The Future of History

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

A Cover Up

Last week, all over Warwickshire, people covered up the name of Shakespeare.  On signs here and there, the name of William Shakespeare was masked by black tape.  This, apparently, was a form of protest against the new "Anonymous" film which rehashes the rather daft theory that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, was actually responsible for writing Shakespeare's plays.  Although it could, of course, have been a clever marketing ploy to raise awareness of an indifferent movie.  These days, it's hard to tell.

But it got me thinking.  One of the problems with Will Shakespeare - and one of the reasons why conspiracy theories like the Oxfordian authorship nonsense are able to flourish - is that, now and then, his name did disappear.

Consider this: humble Will Shakespeare, a grammar school lad (probably) from a Warwickshire market town, made enough money to buy and renovate the second grandest house in his hometown.  He entertained kings and queens, earls and apprentices.  He left a body of creative work that is second to none.  Students at Oxford slept with his poems under their pillows.  He was quoted left, right and centre.  For more than twenty years he dominated the London stage.

He died rather suddenly on St George's Day in 1616 and was buried two days later in his local parish church.  Being a gentleman and the owner of what had once been church land, he was buried inside the church, immediately before the altar (which had also been buried, there having been a Reformation of the Church, let's not forget).

Naturally, most of England mourned the passing of her finest poet-dramatist.  You'd think so, wouldn't you?  Shakespeare is dead.  Somebody, you'd suppose, would have mentioned the fact.

No.  There are no surviving written references to the death of William Shakespeare.  None.  He died - and everyone was looking the other way.

It took more than seven years for anything acknowledging his death to appear in print.  This, of course, was the famous First Folio of Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, for which we have two of Will's colleagues - John Heminges and Henry Condell - to thank.

William Basse, a minor poet from Oxfordshire, had written a sixteen-line poem in Will's honour.  It began by calling on some of England's most famous dead poets to make room for Shakespeare in the Poet's Corner section of Westminster Abbey:

Renowned Spenser, lie a thought more nigh
To learned Chaucer; and rare Beaumont, lie
A little nearer Spenser, to make room
For Shakespeare in your threefold, fourfold tomb.

Basse's poem was not included among those which prefaced the plays printed in the First Folio.  Ben Jonson, it would seem, had seen to that.  Jonson went so far as to sneer at Basse in his own prefatory poem:

My Shakespeare, rise.  I will not lodge thee by
Chaucer or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie
A little further to make thee a room.

One has to feel a little sorry for William Basse - not only was his poem omitted, but the bullish Ben Jonson openly mocked his sentiments.  Jonson in fact preferred to group Shakespeare with three less fortunate dead poets - John Lyly, Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe - one of whom (Kyd) had never recovered from having been tortured by government agents, while another (Marlowe) had been murdered in strange circumstances.

It would seem that poor, neglected William Basse was one of the first in the kingdom to mention Will Shakespeare's demise on paper.  Still, years had passed since Shakespeare's death.  Had no one else made any written remarks about it?

There are two poems in the First Folio which seem slightly odd, in that they appear to have been inserted at a very late stage in the printing process.  Ben Jonson, we can assume, had vetoed the inclusion of Basse's short eulogy.  But Jonson's library had been destroyed by a fire just a month before the First Folio was published in December 1623, and so he might have been otherwise occupied.  At the last minute, two extra poems were smuggled into the publication by Shakespeare's theatrical friends.

One of these poems was written by Leonard Digges, whose step-father, Thomas Russell, was one of Will Shakespeare's close friends and neighbours in Stratford (Will named Russell as one of the two overseers of his will in 1616).  Digges's poem alluded to the fire which had damaged Ben Jonson's library, and a few years later he would supply another poem which sharply contrasted Jonson and Shakespeare.  The other poem was written by Digges's friend James Mabbe, a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford.  Mabbe's short poem in the First Folio opens with the intriguing words:

We wondered, Shakespeare, that thou went'st so soon
From the world's stage to the grave's tiring-room.

These two poems, written by men who knew each other well and had a personal connection (via Digges's step-father) to William Shakespeare, and which were added to the First Folio at the last minute, suggest that Ben Jonson had lost his editorial stranglehold on the project as a result of his devastating fire.  This had allowed Will Shakespeare's long-term friends Heminges and Condell to slip two adulatory poems into the publication which, the chances are, Jonson would have kept out of it.  Let's face it, with his own long prefatory poem and his dedication 'To the Reader' of the famous Droeshout engraving of Will Shakespeare at the front of the First Folio, the whole thing had the feel of a Ben Jonson Production.  But then, Digges and Mabbe got their poems in, thankfully.  Digges, it would seem, did not think much of Ben Jonson.  And Mabbe really did let the cat out of the bag.

We wondered, Shakespeare, that thou went'st so soon
From the world's stage to the grave's tiring-room.

Who 'wondered'?  Presumably, those who knew Will Shakespeare.  And why were they so stunned and surprised by Shakespeare's sudden exit from the world?

Will Shakespeare died in April 1616.  Then, everything went quiet.  Until the last months of 1623, when somebody let slip that certain people had 'wondered' about Shakespeare's sudden death.  Presumably, they had 'wondered' about it quietly, refraining from committing anything to paper, because no reference to Shakespeare's death survives.  He died, and nobody said anything about it, although they 'wondered'.

It's this sort of thing that makes the story of Shakespeare so intriguing.  Sadly, it also allows a few weirdos to claim that William Shakespeare was just a cardboard cut-out, a front man for a more illustrious author.

More likely, it was widely known that Shakespeare had died, suddenly, and had been buried, quickly, and that was that.  Best not to talk about it.

Even though they 'wondered'.

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