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The Greatest!

We all like to think of the Bard as our own. For homosexuals he is undoubtedly one of themselves; soldiers with a taste for scholarship are quite certain he must have been in the army; men of the law point to his remarkable knowledge of their mysteries; aesthetes like Lytton Strachey to what they think of as his later indifference to everything but poetics and style. Politicians used to prefer him to be the wily Bacon; snobs, the Earl of Oxford. Persons of faith know him for a devout Christian, while for unbelievers he was a dedicated atheist. It is not difficult to find what appears to be good evidence for each and every one of these Shakespeares.*

Of recent years he has become increasingly sympathetic to Roman Catholicism, if not actually a Catholic. His father, John Shakespeare, self-described as “Bailiff, Justice of the Peace, the Queen’s Officer and Chief of the Town of Stratford,” undoubtedly was one. Nor was it any barrier to his worldly success, although at the height of his comparative prosperity in 1569 he made formal applications for a family coat of arms and was turned down, for reasons unknown. Not until 1596 did his own increasingly successful playwright son manage to secure the coveted title on his father’s behalf, together with the motto Non Sans Droit. A scornful but possibly envious Ben Jonson joked that it might just as well have been “Not without Mustard.”

But joking apart, the Roman Catholicism of the elder Shakespeare was clearly, in those dangerous times, a serious matter. “Bloody Mary,” Elizabeth’s sister and queen before her, had burned a good number of Protestants, something usually overlooked by those who draw attention to the persecution of Catholics under Elizabeth. Elizabeth in fact was not a persecutor by nature, nor did she wish to make “windows into mens’ souls.” Her view was not religious but practical and political: if some fanatics wanted to do her in, all Catholics then had better watch out; but she would not draw and quarter them for their faith alone, although her more zealous advisers often implored her to do so.

The relevance of this to the latest general study of Shakespeare’s life and work is that Anthony Holden attaches a great deal of importance to the Bard’s paternal provenance, and to his religious sympathies. No harm in that: all surveys of a subject as familiar as this are well advised to home in on some issue. At the start of the book Holden draws attention to “a document of great significance,” discovered a century and a half after Shakespeare’s death, and found hidden in the rafters of his father’s family house. The document, which has since disappeared, became known as John Shakespeare’s “Spiritual Last Will and Testament,” and was shown by a Jesuit scholar to be a copy of an Italian tract translated and disseminated by English priests like Edmund Campion who came to England at the risk of their lives. It seems certain that John Shakespeare obtained a copy, probably through relatives familiar with Campion himself, which he judged it prudent to conceal during one of the periodic witch hunts conducted by the Elizabethan authorities.

This is one of the few certainties, if a significant one, on which a survey of the playwright’s life can depend. Shakespeare’s youthful consciousness must indeed have been soaked in the old religion, as well as in the violence done to it by the new. More than one of his mother’s relatives, the Ardens, had been condemned and executed as recusant Catholics and potential conspirators by the odious Sir Thomas Lucy, MP for Warwickshire, and better known for the legend fostered in the eighteenth century concerning the young Shakespeare’s deer poaching from the Lucy estate at Charlecote Park. Lucy denounced a fellow MP called Parry, who had questioned the severity of the anti-Catholic legislation, and managed to have him judicially murdered with custom-built penalties devised by Lucy himself.

This deplorable affair is certainly reflected in what may be the first play Shakespeare wrote. In the second part of Henry VI, the villainous Gloucester “devises strange deaths for small offences done,” an accusation later repeated and emphasized by the Duke of York: “You did devise/Strange torments for offenders, never heard of….” Under the guise of a history play Shakespeare could safely comment on the behavior of the local magnate, whose preferred reading was Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, a popular manual of the horrors of Marian counter-Protestantism, and a book well known to Shakespeare himself. As for the Bard’s prowess in the pursuit of wildlife, the best comment is probably that of the critic and historian Walter Bagehot, who had been reading the lines about the hare in Venus and Adonis. “It is absurd,” he remarked, “to say we know nothing about the man who wrote that; we know that he had been after a hare.”

Holden’s main theme is to follow that well-worn path, relating moment and utterance in play and poem to what may be conjectured of the life. But he is a sensible as well as a humorous guide, with no patience for any of the multifold interpretations of the Sonnets, reminding us that the notorious “Dedication” to W.H.—“The only Begetter of these ensuing Sonnets”—had nothing to do with Shakespeare at all, and that the poet certainly never intended them for publication. The rest is either nonsense or wishful thinking, as in the case of the recent biographer who espoused the charming theory that the Bard had been waiting for his mother’s death before daring to publish the Sonnets. He conveniently forgot, as Holden dryly reminds us, that Mary Shakespeare was unable to read.

Holden is equally sensible about the so-called “lost years” between Shakespeare’s schooldays and his appearance as a playwright and actor on the London stage in 1592. What was he doing? Did he become a soldier to escape the wrath of Sir Thomas, as Duff Cooper suggested in his book Sergeant Shakespeare? Perfectly possible: but he must have been on leave fairly often in order to get married and have three children between 1582 and 1585. Duff Cooper likes to imagine him carrying a letter home from the Low Countries from the top brass hat Lord Leicester; and it is quite true that Sir Philip Sidney, who died of wounds there in 1586, sent home a letter by the hand of “Will, my Lord of Leicester’s jesting player.”

Much more probable, indeed almost certain, is that thesis of the excellent scholar Ernst Honigmann, who argues that Shakespeare spent much of the lost time in Catholic Lancashire, in the household of Thomas Hoghton, for whom he worked as tutor, secretary, and perhaps actor and even playwright, for this prominent family was “minded from time to time to keep players.” But why Catholic apologists, and champions of Shakespeare as always emotionally and spiritually in harmony with their religion, should consider this sojourn such significant evidence is not easy to say; though it is true that Campion the martyr had left his books at Hoghton Tower before he was arrested. Catholic critics have usually more sense than to see the Bard as ardent in their cause, but they like to think, and with some justification, that he moved in a penumbra of their faith, and mourned desecrated altars and churches, those “bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.”

Shakespeare himself however had other things to do in the course of becoming all things to all men. Difficult for a biographer to avoid the obvious here, and Holden accepts the fact as gracefully as he can. Did Shakespeare know all about sexual jealousy? Of course he did, and Othello makes the whole matter hardly worth mentioning; nevertheless what Holden has to say about Shakespeare possibly having been aware of the Moorish ambassador at the Queen’s court is of real interest, as is the remarkable picture of that dignitary reproduced here, and painted when Othello was being written. Oh handsome was he, and with a face so full of life and character, that one can imagine any Desdemona, in Venice or in London, falling madly in love with him. If Shakespeare imagined Othello like that, then la donnée du pièce s’explique, as the French have it.

When in July 1606 the then Queen’s brother, Christian IV of Denmark, paid a state visit, the easy manners of the Danish court seem to have infected the normally staid English courtiers. Ben Jonson presented an elaborate masque, and the results much amused Queen Elizabeth’s one-time godson, the wit Sir John Harington. As a chronicler records,

Hope” and “Faith” were found vomiting in an ante-chamber; “Victory” expired after trying in vain to present the King with a symbolic sword. “Peace” forgot herself completely, laying about all and sundry with olive branches that formed part of her costume.

If the court ladies made an exhibition of themselves, King Christian was not there to see it since he had collapsed from too much drink earlier in the evening. With a biographer’s cunning Holden has it both ways. “No doubt amused by reports of the evening, Shakespeare would have rested content with getting the ways of the Danish court right five years earlier in Hamlet.” No doubt. And he at least paid King James the proper compliments in Macbeth, performed a few weeks later in honor of the King’s brother-in-law.

In his last phase in the theater, by now indoors at the Blackfriars, Shakespeare made brilliant use in Cymbeline and The Tempest of the contemporary vogue for masque, and continued it in his last play, Henry VIII, written in collaboration with John Fletcher. For the Victorian biographer Edwin Dowden, the playwright had moved from an early period of insouciance and comedy to the dark depths of King Lear, and so to the serene heights and the tranquil farewell of The Tempest. Holden very properly will have none of this majestic and seemly progression and finale, and he is surely right. The Victorians liked to think of the great writer as illustrating the ideal cycle of man’s journey, but the truth is more prosaic. Shakespeare kept going as long as he needed to; and he had enough family and financial problems back home in Stratford to worry him in his last years and months. Like virtually everyone else at the time who reached that age he was very distinctly an old man at fifty-two.

Holden writes admirably, and his book is full of common sense as well as the scholarship the subject requires. He has his quirks of course; notably the emphasis on the playwright as Catholic sympathizer, covertly detesting the memory of the renegade Henry VIII and none too keen on commemorating his famous daughter, Elizabeth. Kipling by contrast portrayed in his last story, “Proofs of Holy Writ,” a staunch Anglican Shakespeare, happily employed in polishing up a version of the Psalms for the Bench of Bishops. The fact is that Shakespeare and his private feelings can be found everywhere and nowhere, like the music in The Tempest, and it was a happy idea on Holden’s part to invest the Whitsun memories of the old shepherd in The Winter’s Tale with a nostalgic Bard creating connubial domestic pleasures he’d probably always missed. The passage is in any case a marvelous one, redolent of Shakespeare’s last and most supple style.

  1. *

    In Law and Love: The Trials of King Lear (Yale University Press, 2000), Paul W. Kahn concentrates on Shakespeare as lawyer and a political theorist, reading King Lear as “a meditation on political psychology.” In Shakespeare’s Feminine Endings: Disfiguring Death in the Tragedies (Routledge, 1999), Philippa Berry reads the playwright in terms of “feminist theory and postmodern thought.”

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