Wednesday, 16 October 2013
The Dangerous Friendships of Princes
Today, I had an email from a friend who just happens to have visited Hatchlands Park in Surrey recently, where the Cobbe portrait is on show along with a portrait of Shakespeare's noble patron, the third Earl of Southampton. My friend remarked that he couldn't help noticing the strange bump or blister on the nose side of the left eye socket in the Cobbe portrait (which is said to be of Shakespeare). Having read my book, he found this particular detail in the portrait "fascinating".
So I was reminded of the work that remains to be done on the Cobbe portrait. Various features compare rather chillingly with the damage to the skull at Beoley Church, those features also showing up on the death mask, the Chandos Portrait, the Droeshout engraving and the Davenant Bust. These correspondences would appear to indicate that the Cobbe portrait does indeed show an image of Shakespeare - one which was made posthumously, using the death mask as a model.
The image is that of a youngish man - not the middle-aged, semi-retired poet of the second decade of the 17th century, when the portrait is thought to have been painted. This means that, though the portrait was almost certainly posthumous (witness the fatal head injuries), it presented Will Shakespeare as he had been quite a few years earlier. Perhaps when, aged about 30, he had been friends with the Earl of Southampton.
The inscription at the top of the portrait reads Principum amicitas! - the 'Friendship of princes!' The words come from one of the Odes of the Roman poet, Horace (Book 2, Ode 1: "To Pollio, Writing his History of the Civil Wars"). The opening verses of that Ode translate thus:
You're handling the Civil Wars, since Metellus
was Consul, the causes, mistakes, and methods,
Fortune's game, and the dangerous friendships
of princes, and the unatoned-for
bloodstains on various weapons:
a task that's filled with dangerous pitfalls,
so that you are walking over embers
that smoulder under treacherous ashes.
Now, if you've read Who Killed William Shakespeare? you'll know how relevant this verse is to Will Shakespeare. He wrote about the "Civil Wars" and disturbances which had troubled the land ever since Henry VIII decided to tear England away from Rome. In other words, he exposed the cruelty, the violence and the sickening oppression of the governments of Elizabeth I and James I in their efforts to destroy English Catholicism. And for that, Shakespeare paid with his life.
Don't let the Muse of dark actions be long absent
from the theatre, continued Horace, writing to his friend Asinius Pollio, a Roman poet, playwright,literary critic and historian: soon, when you've finished covering
public events, reveal your great gifts
again in Athenian tragedy,
you famous defendant of troubled clients ...
Let us assume, then, that the Cobbe portrait really does show us an image of Shakespeare, backdated (as it were) to the time when his patron was the Earl of Southampton. The inscription chosen for the posthumous portrait refers to a Roman poet and playwright, a "famous defendant of troubled clients", who was playing with fire by writing a history of his violent times and thereby "walking over embers that smoulder under treacherous ashes."
These words came from the Roman poet Horace, who gets more mentions in my Who Killed William Shakespeare? than any other classical poet. The reason for this is that Shakespeare seems to have been considered - by his contemporaries - as something of a modern Horace; a writer who was inclined to quote Horace a great deal and (like Horace) a genius who was mocked and satirised by a slavish underdog (if you've read my book, you'll know who I'm talking about).
The Principum amicitas! inscription therefore lends weight to the possibility that the Cobbe portrait shows us Shakespeare, since Will Shakespeare was seen as being like Horace, as well as being a "Roman" (i.e. Catholic) poet and playwright, like the recipient of Horace's Ode.
The inscription also carries a very dark hint. The Ode refers to the "heavy" or "dangerous friendships of princes" (grauisque principum amicitas), which has a particularly poignant significance in the context of Shakespeare's death. The silencing of William Shakespeare, that "famous defendant of troubled clients", was - I have argued - ordered by King James I, who had no wish to see the eloquent playwright championing the cause of the king's former favourite, Robert Carr, who was about to be tried for murder.
According to a tradition passed down by Shakespeare's godson - and probably his natural son - Sir William Davenant, Shakespeare had once received a friendly letter, written in the king's own hand. And so the inscription on the portrait serves as a reminder that the friendships of princes could be destructive. King James was in fact a weak and paranoid king, while Shakespeare was an outspoken critic of his murderous regime. He wrote about the "civil wars" of the English Reformation - the causes, the mistakes, the methods, the unatoned-for bloodstains on various weapons ... it's all in his writings. He also referred repeatedly to "Fortune" as a sort of perverse monarch, the capricious and vengeful spirit of the times. He knew "Fortune's game" and, ultimately, he lost.
We might think of the Cobbe portrait as a sort of dreadful memento mori. Perhaps it was a gift to the Earl of Southampton (commissioned by person or persons unknown) which, in itself, sought to explain the sudden death of the Earl's former poet-protege.
For if Southampton ever thought back to his youthful days, when he had William Shakespeare as his pet poet and playmate, and wondered why Will had been so suddenly silenced, the portrait would explain it all.
Shakespeare had been walking on hot coals, writing true histories which it was not safe to write. And so he was, in the words of Ben Jonson, "stopped", before he could plead for any more "troubled clients".