“Whatever they say I am, that’s what I’m not.” Alan Silitoe.
Always good to see Derek Jacobi, whose I Claudius made everything forgivable, and his programme about Richard II last night, despite that desire to roll the wooorld around the plum of his English tongue. But why, like great actor Mark Rylance, does he go on about the fatuous Edward Devere, Earl of Oxford authorship theory for Shakespeare’s work? Perhaps because both were in Anonymous,or because of strange chips on acting shoulders? He said, with that cheeky grin of supposed assumed knowledge, it would ruffle feathers, or something, but it only ruffles feathers because it is rubbish. We all know nowadays you have to sell a thing by supposedly being controversial, or coming up with the great conspiracy. Though the most moving elements in the programme were actors talking, through the insights of Richard II, of how we are all nothing, specks in eternity, simply a part of the mysterious pattern.
There is a great deal of evidence for the Stratford Shakespeare though, despite the difficulty of reading contemporary records and the obvious desire of a poet and playwright, unlike self trumpeting Ben Johnson, to remain forever mercurial, behind the dangerous, ever watching London scenes. That was about preserving the well-spring of his art itself, dark and light, and not being pinned by anyone. Also the delicate nature of his temperament. There is little or no evidence for the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward Devere, who published under his own name during his lifetime, as a minor and rather bad poet. There is that little bit of interesting self flattery about Devere being called the ‘spearshaker’ at court, but this was an age of impresses and also the fluid change in the fixity of Sirnames themselves. Did Shakespeare think he was Shakespere, Shakesbye, Shackspere, or was he a mind and spirit on a great journey, capable of inhabiting everyone, who then sured up his own name, as spelling codified, and he found the right to survive and buy New Place in Stratford? To make good where his father had gone wrong.
It is continued social snobbery though that supports the Edward Devere authorship theory, that emerged in the nascent proto-fascist climate of the 1920’s, and incidentally an insult to today’s fluttering Free School movement too. It underestimates how advanced was the Edwardian and later Elizabethan Grammar school education, well beyond learning by rote from the school Horn Book, how grand were some of Stratford’s historical links to London and how a young Shakespeare could well have moved among very educated circles, as a young man, either as player or tutor, or in prominent Catholic families. Besides, if Tony Blair could go on about “education, education, education,” he might go on about what’s being taught, how the teachers around you, in school, life or home are inspiring or destructive forces, or, in the realms of freeing imaginations, sing snatches of “teacher, leave them kids alone.”
The conspiracy thesis of Anonymous, and those who must somehow vindicate lineage alone, perhaps a symptom of any actor’s search for identity too, is that Elizabethan society was highly stratified and players the scum of the earth. All the evidence suggests the opposite, at a time of huge mobility in London and the building of permanent playhouses under James Burbage and others, despite the rich City of London’s attempts to drive them out. The actor Edward Alleyn became a superstar of his day, as did James’ son and Shakespeare’s brother-in-arms, Richard Burbage. Indeed, in terms of the ‘celebrity’ values of their day, perhaps little changes, and it was Burbage’s not Shakespeare’s death that was so mourned in his time. But at least those celebrities set very high cultural standards and the whole of London thrilled to poets and writers, good and bad, as well as brothels, gambling dens, cockpits and bear pits.
As for any claim that writing plays was NQOCD, so not to be linked to an Earl, the Earl of Essex paid for the funeral of Edmund Spencer and writers processed proudly to the grave to throw in their quills. The idea that what was said in those plays could be dangerous, even fatal, so supporting secret authorship, might be more convincing, except for all the other evidence and arguments, and the fact that not only can Shakespeare be as conservative as radical, on the side of Kingship, as against its excess or madness, but he very carefully wrote and rewrote his plays in tune with the changing political weather vane of the time. No time-server, but aware, and also a writer trying to succeed, appealing to popular kinds of opinion, imagination and humour, and going beyond it all. Just as a very aware court protected the players, in part because of its need for the popular pulse and battles with The City of London.
As one commentator briefly said though, on Derek Jacobi’s programme of course, perhaps the most important thing is how all Shakespeare’s plays so breathe and resound with the working life and metaphors of theatre, of the fact of acting, seeming, playing, that you do not pick up as some clever or mediocre nob in the wings. They were written and semi-literally wrought in the revolutionary and thrilling climate of London playhouses, a largely nasty, brutish, dangerous and very smelly place. The Globe Theatre itself, built in 1599 out of the wood of the dismantled Theatre, across the river in Shoreditch, was partly Shakespeare’s owned triumph, and house of vital independence too, sounded out so loudly in plays like Henry V. His independence too from the likes of playhouse owner, bear baiter, Master of the Game, brothel owner, local grandee and all time creep Philip Henslowe. To be fair, Henslowe protected writers sometimes with loans, but fell foul of what he thought it was only about, money. You could go on about the metaphors of Arden forests though in As You Like It, the constant repetition of imagery of gloves or clothes, out of professional working people like his father John, very far from the bottom of any social heap. The journey too of the plays, from experimental bums on seats pot boilers like Titus Andronicus, worthy of blood-soaked Anonymous, through to such an astonishing flowering, speak of one man, one consciousness, rooted in the countryside, on a momentous journey, physical and metaphorical, who lived through his times, and out of Stratford. You do not get to the metaphysical astonishments of Hamlet, under magestical rooves fretted with golden fire, inside the physical echo chamber of his imagination, a working theatre, unless you have walked the boards and written for them too.
Why is it important? Because, apart from truth, given the right soil, and in revolutionary times, genius can grow from and come from anywhere, and die anywhere too, which is not to say Shakespeare did not take on aspirations of the Court, and move increasingly freely in those circles, as patrons fought political battles of patronage around the City of London, that were also about influencing public opinion. The power of imagination is also linked to real life power. As he got his coat of arms and his ceremonial sword that he wore at the accession of James I, and his mind went high to low, probably found more beauty in the high, though far from always, and as much energy in the low. Although Shakespeare died not a hugely rich man, but a moderately wealthy one. Jacobi is an actor who inhabits other’s words, but Shakespeare was actor, poet and playwright too, formative in his understandings and visions, increasingly distancing himself from players, or players that don’t know the purpose of the whole play, or ‘stand beside their part’, and there perhaps is the key. The writer distinguishing himself from the acting he also knew so well. A mind that so imbibed what Shakespeare is all about, living language, where the basic secret lies, of course, at a time of vital metaphorical richness and linguistic fluidity, living and flowering in and through it, completely in tune, perhaps at a time when such imagination was possible, in a way it no longer is. Science has compartmentalized and ‘rationalised’ language itself, so it is hard to even use it in the holist, organic way Shakespeare lived it. That organic connection of language is also about the sonnets and his being a poet.
But that personal relationship to language, a gift for everyone, is not the exclusive preserve of Earls of anything, and great poets and writers come from many soils. Shakespeare also very quickly consumed the sources of his day, in the revolutionary age of the printing presses, from Holinshed to Plutarch, to all the renaissance stories and legends that abounded. He ‘stole’ plots like an ‘upstart crow’, then made them his own, constantly translating through the glass of his soaring, refracting imagination. That attack on an ‘upstart’ came from one of the Oxbridge wits of the time, Robert Greene, who first proved you could make good money from scandalous diaries, as you can’t anymore, and it has marked the divide ever since, that leads straight into the weary Devere theory. So splitting editions between the Arden and Oxford Shakespeares, summoning attacks from the establishment ‘educated’ that ‘he weren’t half as good as them’ and marking a fault line in English consciousness and social values.
There is another element to the ‘proof’ and that is increasing evidence of Stratford links with that vital centre of London life and theatre, Southwark and Bankside. That is one of the themes of coming blogs and original work on Edmund Shakepeare, William’s youngest brother, who is virtually unknown, but was also a player in London, died at only 27, four months after his bastard baby son, in the greatest freeze London and the river had seen in decades, and is buried in beautiful Southwark Cathedral. He lived in a property near the Globe just before his death, called The Vine, that belonged to a Hunt family, and though the link has to be yet made, there were also prominent Hunts in Stratford, one of whom talked of William Shakespeare as the ‘Rocius’ of his time. The Berkeley Shakespeare academic Alan Nelson has highlighted the significance of that.
As Peter Ackroyd argues though, Shakespeare the London playwright was not only known in his day, but a phenomenon, as actor, playwright but also Globe theatre sharer. The secret of ‘no Shakespeare the playwright’ on Stratford documents is about how all signed themselves in legal documents as associated to the Guild trades that legally marked social status and London citizenship. In the country it was about land and property ownership. But many of those people, at a time when Henry VIII’s reformation was also systematizing parish records themselves, making the perceived structures of recorded history, for administrative and tax purposes, for reasons of power, often had very good cause to avoid being put on the record. Shakespeare avoided local London taxes and may possibly have been protected by the Bishop of Winchester, in the Liberties in Southwark. But if Joe Orton advised in Loot, ‘never get caught’, that vanishing act is also about the freedom of the artist, poet and writer. The knowledge of how powerful but also dangerous it can be at the creative centre of the circle.
The work on Edmund though brings to light fascinating unknown material too on players in Southwark, as far back as the reign of Henry VI, a cycle of History plays that have been completely underestimated in their importance in Shakespeare’s ingathering of a time, an age and very specific place too, radical and divided Southwark, an almost physical fault line of the Reformation in London. Henry VI very possibly began the whole history cycle, but it is Henry VI’s reign, really defining the ‘Wars of the Roses’, and what is said about London, power, faith and miracles in those plays, that also links the poet to Southwark, the Bishops of Winchester and the all important religious battles of his day. That makes them just as important as Richard II, if not as good artistically. As Catholicism and Rome were pushed out, or into the shadows, and Kit Marlowe played dangerous games with ‘God’ and the ‘Devil’, and English spying too, Shakespeare turned to the humanist playwright’s art, grounded in very secular themes, the stuff of life, but understanding it all as metaphor to summon the creative energy and visions inside himself, the magic of his art and characters, culminating in Prospero. It was also a journey to other ‘countries’ of reality and imagination, as ‘The Globe’ and England opened in the discovery of the Americas, the breach with Rome, the explosion of City trading expeditions, and Shakespeare felt the tectonic conflicts of his time in his blood.
It is another frustration of Phoenix Ark though that DCD, unagented, and damaged by the story in America, or perhaps it’s just today’s terrified or cynical publishing climate, could not get backing after months of work at the Metropolitan Archive. Perhaps a grand ambition is to make Phoenix Ark Press a ‘Globe Theatre’ for writers then(!), but we’re pleased to give it to readers for free instead. All the world’s a page!
New addition to Phoenix Ark in pages above: Shakespeare’s Brother, the story of Edmund Shakespeare, the missing player, and the biography of an unrecorded life.
Phoenix Ark Press