No. 4: BARD WATCHING
by Marie Delgado Travis
ACT ONE, SCENE ONE: ”The Dream”
In previous Musings (below), I proposed, based on James Rollett’s excellent book …
… that the anagrams in Ben Jonson’s poems, together with Droeshout‘s “composite” portrait of Shakespeare (with one shoulder facing away from the viewer) in the First Folio, would suggest that there were actually two Shakespeares— one who passed away prior to the publication of the First Folio (1623)— Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford— and a younger playwright who took up the mantle— his son-in-law, William Stanley, Sixth Earl of Derby.
They no doubt worked with other writers (a theme I hope to explore at a later date), but they would have been— under this scenario—the lead writers or if you prefer, the chief editors or creative directors of the Shakespeare canon.
Yet playwriting was far from being considered an elevated art form during the English Reformation. It smacked too much of “Popery,” e.g., the medieval cycle plays, or often crossed the line into bawdy humor, or implied criticism of the powers that be.
As Hamlet “playfully” warns in Act 2, Scene 2:
Good my lord, will you see the players well bestow’d? … Let them be well us’d; for they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time. After your death you were better have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live.
The founder of the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, Thomas Bodley, famously dismissed plays as ”riff raff,” and his influence kept Shakespeare’s works off Bodleian library shelves, well beyond his death in 1613:
|Catalogue (Year)||Number of Shakespeare Quartos / Folios|
According to Bodleian librarian, Falconer Madan, the library actually discarded Shakespeare’s First and Second Folios, when they received the Third Folio (1664), a tragic Comedy of Errors, which cost them £3000–roughly half a million pounds in today’s currency—to only partially undo the mess (based on Madan 29).
An 1821 bequest by Shakespeare biographer Edmund Malone, however, greatly enhanced Oxford’s collection, with ”… some fifty early Quartos or Poems, including the only copy of the first edition of Shakespeare’s first publication, the Venus and Adonis of 1593” (32).
By Madan’s tenure in 1919, the Bodleian “possesse[d] 70 out of the 101 Quartos issued before 1700, and more than five thousand volumes of Shakespearean literature,” as well as ”a supposed signature of Shakespeare” (32, 54, emphasis mine).
Shakespeare, therefore, was hardly a ”prophet in his own land.” It is said that actor David Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee at Stratford-upon-Avon in September 1769 was the turning point. But was Garrick (and are we) in love with the right guy?
In any case, if playwriting was considered an “idle” pursuit during Shakespeare’s time and beyond, we can perhaps appreciate how incongruous it would have seemed for a nobleman to participate in the commercial theater as anything other than a generous patron.
Providing entertainment for an idle and frivolous court was one thing, but a noble might be called upon, let’s say, to serve as a Privy Councillor, or as a juror in a high stakes case, e.g., the trials of Mary, Queen of Scots or the 2nd Earl of Essex. He might be forced to stand trial himself on a mere supposition, or lead men into war, or perhaps ascend the throne, as the Wheel of Fortune and his pedigree and clout dictated.
Dabbling in comedy would hardly enhance a noble’s credibility with his people or respect and fear among foreign leaders (— although admittedly, recent world events have proven otherwise).
Under such circumstances, William Shaxpere from Stratford-upon-Avon might well have played the role of his otherwise lackluster acting career— starring as a convenient “front man”— Shakeffpeare, at once “shaking a spear” and “shaking with fear,” because, frankly, he’s the one who would be hanged, drawn and quartered, if a play met a monarch’s “thumbs down” review.
Yet Shaxpere seems to have benefitted greatly from such a hypothetical arrangement— enough to earn a gentleman’s status on a rather shaky pedigree, and to become the second wealthiest man in Stratford-upon-Avon.
The fact that Ben Jonson refers to the “Sweet Swan of Avon,” isn’t as watertight a ”proof” of authorship as one might think. Avon derives from a Celtic word for “river” (Welsh, afon), and there are several Avon “River”-Rivers in the British Isles, not just in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Read the capital letters in “Sweet Swan of Avon” in reverse order, and the compliment isn’t so sweet, after all. It’s vintage Jonson, and, with all due respect, reminiscent of Bottom in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream— a play believed by many scholars to have been performed for the first time during William Stanley’s 1595 wedding to Elizabeth, Edward de Vere’s daughter. Hmm … small world!
But turning again to anagrams in the First Folio of Mr. William Shakespeares [sic] Comedies, Histories & Tragedies, theater business partners, John Heminges and Henry Condell, address “The Great Variety of Readers,” as opposed to just “the Reader,” as Ben Jonson did in the same volume.
The Duo’s ”variant” serves a variety of purposes. Besides leading into the world’s most adorable sales pitch, urging everyone, “from the most able, to him that can but spell,” to buy the First Folio, it would appear to be an homage “To the Great …”
oerav(vv, u)d – Edvvard de Vere, Edouard de Vere = Edward de Vere
Or more compactly:
vred = Edvv. de Vere = Edw. de Vere
Like Jonson’s ”To the Reader” and the patchwork Droeshout portrait of Shakespeare (see previous posts below), Heminges and Condell’s appeal to capitalism seems also to allude to a second author behind the Shakespeare mask, e.g.:
vreyd – dervy, derd(b)y = Derby
Lastly, when Heminges and Condell (— perhaps with Jonson, who may have written the clever piece for them) say they ”wish …
… the Author himselfe had liv’d to have set forth, and overseen his owne writings,”
they may well be referring to:
theauthorldvn= the late author and Earl Edouard de Vere
But we needn’t limit ourselves to anagrams in Shakespeare’s First Folio. A 1609 Quarto of Troilus and Cressida begins with a curious “Epistle.”
A neuer writer, to an euer reader. Newes.
aevrwd = Edward de Vere
Eternall reader, you haue heere
eternaldou(v) – Eternal Earl Edouard de Vere
eraldyou(v) – earl ov dervy = Earl of Derby – I won’t insist too much, but it works phonetically.
a new play, neuer stal’d with the Stage,
aewlu(v)rd= Earl Edward de Vere
anelyrst = Earl Stanley
neuer clapper-clawd with the palmes of the vulger,
evrclawdsofv = Edvvard de Vere, Earl of Ocsford (Oxford)
wialm = William
and yet passing full of
the palme comicall;
anyetsl = Stanley
for it is a birth of your braine, that neuer vnder-tooke any thing commicall, vainely:
forabryedl = Earl of Derby
iavvml = William
tsanedrly = Earl Stanley
forsauevdkcl = Edvvard / Edouard de Vere, Earl of Ocksford (Oxford)
Is the ”Newes” that the 1609 Troilus and Cressida is the “never-till-now writer’s” first published play? Keep in mind that the Earl of Oxford died in 1604, about five years earlier, and Derby is said to be ”penning plays for the common players” in June of 1599 (Calendar of State Papers-Domestic).
The Epistle at this point laments how critics consider plays “vain,” i.e., without redeeming moral, ethical, or even cultural value. By critics, the never writer presumably means Puritans, government officials, clergy, and citizens complaining of the noise and petty criminals (pickpockets, prostitutes) that large crowds tend to attract.
The prejudice towards plays is more than unfounded, he suggests, it’s irrational. If they were called anything else—“commodities” instead of comedies, or “pleas” instead of plays— those very critics would flock to see the performances, and their wits would be the better for it, he claims. But as is, the critics try to get plays “canceled,” as we say today, without taking the trouble to assess their value fairly.
Without mentioning Horace’s precept of Dulce et Utile directly, the never writer implies that the true creative process (“birth of the brain”), “never undertook anything comical, vainly.”
Much like Jonson in his ”To My Beloved …” poem in the First Folio, the never writer compares Shakespeare’s comedies to those of Terence or Plautus, and predicts that once the author (William Shakespeare) is gone, the plays will be missed and highly sought–after.
The Epistle seems to have quickly met the censors’ cutting room floor, however. A second 1609 Quarto by the same publisher, G. Eld, omits the Epistle completely. Its new title page also seems to assert that Troilus and Cressida had never been “clapper-claw’d.”
The title page boasts, “As it was acted by the Kings Maiefties feruants at the Globe.” But what the original Epistle actually said was that the play was never clapper-claw’d by the ‘vulger’[sic]” In other words, those who saw and enjoyed the play at The Globe weren’t vulgar. They were discerning, and appreciated the play’s worth.
Admittedly, « a new play neuer ftal’d by the Stage » is more difficult to explain. Perhaps there were revisions to the play between the time it first ran and the quarto, and / or its previous performances were limited. Or it was simply an oversight, which might mean that the 1609 William Shakespeare was not the one behind the Globe performances.
It should be noted that although the Folger lists the Quarto with the Epistle as 1b, it is logical to think of it as 1a, that is, that it came before the “censored” version.
Interestingly, the 1623 First Folio also omitted the Epistle, and even ”forgot” to put Troilus and Cressida, in its Table of Contents, which in my book, only calls attention to it.
To my mind, Troilus and Cressida may represent the passing of the baton between two William Shakespeares, one living, one deceased, and representing a “variety” of literary styles, as we hope to discuss at a future date.
ACT ONE, SCENE TWO: ”The Tempest”
Enter Actors Stage Right
The utility and morality of the plays— and players, for that matter— had long been questioned in England. The Vagabond Act of 1572, for example, provided that “all fencers, bearwards, common players of interludes, and minstrels (not belonging to any baron of this realm, or to any other honourable person of greater degree), wandering abroad without the license of two justices at the least, were subject to be grievously whipped and burned through the gristle of the right ear with a hot iron of the compass of an inch about.’” (“Theater ” Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911).
Such harsh measures (ouch!) were tempered— at least somewhat— by subsequent legislation— and the backing of theatrical companies by noble patrons, such as De Vere (Oxford’s Men) and the Stanleys (Derby’s Men), also offered a measure of protection. Still, the polemic continued to “rage” in sermons and pamphlets.
In “Action 1” of his Playes confuted in five actions proving that they are not to be suffred in a Christian commonweale, &c.(1582)— a tongue-in-cheek response Thomas Lodge’s equally satirical 1579-80 A Reply to Stephen Gosson’s Schoole of Abuse — Gosson depicts the players’ attitude towards the harangues against their profession:
The abhominable practises of playes in London haue bene by godly preachers, both at Paules crosse and else where so zealously, so learnedly, so loudly cried out … that i may well say of them … we neuer heare them, because we euer heare them.
Despite the clapper-clawing, it was a hard and uncertain life for the players, much as it is today. Theaters were closed for long periods due to a series of plague outbreaks during the 1590’s and early 1600’s, so the actors toured the countryside to survive. In 1599, animosity on the part of London locals and city officials, if not an outright ban, led to the relocation of the Globe Theatre to the “liberties” of Southwark, across the Thames. A fire caused by the shooting of a “cannon” during a performance of Henry V, destroyed the theater in 1613. It was rebuilt a year later.
The toughest blow, however, came when citing “lascivious Mirth and Levity,” theaters were ordered closed by the “Long Parliament.” The ban lasted essentially from the start of the First Civil War in 1642, until the Restoration of the Stuart Monarchy under Charles II, eighteen “Long” years later (1660).
In a 1661 Bill of Complaint (Baxter lawsuit) against the unscrupulous heiress of a real-life “Shylock” who had taken advantage of them during their hour of need, the actors—many of whom had previously been King’s Men under Charles I— recalled conditions following a round of theater closures in 1648:
… united together and beinge for theire Loyalty to his late Majesty and adhereinge unto him in the late rebellion … totally prohibited from Actinge or performinge of any Comedies Tragedies or other Interludes in any the publique and other places where … formerly they had soe acted … by those who then had usurped the power and Government of this Kingdome by meanes whereof your Orators and the said other Deceased partners were brought to a very great extremity and Did undergoe very great Hardshipps beinge by that … totally Deprived of all meanes of Subsistance and for neare perishinge. — Milhous and Hume. “New Light on English Acting Companies in 1646, 1648, and 1660.” The Review of English Studies, vol. 42, no. 168,” 496-97 (1991).
To survive, the actors took to performing secretly (”in private places,” Milhous 497), but in their own words were ”severall times suppressed imprisoned & barred from further acting,” and ”a great part of [their] apparrell furniture & other necessaryes being from time to time taken away.” (Mihous 498).
By the time theaters were allowed to reopen, not one of the players listed in the First Folio as having performed Shakespeare’s plays was still alive. The last man standing, John Lowin, died a year before the Restoration (1659).
Though not on the above list, another actor’s Bill of Complaint (Hall lawsuit) summed up the outlook for an aging actor:
… The complainant beinge very aged and by reason of some Deformity in his face and for other imperfections totally unfitt and unable to perform those actings in such graceful and Dellightful manner as was fitt and becomeinge such performances … was Discharged of that imployment…. (Milhous 505)
The defendants stipulated that the former actor, William Hall, had received ”the sum of Tenn shillings a week,” but argued that this …
Allowance was voluntaryly and ffreely made merely out of the good will and benevolence of theis defendants … and not … by reason of any share the complainant had in those Actings or stock…. (Milhous 505).
We can understand that as new actors replaced old, they would not feel obligated to maintain their predecessors. They probably were barely scratching out a living for themselves and their families. Nevertheless, the above words would have been devastating for any actor to hear, particularly one who might have started his career as a boy actor, back during the reigns of Elizabeth I or James I.
As we see from the chart below, however, only a few of the actors listed in Shakespeare’s First Folio (Heminges, Taylor and Lowin) were known to have reached what is considered now “old age.”
|Actor’s Name||Date of Birth – Date of Death||Age|
|Samuel Crosse||1568? – |
|Thomas Pope||unknown – 1603|
|Augustine Phillips||unknown – 1605|
|William Sly||1565 – 1608||43|
|George Bryan||1586 – 1613||27|
|Alexander Cooke||unknown – 1614|
|William Ostler||unknown – 1614|
|Robert Armin||1563 – 1615||52|
|William Shakespeare||1564 – 1616||52|
|Richard Burbage||1567 – 1619||52|
|Richard Cowley||unknown – 1619|
|Nathan Field||1587 – 1620||33|
|Samuel Gilburne||unknown – 1623|
|William Ecclestone||unknown – 1623|
|Nicholas Tooley||1583 – 1623||40|
|Robert Goughe||c. 1580 – 1624||44|
|John Underwood||unknown – 1624|
|Henry Condell||1576 – 1627||51|
|John Heminges||1556 – 1630||74|
|John Rice||c. 1593 – aft. 1630||37+|
|John Shank||unknown – 1636|
|Richard Robinson||1595 – 1648||53|
|Richard Benfield||unknown – 1649|
|Joseph Taylor||1586? – 1652||66|
|John Lowin||1576 – 1659||82|
According to learn.age-up.com, the average life expectancy of a male in England from 1600 to 1650, was 43 years.
|Summary||Number of Actors|
|Died before the 1623 publication of the First Folio||13|
|Died between 1623-24||5|
|Died from 1625-59||8|
In his Last Will and Testament, the actor Nicholas (né Wilkinson) Tooley (d. 1623), forgave debts owed to him by fellow actors Ecclestone (d. 1623), Underwood (d. 1624), and Robinson (d. 1648). In another stunning act of brotherhood (“We few, we happy few”), Tooley also made bequests to Joseph Taylor and the surviving dependents of other actors. Nunzeger, Edwin. A Dictionary of Actors and of Other Persons Associated with the Public Representation of Plays in England before 1642, 374-76 (1929).
In 1651, proceeds from the publication of a previously lost Fletcher and Beaumont play (The Wild Goose Chase) were used to raise funds for Taylor and Lowin (Nunzeger 371) — all of which makes Heminges and Condell’s plea to “buy the book” the more poignant.
In their superb article, Milhous and Hume question the story that Lowin and Taylor were among the actors arrested during an illegal performance of Rollo, King of Normandy on January 1, 1649. They were unable to find the actors’ names on contemporaneous reports regarding the arrests, and they argue that the pair would surely have retired by then. But as a younger man, Lowin had apparently been known for his ability to memorize up to 2000 lines, and he may have retained some of that ability.
Some actors were able to transition to other professions. John Rice became a parish clerk, and some suggest, possibly a priest. George Bryan became a Groom of the Chamber for King James I.
Other actors had trades to fall back on and were members of supportive Guilds, or had been shareholders in the acting company, like Will Shaxpere, and perhaps invested wisely.
The fact, however, that colleagues felt the need to raise money for Lowin and Taylor, makes it at least plausible that they were invited to perform on that New Year’s Day. Perhaps in consideration of their age, they weren’t “transferred from the Bailey to Whitehall” after a couple of days, as other actors caught up in the raids that day were.
Where were their benefactors? The King’s Men’s chief patron, Charles I, would be publicly beheaded right there, in front of Whitehall, before the month was through (January 30, 1649).
And William and Elizabeth Stanley’s son, James, who had succeeded his father William (d. 1642), as the 7th Earl of Derby, was himself beheaded for supporting the Royalist cause in 1651.
My Lord, you told me you would tell the rest, When weeping made you break the story off … — William Shakespeare, Richard II (5.2)