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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Shakespeare's Coat of Arms


I just read that the original draft of Shakespeare's coat-of-arms is on display at the Folger Shakespeare Library, in Washington, D.C.:



A representation of what the coat of arms looked like in Shakespeare's lifetime


But what makes the coat of arms even more interesting is the context of Shakespeare's life in which it was purchased.

His father, John Shakespeare had originally applied for a coat of arms many years before, but never followed through. He probably could not afford the process, and what with his financial reversal of fortune starting in 1577, he just dropped the matter.

On October 1596, William Shakespeare renewed the application, and paid the 15 pounds for it -- which roughly translates to £8700 today, or $15,000.


The application



What was happening in 1596, to inspire Shakespeare to get the coat of arms, and spend so much money?

Shakespeare had been working in London since around 1587. By 1593, after Christopher Marlowe died, Shakespeare had no real competition in the theatres, and quickly became the one and only real great playwright of the age.

He had fame, he was making good money, and his prospects looked very good.

Even better, he now had the Earls of Essex and Southampton as his artistic patrons. They were very well connected and very influential.

Essex in particular was Queen Elizabeth's "favourite." 1596, in fact, was the peak period of rumors that the Queen was having an affair with Essex!


Essex in armor



So, for Shakespeare, as a playwright, it was the best time of his life.

But things got better, in June and July of 1596, when English forces captured the Spanish city of Cádiz. Essex commanded the fleet, with Southampton by his side, and was a hero!

There is no record that I know of to describe how Queen Elizabeth must have celebrated with Essex, Southampton, Walter Raleigh and others upon their return from this great victory. It must have been a spectacular party. 

It is reasonable to assume that Shakespeare would have been there, and he and his fellow actors might have even performed for Essex and the Queen.

Things got even better. Shakespeare's fellow actor, Henry Condell got engaged to be married. Condell, who was probably born to a fishmonger near Norwich, and who was, as an actor, considered low-class, was marrying Elizabeth Smart, the daughter of a gentleman.

If the daughter of a gentleman could marry a man who was considered no better than a vagabond and a criminal, then times were indeed changing for the better.

Sadly, things got worse. Shakespeare's primary patron, Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, died, and his son George inherited Shakespeare's company. 

Little is known about the relationship between Carey and Shakespeare, but it would have been a hard blow. Carey was probably one of the most important figures in Shakespeare's early years.


Shakespeare with his family, including his son Hamnet, standing


Then things got unbearably worse. In August, Shakespeare's only son Hamnet died. He was only 11 years old.

There was a comet seen in the sky for two weeks at the time of his death. Shakespeare must have been consumed with grief as he mourned his son who lived too short a life, as he watched this bright comet pass too briefly in the sky above.

Despite his grief, or perhaps in order to manage his grief, Shakespeare wrote his most problematic bawdy farce, The Merchant of Venice. We have no way of knowing how successful the play was, but the fact that it has endured all these years is probably due in large part to its good reception in 1596.

Also, at some point during this time, Shakespeare wrote Henry IV, Part 1. The fact that he created the character of Falstaff, one of the most beloved characters in all history, is a remarkable testament to Shakespeare's talent and his ability to create under great distress.


Simon Russell Beale and Tom Hiddleston as Falstaff and Hal


Just as Shakespeare is facing the worst existential crisis in his life, the fact that his only son, his only male heir, has died and that his name may very well die out, he creates arguably his most life-affirming character, Falstaff.

Perhaps in an effort to continue to affirm himself and preserve his name, he turns to the long overdue matter of his family's coat of arms.

In October, he renews the process his father had abandoned twenty years before, and pays for the coat of arms.

Four days later, Shakespeare would have attended the wedding of Henry Condell and Elizabeth Smart. It was probably a very lovely, and expensive event.

On 10 November, Shakespeare probably joined Essex for his birthday.

The year was almost over. It had been one of the best years in his life, and definitely the worst year in his life.

He never really needed the coat of arms to preserve his name. He would preserve himself in history forever with his plays. But like any human, he could not see the future clearly.

And that is perhaps a good thing, because while he would enjoy even greater success in the years to come, he would also face even greater tragedy.

Cheers,


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