Shakespeare Solved ®

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Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

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Monday, January 19, 2015

Was Shakespeare In Prison?

I recently wrote about Katherine Duncan-Jones’s theory that when Twelfth Night was first performed in 1602, the part of Malvolio was performed by Shakespeare himself.

In her invaluable book, Ungentle Shakespeare, She argues that Shakespeare, in performing Malvolio, was making fun of himself, and in wearing the yellow stockings and black garters, he is mocking his own coat of arms that had a similar design.

Stephen Fry as Malvolio

I agree, and found that Shakespeare also made fun of the same coat of arms, with the image of a falcon on it, by constantly referring to Malvolio as a “gull,” or a stupid bird. Shakespeare was ridiculing his own ambitious efforts to become a gentleman.

But there is more to this story.

Twelfth Night was first performed in the beginning of 1602 at the Middle Temple, one of the Inns of Court. The year before had been a very busy year in Shakespeare’s life.

On 7 February, 1601, Shakespeare’s acting company performed his Richard II play, about the deposing and murder of King Richard II. It was an old play, written about 1595, and was a special request by men associated with Shakespeare’s friend and patron, the Earl of Essex.

The Earl of Essex

As I have written before, the Richard II play has a very controversial political message, and may have been seen by Queen Elizabeth, and especially by her counsellours as a weapon against her.

The very next day, with hundreds of young men from the finest families, Essex led a failed rebellion against Queen Elizabeth, and her court which included Robert Cecil, her right hand man. Cecil was the most powerful man in England, arguably even more powerful than the queen herself. It was the greatest threat to a monarch in England’s history.

Robert Cecil

Essex and several of his co-conspirators were executed. Others were imprisoned, like Shakespeare’s other great friend and artistic patron, the Earl of Southampton. Many more men were made to pay heavy fines and then released.

Shakespeare’s playing company was questioned, but they were not punished. Despite their close connection to Essex, and the fact that they performed the Richard II play the day before, there is no record of any imprisonment or fines against them.

Months later, Shakespeare wrote his cryptic poem The Phoenix and the Turtle — in which he refers to an eagle, a fowl, a swan and a crow — perhaps to make amends for his association with Essex. Many scholars, including Katherine Duncan-Jones have concluded that the Phoenix in the poems refers to Queen Elizabeth. One piece of evidence to support this theory is the Phoenix portrait of the queen, from 1575:

In September of that year, Shakespeare’s father John died, and it is reasonable to believe that Shakespeare went back to Stratford around this time.

I have proposed a theory that Shakespeare also took this time to re-write a play that he may have staged before, perhaps as many as three times before, during the 1590s. 

It was a play that perhaps had the most personal meaning for him, and he may have found one more version of this play that would accomplish many things: it would help him mourn his father and honor his memory, it would help him and the rest of London mourn the passing of Essex, it would be something of a epitaph for not only Essex but also the other young men whose lives were lost in the reign of Queen Elizabeth (like Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange, who was rumored to have died of poison, and for whom Shakespeare had once been an actor/playwright) but the play could serve as an epitaph for the century that had passed. 

The play could also serve as a reminder that while Queen Elizabeth was a glorious monarch, and she had ushered in a Golden Age, there was much that was not so golden, and that London had become something of a prison, and there was something rotten in the state of England.

That play would was Hamlet.

I have written before that based on the evidence I have studied, the best estimate for the date when Hamlet (the play as we know it today) was first performed was on 10 November 1601. That day was Essex’s birthday.

In the version of Hamlet I wrote, I propose that Shakespeare was punished by the authorities for performing Hamlet in honor of Essex. I suspect that Shakespeare was put in prison and interrogated, in the Tower of London.

In order to punish him without resorting to physical torture, I think he was put in what might be described the scariest place in the Tower, a chamber known as Little Ease. This chamber is only 4 square feet, so the prisoner can never find any comfortable position to either lie down or stand up.

The Tower of London

Many scholars marvel at the idea that while other playwrights were punished with imprisonment and real physical torture, Shakespeare never was. Ben Jonson was in constant trouble with the law. Thomas Kyd was tortured by the authorities, and probably died from the wounds he suffered in prison. For all we know, Shakespeare might have been physically tortured, too. For all we know, these wounds may have contributed to his decline in health, and led to his death in 1616.

I propose that Shakespeare was in fact in trouble with Queen Elizabeth’s court, and Robert Cecil in particular. As I have written before, Shakespeare made Cecil a target in his plays over the years. Cecil can be found in the character of Richard III, in Don John in Much Ado, in Polonius in Hamlet, and so on. These are always unflattering depictions of Cecil, who at court was Essex’s nemesis. Since Shakespeare was Essex’s friend, then that would make Shakespeare and Cecil enemies, too.

I think that Shakespeare was released from prison for many reasons, not the least of which was the potential damage to Queen Elizabeth’s name and legacy if the most celebrated playwright in her nation was jailed.

If I am correct that Shakespeare was put in prison in November 1601, then he would have been released in time to write Twelfth Night and perform it in February 1602.

How curious then that the very next play Shakespeare writes, with himself as Malvolio, puts him in a prison.

In that scene, Sir Topas ridicules Malvolio, who is in what is described as a “dark room” inside Olivia’s house. In productions, such as the Shakespeare Globe, this room is made to look like a prison cell. 

Is Shakespeare referring to a specific place where he himself was imprisoned? Is he referring to the Tower perhaps, to Little Ease itself?

Sir Topas asks Malvolio if he knows about Pythagoras’s doctrine of metempsychosis, the transmigration of the soul, and how the human soul can be re-incarnated into another human, or even an animal. Malvolio shows he understands the doctrine, and uses an example: “That the soul of our grandam might haply inhabit a bird.”

This is an odd statement, and it is unclear who the “grandam” is. The play is full of birds:  gull, wren, woodcock, and turkey-cock. He uses three terms for different hawks: haggard, staniel, and coystrill. 

Is it possible that Shakespeare is referring to his The Phoenix and the Turtle poem, which is equally full of birds? Is it possible that Shakespeare’s “grandam” is Queen Elizabeth, whom he is saying might be re-incarnated as a bird? 

After all, a phoenix is a bird that is reborn, and it is associated with metempsychosis.

Malvolio goes on to say that he doesn’t agree with Pythagoras and metempsychosis. As a Christian, he wouldn’t agree with such a pagan belief.

I should add that there may be some deeper significance to this moment. Hamlet says “we defy augury” and that there is a “special providence in the fall of a sparrow.” Augury is the pagan interpretation of the will of the gods by studying how birds fly. Hamlet is saying that he does not agree with this pagan belief, and that God has a hand in everything, even a sparrow’s death.

This language in Hamlet, which is so clearly reflected in Twelfth Night, would seem to suggest that Shakespeare was grappling with the loss of Essex, and found comfort in the thought that it was God’s plan that Essex would die when and how he did. 

Or, at the very least it suggests that Twelfth Night is not unrelated to Hamlet, and that both plays are not unrelated to the events of the Essex Rebellion.

Sir Topas tells Malvolio that he will not conclude he is sane unless Malvolio agrees with Pythagoras, and fears to kill a bird, a “woodcock” because it might contain the soul of the “grandam.”

A “woodcock” is a stupid bird. It is a synonym of“gull” which is how Shakespeare describes Malvolio, or rather himself as Malvolio.

With this in mind, it is possible to translate Sir Topas’s line: if you harm even a stupid bird, you harm the “grandam” who is Queen Elizabeth. If this is what this line means, then it supports the idea that Shakespeare, a stupid bird, was not harmed because it would have harmed the queen.

In this prison scene, Malvolio begs for four things: a candle, a pen, ink and paper. He wants to write to Olivia, to plead his case and beg for release.

If Shakespeare was in prison for having performed Hamlet in November 1601, these are the things he would have most likely requested. Shakespeare may have wanted to write to Queen Elizabeth to plead his case and beg for release.

Or, looked at another way, what are a candle, a pen, ink and paper to Shakespeare? The tools without which he could not live. They represent life. 

It is almost impossible to understand precisely what Shakespeare was writing and why he wrote what he did. But in looking at Katherine Duncan-Jones’s excellent and perceptive analysis of Twelfth Night, where she describes Shakespeare on stage, as Malvolio, the butt of all the jokes, in front of law students at the Middle Temple, laughing at him as he happily holds himself up to ridicule, it is also possible to imagine that they were also celebrating the fact that Shakespeare may have been imprisoned and is now free.

And like Malvolio, who is released from prison, and whose last line on stage is “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!” it is possible that Shakespeare, now free, is exacting his revenge on those who put him in prison by writing and performing this Twelfth Night play.

If we consider Twelfth Night -- performed almost one year to the day that Essex led his rebellion -- with this in mind, it becomes less a funny and diverting entertainment, and becomes a celebration of free speech and a victory over the often tyrannous political forces in Elizabeth’s court.

Whatever happened to Shakespeare, whether he was put in prison, whether he was tortured, or even if in fact he was never at all punished by the queen, Twelfth Night can be considered Shakespeare's revenge on the queen's court for having punished Essex so severely.


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