THE SHAKESPEARE BLOG – IMAGINING A FUNERAL AND DIGRESSING WITH SIR JOHN GOWER

640px-John.gower.southwark.london.arp

Is it significant in the search for Edmund Shakespeare and his relationship with his eldest and now immortal brother William, that the play Shakespeare wrote, probably with the flash in the pan George Wilkins in 1607, Pericles, so strongly contains the presence of another prominent English poet, Sir John Gower?  If Shakespeare was there in Southwark Cathedral on that freezing day on December 31st 1607,  to listen to the great bell tolling for 27 year old Edmund, he would certainly have seen Gower’s colourful tomb against the North wall, as he must have several times in Southwark.  He would never have seen the simple tombstone that now lies in the choir marked Edmund Shakespeare 1580-1607. That is a much later addition, probably early nineteenth century and part of the rediscovery of Southwark and the player’s church, partly  forged, in its best sense, by the later discredited John Payne Collier. Amongst the sculptured dead, as Keats has it, in the church that was once St Mary Ovaries and not dedicated as a Cathedral until 1905, Edmund could of course have been buried anywhere for that 20 shillings, that day over four hundred years ago.  It was probably under a slab of tiling near a wall lifted especially for the enterment, since the register records he was certainly buried inside ye chuche. Of course, in that false image of ye olde Englande, ye was the spelling of the and the e at the ends of words would have been as silent as the mourners, at times.  There are many clues in the Burial Register as to the types of funerals conducted there, to tolls of the great or lesser bell, to a free-standing hearse in the church, not the modern moving hearse but the bier on which the coffin sat, all for a fairly specific price.  Well, everyone had to work and earn, including the priest and the sexton.

So that morning Edmund Shakespeare’s shroud wrapped body would have been carried from the Vine Tavern on Maid Lane, five minutes walk away down Clink Street, or laid in the Church the night before, and the funeral conducted before noon.  When did he die exactly? The freeze would have made the need for a quick burial less pressing, so conceivably even Christmas, or perhaps even St Stephen’s Day, the day Lear had been performed the year before at Court, December 28th.  It was not a New year in the way we know it, because that fell on Lady Day, March 21st.  The ground they broke  must have been hard as ice, with the big river freeze, and interestingly a fascinating insight into Elizabethan, now Jacobean funerals, is given by the 1588 Will of Edward Hunt, up online, the owner of the tavern Edmund came to die in. There it shows that as well as leaving The Vine to his pregnant wife Mary, and his unborn son if he ever came of age, and his nagge, his horse, to a servant, he left coins to be given out to the local poor, also acting as kind of professional mourners around the big church. Perhaps very well-known local characters.  There is no reason that practice was not followed for Edmund Shakespeare’s funeral.  It is tantalising to think that such an honouring funeral of his youngest brother by the man who showed the astounding humanity of a play like King Lear was conducted in defiance of the darker echoes that surrounded the death, like Edmund’s dead baby son marked down as baseborn, or the argument nearly a decade before about a player like Shakespeare becoming a Gentleman at the College of Heralds. Its significance can only be understood by understanding the enormously stratified nature of Tudor society and the chasm you crossed when you did become a Gentleman, which also gave you the formal right to carry a sword in the streets.  Although I still believe social mobility in London was much greater than is often allowed.  Especially by those snobs who are horrified by the idea Shakespeare or his brother could have been ‘ordinary’ Stratford country lads, so trump up the Earl of Oxford theory and silly films like Anonymous.   There was of course shock when an early 17th Century headsman tried to carry himself off as a Gentleman in Europe, but as for the players, the record of Edmund as ‘a player’ has a distinct flourish of excitement, and a status beyond any other.

Who knows who was there that day, but in the Token Book recording his presence at the Vine, one name next to Edmund’s, unless Edmund’s is a fake courtesy of Collier, is one Edward Woodfroofe.  Did they live on the same floor in the tavern, or share a room and was he at the funeral?  As for the cause of death, it is unlikely Edmund would have been buried inside the church if it was plague.  It is much more convincing to build a picture around that little tragedy back in August, the death of an only son on the social margins north of the wall, then perhaps drink, a return to friends around The Globe at the Vine and a weakened immune system, then the terrifying freeze of that year to carry him away.  Perhaps the journey to manhood is underestimated these days though, and having a son and heir at all, or losing one, because in Elizabethan society you were not really consider an independent adult until you had children, perhaps especially a son.  That is why there was a confusion about another Shakespeare brother, Gilbert, who in the Stratford funeral record at the age of 42 was marked down as adolescens. That record was initially dismissed as a much younger Gilbert, perhaps a nephew, until it was realised that adolscens refered to any unmarried male.  It is of course possible it was suicide, but if so the canons against self slaughter would have meant it would have had to have been hushed up.  But Southwark was a world apart and the influence of the player community great at the church.

But walk away from the choir in St Saviours, from our imagined funeral, with all its mysteries, back to that memorial to Sir John Gower.  There is one obvious reason that  Gower appears in the play Pericles, as the Chorus, namely that the story of Pericles is based on a work by Gower, Confession Amantis.  Yet why choose that and why actually name Gower as the chorus?  Is it because Southwark itself had suddenly become enormously significant in Shakespeare’s mind, not least because of his brother’s death?  As to that sea change in Shakespeare’s work, towards the magical romances, it is a play much about seafaring, another reason critics like Frank Kermode have written the Riverside Shakespeare and pointed to the significance of the Thames, in an area that housed the Marshalsea, a predominantly Marine prison, and is filled with reports of pirates and seafarers kidnapped and ransomed.  Remember that Philip Henslowe’s company were The Admiral’s Men.  Pericles is not about a brother, of course, but a daughter, presumed murdered, spirited away to more exotic climbs, who ends up in a brothel, yet trying to protect her purity and maidenhead by sowing and telling tales.  Much an echo of a poet’s re-spinning of hard reality, with the magic of art, but another echo of an area of crime too, brothels and ‘low life’ like Southwark. Shakespeare always has that ability to encompass both the sublime and street realities for a local audience.  Bolt is one of the panders in Pericles who, again with Shakespeare’s realism, justifies his trade in terms of a world without any social nets, and the horror of war where no ex-soldiers like Bolt were supported.  But Shakespeare’s consciousness, in the year he married his daughter to John Hall, is now of the father concerned with the fate and future of children, especially girls.  Yet there is still that worried echo of heraldry and status in Pericles, the running theme of specific family tragedy too, that seems, not least in the light of Edmund’s death, to have suddenly gone much deeper in Shakespeare.  Also the theme of the attempted restoration of life by the magic of art. Finally there is another possible echo of the year 1607 in Pericles, when  Gower as the chorus refers to a tale told ‘at ember eves and holy ales’. Remember that in spring the ale drives in the town of Wells had been violently suppressed, as the Puritans took greater hold, much as James I disliked them. Whether or not Shakespeare was a Catholic, and there will be a blog on that, the texture and language of the old faith is deep in his poetic sensibility, in a world reforming itself and often tearing apart. You can hear it in Henry V’s St Crispin’s Day speech, when a profoundly secular play appeals to an ancient code.  The magic of ‘religion’ is perhaps also the magic of fairy tale and story.

So again to John Gower though,  who had also been known as ‘moral Gower’ by his friend Chaucer, yet was clearly a figure of both humanity and great sexuality, who certainly married twice.  He is chosen and named by Shakespeare when one of the greatest poets of the language, and one extremely important to Southwark too in immortalizing the Tabard Inn, hard by St Margaret’s Church, and the Canterbury Road too, Geoffrey Chaucer, never is, in any of the plays, except perhaps in referring to Sir Topaz in Twelfth Night.  Bawdy, brilliant, Chaucer, ‘the father of English’.  Perhaps no poet like Shakespeare would have chosen either to imitate or tilt at Chaucer.  Or perhaps it has deeper coded significance in tilting at the importance of Southwark itself, where Gower had lived in rooms granted by the Church, and some of the moral agonies and dilemmas Shakespeare faced there, in London and during his times. That consummate artist, probably bisexual, whose work is filed with the lusty drive of sex and life, the prick of genius, yet who  was specifically described by one very early biographer in quoting the players themselves as ‘not debauched and when invited would say he was in pain.’ Who seemed to drive out the likes of bawdy Will Kempe.from the Globe Company, an original sharer, to set a new standard for English drama, over the street romps that dominated the playhouses and directed Henslowe’s company more.  Yet throughout Shakespeare there is the tension of the ‘moral’ and the human, the drive of sex and life that fills the comedies, but has Lear cry in horror ‘let copulation thrive’.  In Shakespeare it is much more below the surface than in Chaucer.  No wonder Shakespeare has sometimes been described as a dived Self, although such a writer had to inhabit everyone. The dramatist is necessarily divided, perhaps, but in poetry and prose Shakespeare is also obsessed with his own internal flow and muse. Gower too of course supported the cause of Henry IV in the end, whose legitimacy was essential to the Tudors.

Finally, in thinking about his youngest brother’s funeral in Southwark, an area both knew so well, perhaps it’s worth pausing again over the difficult dating of the plays and Macbeth in particular.  Macbeth is usually dated liberally after 1605 because of references to the Powder Plot.  But there are other references that might just place it as late as December 1607. I don’t know the truth of that,  but of course plenty of other player friends of Shakespeare’s had died already in Southwark and were buried in that church, including Augustine Philips.  To give biting significance to a line that could well have sounded loud again in Shakespeare’s head that freezing funeral day in December 1607, contemplating Southwark and Edmund too, snuffed out before his prime: “Out, out, brief candle, life’s but a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.  It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”  

David Clement-Davies,  January 8th, 2015

For writers in the Sixteenth Century it was hard to survive, books and plays often supported by private donations. We seem to have returned to that time, in some ways, so please realise that the research on Edmund Shakespeare and Southwark represents two years of unpaid work.  If you enjoy these blogs then and can afford to support Phoenix Ark Press, please donate below.  Many thanks.

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The photo is a Wikepedia image of the tomb of Sir John Gower in St Saviour’s Church, renamed from the Church of St Mary’s Ovaries priory, now Southwark Cathedral.

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