The Young Shakespeare (16): Dodging The Plague

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Closing the Theatres

The stage, & especially the London stage, had become Shakespeare’s personal forum, his creative mouthpiece if you will, & in June 1592 his voice was about to be silenced for quite a while. It all began with a riot in Southwark that drew the ire of the Privy Council, after it learn’d of ‘certain apprentices and other idle people‘ who had caused ‘the late mutinous and foul disorder in Southwark in most outrageous and tumultuous sort’. London’s lord mayor, Sir William Webbe, had written to Lord Burghley that a a crowd of ‘loose and masterless men,’ had tried to rescue a companion who had been arrested… iat a play, which, besides the breach of the Sabbath day, giveth opportunity of committing these & other such disorders.’

The Privy Council also discovered the same unruly mob ‘have a further purpose and meaning on Midsummer Evening or Midsummer Night or about that time to renew their lewd assemblage.’ To counter this civil disturbance, the Privy Council beefed ‘set a strong and substantial watch’ & also banned plays in another other past-times & gatherings that drew the common folk together until ‘the Feast of St Michael’ on the 29th September.

And then came the plague. It arrived in London from the provinces in August & by the 21st September at least 35 parishes were “infeckted” with plague. There would be no reopening of the theatres on the Feast of Saint Michael, that’s for sure, & the government soon extended the shutdown until the 29th of December.

APRIL 1593
Shakespeare Publishes Venus & Adonis

In 1592, London’s population was about 150,000. By the following summer, when this particular outbreak of plague had finally died out, according to the 1631 chronicle of John Stow, 10,575 Londoners had died. In 593 the Privy Council wrote to the Lord Mayor, prohibiting, ‘all plays, baiting of bears, bulls, bowling & any other like occasions to assemble any numbers of people together. IN the wake of such physical & cultural devastations, the Queen had decamp’d to Windsor Castle, the actors had gone off touring the provinces & Shakespeare, somewhere in England, got to work on his writing.

On the 18th April, 1593, Shakespeare’s fellow London-based Stratford ex-pat, Richard Field, obtained a license for the publication of Venus & Adonis. It would turn out to be a great success, with seven editions being printed by 1602. It was a bit sexy, you see, & adolescent male studenthood loved it. It is dedicated to the Earl of Southampton, who we have recently appreciated was being tutored by Shakespeare in Titchfield. This dedication, by the way, however floridly sycophantic, is the closest we are to hearing the real voice of Shakespeare.

To the Right Honourable Henry Wriothesly,
Earl of Southampton and Baron of Tichfield.

Right Honourable, I know not how I shall offend in dedicating my unpolished lines to your lordship, nor how the world will censure me for choosing so strong a prop to support so weak a burden: Only, if your honour seem but pleased, I account myself highly praised, and vow to take advantage of all idle hours, till I have honoured you with some graver labour. But if the first heir of my invention prove deformed, I shall be sorry it had so noble a god-father, and never after ear so barren a land, for fear it yield me still so bad a harvest. I leave it to your honourable survey, and your honour to your heart’s content: which I wish may always answer your wish, and the world’s hopeful expectation.

Your honour’s in all duty, William Shakespeare.

The very first V&A printing cost 6 old pence & was sold at the sign of the white greyhound in the bookseller district of  St Paul’s Churchyard. The first run was read to disintegration, & there would be 11 more editions printed over the next twenty-five years.

Theatre at the Prestcott Cockpit

Despite the theatres in London having closed, the appetite for drama remained undiminish’d. Up in lovely Lancashire a playhouse was built on the waste at Prestcott, the market town situated directly besides Knowsley estate. The logical conclusion is that the playhouse was erected to counter the debilitating effects of the plague &through the seasons of 1593-94 it would have played host to a number of touring companies been forced to hit the less road in order to sustain a living.

The Cockpit surviv’d until 1902 as ‘Flatiron House.’ Richard Wilson writes of , ‘the Elizabethan playhouse at Knowsley, near Liverpool, remains one of the dark secrets of Shakesperean 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.’

The Death of the Earl of Derby

Remaining in Lancashire, William Stanley’s poppadom died on the 25th September, 1593, whose title pass’d to his elder brother. Ferdinando Stanley was both poet and author & was consider’d to be, ‘of an exalted genius as well as birth.’ We’ve hardly had a look at the guy, really, but the fact that his sponsor’d troupe was the first to perform many of Shakespeare’s plays makes him quite a significant figure in all our pasts. They were known as Lord Strange’s Men, but on Ferdinando’s succession to the family seat chang’d their name to The Earl of Derby’s Men,

A fine figurehead, pro-Catholic elements soon began to stir, plotting for him to even become the king of England. It seems as if he was never actually in on the plot, & when Richard Hesketh, third cousin Thomas Hesketh of Rufford, turn’d up on his doorstep from abroad, stirring up Jesuit hijinx, Ferdinando did the right thing for his own neck & turned Hesketh over to the authorities for interrogation.

Titus Andronicus

On February 6th, 1594 Shakespeare’s Titus was enter’d into the Stationer’s Register. It was first publish’d in quarto form; perhaps with permission from the author, or more probably not, the title page states that the play was acted by three different companies, Lord Strange’s Men (also called Derby’s Men), Pembroke’s Men, and Sussex’s Men. As for being perform’d, with the plague subsiding a bit in the winters, the Rose Theatre reopened, with Henslowe’s Diary reporting ‘Titus & Ondronicus’ being play’d by Sussex’s Men three times, on January 23 and 28 and February 6, 1594. It was very well received, with Henslowe earning 40 shillings or more from each performance.

These performances of Titus were the last of Shakespeare’s twenties – he would turn 30 in April, 1594, which was also a significant month for his great comrade, lover, co-author & friend, William Stanley, who was just about to inherit an Earldom.  

APRIL 1594
The Death of Ferdinando Strange

After only six months as the Earl of Derby, Ferdinando died in the mysterious of circumstances; having suddenly taken ill with a severe and violent sickness. He fell sick at Knowsley Hall but travelled to Lathom House where he took bezoar stone and powdered unicorn’s horn as medicine, before dying on 16th April, 1594. Poisoning was suspected – possibly one of the earliest lethal uses of arsenic against a human being – perhaps even retributively over the Hesketh affair. On the other hand, in the Elizabethan State Papers, on 15th August 1594 a Jesuit call’d Edmund Yorke, who is reported as saying, “Burghley poisoned the Earl of Derby so as to marry his granddaughter to his brother.” William Camden’s history has a nice overview of the events;

Ferdinand Stanley Earle of Darby… expired in the flowre of his youth, not without suspition of poyson, being tormented with cruell paynes by frequent vomitings of a darke colour like rusty yron. There was found in his chamber an Image of waxe, the belly pierced thorow with haires of the same colour that his were, put there, (as the wiser sort have judged, to remove the suspition of poyson). The matter vomited up stayned the silver Basons in such sort, that by no art they could possibly be brought againe to their former brightnesse… No small suspicion lighted upon the Gentleman of his horse, who; as soone as the Earle tooke his bed, tooke his best horse, and fled”

May 1594
The Rape Of Lucrece

The Rape of Lucrece was entered into the Stationers’ Register on 9 May 1594, and published later that year, in a quarto printed by Richard Field for the bookseller John Harrison (“the Elder”); who sold the book from his shop at the sign of the White Greyhound in St. Paul’s Churchyard. Tho’ not as popular as V&A, the poem would still go through eight editions before 1641. Just like V&A, he was basing his poem on the Titian paintings he’d seen in Madrid. & just like V&A Shakespeare once again dedicated his poem to the Earl of Southampton;

To the
Right Honourable Henry Wriothesly,
Earl of Southampton and Baron of Tichfield.

The love I dedicate to your lordship is without end; whereof this pamphlet, without beginning, is but a superfluous moiety. The warrant I have of your honourable disposition, not the worth of my untutored lines, makes it assured of acceptance. What I have done is yours; what I have to do is yours; being part in all I have, devoted yours. Were my worth greater, my duty would show greater; meantime, as it is, it is bound to your lordship, to whom I wish long life, still lengthened with all happiness,
Your lordship’s in all duty,
William Shakespeare.

Lucrece seems inspired by Robert Southwell’s rather lengthily titled, ‘An epistle of comfort to the reuerend priestes, & to the honorable, worshipful, & other of the laye sort restrayned in durance for the Catholicke fayth.’ Compare;

RS: Battering downe the walles….
His soul’s fair temple is defaced,
WS: Batter’d down her consecrated wall

RS: consumed . . . Ætna . . . smoake . . . ayre
WS: As smoke from Aetna, that in air consumes

RS: the very rockes . . . dissolved
WS: For stones dissolv’d to water do convert

RS: A huge Chaos [is hell]
WS: Vast sin-concealing chaos

Other inspirations are Samuel Daniels Complaint of Rosamond, plus a passage on time elaborated from Thomas Watsons ‘Passionate Century (77).

Shakespeare’s authorship of Lucrece was soon being acclaim’d in a narrative poem call’d ‘Willobie His Avisa’ – published as a pamphlet in London after being entered in the Registers of Stationer’s Hall on 3rd September, 1594. Its stanza is that of Venus & Adonis, & is said to have been written by a person called “Henry Willobie,” whose initials, of course, match those of the Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley.

Though Collatine have deerely bought,
To high renowne, a lasting life,
And found, that most in vaine have sought,
To have a Faire, and Constant wife,
Yet Tarquyne pluckt his glistering grape,
And Shake-speare, paints poor Lucrece rape.

The poem also contains a character called “W.S.,” who is presented as a friend to “H.W.”, and offers him advice on wooing Avisa. As HW is about to take his turn to persuade Avisa out of her chastity, he finds that he is “not able any longer to endure the burning heat of so fervent a humor”, and so he “betrayeth the secrecy of his disease unto his familiar friend, W.S., who, not long before, had tried the curtesy of the like passion.” W.S. then offer some advice, with, “She is no saint, she is no Nonne, I think in time she may be wonne.” This little corner of Shakespeareana is ripe for exploration, & I’m sure the true answers is out there somewhere.

It is again thro’ Lucrece there rose another of the earliest allusions to Shakespeare. It is found in the Epicedium, a quarto pamphlet made up of a single poem in memory of Lady Helen Branch, who died on April 10, 1594. In the opening stanza the self-denigrating anonymous poet lists several poets who would be better at praising the late Lady Branch:

You that haue writ of chaste Lucretia,
Whose death was witnesse of her spotlesse life:
Or pend the praise of sad Cornelia,
Whose blamelesse name hath made her fame so rise:
As noble Pompeys most renoumed wife.
Hither vnto your home direct your eies:
Whereas vnthought on, much more matter lies.

The Cornelia reference leads us Robert Garnier, whose tragedy ‘Cornelia’ was also publish’d in 1594. What is interesting is that the poem has the signature of a certain “W. Har.” We have already encounter’d William Harborne in relations to Shakespeare via Istanbul & the Grand Tour. In August 1588 he left his role & return’d to London – there’s even a fantastic account of this voyage in printed in Hakluyt’s Collection of Voyages. So he could definitely write, & with Harborne back in England – he was from the Familist county of Norfolk -, & being quite high up in society, he would have felt at least comfortably station’d to pen an elegy to an aristocratic lady. Tantalisingly, the initials WH appear in the dedication to Shakespeare’s sonnets which were enter’d into the Stationer’s Register in 1609 – 8 years before Harborne died.

There is nothing concrete, but there is definitely the feel of phantoms congregating into a possible solution for the most enigmatic of Shakespearean mysteries – who was the ‘onlue begetter, Mr. W.H.’















T.T. is clearly Thomas Thorpe, the publisher of the sonnets. But the wording of the dedication is interesting – William Harborne was clearly an adventurer, for an ambassadorial role in the Porte would have been quite a celebrated mission. Harborne would surely have witness’d for himself the Dark Lady triangle, & would have even known her identity. He might even have had copies of some of the sonnets themselves, written out by Shakespeare in Turkey. This would explain the ‘begetter,’ reference, or perhaps Harborne was financially involv’d in the printing, keen to see & read the final result. As for the well-wisher reference, this could refer to his involvement with the release of Stanley from his incarceration, an intervention on behalf of the incarcerated English he gain’d quite a reputation for. Of course, this is speculation, but it is a tantalisingly sound possibility, made even more fascinating by Thomson Cooper’s entry in the Dictionary of National Biography, which states;

{Thomas Nashe}, writing in 1598, speaks of ‘mercurial-breasted Mr. Harborne,’ who, he says, ‘always accepted a rich spark of eternity, first lighted and inkindled at Yarmouth, or there first bred and brought forth to see the light: who since, in the hottest dayies of Leo, hath echoing noised the name of our island and of Yarmouth, so tritonly, that not an infant of the cur-tailed, skin-clipping Pagans, but talk of London as frequently as of their Prophet’s tomb at Mecca’ Nashes Lenten stuffe 1599

Cooper adds;

In his return to England Harborne settled at Mundham, Norfolk. He died there on 6 November 1617 and was buried in that parish. There is, or was, a monument to his memory in that parish, with a eulogistic inscription in English verse.

Returning to Lucrece’s influence on the literati, in 1595 William Clerke in his ‘ Polimanteia’ gave ‘all praise’ to ‘sweet Shakespeare’ for his ‘ Lucrecia,’ while in 1598 the poem is also mention’d by Gabriel Harvey alongside V&A among a series of marginal notes found in Thomas Speght’s edition of ‘The Workes of… Chaucer’ (1598).

The younger sort takes much delight in Shakespeare’s Venus, & Adonis: but his Lucrece, & his tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, have it in them, to please the wiser sort.

Harvey mentions Shakespeare a second time, when he suggests that Sir Edward Dyer’s Amaryllis and Sir Walter Raleigh’s Cynthia are worthy of emulation by a number of authors, being; “Spenser, Constable, Fraunce, Watson, Daniel, Warner, Chapman, Sylvester, Shakespeare, & the rest of our flourishing metricians.”

Of course, the Anti-Stratfordians rarely acknowledge these even exist…

The Merchant of Venice

In 1594 Shakespeare brought his great Merchant Of Venice into the world, mention’d among the Bard’s classic comedies by Meres just a few years later;

His Gentlemen of Verona, his Errors, his Love’s labor’s lost … his Midsummers night dreame, & his Merchant of Venice

During Shakespeare’s day, the Jews were in about the middle of their forced hiatus from Britain. It had begun in 1290, after King Edward I’s Edict of Expulsion officially banished Jews from England, and they would not be allowed back until the late 1700s. In the 16th Century, however,  there were about a hundred Marranos in England, Jews forced to convert to Christianity that still secretly practiced Judaism. Among them was Dr. Roderigo Lopez, the Queen’s head physician, who in 1594 was charged with treason as he allegedly tried to poison the queen. He was found guilty and in the June of 1594 was hanged. This might have been the very spark which usher’d Shakespeare’s Venetian adventures onto the page, for the names of Shakespeare’s characters & even the plot of the play directly allude to the doctor’s trial. Among the play’s names, Shylock’s enemy Antonio is significant, for this was also the name of Dr. Lopez’s main accuser and biggest enemy – with the Portuguese name contrasting the setting in Venice. Lopez’s trial was a strongly bias’d kangaroo court of an affair, very much like that of Shylocks, when the Duke and Senator of Venice, unfairly judge Shylock’s trial. The appointed judges have already decided that Shylock is guilty, before the trial starts.


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