Friday, 30 May 2014
Today, I came across this: A Bone to Pick with the Bard - Richard III was NOT a Hunchback. It's a piece in the Independent which indicates that Richard "Crookback" did not have a crookback after all!
William Shakespeare appears to get the blame for the fact that we all thought he did.
Well, that's not entirely fair. Shakespeare was a poet-playwright, not a historian. And he had to make do with the information that was available to him.
The Tudor kings and queens were always slightly aware that their claim to the English throne was rather shaky. Henry VII became king when he defeated Richard III in battle. So, in typical Tudor style, they made up a pack of lies about Richard. And because many historians are lazy and credulous, we all believed the lies.
The question, then, is this: did Shakespeare really believe the Tudor propaganda? Or was he actually up to something much more subtle and clever when he portrayed Richard III with a hunchback and a club foot?
After all, Richard III wasn't the only king he seemingly maligned. Historically speaking, Macbeth was one of the most successful and popular kings in medieval Scotland. Macbeth's predecessor, King Duncan, was useless; Macbeth defeated him in battle and then ruled for 17 years, during which time he made a pilgrimage to Rome (only a king who knew that his country was safe would disappear overseas for two years). So, once again, Shakespeare drew a portrait of a king that was wildly inaccurate.
Unless we accept that Shakespeare wasn't really writing about Macbeth but about a different Scottish king. The one who, at that moment in time, occupied the English throne. James I.
In Shakespeare's tragedy, written in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, Macbeth is a brave and steadfast lord who turns to the dark side - ambitious and greedy, he commits murders and goes paranoid.
There are very good reasons - some of them outlined in my book, Who Killed William Shakespeare? - to suspect that Shakespeare thought of James I in just these terms. He was a promising monarch who broke his promises, choosing to become a veritable "Son of" [Gaelic - mac] Elizabeth, hence "Mac-beth". King James had dropped heavy hints that England's Catholics would be allowed a degree of tolerance. He then fell into the traps laid for him by his egregious secretary, Sir Robert Cecil (photo above), and colluded in the government fiction that was the Gunpowder Plot. The treacherous slaying of King Duncan in the play was really Shakespeare's horrified reaction to the barbarous execution of Father Henry Garnet, SJ, the real target of the Cecil-masterminded "powder treason".
Which brings us back to Richard III. So King Richard didn't have a hunchback after all. But Sir Robert Cecil did. A rhyme of the time described him thus:
Backed like a lute case
Bellied like a drum -
Like Jackanapes on horseback
Sits little Robin Thumb.
He was also known as the "Toad", and Robertus Diabolus - Robert the Devil.
The Cecil family claimed that Sir Robert (the second son of Elizabeth's chief minister, Lord Burghley) had been dropped on his head at birth. He was certainly stunted and deformed, with a "crookback" and a splayed foot. Queen Elizabeth called him her "elf", and so in Shakespeare's Richard III he became the "elvish, abortive, rooting hog", the evil "toad" who plots against and kills anybody who threatens to frustrate his ambitions.
It is, in all fairness, extremely simpleminded to imagine that Shakespeare was writing specifically about King Richard. In reality, he was turning the Tudor propaganda into a weapon against the Court of Elizabeth I. It was not Richard who was hunchbacked and splay-footed - it was her dangerous "elf", that inveterate and industrious plotter, Robert Cecil.
King James inherited the English throne on Elizabeth's death in 1603. He also inherited the loathsome Robert Cecil, whom he repeatedly promoted. And just as Shakespeare had transformed Robert Cecil, for his sins, into the diabolical Richard III, so he turned James I into the tyrannical butcher, Macbeth.
Of course, Shakespeare was so good at what he did that we all made the mistake of taking his words at face value. But then, historians have been so inclined to swallow Protestant propaganda whole that nobody seems to have questioned Shakespeare's portrayals. Perish the thought that our greatest wordsmith might have exposed the brutal corruption at the heart of the governments of Elizabeth I and James I!
No, no, no - far better to assume that Shakespeare really was describing the historical Richard and Macbeth than to acknowledge who the real targets of his quill might have been. Because that would require us to admit that dreadful people did dreadful things, ostensibly to turn England into a Protestant country, but really to make themselves incredibly rich. And we really don't want to admit that, do we?
Tuesday, 6 May 2014
Just found out today that one of the most popular posts ever on the excellent Historical Honey website was this one - All is True: Fire at the Globe Theatre - which was the first post I wrote for them last year.
Pretty pleased with that!
Pretty pleased with that!
I'm wondering whether there's already a name for it - Something-or-other Syndrome - or whether we might actually be in a position to identify a previously uncategorised condition and give it a name ourselves.
Let me explain.
My wife, the Adorable Kim, sent me a link yesterday to the Spectator blog. She drew my attention, in particular, to the comments beneath the post.
First, the post itself, which was titled - with breath-taking insouciance - Shakespeare was a nom de plume - get over it. The author claimed to have found the smoking gun, that one clinching piece of evidence that people knew, even as far back as 1595, that Shakespeare wasn't really Shakespeare. He provides a photo (above) of a detail from a page of William Covell's Polimanteia where, in the margin, we see a note:
All praise worthy. Lucrecia. Sweet Shakspeare.
But no. That's not relevant. Because, to the side of that, in the main text, Covell writes about Samuel Daniel's Delia sonnets and his Cleopatra, remarking that -
"Oxford thou maist extoll thy courte-deare-verse happie Daniell"
Now, to the casual eye, this is a harmless enough piece. Covell, a clergyman from Cambridge, notes that Samuel Daniel, who was educated at Oxford, could be admired and extolled by his old university. Daniel was, in Covell's words, "court-dear-verse happy", which appears to suggest that his poetry pleased the royal court of Queen Elizabeth. Meanwhile, in the margin, Covell adds "All praiseworthy" (probably in regard to Samuel Daniel) and then "Lucrecia Sweet Shakspeare", on the grounds that Daniel's Delia sonnets and his Cleopatra were published roundabout the same time as Shakespeare's Rape of Lucrece.
But maybe our eyes are too casual. Because to the conspiracy nuts, that small snippet is PROOF that "Shakespeare" was really Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.
See - beside the margin note (Sweet Shakspeare) we have the word "Oxford". See? And after Oxford we get the words "courte-deare-verse", which is OBVIOUSLY a clue, isn't it? Can't you see it? It says "Our De Vere"!
Or rather, it doesn't.
Now, if you click on the link to the Spectator blog, you'll see that this spectacularly irrelevant sample of conspiracy-fail is bigged up to the nth degree. All us Stratfordians (i.e., those of us who pay attention to what people actually said about Shakespeare back in his day) are illiterate morons in the pay of dark forces determined to maintain a 400-year old fraud.
It gets worse when you look at the comments, and the unseemly slanging match of insult and aspersion. My particular favourite - our whatever the opposite of "favourite" is - is this comment:
"Hopeless? Trying to fit a commoner - a petty thief from Stratford - into some supremely advantaged individual possessing rights of equality with a peer as published in quarto dedications. - The temerity of this commoner might be unique?
That he could influence English arts and culture and history by some kind of osmosis witht native fauna? - Are you for real?
First tell us the kind of excellence you seek in the defense of this Dumbness. Perhaps during those hard times you see Stratford men as a case for socioeconomic blindness? You see your literary comparatives defend - what? The poetry from the Stratford man's childhood?
Give us some merit to follow in at least a few of your arguments."
Setting aside the fact that the argument here is difficult to follow ("word salad", anyone?) let's be honest: the comment comes from someone who just hates William Shakespeare. He was a "commoner" (ooh, steady on, old chap) and a "petty thief from Stratford" (evidence? Oh yes, he supposedly poached a deer - see my book, where I deal with that). So how could he possibly have possessed "rights of equality with a peer"? (that's an old argument, and shows a blind ignorance of what life was like in Shakespeare's day. Ever heard of Ben Jonson?)
An astonishing outburst, which is a good 200-odd years out of date. But then, something tells me that the individual who left this comment happens to believe that titled lords are the biz! Please, bring back the aristocracy - they're the only people who can string a sentence together, and who deserve to be immortal and to "influence English arts and culture and history". The rest of us are just trash living in our own middens. Please, won't some grand Earl come along and show us the way, for we are mere scum?!
Nonsense. Absolute nonsense.
There is no smoking gun. There is NO evidence that Shakespeare didn't write his own plays,. and PLENTY of evidence that he did. There is NO evidence that somebody else wrote them for him. It is a silly story.
And yet, a certain kind of person clings to it with a kind of religious devotion ("Dear Lord [Oxford], give me the strength to serve you here in the midst of idolatry and evil ..."). That's what it's like. A kind of religious mania ("Protect us, Lord Oxford; we who are persecuted for thy sake by the blind and the ignorant who have erected a commoner in thy place ...").
Look around, though, and you'll find many examples of such wayward extremism these days. Climate Change Denial? Check. UKIP supporters? Check. People who don't like wind farms? Check. The Tea Party? Check. Etcetera, etcetera ...
They all use the same methods. Weird claims, based on a fundamental refusal to read the evidence and a crazy belief in "smoking guns", coupled with outright abuse directed at anybody who challenges them.
Standards of debate are slipping. Why? Because these people never give in (it's a form of religious mania, remember). You can beat them 100 times in a fair and open debate, and they'll just keep coming back with insults and wild, abusive, hysterical claims. They are the only ones who know "The Truth", so be damned with you, and your evidence, and your facts.
So - any psychologists out there care to help me define this strange syndrome? There seems to be something millenarian about it, as if the End of the World were nigh and we must all repent our sinful ways (admiring a commoner - you fools, you'll all burn in Hell!) Can anyone in the know help me to put a name to this outrageous behaviour, this determination to shout down anyone with the facts at their disposal, this refusal to see things as they are?
What makes somebody leap to such an extreme? What is their major malfunction?
And how do we stop them infecting the ether with their insanity?
Get in touch if you think you can help.