In 1588 Shakespeare joined the Stanley family at Knowsley for a very special festive season. Ferdinando Stanley was becoming a very important figure in English theatre When the Earl of Leicester died on the 4th September, 1588, his theatrical troupe merged with Ferdinando’s Lord Strange’s Men. This infusion of lifeblood really helped ressurrect the company, which had not done anything for years. Both the Theatre & the Curtain playhouses in London were then used by the company in 1588 & 1589, which brings them into the Shakespearean orbit.
The Stanleys were Oxford University boys, & would had grown up with the long-standing tradition of plays being acted out over the festive season. MJ Davis writes, ‘Christ Church & St Johns were the two colleges where drama flourished most. At Christ Church there was a decree that two comedies & two tragedies – one of each in Greek &, the others in Latin – were to be acted during the Christmas season each year. Whereas Cambridge excelled in comedy, Oxford excelled in tragedy, with Seneca’s plays prominent towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign.’ In the same fashion, over the Festive season of 1588-89, two different plays were acted to a great pantheon of northern dignitaries. The Household Accounts book describe the events of the theatrical festive seasons;
29 December 1588 – 4th January 1589
Sondaye Mr Carter pretched at which was dyvers strandgers, on mondaye came mr stewarde, on Tuesday the reste of my lords cownsell & also Sir Ihon Savadge, at nyghte a play was had in the halle & the same nyght my Lord strandge came home, on wednesdaye mr fletewod pretched, & the same daye yonge mr halsall & his wiffe came on thursedaye mr Irelande of the hutte, on frydaye Sir Ihon savadge departed & the same daie mr hesketh mr anderton & mr asheton came & also my lord bushoppe & sir Ihon byron
This tells us that ‘a play was had in the halle’ on New Years Eve, on the very same night ‘Lord strandge came home.’ When Four days later Thomas Hesketh also arrives at Lathom, we get the idea that Shakespeare was also in the vicinity. The play would have been performed in the Derby’s private theatre at Knowsley, which survived until 1902 as ‘Flatiron House.’ It had been built on the waste by Richard Harrington, a tennant of Prescot Hall, of which place Richard Wilson writes, ‘the Elizabethan playhouse at Knowsley, near Liverpool, remains one of the dark secrets of Shakesperian England. Very few commentators are aware of even the existence of this theatre, built by the Stewards of Henry Stanley, Earl of Derby, on the site of his cockpit, some time in the 1580s.’ Other visitors that Christmas include some of the most important men in the north of England, such as the Bishop of Chester, William Chanderton & Sir John Byron, an ancestor of the poet Lord Byron. It is clear that they came to see a play, for the next entry in the household book reads;
5th January to 10th January
sondaye mr caldwell pretched, & that nyght plaiers plaied, mondaye my Lord bushop pretched, & the same daye mr trafforth mr Edward stanley, mr mydleton of Leighton came on Tuesdaye Sir Richard shirbon mr stewarde my Lord bushoppe Sir Ihon byron & many others departed, wednesdaye my lord removed to new parke, on frydaye mr norres & mr tarbocke & mr Tildesley came & went
The key information here is that a second play was performed on the evening of 5th January – a time known to the Church of England as ‘Twelfth Night.’ A similar timed performance was played at court & recorded as, ‘1583. Jan. 5. A mask of iiadies on Twelfth Eve.’ Looking at the Shakespearean ouevre, it makes sense that his early-feeling Twelfth Night was played on this occasion. Samuel Pepys recorded on January 6th, 1662; ‘Dinner to the Duke’s house, & there saw ‘Twelfth-Night’ acted well, though it be but a silly play, & not related at all to the name or day.’
There is a notice of a lost play by Shakespeare, whose sole mention comes in the 1598 Palladis Tamia, Wits Treasury, by Francis Meres. The passage basically tells us what Shakespeare had produced by that time;
As the soul of Euphorbus was thought to live in Pythagoras, so the sweet witty soul of Ovid lives in mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakespeare, witness his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece his sugared Sonnets among his private friends…. As Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for Comedy and Tragedy among the Latins, so Shakespeare among the English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage…. for Comedy, witness his Gentlemen of Verona, his Errors, his Love Labours Lost, his Love Labours Won, his Midsummer Night’s Dream, and his Merchant of Venice; for Tragedy his Richard the 2, Richard the 3, Henry the 4, King John, Titus Andronicus, and Romeo and Juliet.
The presence of Loves Labour Lost right next to Loves Labours Won suggest that they were originally played in sequence, which fits in perfectly with the festivities at Knowsley. Loves Labours Lost would have been performed at Christmas, with Love’s Labours Won/Twelfth Night being performed on the evening of January 5th. Stylistically & linguistically, the frantic energetic comedy of Love’s Labours Won/Twelfth Night resembles the Comedy of Errors, which we have dated to 1588.
In 1602 we have the first ‘official’ record of a performance of Twelfth Night, in John Mannigham’s ‘Diary,’ when we hear’ ‘Feb. 2.–At our feast wee had a play called ‘Twelve Night, or What you Will,’ much like the Commedy of Errores, or Menechmi in Plautus, but most like and neere to that in Italian called Inganni. A good practise in it to make the steward beleeue his Lady widdowe was in love with him, by counterfayting a lettre as from his Lady in generall termes, telling him what shee liked best in him, and prescribing his gesture in smiling, his apparraile, etc., and then when he came to practise making him beleeue they tooke him to be mad.’ Most scholars presume this to be the first performance of Twelfth Night – but I would like to propose that it was first played twelve years earlier at Lathom. Both performances come in the middle of Leap Years, which connects to the play’s reference to the woman-in-charge Leap Year rule;
Praise we may afford To any lady that subdues a lord
If we bounce our investigation off the Stanley-Shakespeare romance, Twelfth night is also full of sexually unusual pairings, a feast of homoerotic feelings erupting from its chief author & its muse, who seem mirrored in the absolute bonding between Antonio & Sebastian. There are many subtextual echoes of the sonnets in Twelfth Night, especially in its handling of the humiliation of rejected love. Interestingly, the romantic wool seems to have fallen from Antonio’s eyes, whose god seems now more of a ‘vile idol.’ Also important is an echo of the sonnets’ menage a Trois in the Orsino, his boy & his lady triangle.
Turning now to Loves Labours Lost, Alfred Harbage once wrote, ‘I think that this play is more likely than any other to suggest the avenues of investigation if there is ever to be a ‘breakthrough’ in our knowledge of Shakespeare’s theatrical beginnings.’ Another scholar, Harley Granville-Barker, adds, ‘it abounds in jokes for the elect, were you not numbered among them you laughed, for safety, in the likeliest places. A year or two later the elect themselves might be hard put to it to remember what the joke was…. it’s a time-sensitive play for a very specific and select audience. Once we figure out who that audience is, we’ll know when the play was first written.’ When we observe there are a number of nods to the Stanleys throughout the play, surely we can answer Mr Harbage’s question. The play contains, for example, several references to the eagle; an important Stanley symbol as found on the family crest to the Eagle Tower at Latham.
What peremptory eagle-sighted eye
Dares looke upon the heaven of her brow
That is not blinded by her majestie
Earl Henry would loved to have heard about his beloved Navarre, the play’s setting, while Ferdinando would have been amused by his name being used as the main character. The Stanley household would have noticed that Malvolio was based upon steward, William Farrington. The play contains a masque – the Nine Worthies – identical to the one performed annually at nearby Chester. In a commentary on Love’s Labour’s Lost by Charles Knight, we read; ‘in this manuscript of… a Chester pageant… the Four Seasons concludes the representation of The Nine Worthies. Shakespeare must have seen such an exhibition, and have thence derived the songs of Ver and Hiems.’ This gives us a firm link to William Stanley, whose tutor, Richard Lloyd, wrote, ‘A brief discourse of the most renowned acts and right valiant conquests of those puissant Princes called the Nine Worthies.‘ Shakespeare must have seen Lloyd’s mask at some point in order to import the songs into his own play. Lefranc found many correspondences between Lloyd’s Nine Worthies and the masque in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and even reminiscent lines: In The Nine Worthies we read: ‘This puissant prince and conqueror bare in his shield a Lyon or, Wich sitting in a chaire bent a battel axe in his paw argent,‘ and in Love’s Labour’s Lost: ‘Your lion, that holds his poll-axe sitting on a close-stool, will be given to Ajax.’
With Shakespeare fresh from his Continental sonnetteering, it is no wonder that sonnets take an important cameo in the LLL. There is an extremely famous & charming sonnet-reading scene, which shows how much the art form was on Shakespeare’s mind at the time. Examples include;
So sweet a kiss the golden sun gives not
To those fresh morning drops upon the rose,
As thy eye-beams, when their fresh rays have smote
The night of dew that on my cheeks down flows:
Nor shines the silver moon one half so bright
Through the transparent bosom of the deep,
As doth thy face through tears of mine give light;
Thou shinest in every tear that I do weep:
No drop but as a coach doth carry thee;
So ridest thou triumphing in my woe.
Do but behold the tears that swell in me,
And they thy glory through my grief will show:
But do not love thyself; then thou wilt keep
My tears for glasses, and still make me weep.
Did not the heavenly rhetoric of thine eye,
‘Gainst whom the world cannot hold argument,
Persuade my heart to this false perjury?
Vows for thee broke deserve not punishment.
A woman I forswore; but I will prove,
Thou being a goddess, I forswore not thee:
My vow was earthly, thou a heavenly love;
Thy grace being gain’d cures all disgrace in me.
Vows are but breath, and breath a vapour is:
Then thou, fair sun, which on my earth dost shine,
Exhalest this vapour-vow; in thee it is:
If broken then, it is no fault of mine:
If by me broke, what fool is not so wise
To lose an oath to win a paradise?
That Love’s Labours Lost is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays was recognized as far back as 1710. when Charles Gildon opined, ‘since it is one of the worst of Shakespeare’s Plays, nay I think I may say the very worst, I cannot but think that it is his first.’ To this, Clare Asquith adds, ‘now the first and dominant conviction at which we arrive in a rapid reading of the text is that Loves Labours Lost was written as a topical play; that it bristles throughout with topical allusion; and that most, if not all, of its characters were meant by shakespeare to be portraits or caricatures of living persons.‘ The name ‘Armardo’ is a clear reference to the armada, while the play also makes reference to the Martin Marprelate controversy which raged from 1588-89. Of the latter reference, George Richard Hibbard describes, ‘the ‘clue’ provided by Hercules’ killing of Cerberus, that three-headed Canis,’… a reference to ‘Nashe’s prowess in 1589 against the three-headed Martin – Martin Marprelate, Martin senior & Martin Junior.’
With the composition of LLL having taken place not long after Shakespeare had experienced the turmoil of his Turkish menage a trois, we can see how the Dark Lady of the sonnets found her way into LLL, when the beauties of a certain sable-skinned lady called ‘Rosaline’ are described. Biron’s passage beginning ‘devils soonest tempt’ could well have been a sonnet originally, which wound its way into LLL instead.
FERDINAND – By heaven, thy love is black as ebony.
BIRON – Is ebony like her? O wood divine!
A wife of such wood were felicity.
O, who can give an oath? where is a book?
That I may swear beauty doth beauty lack,
If that she learn not of her eye to look:
No face is fair that is not full so black.
FERDINAND – O paradox! Black is the badge of hell,
The hue of dungeons and the suit of night;
And beauty’s crest becomes the heavens well.
BIRON – Devils soonest tempt, resembling spirits of light.
O, if in black my lady’s brows be deck’d,
It mourns that painting and usurping hair
Should ravish doters with a false aspect;
And therefore is she born to make black fair.
Her favour turns the fashion of the days,
For native blood is counted painting now;
And therefore red, that would avoid dispraise,
Paints itself black, to imitate her brow.
DUMAIN – To look like her are chimney-sweepers black.
LONGAVILLE – And since her time are colliers counted bright.
FERDINAND – And Ethiopes of their sweet complexion crack.
Coompare the above with sonnet 127
In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name;
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame:
For since each hand hath put on Nature’s power,
Fairing the foul with Art’s false borrowed face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland’ring creation with a false esteem:
Yet so they mourn becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says beauty should look so.
Before Shakespeare leaves Knowsley, I’d like to suggest his borrowing of a book from the Stanley’s – North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives. This is one of the most important source texts for the Shakespearean plays, & a paper survives noting that a copy of North’s translation was loaned to a certain “Wilhelmi” by Ferdinando’s wife, Alice, and returned in 1611. The latter year is, of course, the date of the Tempest, Shakespeare’s last play to be performed & to many the moment he gives up writing – he surely won’t be needing that Plutarch anymore!