The Young Shakespeare
1525: Shakespeare’s Family Lands
In 1525, Richard Shakespeare, our poet’s grandfather, possessed lands at a place called Wroxall, between Coventry & Birmingham. Eight miles to the north of Wroxall lies the manor of Meriden, known to have belonged to the Earl of Derby, who possessed, according to Thomas Aspden;
The ancient seats of Lathom and Knowsley, with all the houses, lands, castles, and appurtenances in Lancashire, Cumberland, Yorkshire, Cheshire, and many in Wales ; also the manor of Meriden, in the County of Warwick, with the old seat in Cannon Row, Westminster (afterwards called Derby Court), and also the advowson of the Parish Church of the Holy Trinity, in the city of Chester.
It is only a loose connection, but we can positively determine how the ‘antecessors’ of Stanley & Shakespeare were neighbours.
1552: Edmund Spenser Born
Edmund Spenser was born to Lancastrian parents, but down in the nation’s capital. Spenser’s father, John, originally from the Burnley area (like me), had moved to London to seek work, appearing in the Merchant Taylor’s school annals as a free ‘journeyman, clothworker.’ In the Spenserian epoch, East Lancashire was simply teeming with Edmunds & John Spensers, the two names alternating from generation to generation, as seen in a will made by Margaret Spenser of Hurstwood in 1605;
Mary, Margaret, and ffrances Nutter daughters of the said Henry, Edmund Spenser son and heir of John Spenser, deceased, ” to him ” all my manure or worthinge,” Henry Spencer base son of John Spenser, Nicholas Towne and Grace Towne now his wife ” “one churn one Masheknoppe” ” Mary Spenser daughter of John Spenser deceased, Richard Cowcrofte to whom I am Aunt, Henry Cowcrofte of Birchecliffe, John Spenser, of Hurstwood, Ellinor now his wife, Edmund Spenser son of the said John Spenser
In the gorgeous wee hamlet of Hurstwood, near Burnley, there is a Tudor building known as ‘Spenser’s House’ still standing today. In and around Hurstwood, & at Extwistle-and-Briercliffe in Burnley, the Spensers, formerly Le Spensers, had long held property. In the Gentleman’s Magazine of August 1842, Dr Craik cites the research of a certain FC Spenser of Halifax, who declared;
The poet always spelt his surname with an s; and it appears from the registers that it was spelt in the same manner by the family at Hurstwood; not only in the reign of Elizabeth, but for a century afterwards; while even at Kildwick, near Skipton, only about ten or twelve miles distant, it is spelled with a c, in the manner as did, and do, the Spencers of Althorpe.
1557: John Shakespeare Marries Into The Arden Family
Shakespeare’s father turns up in Stratford on June 17, 1556, brought to court by a certain Thomas Such for the recovery of £8. He is described as, ‘John Shakyspere of Stretforde, in the county of Warwick, glover.’ After three hearings that summer, the case was eventually dismissed when Thomas Such, ‘did not complete the action he embarked on.’ A year later he marries Mary Arden in Stratford-upon-Avon, whose family were staunch Catholics under a Catholic queen, Mary Tudor. The excellent essay, To Be or Not to Be (Catholic, That is),’ by Daniel Wackerman shows how Shakespeare’s maternal grandfather, Edward Arden, ‘was said to have secretly kept his own catholic priest, disguised as the family gardener,’ adding that Shakespeare’s mother, ‘made specific mention of the Blessed Virgin Mary in her will, a practice long out of fashion for all save Catholics in 16th-century England.’ It seems the old faith would never really leave their son, William, whom according to the Rev. Richard Davies, the rector of Sapperton (1695), ‘dyed a papist.’
Mary Tudor died in November 1558. During her time as queen she had reversed her father’s establishment of the Protestant Church of England & ruled as a Catholic, burning a whole heap of Protestants along the way. Her sister & successor Elizabeth would re-establish her father Henry VIII’s ‘Church of England,’ which at a stroke sent Catholic families such as the Ardens into secret worship once again. In the middle of this religious schizophrenia that was western Christendom in the 16th century, one sect fluttered about like a butterfy in a hurricane, preaching peace & unity of faith. The Familists were a radical, non-sectarian religious group known as the ‘Family of Love,’ who embraced both Catholics AND Protestants – the perfect alternative for the schismatic psyche of the Tudor state.
Non-Conformist religious obsessives though they were, the Familists embraced alternative views to those of the established church, views which were in a sense, an attempt to introduce Reason into religion and more reasoned forms of religious observance to those required by the established church. As such, the early familists can perhaps be viewed as among the precursors of the coming Enlightenment. Familism began to take hold in England during the 1550s, led by a certain Christopher Vittels, who had been a disciple of the Dutch Familist leader, Henry Niclaes. Worshipping in secret, the Familists would conceal their true beliefs while putting on a show of conformity for the outside world. If they were ever outed, they would stringently deny it, realizing it was better to briefly lie & stay alive in order to continue the worship of God, rather than let pride lead them to the bonfire.
1560: John Shakespeare Signs his Catholic Spiritual Testament
In the 18th century, in the rafters of the house on Henley Street, Stratford, was found ‘The Sacred Testament,’ a handwritten personal dedication to the Catholic faith, signed by Shakespeare’s father himself. That our bard at some point in his life encountered the Testament seems quite likely, based upon the strikingly similar parallels between Article I of the Testament and the Ghost’s words in Hamlet;
I may be possibly cut off in the blossom of my sins, and called to render an account of all my transgressions externally and internally, and that I may be unprepared for the dreadful trial either by sacrament, penance, fasting, or prayer, or any other purgation whatever
Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhousel’d, disappointed, unanel’d,
No reckoning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head:
In the Testament, where John Shakespeare beseeches, ‘all my dear friends, parents, and kinsfolks,’ the pluralization of parents means the testament must have been made before 1561, the year when John’s father Richard, died.
1564: Birth of William Shakespeare
In April 1564, just as the season of spring was beginning to flood the British Isles with scent & colour, a certain Mary Shakespeare has just given birth to a boy. Holding her hand is her husband, John Shakespeare, excited at the prospect of their baby, but nervous as to whether he would survive the rigors of infancy. Their first two swaddling baby girls had pass’d away before they could walk, & it would have been with doubtless trepidation when ‘Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere’ was scribbl’d in the Baptismal record of Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church on the 26 April 1564. It turned out that John & Mary had no need to worry, even when three months later the plague struck Stratford. By the end of the year over 200 people had been buried, about one fifth of the population of the town, but thro’ fate or fortune baby Will survived the outbreak, & would eventually grow up into one of the finest young men in the kingdom.
1566: Sir John Townley imprisoned for Catholicism
‘This countri as yett is verie backward in religion’ wrote Thomas Mead, ‘they that have the sword in there handes vnder her maiestie to redresse abuses among vs, suffer it to rust in the scabarde’. He was talking about Lancashire, probably the most staunchly Catholic county in England. Lancashire was a superstitious, underpopulated region, where almost all of the gentry refused to accept the new religion imposed on them by Henry VIII & his daughter Elizabeth. They were more than willing to pay fines to the state rather than join a parish congregation onto which a Genevan vicar had been foisted. Of these nobles, the most prolific offender was Sir John Townley of Towneley Hall, whose gorgeous mansion was situated in the most serendipitous grounds just to the south-east of Burnley.
Anybody who did not attend the regular Anglican services was termed a recusant, & Sir John was to be imprisoned several times for his open defiance, paying over £5000 in fines throughout his lifetime in order to avoid attending the Protestants. He would worship the Old Faith in secret at Towneley Hall – now a museum & art gallery – where one can still see the secret chambers where the Catholic priests were hidden. The hall also possesses a beautiful painting of Sir John Towneley sitting with his family, which is imbibed with the following inscription, dated to 1601.
This John, about the 6th or 7th year of her Majesty that now is, for professing the Apostolic Catholic Roman faith, was imprisoned first at Chester Castle, then sent to the Marshalsea, then to York Castle, then to the Blockhouses in Hull, then to the Gatehouse in Westminster, then to Manchester, then to Broughton in Oxfordshire, then twice to Ely in Cambridgeshire; and so now of 73 years old, and is bound to appear and keep within 5 miles of Townley his house; and who hath, since the statute of 23 Elizabeth, paid into the exchequer 20 the month and doth still, so that there is already paid above £5,000. A.D. thor.
1568: The English College Founded in Douay
The small town of Douay lies on the River Scarpe, twenty miles south of Lille in northern France. A flourishing, medieval conurbation; it had become stuffed full of English Catholics in exile, hoping to save their country from the ‘heathen’ protestant church. In1559 the town established a university, with its first chancellor being the exiled Dr. Richard Smith, former Fellow of Merton and regius professor of divinity at Oxford.
In 1568 a bunch of Lancastrian Catholics make a sideways attempt at bringing their country back under the fold of the Vatican. The plan was to train up hundreds of Jesuit priests in Douay, who would return to England as the vanguard of a spiritual reconquista. The brains behind the scheme was a certain Lancastrian Catholic called William Allen, while funding for the college also came from Lancashire, where a gentleman called Thomas Hoghton diverted profits from his Alum mines to France. In a flash Douay was filled with cardinals, scholars & would-be priests, a hectic band whose sole purpose was to reclaim English spirituality in defiance of Protestant law. There would be blood, but there would be prayer.
1568: John Shakespeare Becomes Chief Bailiff of Stratford
The first decade of William’s life saw his father grow in influence & affluence all about their home town. In July 1565 he was elected one of the 14 alderman of Stratford, becoming chief bailiff between the autumns of 1568 & 1569. It was on his watch that the Stratford corporation paid for its first ever set of travelling actors to perform in the town, the Queen’s Players. One can imagine the very young Shakespeare observing the theatrical spectacle for the first time, a lightning bolt of electricity which would sear his soul with the sheer wonder of it all.
1569: Death of Robert Nowell
Another member of the Lancastrian Catholic community was Robert Nowell, a half-brother of Sir John Townley. Upon his death in 1569, to satisfy the requirements of the will both Sir John & Robert’s full brother, Alexander Nowell, distributed linen and woollen cloth among the poor of the parish-dwellers of Burnley. Among the ‘poor kynsfolkes’ who benefited from other parts of the will were Lyttis Nowell of Castle Parish in Clitheroe, who had married a certain Lawrence Spenser. Another Spenser to benefit would be our young poet down London, for Robert Nowell was also the headmaster of the Merchant’s School in which the young Spenser was attending. The 19th century antiquarian J McKay writes of the will;
At folio 25 there is an entry of ‘Gownes geven to certeyn poor scholler (s) of the scholls aboute London, in number 32, viz., St. Paul’s, Merchant Taylor’s, St Anthony’s Schole, St. Saviour’s Gramar Schole, & Westminster Schole. Cost of cloth, with making, xixll. Xs. Vijd.’ First on the list of the scholars of Merchant Taylors’ who recieved these gifts stands our fledgeling epic poet ‘Edmunde Spenser.’
1570+: Spenser enters Familist Circles
Throughout the 1570s, the writings of the de facto Familist leader, Henry Niclaeus, were translated by Christopher Vettels & disseminated throughout England. The brains behind the move, according to popular feeling at the time, were the Jesuits, whom the Welsh clergyman Meredith Hanmer (1543–1604) declared did ‘shaketh hands’ with their ‘brethren’ the Familists, a ‘detestable’ society of ‘like antiquity… who say that God is hominified in them & they deified in God.’ That a certain Dutch poet, Sir Jan van der Noot, was among their number can be discerned through his 1576 book, ‘Das Buch Extasis,’ which contains many Familist elements. In 1569 we gain the first hint of Spenser’s own connection to the group, for as a young man he became the English translator of der Noot’s ‘Theatre for Wordlings.’ Spenser admitted to such in 1591 when he reworked & reprinted the verses under his own name, stating them as being ‘formerly translated.’ Van der Noot’s use of embletic woodcuts throughout the 1570s would also inspire Spenser’s series which decorate the months of his Shepheard’s Calendar. We may also observe that in the extreme vicinity of Pendleside – where a Lawrence Spenser who died in 1584 seems to have been the poet’s grandfather – the hamlet of Grindleton was home to one of only two known nests of Familists in the north of England.
1570 : Shakespeare Starts School
Of Shakespeare’s schooling, Nicholas Rowe (1674-1718) writes, ‘his Father…. had bred him, ’tis true, for some time at a Free-School.’ This statement comes from Rowe’s introduction to his 1709 edition of Shakespeare’s plays in which he acknowledges, ‘the most considerable part of the passages relating to this life,’ were given him by the actor Thomas Betterton (1634-1710), who had made, ‘a journey to Warwickshire on purpose to gather up what remains he could, of a name for which he had so great a veneration.’ Founded in the 14th century, Stratford Grammar School is still standing today, kept in a good condition by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. In 1568, according to the chamberlain’s accounts of the town for that year, we see money being spent on ‘repairing the scole,’ ‘dressing and sweeping the scole-house,’ ‘ground-sellynge the old scole, and taking down the sollar over the school,’ which means Shakespeare’s schooling had begun just after a big paint job. He would have started attending from about the age of 6, force fed a diet of endless Latin repetitions with a heavy emphasis on the Roman writers Ovid, Plautus & Seneca. He would also have been made to learn Greek in order to study the scriptures in their original form, being drilled in the Bible until it became second nature to him. Shakespeare even gives us an accurate glimpse into his own schooldays, one expects, when in The Merry Wives of Windsor the headmaster tests the knowledge of a pupil named, appropriately, William.
Sir Hugh Evans
Show me now, William, some declensions of your pronouns.
Forsooth, I have forgot.
Sir Hugh Evans
It is qui, quae, quod: if you forget your ‘quies,’ your ‘quaes,’ and your ‘quods,’ you must be preeches. Go your ways, and play; go.
1574: John Shakespeare is Doing Rather Well for Himself
John Shakespeare’s profession, as tradition holds, was a butcher (Aubrey), a glover (official records), a wool merchant (Rowe), or most likley he was employed in all three. By 1574, enough money had been made to pay Edmund & Emma Hall £40 for two freehold houses, complete with lovely tudor-style gardens & orchards. Also in the property portfolio, the family home was still at Henley Street, while the Shaksepeare’s were still the owners of properties which Mary had inherited. John Shakespeare was also beginning to enquire about acquiring a coat of arms for his family. Coats of arms were expensive, costing between £10 and £30. As a comparison the schoolmaster in Stratford-upon-Avon was paid a salary of £20 a year. It was clear John had money.
1574 : Shakespeare Writes For The Familists
When Joseph Walford Martin described certain Elizabethan references as being, ‘explicit in their charge that Familist at least incline toward Rome,’ we may now plant a hyperbasis of the pro-Catholic Shakespeares, in fear of persecution but hardly wanting to conform to the Anglian church, beginning to dabble with this new-fangled ‘Familism’ in the early 1570s. It is, then, in the year of John Shakespeare’s greatest financial prosperity that the first works of William Shakespeare were recorded for posterity. He was ten at the time, an age where massive minds such as his should have been revealing their first glimmers of genius. Only four years ago, in 2016, a certain chess player called Praggnanandhaa Rameshbabu became the youngest ever International Master (the level below Grandmaster) in history, at the age of 10 years, 10 months & 19 days. It makes sense that the greatest ever writer in the English language would have shown some intimations as to his talent at an early date. If we see creative output as vegetation, Shakespeare’s would be something akin to the vast & ancient yew tree found on the Whittinghame Estate, East Lothian; with a tangled canopy of green & a root system spreading half a mile or more. Such roots run deep, & when analyzing the Shakespearean metaphysic, we must assume that his own would have ran stretched into startlingly far corners.
Starting young explains the brilliance of Shakespeare’s ouput – he would always have to find new ways to express similar sentiments, pushing him to ever better manipulations of language. At the very beginning of his career there are two ballads printed in 1574 which reflect Shakespeare’s grammar school knowledge of the Bible. Accredited to a certain W.S., each contains a number of rather neat, but not amazingly written stanzas. The ballads are packed full of semi-quotations from the bible, & it seems to be a learning tool straight from the cloisters of grammar school academe. Printed in Cologne, they made their way to Germany & into the hands of the Familist Hendrik Niclaes, who printed these along with many of his own poems that year, such as his Exhortatio, Evangelium Regni & Epistola. Margaret Healy highlights some of the influence that Niclaean teaching had on Shakespeare;
We might look again in this context at the line in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 124, which seems to designate religious martyrs (those who ‘die for goodness’), rather unheroically, as ‘fools of Time.’ One’s inner spiritual state was crucial, outward appearance was mere show (it is intriguing to recall the line in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 102, ‘I love you not less, though less the show appear’, in relation to this). H.N. believed that through Christ & the Resurrection every man could become spiritually regenerated & godded with god or ‘deified’ (an odd word, which appears in A Lover’s Complaint, line 84).
Almost 450 years later, only single copies of the ballads remain, housed in the Bodleian library at Oxford. The first two stanzas from each poem are given here, when the author, W.S., is named in the Latin statement; Per W.S. Veritatis Amatorem. Anno. 1574. Reading through these ballads, one can feel the youth of their composer, while also sensing the indescribable talent burgeoning with the promise of beautiful verses yet to come. Note the appearance of the initials of Henry Niklaes (HN).
A new balade or songe of the Lambes feast
I Hearde one saye:
Coma now awaye /
Make no delaye:
Alack / why stande yee than?
All is doubtlesse
In redynesse /
There wantes but Gesse /
To the Supper of the Lamb.
For Hee is now blest // in verye deede /
Thats found ad Gest // in the Mariage-weede.
THE Scriptures all /
Bee, in this my Call /
Voyced-out by H.N. (than):
I am Gods Love /
Com from above /
All Men to move /
To the Supper of the Lamb.
For Hee is now blest // in verye deede /
Thats found ad Gest // in the Mariage-weede
Another, out of goodwill
The Grace from God
the Father hye /
Which is of Mightes most a /
The Mercye eake from Christ our Lorde /
And Peace from the holye Gost a /
Com to All // That now shall /
In Love with us agree a /
And consent // With whole Intent /
To the Loves Soscietee a
LOVE the Lorde above al-thinge /
Is the first Precept by name a:
Love thy Neyghbour as thy-selfe /
The seconds lyke the same a.
Thus wee see // Love to bee,
Written with Gods-his owne Hande a /
Toe geeve us Light // And guyde us right /
Eaven out of that darke Lande a.
It has been long-observed how the writings of the Familist, Justus Lipsius, had a profound effect on our bard’s political thought, especially his 1584 translation of the treatise De Constantia. In that text, when Lipsius quotes Petronius’ ‘the whole world is a stage-play’ we get the seedlings of one of Shakespeare’s most famous passages, As You Like It’s;
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.
Elsewhere in Shakespeare’s work he embodied not just a wonderful realism but also the stirrings of a reasoned and progressive challenge to the irrationalism of established orthodoxies. Falstaff’s catechism, exposing the futility and meaninglessness of honour, war and war mongering is a lovely example of this:
Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks
me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I
come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or
an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no.
Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is
honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what
is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?
he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no.
Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea,
to the dead. But will it not live with the living?
no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore
I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so
ends my catechism.
THE YOUNG SHAKESPEARE
Discovering the fascinating truth
Beneath Shakespeare’s missing years
‘God comes first,’ declared Heinrich Heine, ‘but surely Shakespeare comes next,’ & at some moment in our own lifetimes there might come the dawnflash when we truly understand the profound genius of a mind which conjured such a sequence of brilliant plays they shall remain in our collective consciousness forever. More than any other individual, Shakespeare’s natural creativity has improved & modernized the English tongue; while at the same time his uncanny penchant for the dramatic artform invented, fermented & cemented a theatrical tradition still thriving to this day. In the Elizabethan era, the art of English ‘biography’ was very much in its infancy. A first proper attempt to record actual details of Shakespeare’s life was made in the 1660’s, when John Aubrey included a gossipy sketch in his, ‘Short Lives.’ Another half-century would pass before anybody else tried to flesh out the bones of Aubrey’s brief work, when the poet-laureate-to-be, Nicholas Rowe, allocated to himself the task of modernizing Shakespeare’s language into the English of his day. There are other titbits & accounts scattered throughout the living memory of the Bard, such as this account by John Ward, the vicar of Stratford-upon-Avon and physician, whose Notebook for 1662-1663 reads;
I have heard that Mr. Shakespeare was a natural wit without any art at all. He frequented the plays all his younger time, but in his elder days lived at Stratford: and supplied the stage with 2 plays every year and for that had an allowance so large that he spent at the rate of £1000 a year as I have heard.Combining Rowe, Ward & Aubrey gives us the tangible phantom of the historical Shakespeare, which is in essence moulded only upon a scrappy handful of unlikely anecdotes & second-hand memories. Into these we can stitch a few dozen ‘official’ details, such as; his marriage to Anne Hathaway; the christening records of their three children; legal affidavits; & his famous will. In official spheredom, six of Shakespeare’s signatures have been raked up from the ashes of historical bureaucracy, the last of which scratched loosely to his will. Remarkably, this final document of Shakespeare’s life contains the only known universally accepted handwriting we possess in his hand. Even then, this sample consists of only the four letters of ‘by me,’ or even ‘by mr;’ a scanty relic of our greatest writer’s gargantuan wordsmithery. In 1616, at the age of 52, Shakespeare died & was buried in Stratford. Seven years after this native entombment ,thirty-six of his plays were printed together for the first time in a rather large tome known as the First Folio. This brilliantly influential book contains a woodcut engraving which provides us with the definitive image of the Bard; a balding & bearded man, nestling quite unegregiously in his middle-age. Unfortunately, by some obtuse glitch there exists today a rather large & angry mob of academics who, with growing defiance, absolutely & positively deny that William Shakespeare ever composed his own plays. There are two principle reasons for this chronic conclusion of the Antishakespeareans: the first is a complete lack of any manuscripts in Shakespeare’s hand. Maybe; but none of the great playwrights of the period left behind any actual manuscripts of their plays: in a time without copyright, these precious reams of paper were jealously guarded & then destroyed by the theatres. It was far better for a play to dwell in the memory of an actor or three, than to fall into the hands of a rival company. The second objection to Shakespeare’s existence comes from an intellectually snobbish attitude prevalent throughout the halls of academe, which assumes that literary genius may only be taught & never be acquired through natural means. From this vulgar stance comes the conclusion that an uneducated country yeoman could not have acquired the intellectual capabilities to produce such a fantastic treasury of writings that constitute Shakespeare’s majestic oeuvre. This, then, is the case against, which has not been enough to convince the majority of scholars, & the rest of the world at large, that Shakespeare the man was not also Shakespeare the author. Such defenders of his noble name are known as Stratfordians, while pitted against them are the non-believers, who go by the name of ‘non-Stratfordians,’ or my own slightly catchier Antishakespereans. Of this bitter & increasingly fractious academic battleground, the modern scholar Leo Daugherty, postulates, ‘most of the “warfare” emanates from scholars and critics deeply entrenched in ideology far more than in commitment to good evidence.’ The ‘ideology’ mentioned by Daugherty manifests itself as an intellectual world shaking collective & disbelieving heads at Shakespeare’s meteoric rise, combining voices in an open declaration that the works of Shakespeare must have been created by some university-educated nobleman & not the Swan of Avon. This has seen the promulgation of a series of candidates onto which has been deflected more than a century of critical scholarship. Like any of our great world mysteries, a crazed wild-fire has broken out among the pages of our normally rational academics, smouldering charcoal embers which are distorting the truth about Shakespeare to this day. Contenders include Christopher Marlowe, despite the fact he was stabbed to death in 1593; which would have made it rather difficult for him to have penned a play such as the Scottish-influenced Macbeth, written to celebrate the succession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne in 1603. A year after this event – in 1604 – Edward De Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, also died. This starbright gentleman is the main focus of most anti-Shakespearean scholarship, but he simply could not have written plays such as the Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline & Coriolanus – he was dead. Coriolanus, for example, contains the fable of Menenius as drawn from the ‘Remaines’ of William Camden, which were published in 1605. There is also the 1598 pacing of De Vere among the great writers of the age alongside Shakespeare, by their contemporary Francis Meres.
The best for Comedy amongst vs bee Edward, Earle of Oxforde, Doctor Gager of Oxforde, Master Rowley, once a rare scholler of learned Pembrooke Hall in Cambridge, Maister Edwardes, one of Her Maiesties Chappell, eloquent and wittie Iohn Lilly, Lodge, Gascoyne, Greene, Shakespeare, Thomas Nash, Thomas Heywood, Anthony Mundye, our best plotter, Chapman, Porter, Wilson, Hathway, and Henry Chettle.Despite this glaringly obvious separation of Edward De Vere & Shakespeare, by an eye-witness even, the Oxfordians – as this largest sect of Antishakespereans are more commonly known – have been fiercely advancing the Earl of Oxford’s candidacy for decades. En route, wherever they meet with sound evidence which shows De Vere could never, ever, have been William Shakespeare, like tigers cornered in a cave they will thrash out with increasingly bewildering conspiracies to negate the challenge to their theories. Somewhere into this mix of baseless conjecture is sometimes toss’d a love child of Queen Elizabeth, & I am sure in one strand of the Oxfordian theories Shakespeare was said to have been his own father. The vita of William Shakespeare is more famous for what it does not contain than what it does. One of the enduring Shakespearean conundrums revolves around the seven-year period between 1585 & 1592, the so-called ‘Lost Years,’ a wilderness of remembrance in which our budding bard might as well have been living on the moon! All we know is that at the beginning of 1585, when his twins were baptized in Stratford, Shakespeare seems nothing but a simple family man. Seven years later, however, he is setting London alight with the first resonant tromp-blasts of his miraculously brilliant plays. The occasion was a rather popular performance of ‘Henry VI’ at the Rose Theatre, dated to the 3rd of March, 1592. Takings for the performance were £3 6sh 8d, outdoing Christopher Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, played in the Rose only the previous week, by almost a full pound. Shakespeare had become the starry darling of the London literary scene, but what journey had he made from rural Stratford for him to have ever become so? Of this curious puzzle, Bill Bryson writes, ‘There is not a more tempting void in literary history, nor more eager hands to fill it.’ The thing is, looking through the kaleidoscopic lens that is the Chisper Effect, a figure quite like Shakespeare can be easily identified. It is time for a fresh investigation. On first encountering this contentious arena, my instinct was to say I believed what it said on the tin, that Shakespeare had written his own plays. Having looked at a great deal of the available evidence, I am rather inclined to agree with my first instinct, for with a wee waft here & there, when those paper trails of history that have been blown about by the blustery gales of many centuries settle in just the right order, all of a sudden they form a series of cogent patterns to illuminate a path through the murky mists of Shakespeare’s history. Some of the key patterns center upon a certain Lancastrian nobleman called William Stanley, who became the Sixth Earl of Derby in 1594. His feudal demesne was not in Derbyshire, however, but Lancashire, whose ‘capital’ was the palatial stately home at Knowsley, on the outskirts of Liverpool. In Shakespeare’s day the Derbys were the second family of England, direct descendants of the first Tudor king, Henry VII, through Mary, one of the two sisters of Henry VIII. The elder sister, Margaret, had married into the Stewart line of Scottish kings, whose great-grandchild would eventually inherit the English crown as King James I. Before that momentous occasion of national unification, the Stanleys were the ideological focus of many a plot throughout Elizabeth’s childless reign. But, being shrewd operatives & canny northern lads, this noble family never once challenged the hegemony of the Tudors, remaining content enough to lord it over their private kingdom in the North. Instead of plotting for the throne, the Stanleys were content to patronise the dramatic arts, running private troupes of player to perform up & down & all across the land. They even had a private playhouse built at Knowsley, which would have attracted Shakespeare like a moth to a dramaturgical flame. As we proceed through this chispological dig, we shall unearth a great deal of evidence supporting Shakespeare’s connection to William Stanley, including an unstitching of the story of the sonnets. As a wee taster, let us place the Bard in the vicinity of Knowsley, where he encountered the human inspiration for the money-obsess’d character of Shylock in the Merchant of Venice. His name was Thomas Sherlock, a coin-counting churchwarden in the Lancashire parish of Prestcott, bordering the Stanley’s estate at Knowsley. The Churchwardens Accounts of Prescott read; 1581: imprimis, receyved bye me, the sed Thomas Sherlock at the handes of the olde churche wardens, ouer theire accountes the last year as appereth bye this booke 1584: item, paid to Thomas Sherlocke for the repairinge of the olde slate upon the sowth syde of the church In his younger years Stanley, as we shall call him from now on, undertook an epic tour of Europe just at the commencement of the Shakespearean ‘Lost Years.’ According to the ‘History of the House of Stanley,’ by John Seacome, the good folk of Lancashire were addicted to his ‘whole travels, martial exploits, and bravery abroad, which this county (especially) gives us many large accounts, as well in story, as song, and frequently made themselves merry therewith.’ The thing is, if we were to place Shakespeare in the company of Stanley on his continental tour, it is singularly remarkable how much of the Shakespearean oeuvre begins to fit snugly into the minute nooks & crannies of the Stanleyan Grand Tour. Actualizing Shakespeare in the entourage of Stanley begins within the rustic pipings of an obscure ballad called ‘The Garland of William Stanley.’ Anonymously penned, it was printed in the 18th century, a ‘garland’ or collection of stanzas telling the story of Stanley’s Continental wanderlust. The poetry of the Garland is not the finest, falling far below the standard of even the most ordinary of broadside ballads; but what it lacks in beauty of language is more than made up for by geographical & historical content. The story it tells is more a montage of three separate journeys; Stanley’s first in 1582-1584 with his tutor Richard Lloyd, the second between 1585-87 with Shakespeare, & a third in the early 1590s, just before he became the Sixth Earl. The Garland explains how Stanley conducted a twenty-one year tour of the Continent (a clear exaggeration) via France, Spain, Italy, Rome & the mountainous Alpine parts of southern Germany known as ‘High Germany.’ Stanley then went to North Africa, visiting Egypt, Algeria & Morocco, before sweeping back north to meet the famous Elizabethan magus, John Dee, at the court of the Russian Emperor. Another grand sweep would see Stanley returning to the Mediterranean once again, in order to tour the Near East. After conducting the obligatory a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, before finding himself imprisoned in Constantinople for blasphemy against Mohammed. After his release at the behest of an infatuated Turkish woman, Stanley moved up to the frozen north, where he became stranded upon the island of Greenland. Fortuitously rescued by a whale-ship, he would eventually be dropp’d off in Holland, from where he boarded a boat for England & his homecoming at Lathom Hall. I think it hardly a coincidence that in the majority of places Stanley visited in the Garland we can site one or more of Shakespeare’s continental scenes.
Love’s Labour’s Lost – Navarre All’s Well that Ends Well – Roussillon, Marseilles
ITALY All’s Well that Ends Well – Florence Two Gentlemen of Verona – Verona, Milan, Mantua Romeo and Juliet – Verona and Mantua The Taming of the Shrew – Padua The Merchant of Venice – Venice Othello – Venice Titus Andronicus – Rome Coriolanus – Rome, Corioli, and Antium Anthony & Cleopatra – Misenum Much Ado about Nothing – Messina The Winter’s Tale – Sicily The Comedy of Errors – Syracuse
HIGH GERMANY The Winter’s Tale – Bohemia Measure for Measure – Vienna
To NORTH AFRICA Twelfth Night – Illyrian coast
NORTH AFRICA Anthony & Cleopatra – Egypt Tempest – Between Tunisia & Sicily
GREECE Timon of Athens – Athens A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Athens
THE LEVANT Othello – A sea-port in Cyprus The Comedy of Errors – Ephesus Pericles – Pentapolis, Lybia, Tarsus, Antioch, Tyre Troilus and Cressida – Troy, TurkeyThe artstuff of poetry grows naturally out of accumulated materielle, to which is added an individual poet’s personality & technique. The living matter they create should be seen as the fragrant flowers of a bush, the roots of which are buried deep under the earth. By following these roots to their sources of nourishment, we can slowly create a picture of the poet’s unseen life, the one that lives beneath the surface of the page. If Shakespeare had accompanied Stanley, the sheer wealth of scenery & culture that Europe contains should have found an eventual memorial among his plays. When the English poet Lord Byron visited the Continent in the early 19th century, his composition of a long poem called Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimage is more or less a record of his travels. In the same fashion, it is through the Chisper Effect that we can see how the plays of Shakespeare are a metacreative journal of his travels with Stanley. Doctor AW Titherly concurs with such a notion by stating, ‘Shakespeare’s geography, being ubiquitous in its range, is evidentially inconclusive, except in so far as its abiding realism manifestly betrays extensive travel experience as distinct from mere book-learning.’ In the 16th century The ‘Grand Tour’ of the continent was partaken by young English aristocrats wanting to complete their education by visiting foreign ‘academes.’ they also delighted in wandering the natural beauties of the Continent; whether it be the scenic scenes, or the bosom of some pretty damsel. That Shakespeare accompanied Stanley should appease the Antishakespeareans, for foreign travel alongside a man of noble birth would have furnish’d Shakespeare’s brain with all the courtly mores, continental languages & classical scholarship our poet would ever need to create his masterpieces. As we journey alongside William Shakespeare & William Stanley, in the absence of any external evidence of their Grand Tour, it is thro’ the internal evidence fermenting inside Shakespeare’s copious corpus that we are able to trace the route of the most important adventures in the history of the English language. Looking into the Italian plays in particular, one cannot help but notice Shakespeare’s attention to both topographical & cultural detail. By placing Stanley & Shakespeare together readily explains how the Bard would have gained such an impressive, one can only say love, for Italy. But I am getting ahaed of myself – its time to start at the very beginning, & show how Shakespeare came under the Stanleys’ aquiline wings in the first place…
THE YOUNG SHAKESPEARE