetime. It was another tale about sex, mixed with a little violence. The story is based on a cautionary story first found in Herodotus’ tale of Candaules and Gyges of Lydia, in which the king, Candaules, is so proud of the beauty of his wife he arranges for Gyges to see her naked: the queen, shamed by this, forces Gyges to kill Candaules and become king in his stead. In Ovid’s story Collatinus praises his wife’s beauty to Sextus Tarquinius, son of the king, and Sextus rapes her. Lucretia, shamed by the rape, commits suicide, and the consequent outrage leads to the fall of the monarchy and the foundation of a republic.
Two poems in subsequent years, and two runaway successes. Shakespeare was indeed set to become the successor to Philip Sidney. The dedication to Lucrece promised a more serious tale, and the political overtones of the poem are indeed very serious indeed, the justified deposition of a king.
Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, KG (1565–1601 died at 36) was a year younger than Shakespeare and a favourite of Queen Elizabeth. A prominent member of his faction at court was the Earl of Southampton, which meant that Southampton’s school of poets and writers were also aligned to Essex. Essex was a proud and haughty man, passionate about his honour, and hot headed. On several occasions throughout the 90s he had angrily defied the Queen, and had once been slapped by her. As Lord Lieutenant in Ireland Essex had concluded an ignominious truce with the Irish against the Queen’s express orders, and on return to England was tried by the Crown, an opportunity for his enemies to unite against him. In response he is said to have corresponded with James VI of Scotland with a view to deposing Elizabeth in favour of James. It came to nothing. Deprived of office, in 1601 Essex fomented an ineffective rebellion, and when that was crushed he was tried and executed for treason later that year. Southampton was implicated, and first sentenced to death but later reprieved. His circle were examined for seditious writings.
Shakespeare wrote Richard II in 1594, the year Lucrece was published. It was his return to theatre after their re-opening as the plague fatalities lessened. The story tells of the usurpation of the throne of Richard II by Bolinbroke, who becomes Henry IV. It could have been intended as propaganda for the deposition of Elizabeth by the Earl of Essex, and was commissioned to be performed by one of Essex’s faction on the eve of his abortive rebellion in 1601. Elizabeth was elderly and near death, there was no successor, Essex was highly popular, and the usurpation may have seemed to many of moderate views the best solution for the royal succession.
With two publications in 1594 with a political sub text that may have been in support of a peaceful usurpation of the throne by the Earl of Essex Shakespeare had put his reputation and talent at the service of Southampton. But there are indications he withdrew his support as the Essex faction drew closer and closer to treason. The sonnet sequence published 1609 were probably written throughout the 90s, and may well refer to Shakespeare’s involvement with members of the Southampton/Essex faction. The persons referred to are mysterious: a dark lady, a young man the poet loves passionately, a rival poet. But the main point that emerges as the sequence continues is that the poet has been led on and then betrayed by those he loved and trusted. The tone is bitter, ravaged, the mood that of disillusion. Could this reflect Shakespeare’s realisation that his love, his poetical ambitions, his enormous talents, had merely been used by members of the Essex faction for their own ends, which had eventually been shown to be treasonous, and thus repugnant?
This withdrawal from the Essex faction would have been a hard decision for Shakespeare to make. Tied up with his involvement were his love of Southampton, his feelings of loyalty, and his ambitions as a poet. He was unlikely to find another patron. Yet he also had to be careful not to run afoul of the secret service, as had Marlowe, murdered less than a year before in 1593, through his association with perceived traitors. He would have known he had the ability to succeed as a poet, even if the success of his two published poems had not demonstrated it. He would also have known he could no longer fulfill his ambitions as a poet, and was risking his life as well, through association with the reckless and imprudent Essex. His option B as it were would be to return to the success he had earlier experienced as a writer of plays. It was a humble alternative, the equivalent of a prize winning, critically lauded novelist today turning to writing TV scripts. In the event Shakespeare was to give the drama the stature it had lacked through his achievement as a dramatist.
For whatever reason, after 1594 Shakespeare gave up his dream of becoming a major poet under aristocratic patronage, despite his glorious success with his two narrative poems. These were the poems he had carefully published under his own name, linked to that of Southampton. Nothing else he wrote was as carefully ascribed. Instead, Shakespeare purchased a share in an acting troupe, The Chamberlain’s Men, and began to write a stream of plays for them, 30 plays in 20 years, including many collaborative compositions. These he had no thought of seeing into print. It was as though he didn’t take them seriously, mere fodder for the groundlings. Ironic that the first person to invest in the Shakespeare industry was the man himself.
Among all this work, written without revision, without blotting a line we are told, are some of the loveliest lines of poetry ever written by anyone.
©2011 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.