The Future of History

Saturday, 20 April 2013

CSI Shakespeare

The title of this post was inspired by a conversation with my editor at The History Press.

Discussing the forthcoming publication (Who Killed William Shakespeare?) in advance of a sales meeting, my editor let slip that someone at the publishing house had described the book as "CSI Shakespeare".

Now, I'm not really a follower of the CSI franchise - but I have to say I rather liked the reference.  The book does involve literary criticism and biographical analysis, sure.  But there's also the forensic element. 

How did Shakespeare die?  You might be surprised at the evidence which is available to help us answer that question.

It's not yet the right time to explain too much.  With the book due out this summer (it's already available for pre-order on Amazon), I'm not that keen on exposing too many secrets just yet.  But that doesn't mean I can't put up a little taster.

What you see above is the famous "Chandos" Portrait of William Shakespeare.  It was the first item acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in London, and has been seen by millions of people over the years.

As far as I'm aware, though, nobody has ever queried the strange lines which can be seen running down Shakespeare's cheek.  They're clearly visible in this detail of the portrait:

One of the lines is very distinct, but there's another jagged line running to the left of the most obvious one.  These peculiar lines are part of the portrait - they haven't been added on by me.  So what are they?  Nobody ever seems to have mentioned them or wondered why the artist took the trouble to paint these darker lines down the cheek of the subject.  But that doesn't mean that those lines don't exist.  They're there, and they demand an explanation.
In fact, the explanation is very simple.  What we can see in the portrait are the outlines of Shakespeare's broken maxilla (upper jaw).  And when you see his skull, you'll understand why those lines are there.

Watch this space, folks.

Monday, 8 April 2013

History in the Making

I was in a pub just off Bond Street when Queen Elizabeth II appeared on television, making her long-awaited address to the nation on the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

My friend and I decided to wander down to the palace to see what was happening.  And so I saw the mass of flowers, the stunned, weeping crowds, and I just happened to be stuck on a street corner when the hearse carrying Diana's body was driven by.

I told my friend what I thought of it all - the flowers, the tears, the crowds, the messages.  "I'm glad I saw this.  I never want to see anything like it again."  I felt hugely uncomfortable with the hysteria.  It was like realising that everyone has lost their grip on reality.  At times like that, anything can happen.

Of course, Diana's death came as a shock.  The nation - the world - was traumatised.  The same cannot be said of Margaret Thatcher's death, announced today.  There is no shock, except perhaps from right-wing pundits who cannot believe that their Glorious Leader is so widely despised.  But this isn't a post about the rights and wrongs of Thatcherism.  It's about the way history gets written.

Queen Elizabeth I - whom Margaret Thatcher resembled in a number of ways - died on 24 March 1603.  Her death had been anticipated for years.  Her funeral, unsurprisingly, prompted a great outpouring of poetry.

"You poets all, brave Shakespeare, Jonson, Greene,
Bestow your time to write for England's Queen ..."

Thus wrote one unknown versifier in his Mournful Ditty.  In fact, Will Shakespeare did not 'set forth sweet Elizabeth's praise', as the anonymous poet had called on him to do.  This omission was pointed out by another poet and part-time playwright, Henry Chettle:

"Nor doth the silver-tongued Melicert [Shakespeare]
Drop from his honeyed Muse one sable tear
To mourn her death who graced his desert,
And to his lays opened her royal ear.
Shepherd, remember our Elizabeth,
And sing her rape, done by that Tarquin, death."

Shakespeare had failed to make any public utterance on the matter of Queen Elizabeth's death.  He did refer to it tangentially in a private sonnet:

"The mortal Moon hath her eclipse endur'd,
And the sad Augurs mock their own presage,
Incertainties now crown themselves assur'd,
And peace proclaims Olives of endless age."

Shakespeare had frequently symbolised Elizabeth as the fickle moon, inconstant and changeable.  He reflected, not the enforced mood of national mourning, but rather the popular mood of quiet rejoicing and optimism.  The future, it was felt, could only be an improvement on what had gone before.

That, it would seem, was indeed the mood of the people as a whole.  But a new myth was even then being manufactured.  This was the myth of the Elizabethan "Golden Age", in which Gloriana, the Virgin Queen, had led her nation through the most difficult of times, and all Englishmen would be forever grateful to her.

It was a lie.  Elizabeth had pretty much bankrupted the country and had needled and exasperated King Philip of Spain (her erstwhile brother-in-law, and onetime suitor) into sending his Great Armada to invade England.  Elizabeth had made her famous speech to the troops at Tilbury ten days after the Armada had passed safely by.  The sailors who went to sea to defend her realm went unpaid.  Hundreds of them starved to death.

Indeed, the remarkable fact of Elizabeth's reign is that it is still considered something of a high point by historians of a right-wing Protestant bent.  One could argue that it is an essential component of the conservative view of British history.  Take that prop away - or, if you prefer, look at Elizabeth Tudor as she really was - and the whole edifice of that fake, oversimplified, imperialistic version of history crumbles.

There's a strong chance that you thought of Shakespeare as quite a fan of Elizabeth, and she of him.  But there's no evidence for that (apart from an obsequious passage in Henry VIII or All is True, which was actually written by John Fletcher, not by Shakespeare).  It's all part of the myth.  The myth of the Elizabethan "Golden Age", which never was.

A political myth.  And we're seeing much the same happening right now, with Margaret Thatcher taking on the role of Gloriana.  Forget what actually happened and wrap yourself in a flag made out of a myth - the myth of the Thatcherite "Golden Age".

It is a point worth noting that the myth of Elizabeth's "Golden Age" was a product of the Reformation, and was nurtured and promulgated by the arrivistes and parvenus who made their fortunes out of the destruction of the Church and the ruination of those who stayed true to the faith of their forefathers.  And the equivalent Thatcherite "Golden Age" myth will be inspired by the same type of person.  For what we have been living through in the past thirty years or so has been a new Reformation, as grasping and acquisitive as the first.  But whereas it was the Catholic Church and its supporters who were robbed, suppressed, imprisoned, tortured, executed and dispossessed during the first English Reformation, in our own times it has been the public sector - the State - which has been rifled, dismantled and sold or granted to private interests, party donors and the self-serving friends of the ruling elite.

(The Catholic Church in the years before Shakespeare was born fulfilled much of the role of the modern welfare state - including the funding and running of hospitals and almshouses and the provision of education.  Consequently, it was seen as a gigantic cash cow just waiting to be "privatised" and awarded to those who knew how to stay on the right side of those in power.)

It will be a national disgrace if political zealots are allowed to rewrite the history of the Thatcher era in order to glorify their own politics.  Just as it was a national disgrace that Protestant propagandists were able - in the face of public opinion - to reinvent Queen Elizabeth's torturous reign as a mythical "Golden Age".

True: history tends to be written up by the winning team.  And at the time of writing, the winning team in recent years has been that of the asset-stripper and the corporate lobbyist.  The fortunes made by those who despoiled the Church in Elizabeth's day compare with the fortunes made by those who despoiled the public sector in our own.  They have the power and the influence to paper over everything that happened and to erect a false idol - Lady Margaret, patroness of the New Reformation.

After all, they've been using very similar tactics to those which were used by Elizabeth's spymasters and political fixers.

But it would be a travesty to do so.  History is what it is, not what a certain kind of person wants us to think it is.  We learn nothing from a biased, unrealistic and woefully inaccurate portrait of the past.  Well, no, that's not quite true: we learn false lessons.  We learn not to question.  We learn that might is right.  We learn to ignore the voices of the poor, the weak, the downtrodden and the disenfranchised.

Let Margaret Thatcher be remembered, yes.  But let us avoid falling into the trap of reinventing her premiership as a fake "Golden Age".  We owe it to future generations not to tell lies about our own times.  They need to learn from the mistakes we made, and it would be wrong - although wholly consistent with the Thatcherite legacy - for us to mislead them with falsehoods.

After all, Margaret Thatcher was a great friend and supporter of the Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet.  I don't know if you've noticed, but questions have now been raised about the sudden death of the great Chilean poet and Nobel laureate, Pablo Neruda.  He was almost certainly silenced by Pinochet's revolting regime.

Similarly, William Shakespeare was "stopped" because he could not be trusted to toe the line (for more on this, you'll have to await the publication of my new book in the summer).

Do we really want to deify the sort of leaders whose dogmaticism and fanaticism lead to the political murders of poets and free-thinkers?

Hopefully not.  In which case, beware of anyone who tries to sell you the myth of the "Golden Age" of Elizabeth or Margaret.  Because they're peddling lies.