Good Will Hunting

  The Washington Post Book World, December 14, 2003

SHAKESPEARE by Michael Wood


Reviewed by iRVIN mATUS

Postscript: Sir Thomas More and Shakespeares Catholicism

It is more than a little curious that the Elizabethan Age is interchangeable with the Age of Shakespeare. The remarkable woman who lent her name to the sixteenth-century English Renaissance successfully guided her nation through a period of social change, religious turmoil and peril from abroad. Four hundred years after her death, her complex, multifaceted personality continues to fascinate.

The Age of Shakespeare? Ironically, the man whom it celebrates was in a profession held in low esteem, lumped together with rogues, vagabonds and sturdy beggars.” Thomas Bodley, the founder of the Bodleian Library, didn’t want plays in its collections for fear they would “raise a scandal upon it.” The literati of the time shunned playwrights or reviled them outright. Little wonder, then, that books on the Age of Shakespeare have not much to say about how its namesake fit into the society and culture of his time. Nor, for that matter, do his biographers.

Into this breach comes Michael Wood, a prolific producer of documentary films and the author of several books on English history. His new book, Shakespeare, is the companion volume to the latest of his documentaries, “In Search of Shakespeare,” both of which focus on the England Shakespeare knew in order to tell, in Wood’s words, “the tale of one man’s life, lived through a time of revolution.”

As one who has trod some of the ground Wood has, literally and literarily, I find much to be admired in his accounts of Stratford and Warwickshire in the sixteenth century. They are rich in detail and description, and he is skillful in picking up entertaining tidbits to add color to the scene. These qualities also enliven his discussion of the Shakespeare family (especially William’s father. John), the family of William’s mother Mary, the Ardens (one of the oldest in England), and of Shakespeare’s youth and education.

Wood also homes in on the religious turmoil that convulsed Elizabethan England, offering a trove of evidence suggesting that John Shakespeare was caught up in it. Like many other counties in provincial England, Catholicism maintained a firm foothold in Warwickshire. Not only did John leave a “spiritual testament” professing his adherence to Catholicism (found in the rafters of the Shakespeare home on Henley Street in 1757), but Wood also traces his associations with Catholics, some notorious, elsewhere in the region. This may have had some influence on the hard times John Shakespeare suffered from the late 1570s until early in the 1590s. This is interesting sleuthing, absorbing to scholars, but it takes up much of thirty-five pages and the general reader may find it less engrossing.

More to the point, for all Wood’s prose and fury about the father’s reli- gious beliefs, what about the currently hot question as to whether the younger Shakespeare was a crypto-Catholic? The reader must wait until page 270 for the answer, which is a thoughtful one. In Wood’s opinion the conjecture “seems overstated,” and his discussion of the topic leads to a conclusion that rings true to the plays and their author: “as one would expect, he was a Chris- tian, but his mind was wide and his scepticism of any system of power was pronounced. … If he retained in his heart a sympathy for the Old Faith of his parents, he kept his cards close to his chest.”

Largely because of his speculative detective work, Wood doesn’t make a start on packing young Will off to make his fortune in London’s theaters until 103 pages into the book. Now the clouds begin to lower on his enterprise. His knack for bringing life to the landscape survives the move from the country to the city, as does his ability to root out tasty facts about London neighborhoods familiar to Shakespeare. Unfortunately, he does not bring much else.

Wood is convinced that Shakespeare was a superstar by 1590, the year in which most scholars believe he wrote his first plays. To this end, he revives the old notion that a line in Edmund Spenser’s poem Teares of the Muses – “Our pleasant Willy, ah is dead of late” – refers to Shakespeare. Wood asserts Spenser is alluding to the jealousy of Shakespeare’s rivals, which drove him  “to sit in an idle cell than so himself to mockery sell.” Wood asks, “what ‘mockery’ had he suffered?”

But a closer look at Spenser’s poem suggests a likelier candidate for the role of “pleasant Willy.” The poem is spoken in the voice of Thalia, the Muse of Comedy, who laments the literary death of one “from whose pen / Large streams of honey and sweet nectar flow.” The best fit for “Willy” is John Lyly, whose Euphues, and elegant, witty comedies, were the most praised literary works of the preceding twelve years. Earlier in 1590, however, the company of boy actors he wrote for had been suppressed. The “mockery” he would not suffer was selling his golden words for the “scoffing scurrility” of the popular stage.

Wood gives short shrift to plays for which he has no scholarly razzle- dazzle. They may be the lucky ones. Of Othello, for example, he notes a “current preoccupation,” a “fascination with the exotic ‘other,’” that even permeated Elizabeth’s court, where “in a ‘masque of Blackness,’ the Queen and her ladies would wear black make-up to appear as ‘Ethiopes.’” Elizabeth died in 1603, however, well before “The Masque of Blackness” was first performed at court on January 6, 1605. Of the play itself? Nothing more insightful than “a story of racism and jealousy of a white man towards a black man.”

Worse still is Wood’s botched version of the shipwreck of the Virginia Company ship, Sea Venture, the unpublished account of which by William Strachy had a strong influence on The Tempest. Wood has it that the ship set sail for the Jamestown colony on June 2, 1610, and was wrecked in the Bermudas during a hurricane on the 24th of the month.

The Sea Venture, actually one of eight ships that departed on June 8, 1609, was wrecked on the 25th of July. It carried the interim governor  of the colony and news of its apparent loss was devastating to both the colony and the syndicate. All aboard survived, however, and built two ships; late in May, 1610, they sailed into Jamestown. News of the dramatic salvation of the ship’s party was in London’s bookstalls in October.

The poor scholarship apart, might Wood have shaped his account in order to have Dudley Diggs, a member of the syndicate and a stepson of Shake- speare’s friend Thomas Russell, ride up to the family estate near Stratford in November to put the Strachy letter in his stepfather’s hands? We can guess where it went from there.

There are no footnotes or endnotes for the scholar to explore the evidence, which is unfortunate because some material that appears authentic may be discarded out of hand along with the more careless research. All the more reason the general readers of Wood’s Shakespeare should be cautious about quoting it as an authoritative source in mixed company, especially if people who don’t believe Will of Stratford wrote the plays are in the mix – people such as Sarah Smith.

Smith is the author of Chasing Shakespeares, a novel cunningly constructed so that the reader may join its narrator, Joe Roper, a devout Shakespearean, as he unravels the wool that had been pulled over his eyes by the Shakespearean orthodoxy and discovers that the famous works were actually written by Edward DeVere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. When we meet Joe, a graduate student at Northeastern University, he has been given the task of authenticating a palpably inauthentic collection of Renaissance manuscripts. (Not very likely.) But there is this one….

At this critical moment, into his life swoops Posy Gould, a like-so-totally Valley Girl, who knows about This One, a letter written to the courtier Fulke Greville, Baron Brooke, in 1612, which reads (in what little of it that Joe can read), “Those that are given out as children of my brain are begot of his wit, I but honored with their fostering,” signed by William Shakespeare. She happens to believe the begetting-wit was that of the Earl of Oxford. Despite his fear that the letter is genuine, Joe persists in asserting it is a forgery. Posy has the solution.

In no time, she is whisking him off to London to have her friend Nicky Bogue (Smith has a way with names – one may hope she finds another way) investigate the document. Armed with a gift from Bogue, Charlton Ogburn’s gospel of Oxfordianism The Mysterious William Shakespeare, Joe sets off  on purposeful wanderings through London. Step by step he comes closer to finding Oxford as the author until he at last arrives at the site of Brooke House, the once great estate where the earl died in 1604. The property was sold by his widow in 1609 to, yes, Fulke Greville, Baron Brooke, who in, a dusty trunk left behind, discovered the as-yet unpublished plays of “Shakespeare,” which were finally published in the Shakespeare folio in 1623. Uh huh!

As Smith says, this book is “about how imagination meets research.” Put the emphasis on imagination. Her evidence in support of this quasi-fictional work is on her website. Which is also quasi-fictional.

Some changes in style from the original manuscript have been made that do not alter the content, and typographical errors in the published article have been corrected

© 2003  Irvin Leigh Matus

Courtesy of The Washington Post.

With thanks to Chris Lehmann for his valuable attention so pleasantly given.


Postscript: Sir Thomas More and Shakespeare’s Catholicism

In reviewing Wood’s Shakespeare, my editor asked for comment on his treatment of that latest “hot-button” topic: was Shakespeare a Catholic? So I did.  However, I hadn’t space enough to discuss the ironic juxtaposition of his conclusions about Shakespeare’s religious beliefs (quoted in my review), and his section on the play of Sir Thomas More that immediately precedes it (pages 267-270). This play, which was not put into print until 1844, survives in a manuscript of which portions are in the handwritings of five playwrights (and one put-upon scribe). One of the playwrights was Shakespeare.

Wood gave a great deal of attention to John Shakespeare’s Catholic associates throughout preceding pages to support his contention that this is the reason there is so slender a record of his son’s life. He suggests the persecution of adherents to the Old Faith resulted in Will’s stratagem to, as we would say, “stay below the radar.” Shakespeare, however, apparently did not shrink from contributing an important scene in this play about a Catholic martyr who had sainthood conferred upon him 400 years after his death. 

Wood notes that current scholarship places this addition to about1603, the year of Queen Elizabeth’s death, and he states the play “had been cut short by the censor in the early 1590s with a string of interventions that mark the manuscript, including a curt ‘Leave this in at your peril’.” This goes along with his anachronistic view of Elizabethan England as a “police state,” with “state police” of course, spies galore and a cloud of oppression everywhere. His version of the censorship of this play is, like a good deal else in his book, inaccurate and misleading. 

The original version of Sir Thomas More was written by Anthony Munday, perhaps in collaboration with Henry Chettle, and is dated to about 1593. It paralleled events then current in England with the anti-alien riots of 1517, so threatening that Count Mompelgard of Wirtenberg complained of ill treatment by Londoners. The fear of inflaming such passions is the likely reason that the play was not staged at that time; there is no way of knowing whether this was voluntary or if it was refused license for performance by Edmund Tilney, who as Master of the Revels was responsible for approving what was performed at court and in public. 

When an attempt was made to resuscitate the play years later, some of the brighter lights of the day, Thomas Dekker and Thomas Heywood, as well as Shakespeare, were enlisted to perform the common service of modernizing it. They turned out a drama in which More is portrayed sympathetically, a favorite of the people and deserving of the honors given him by Henry VIII in palmer days. Its dramatic highpoint is the anti-alien riots in 1517 that dominate the first quarter of the play and which were quelled by More when he was sheriff of London. These were the scenes that fell under the critical glare of Tilney.

Tilney’s injunction, which Wood both severely truncated and turned outside in, was written boldly on the upper left corner of the first page of the play:

Leave out the insurrection wholly & the cause thereof  & begin with Sir Thomas More at the mayor’s sessions with a report afterwards of his good service done being Sheriff of London upon a mutiny against the Lombards only, by a short report & not otherwise at your own perils.

And clearly Wood left out wholly that it was the depiction of anti-alien sentiment, not religious or political considerations, that was the object of Tilney’s concern. There is no suggestion that he objected to a play which favorably portrayed a Catholic who was a significant figure in the English Renaissance, or whose hero had been put to death by the father of Queen Elizabeth. Nor did he wield his power and peremptorily refuse to license the play outright, as he may have done in 1593.  

In regard to Shakespeare, it’s curious that a man who supposedly structured his life to conceal his Catholic upbringing, and perhaps his own sympathies as well, was evidently willing to add his authorial voice in his own hand to an especially controversial event in an already controversial play that was about a Catholic martyred by an English monarch.

© 2004  Irvin Leigh Matus