Shakespeare’s Last Plays: A New Approach
Years of courtly and esoteric studies have made Frances Yates, vicariously, a learned Renaissance courtier, skilled in the allegory of royal pageants, a great reader of the political implications of tapestries, a sympathetic invisible witness at the dinner party in London at which Giordano Bruno expounded his theory of the infinite plurality of worlds to Elizabethan noblemen, probably including Fulke Greville, perhaps Sir Philip Sidney. In Shakespeare’s Last Plays her New Approach is to attend the plays as though a member of a court party intent on the revival, through James I’s children, of the great days of Elizabeth as the champion of Protestantism on the Continent, the days of Sir Philip Sidney, Spenser, the mathematician-magician John Dee. Miss Yates is caught up in high hopes for high people. Young idealistic Prince Henry has been enhanced by Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones as the reviver of chivalry in “Prince Henry’s Barriers” and “Masque of Oberon.” Suddenly, in 1612, Henry is taken ill and dies, while plans are in progress for his sister Elizabeth’s marriage to Frederick, the Elector Palatine.
The hopes now turn on them. It is Shakespeare, this time, who expresses them, in The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. He had already written Cymbeline about the royal children. Henry and his younger brother Charles are represented as Guiderius and Arviragus, Frederick as Posthumus Leonatus (his royal insignia was the lion), and Elizabeth as Imogen. The play was not shown at the wedding in 1613, “because, I suggest, Prince Henry and his plans were so deeply built into Cymbeline that the prince could not be removed without wrecking the play, and the Prince was dead.”
Some years ago, Miss Yates wrote a book on The Valois Tapestries (1959) which concluded that their courtly scenes were produced by a Flemish designer “in the confidence of William of Orange as a plea to Catherine de’ Medici and Henry III to support Anjou’s venture in the Netherlands.” The present book is an attempt to read the late plays in the same way, as art aimed at a political result. It is a strange enterprise, which fails. Chronology alone makes its thesis impossible, for recorded performances of all three plays antedate not only the marriage of Elizabeth to Frederick but the decision that it should take place.
Yet the book has real interest, of two kinds. It contains much that is suggestive about the ambiance of Shakespeare’s later Jacobean work, with illustration of themes and attitudes he was dramatizing, including magical ideas and attitudes Yates has studied exhaustively, notably in her great book on Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964). It also exhibits the spectacle, not without interest and pathos, of a great student of magic herself falling into magical thinking. Magic takes imagination literally, and that is just what Yates tries to do with Shakespeare, enacting on a very scholarly plane a sort of fable for our times, when magic seems to be on the rise as art narrows and fails increasingly to perform the function of controlling the imagination.
Samuel Schoenbaum is another hero of archival research, a happy warrior who has made it his business to know all there is to know about the facts about Shakespeare, as well as the fancies. He read, by his own guess, over a million pages for his huge Shakespeare’s Lives (1970). He made the recovery, over three centuries, of the hard evidence an absorbing business, and made an amusing and dryly humane story of the credulous and wishful speculation, oblique self-portraiture, Bardolaters, Baconians, compulsive forgers. Now he has produced his own Documentary Life, and it is a masterpiece, a whole greater than the sum of its myriad parts. Beautifully made, the book allows the reader to see the evidence with his own eyes and understand it with Schoenbaum’s knowledge, judgment, and relish.
This time Schoenbaum looks upon the stair at the “man who wasn’t there” only when some archival evidence has made people think they saw him. Even so, a good deal of his attention has to be devoted to putting fancies aside, or down, and he makes the process amusing, and surprisingly fruitful. As for example with the girl who wasn’t there, Anne Whateley. The famous marriage license bond, found in 1836, allows “William Shagspere” and “Anne Hathwey of Stratford” to be married with only one asking of the banns, rather than three; a hurried marriage could then take place before the Christmas season, when marriages were prohibited. But in 1887 an entry in the Bishop of Worcester’s register was published of a marriage license “Inter Willelmum Shaxpere et Annam Whateley de Temple Grafton.” Schoenbaum informs us that “This second Anne appears here once, and nowhere else,” but biographers have made her into “a principal in a triangular drama…in which the passionate Will must choose between Love and Duty.”
Schoenbaum quotes a juicy version from Anthony Burgess’s brightly illustrated Shakespeare, a jazzed-up life which came out the same year as Shakespeare’s Lives and so could not get there the treatment it richly deserves. “It is reasonable to believe that Will wished to marry a girl named Anne Whateley…. Sent on skin-buying errands to Temple Grafton, Will could have fallen for a comely daughter, sweet as May and shy as a fawn.” It was a case of “love for the one and lust for the other” Anne. “I consider that the lovely boy that Will probably was—auburn hair, melting eyes, ready tongue, tags of Latin poetry—did not, having tasted Anne’s body in the spring, go eagerly back to Shottery.” But the special license shows that “Anne, through brawny and powerful friends, is demonstrating that she hath a way.” The chaste Anne also found out that “Will had gotten a girl (well, hardly a girl) in the family way…. Will gave in, with bitter resignation, and was led to the slaughter, or the marriage bed…. This, anyway, is a persuasive reading of the documented facts, but no Shakespeare-lover is necessarily bound to accept it.” Schoenbaum’s comment is, characteristically, moderate: “Colorful, if a trifle tawdry…more appropriate to a novel…. There are no ‘documented facts’ about Anne Whateley, only one fact—the Register entry.”
He then turns to what indefatigable Shakespearean scholarship has found out about the Worcester clerk, who appears to have been “fairly incompetent—careless, at least.” He got names wrong, though not as wrong as Whateley for Hathaway; but a William Whateley, whose name appears often in the records and so must have been a familiar figure in the Bishop’s court, was among forty cases dealt with that day. Copying from a temporary memorandum, and after he had just been dealing with Whateley, the clerk may have made the substitution “by a process of unconscious association.” This too, Schoenbaum acknowledges, is a speculative interpretation—he never lets “hypothesis harden into fact.” As a result, he is very frequently in the position of leaving questions open: all the riddles about the Sonnets “elude solution, while teasing speculation. This writer takes satisfaction in having no theories of his own to offer.”
It might seem that so many problems without solutions would make much of the book tedious. But Schoenbaum keeps one interested as he moves through the evidence, tactfully avoiding swamps of irrelevant conjecture or being “seduced again by selective quotation”—though he does allow himself some dalliance. We are kept in the presence of the evidence, and so keep running into delightful illustrations of the times, some of them visually present, more of them in verbatim quotations. For example, how did “Temple Grafton” get into the Register? Perhaps the couple were going there to be married by a lax priest left over from the days of the Old Religion. The vicar, John Frith, was reported in a Puritan survey as “an old priest & Unsound in religion, he can neither prech nor read well, his chiefest trade is to cure hawkes that are hurt or diseased, for which purpose manie doe usuallie repaire to him.” What a fine old fellow to encounter, whether or not he married Shakespeare!
We not only get the names and numbers of an astonishing number of players who are involved in the evidence, but also a great deal of specific knowledge of Elizabethan institutions and circumstances, presented always a propos, to help us understand it. All the while, Schoenbaum is unobtrusively composing, the “Rise and Fall” of Shakespeare’s father, “Faith and Knowledge” in his boyhood Stratford, his role in the company of actors as “The Lord Chamberlain’s Man” under Elizabeth, “His Majesty’s Servant” under James. Extremely complex questions, such as Shakespeare’s relationship to Catholicism, are not settled but are handled by presenting the divergent evidence along with acutely chosen quotations from the plays.
Frances Yates too composes with materials actually drawn from the period, but she is out to make Shakespeare tell her quite special version of its history. To understand what animates her approach to Shakespeare, one needs to look into two other books she has published lately. Like this one, they seem hurriedly written, with insistent repetition, dedicated to vindicating her special breed of heroes, with the feeling that they might have made all the difference. Instead of the largely balanced objectivity of her best work, such as The Art of Memory (1966) where she deals with the formal structure of neglected modes of thought, we get a strange mixture of new discovery with ardent special pleading. Theater of the World (1969) presented the discovery of a drawing in a text on the art of memory which may well reflect the stage of the Globe; I wish Schoenbaum had not ignored it. But she also conjures up, on the basis largely of a single work, John Dee’s Preface to Euclid, a whole scientific and spiritual Elizabethan movement presided over by Dee, which she wants to believe included joineractor Richard Burbage building his theater in 1575 under Dee’s Vitruvian tutelage.
The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (1972) centers on the anonymous German manifestoes, claiming to come from the Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross, which in the second decade of the seventeenth century produced a brief furor in small German Protestant states. They announced that all alchemical-magical-spiritual hopes had been realized in secret by father RC and his disciples and were now ready to be shared freely with all who were worthy. The engaging fable of father RC’s secret tomb and the invisible college of his disciples has had a long life in esoteric circles down to the present. But apart from it, the texts themselves are poor stuff, the sort of millennial Christian prophecy which kept erupting in Germany after Luther, laced with loose alchemical hopes such as Jonson made game with in The Alchemist. Miss Yates’s account of the response to them and of the historical context is very well handled, and has its own great interest; contemporaries soon mocked the furor as a version of the emperor’s new clothes, yet the hopes did have some influence, even in the formation of the Royal Society, and engaged the interest of Newton himself.
Miss Yates, who has explored earlier expressions of the Hermetic view of the world that are fuller and finer, sees a major religious and humanist-scientific “enlightenment” centered at the Heidelberg court of Frederick, the Elector Palatine, and destroyed by the Catholic Hapsburg power in the Thirty Years War. She is convinced that she has “uncovered a lost period of history,…a whole culture, a whole civilization, lost to view…. In one way of looking at it, it is the Elizabethan age, in its Rosicrucian and Dee-inspired aspects, continued abroad. The Elizabethan age travelled out with the Elector Palatine and his bride, fresh from that wedding full of the splendors of the English Renaissance, into Germany and Bohemia, where it fell over a cliff of disaster.”
The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest were indeed shown at that wedding; they were indeed written by “an old Elizabethan”; they dramatize a renewal of the grace of life, shaped by a high Renaissance sense of its possibilities; they present benign magic, or events that seem magical; they focus hopes on a marriage of the younger generation. So Yates takes them as the expression of her sense of the historical moment, along with Cymbeline and Henry VIII (the latter could have been got ready for the wedding, Schoenbaum informs us, though the first recorded performance was the next summer, when the discharge of pieces of ordnance caused “the great Globe itself” to burn down). Her feeling for the period and the feeling in the late romances do in some respects correspond. “There is an art / Which does mend nature—change it rather, but / The art itself is nature.” That the art itself is nature is what Yates’s learned magicians are always saying, with the broad (and often fantastic) meanings for both terms which were current before art and science were split apart, to the impoverishment of art, and perhaps also of science. The plays are full of the resonances assumed by the Renaissance between microcosm and macrocosm, so delusively promising for magic and so magnificently fruitful for art.
There is a change in Shakespeare’s handling of magic in his last period, a change that corresponds with Yates’s last moment of magical enthusiasm. From the beginning, Shakespeare regularly uses folk magic and court magic to make poetry; but he understands it, in dramatizing it, to be human imagination—the “fancy’s images” of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Richard II, Lear set up hopeful royal pageantry, speak poetry of passionate magical expectation—and we see the ironies of these heroic gestures as drama. Lady Macbeth, like a good Rosicrucian, is “transported beyond this ignorant present” to “feel / The future in the instant”—and sends her husband off to seize a barren scepter. In the late plays the way magical expectations are handled changes drastically, for Shakespeare not only deals with them more explicitly, and with scant regard for circumstantial, as against symbolic, probability, but he shows them being fulfilled, after loss and travail. But his art makes clear, by exquisite modulations of style, that the final atonements are visionary realizations, to be understood in relation to the world’s contradictions of the heart’s desires.
Miss Yates is concerned “with the politico-religious outlook…not with the questions of style.” She insists on the literal. Her suggestions about the use of magical motifs and the iconology of royalty are much more interesting than her factitious attempt to substitute her cast of historical characters for Shakespeare’s, but they are pursued for the most part in the same literal fashion. Hermione’s seeming to come back to life reflects “the probability that Shakespeare knew the godmaking passage in the Asclepius.” The question whether “he used the Hermetic life-infusing magic as a metaphor of the artistic process” involves “deep debate, which I leave on one side,” since “the core of the message of the play” is “the return to life of a lost and banished goodness and virtue.” Prospero is certainly a version of her type of magus, as has long been recognized. She contributes less than she easily might have to understanding the way his magic works, because she is more interested in the possibility that “Prospero might be a vindication of Dee, a reply to the censure of James.”
In a supplementary chapter on The Alchemist, she elucidates, with a very straight face. Jonson’s well-informed, uproarious satire of Dee and company and concludes (despite the fact that the play was written two years too early) that “It would seem that Ben Jonson was…against the match with the Elector Palatine.” She has never paid attention to, or anyway relished, the fun people in the period made with magic, the sort of thing we get in Thomas Nashe’s Summers Last Will and Testament at the time when Shakespeare is just getting started as a dramatist:
Skie measuring Mathematicians,
Golde-breathing Alcumists also we have,
Both which are subtill witted humorists,
That get their meales by telling miracles,
Which they have seene in travailing the skies.
Her response to the late plays is more complex and interesting than I am able to exhibit here, and sometimes more strange (she suggests that Shakespeare may have encountered the Rosicrucian Michael Maier who moved between Prague and London and so may have been foreshadowing the wreck of Frederick and Elizabeth’s career in Prague in 1620 by his shipwreck on the seacoast of Bohemia!). Her book makes one aware of what great, potentially disruptive, imaginative energies are kept under control, in the late romances, by vigilant awareness of the difference between art and life. With their bold invitations—“If this be magic, let it be an art / Lawful as eating”—the plays vibrate between regression and mastery like the instruments of a great quartet playing late Beethoven. “That she is living, / Were it but told you, should be hooted at / Like an old tale.” But it is not just told you; it is made into drama where its human, natural meanings are the thing expressed.
There is just one case where one of Yates’s historical heroes is actually present, with her sort of feeling, in Shakespeare’s play. It can serve to recall the generosity that animates her book. At the close of Henry VIII, at the christening of the infant Elizabeth, Cranmer prophesies (Shakespeare could make prophecies when they were retrospective):
In her days every man shall eat in safety
Under his own vine what he plants, and sing
The merry songs of peace to all his neighbors.
Samuel Schoenbaum has an almost religious (not magical) fascination with the actual documents, which he reproduces in scrupulous perfection, along with maps and pictures. He returned to each archive to check proof against original. He thanks Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon for allowing him “to transport the Hollar drawing of Southwark by security van from London to Yorkshire, where it was rephotographed under ideal studio conditions” at The Scolar Press. There is a certain irony about presenting perfect facsimiles to the Shakespearean faithful, without full transcripts, when most of us cannot read the Elizabethan secretary hand well enough to make independent judgments. But he quotes the relevant language, and there is always reference to a full published transcript.
Reading Schoenbaum’s wonderfully rich book while wrestling with Yates’s notion about Shakespeare working virtually on commission in the court of James, I find myself impressed by the buoyant self-respect of the lower-middle and middle classes in Shakespeare’s England, and the ballast this could provide for the dramatist. His father moves off the land to an apprenticeship as a glover in a growing town which just then receives its Charter of Incorporation from the Crown. Success in business, and marriage to the daughter of an affluent yeoman from whom his tenant father had rented land, lead in fifteen years or so to the highest office of “this new establishment.” Mary Arden was the youngest daughter of a large family who is left her father’s chief possessions. In Schoenbaum we get the inventory of her father’s house (which may not have been the one now so identified), from eleven painted cloths through ample furnishings to “a barn filled with wheat and barley, store of livestock,…wood in the yard, and bacon in the roof.”
We learn the complex civic duties and increasingly substantial privileges of John Shakespeare’s successive offices of ale taster, constable, affeeror of the Leet court, burgess, chamberlain, alderman, and finally bailiff, “exchanging his black gown for one of scarlet.” After this rise, with an application for a coat of arms which would have meant gentility, comes the familiar fall, which remains unexplained. It was not, Schoenbaum makes clear, because of secret Catholic loyalty, even if in a moment of enthusiasm John Shakespeare, under the influence of a secret missionary Jesuit, executed the Catholic spiritual testament (a translation of a formulary by Cardinal Borromeo) found in the roof of his house in the eighteenth century.
It is not the bare facts, familiar before, which lead one to think about the advantages of Shakespeare’s middle-class base, but Schoenbaum’s massed detail about a remarkably tough-fibered society—and about the sensible arrangements of the highly successful joint stock company in which Shakespeare became a principal shareholder. The playwright recoups the family fortunes by middle-class income and investments, keeps and enlarges Stratford holdings—by writing plays centered chiefly on aristocratic ambition, heroism, and romance. He and his fellows become the court’s favorite players. The commercial theater, however, gave him an independent place from which to look with his awesome ironic understanding at the great world and its magic. The sense of realities which enabled him to keep the mastery over his own magical powers was first shaped in Stratford, where people knew a handsaw from a hawk.