The Future of History

Friday, 29 May 2015

Shakespeare and the Ear of Corn

Well, it was pretty big news.  The face of Shakespeare discovered on the cover of The Herball, published in 1597 by John Gerard.  Certainly set the Twitterati a-flutter.

Do I think it's Shakespeare?  Truth be told, it's a bit difficult for me to apply my acid tests for determining whether a portrait is of Shakespeare or not.  The "dent" at the top of the forehead isn't visible, being hidden behind a laurel wreath and what looks like a curly fringe, and the left side of the face is so densely shaded that it's hard to tell if there's any drooping (ptosis) of the left eyebrow (a condition which Shakespeare appears to have passed on to his son).

That said, I think Mark Griffiths' arguments about the image are fascinating and fairly compelling.  And there may be a good reason to suspect that the image is indeed that of Shakespeare - not least of all on the basis of what he is holding.

The "Fourth Man", as Griffiths calls him, is a full-figure portrait of a rather handsome chap wearing some sort of Roman costume.  In his right hand, he holds (raised) a fritillary, which Griffiths convincingly relates to the "purple flower ... chequered with white" in Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis (1593).  In his left hand, the Fourth Man holds (lowered) an ear of sweetcorn.  Griffiths suggests that the appearance of this plant was inspired by the lines:

Oh let me teach you how to knit again
This scattered corn into one mutual sheaf.

from Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus (published in 1594).  But that connection seems a little tenuous to me.


Griffiths does point out that the ear of corn which the Fourth Man (Shakespeare) is holding was an American crop.  The botanist John Gerard, who wrote The Herball, and with whom Shakespeare might have collaborated (hence the inclusion of his image on the frontispiece), had apparently grown and harvested maize.  This could only have happened, of course, after a few samples of maize had been brought back to Britain from America.  And this is why I think the image might indeed be of William Shakespeare.

In Who Killed William Shakespeare? I suggested that the 21-year old Shakespeare actually went on an expedition to Virginia in 1585.  This would have been shortly after his twins, Hamnet and Judith, were born, and so we are into the period known as his "Lost Years".  Shakespeare needn't have travelled as a mariner; Sir Richard Grenville, who commanded the expedition, liked to have music played loud and raucously when he was dining.  Shakespeare might have joined the expedition, then, as a musician.

The flagship, lent by Queen Elizabeth to Sir Walter Raleigh for the Virginia expedition, was the Tiger.  Years later, the Tiger crops up in Shakespeare's Macbeth.  The experiences of the colonists appear to have informed The Tempest, while the sea storm which very nearly wrecked the Tiger on the Virginia coast recurs in such works as Twelfth Night and The Winter's Tale.

There are other hints that Shakespeare might have been on that expedition.  Ben Jonson couldn't help satirising Shakespeare's acquisition of a coat of arms, joking in Every Man Out of his Humour (1598) that the "essential Clown" should have chosen for his motto, "Not without mustard" (Shakespeare's actual motto was Non Sanz Droict - "Not without right").  The "Not without mustard" line was in fact borrowed from the satirist Thomas Nashe, who wrote of a young tearaway caught up in a sea storm and threatened with shipwreck, begging the Lord to save him and promising never to eat haberdine (dried salted cod) ever again.  When the crisis had passed, the "mad Ruffian" added, "Not without mustard, good lord, not without mustard."

I've since discovered another piece of evidence.  In Shakespeare Rediscovered (1938) Clara Longworth, Comtesse de Chambrun, referred to a letter, dated 20 December 1585, which was sent to Queen Elizabeth I.  The letter was signed, "Your Majesty's loyal and devoted true servant, W. H."

W. H. is, of course, one of the great Shakespearean mysteries: the Sonnets were published in 1609 with a dedication to "the only begetter" of the sonnets, "Mr W. H."  In Who Killed William Shakespeare? I argued (after Phillips and Keatman) that "W. H." were the initials of William Hall, and that "Will Hall" was the codename used by Shakespeare whenever he did the State some service.

(Back to Thomas Nashe - who threw "brave Hall" into a pantomime he wrote for the amusement of the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1592, at the same time as "Will Hall" was being paid for services rendered to the archbishop's priest-hunter, Anthony Munday, and Shakespeare was collaborating with Munday on The Book of Sir Thomas More.)

The letter sent to Queen Elizabeth by "W. H." in December 1585 therefore pushes the existence of this mysterious figure back to the beginning of Shakespeare's "Lost Years" period.  The letter writer described himself as a "man of judgment and action neither decrepit in body or in mind and whose present necessities crave to be provided for".  He complained that he had been blackballed or blacklisted by men of superior rank.  This all fits in with Shakespeare's biography, for the Shakespeares had been persecuted in Stratford by the more obsessive Puritans in the area - the Lucys and the Grevilles - not least of all because of their Catholic connections.  In marrying Anne Hathaway, whose family seem to have been Puritan, Shakespeare was making something of an effort to appear "honest" (in the Puritan sense of the word).  But he would still have been under suspicion and, indeed, the letter to Queen Elizabeth does mention certain "Papists" who were good patriots all the same.

The key element in the letter concerns the advice "W. H." presumed to give to her majesty regarding the planting of colonies in Virginia.  The Tiger had returned to London, after depositing the first hapless settlers in Virginia, just two months before the "W. H." letter was written.  And Shakespeare ("W. Hall"), as I have suggested, went on that expedition.  So he would have had some idea of what he was talking about when he wrote to Elizabeth I about colonising Virginia.

Which brings us back to the sweetcorn held by the Shakespeare figure on the cover of Gerard's Herball (1597).  Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis had been a huge success, so it would make sense that the totemic flower from that poem - the fritillary - was pictured in his right hand.  The not-entirely-realistic Roman costume would have established Shakespeare's stage credentials (as well as, perhaps, his Roman Catholic connections).  The ear of maize, however, needn't relate to Shakespeare's theatrical career or his poetry at all.  Its presence in the image might simply have recalled the fact that Shakespeare was one of the very first Englishmen to set foot in Virginia.  He had sailed there on the Tiger in 1585.

The sweetcorn is held downwards, as if to suggest the act of planting.  The planting of colonists in Virginia had been the whole point of the 1585 expedition, and the author of the "W. H." letter to Queen Elizabeth in 1585 also discussed the matter of planting colonies in Virginia.

In that respect, the ear of corn held by the Fourth Man on the cover of The Herball might be one of the best clues as to the Fourth Man's identity.  He was William Shakespeare, alias Will Hall, the man who went to Virginia in 1585 and, we can assume, brought some maize back with him.

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