Shakespeare Solved ®

Shakespeare Solved ® is a forthcoming series of novels that covers the Bard's entire life and work.

These novels solve the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare by transporting us back in time, to walk in his shoes, and see his world through his eyes.

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

This blog explains some of my ideas and discoveries, to prepare for this series of novels.

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Articles Written For:

The University of Oxford's Bodleian Library & The Royal Shakespeare Company

Most Popular Posts:

1. Shakespeare's Shylock Solved 2. Shakespeare's Othello Finally Identified 3. Shakespeare In Love Sequel Solved 4. The Real Romeo and Juliet 5. Shakespeare's Malvolio Solved 6. Shakespeare's Real Petruchio

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Shakespeare & Mary, Queen of Scots

Did Mary, Queen of Scots murder her husband?

Mary Queen of Scots
ca. 1565

A new inquiry, assembled by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, recently re-opened this very cold case.

You can read about it -- here

This panel of pathologists, explosives experts, scientists and historians concludes that Mary did not kill her husband, and is innocent of the crime.

But is Mary really innocent?

This is an interesting matter, and related to Shakespeare's Hamlet and Macbeth plays.

Let’s look at a timeline of events:

In February 1565, Mary and Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley met for the first time. They fell in love rather quickly, especially after he he had fallen sick with the measles, and Mary insisted on nursing him back to health, despite the risk to her own health.

Darnley and Mary

Queen Elizabeth grew increasingly angry because she did not want Mary and Darnley to marry, since their union would present an unwelcome challenge to Elizabeth’s throne. 

Queen Elizabeth even sent Darnley’s mother, Lady Lennox, to the Tower for encouraging her son to wed Mary.

But in July 1565, only 5 months after they met, Mary and Darnley did get married.

It was an unhappy marriage from the start. He was the King of the Scots, but had no real power. It seems that his ambition to be a king outweighed his love for Mary.

Darnley was never popular in Scotland, especially in the royal court. He to like to drink and whore too much, and made many enemies.

Some Scots lords rebelled, led by the Earl of Moray — who received 1000 pounds from Queen Elizabeth to further his cause against Mary and Darnley.

In they very next month, Moray, with an army of Lords and soldiers, chased Mary and Darnley about in the Chaseabout Raid, but never faced each other in combat.

It was during this Raid that Mary probably first met James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, who joined in her defense.

The Earl of Bothwell

Also, there were reports that Mary was corresponding with the Pope, Spain, and France to create what could be considered a Catholic conspiracy against Queen Elizabeth — who would do everything she could to keep Scotland from joining her enemies.

Soon after, Mary got pregnant, but Darnley suspected that he was not the real father. 

Darnley and his accomplices murdered Mary’s personal secretary, David Rizzio — in front of Mary, who was pregnant with her firstborn child, James — the future King of Scotland and England.

The Murder of Rizzio

Mary somehow convinced Darnley to join her, and abandon his accomplices, and escaped from Holyrood. At Dunbar she raised troops against the men who had killed Rizzio.

She gave birth to her son James, and was reported to say that her son would unite Scotland and England. Queen Elizabeth would find such words very dangerous.

Darnley continued to be a bad husband. He caroused and drank too much, “vagabondizing” in Edinburgh. 

Around the end of 1566 and beginning of 1567, Darnley became very sick. This illness would last several weeks, into February 1567.

His hair fell out, and he developed blue blisters. Some people believed that he may have been poisoned. It may have been syphilis.

On Mary’s advice, Darnley moved from Holyroodhouse to new lodgings at the Old Provost’s House at Kirk O’ Field, a property on Edinburgh’s south side, where the air was good and where he presumably would recover more quickly. 

Darnley did not want to move to this new lodging, but Mary insisted. She would spend hours at a time with him, while he lay sick.

Their second anniversary was coming soon, and it is possible that this occasion had something to do with Darnley’s death. 

On 10 February, around 2 o’clock in the morning, there was a huge explosion of gunpowder at Darnley’s House.

Darnley and his servant William Taylor were found dead in the garden outside the House. There was evidence that both men were strangled to death.

a crime scene sketch
Darnley and Taylor are top right

It is very likely that Shakespeare was thinking of this event when he wrote Hamlet, where the King is found dead in a garden, from poisoning.

The room under Darnley’s bedroom was the location of the gunpowder blast.

Was the gunpowder was meant to kill him, and failed — so the murderer(s) had to strangle them?

Or was the gunpowder perhaps a diversion to get him to come outside where they could be murdered?

Or had they been killed in their beds and the gunpowder was detonated to destroy the scene of the crime?

These questions may never be answered.

Later, the Earl of Bothwell claimed that he had gone to investigate when he heard the explosion. This establishes that Bothwell was at the scene.

Bothwell said that he was the one who told Mary that her husband, the King, had been murdered.

Mary herself believed that she was the real target of the attack.

It is possible that she was. 

There are any number of people who would have wanted her dead, including men like the Earl of Moray (who was conveniently away during Darnley’s murder, and who would soon be murdered by a supporter of Mary), the Pope, Philip II of Spain, Catherine de Medici (who was well known for her violent plots) and even Queen Elizabeth.

Did the Earl of Moray murder Darnley?
Did King Philip II of Spain do it?

Did Pope Pius V order the murder?
Did Queen Elizabeth order it?
Or was it Catherine de Medici?

The inquiry commissioned by the Royal Society exonerates Mary for the murder. 

I doubt very much that Mary would have strangled Darnley and his servant.

But this inquiry doesn’t seem to examine the possibility that she was behind the murder.

She may have had someone else do it for her. She may have plotted Darnley’s death.

So, if she did not do the killing, who did?

The obvious suspect is Bothwell.

Mary and Bothwell

Right after the murders, rumours spread that Bothwell committed the murders.

Anonymous posters appeared in the streets accusing Bothwell of the crime, and slandering Mary as a prostitute.

The poster, with Mary on top as a Mermaid, which means a prostitute
Darnley’s father insisted on a trial and got one. But Bothwell arrived with about 200 men loyal to him, in order to scare the prosecution into delivering a not guilty verdict — which it did. 

Bothwell was acquitted, but the court of public opinion was against him and Mary. 

In the past months, before Darnley had died, Bothwell had become very close to Mary. He was known as a ruthless and ambitious man.

It is unclear what happened next, but Mary and Bothwell rode off together. 

It is possible that he abducted her, and raped her.

It is also possible instead that she went willingly, as his lover.

Within days, Bothwell divorced his wife.

On 12 May, Mary made him the Duke of Orkney and Marquis of Fife.

Then Mary and Bothwell got married.

They married on 15 May — only three months after Darnley was murdered.

One month later, an army of angry Scots confronted Mary and Bothwell at Carberry Hill.

A sketch of the armies at Carberry Hil

This army had a banner with an image of Darnley’s almost naked dead body in the garden.

Written on the banner were the words “Judge and avenge my cause, O Lord” — which clearly indicates that this army believed that Mary and Bothwell were behind the murder of Darnley.

Mary surrendered to this army, and Bothwell fled the country, and eventually arrived in Denmark.

The fact that Bothwell escaped to Denmark, where he would eventually go insane, probably did not escape Shakespeare's attention when he wrote Hamlet.

A month after Carberry, Mary abdicated, while imprisoned at Lochleven Castle. Her son James became king.

Lochleven Castle

But right before her abdication she had a miscarriage. She had been pregnant with twins.

She was about 5 months pregnant.

So she must have conceived in February 1567.

Darnley was very sick back in February. It is hard to believe that she would have sex with him while he was suffering from syphilis, and his body was covered with blisters.

This strongly suggests that Mary became pregnant by another man that was not her husband.

Again, the obvious suspect is Bothwell.

This would also suggest that Mary willingly had an affair with Bothwell.

This would give Bothwell a very strong motive to murder Darnley.

It is very possible that Bothwell murdered Darnley with Mary’s knowledge and consent.

But even if Bothwell murdered Darnley without Mary’s knowledge, her actions after the fact made her complicit in his crime. 

It does not seem as if she made any effort to find the culprit or culprits of Darnley’s murder.

The fact that she made Bothwell and a Duke and a Marquis does not help her case.

At any point after the murder, she arguably could have had Bothwell arrested, and punished.

If Bothwell had truly abducted her and made her marry him against her will, she still seems to have made no effort to get free of him.

At Carberry Hill, there is nothing to suggest that she was unwillingly going to war against the Scottish Lords.

There is reason to believe that had she won, she would have continued to remain Bothwell’s wife.

After all, she did continue this civil war for many years after.

There is no ‘smoking gun’ evidence to completely find Mary guilty of murder, or complicity to murder.

But there is so much circumstantial evidence that it is hard to argue that she did not want Darnley dead, and that she did not plan Darnley’s murder.

As far as Shakespeare, it would seem that he took some inspiration from Mary and Bothwell for his Gertrude and Claudius, and later with his Lady Macbeth and Macbeth characters.

And from those plays, in which he punishes all four characters with death, it would seem that he considered Mary and Bothwell guilty of the crime.

What do you think?


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Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Shakespeare's Real Shylock

Who is the real Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice?

Well, I already answered that previously — here — when I explained how Shylock is mostly a representation of Shakespeare himself.

Dustin Hoffman as Shylock, 1989

But there is someone else that Shakespeare had in mind when he created the character of the rich Jewish money-lender.

Here’s a funny story — when I wrote my version of Merchant around 2010, one of the last creative decisions I made was to include a real life character from Shakespeare’s London — John Spencer.

John Spencer
from his tomb at St. Helen's Bishopsgate

John Spencer was the Lord Mayor of London from September 1594 to September 1595. This is around the time in which Shakespeare was preparing to write or was writing the play.

I found very little information about him other than the fact that he was very wealthy and was also a money-lender. His nickname was “Rich” Spencer.

I found the idea of the Lord Mayor of London lending money to be very ironic. If one of the wealthiest and most influential men of the time was involved in a practice that had been illegal until some 25 years before, then it suggests that money-lending was very common across all of London.

Also, what was tantalizing about him was the fact that he lived at Crosby Hall, in Bishopsgate. This made him a neighbour to Shakespeare who lived nearby at the same time.

So, as I wrote my version of Merchant, I wanted Shakespeare meet and talk with John Spencer. This is the first scene I wrote. It’s a very funny scene.

Well, just recently I looked him up again and found much more information about him.

And boy, were my original instincts right. Not only did John Spencer belong in my version of Merchant — he is a central figure to what Shakespeare’s Merchant play. If there was one man Shakespeare wanted to make fun of in this play, it was Spencer.

Spencer was one of the wealthiest men in London. It is estimated that at his death his net worth was £500,000 — which today would be about £21 billion!

his tomb
A man that wealthy would have been very well known to anyone and everyone in London. 

He had made some of his wealth in overseas trade, including Venice. 

In 1591, he was accused of unfair trade practices with two other merchants. It seems that he was trying to corner the market on trade with Tripoli. 

So, when Shakespeare introduces Antonio, Salerino and Solanio talking about their argosy merchant ships on the seas, coming and going, it would seem that Shakespeare has Spencer and his cronies in mind. 

To reinforce this message, Shylock refers to Antonio’s “argosy bound to Tripolis.”

But before long, Shakespeare introduces Bassanio.

Where did Shakespeare get the name Bassanio?

Was it because John Spencer had been Sheriff of London, and during that time he had to investigate Anthony Bassano?

Bassano was part of a family of musicians to the courts of King Henry VIII and to Queen Elizabeth. 

His niece was Emilia Bassano, who was the mistress of Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, who was Queen Elizabeth’s first cousin and very close friend.

Lord Hunsdon was also the queen’s Lord Chamberlain, and it was his group of players, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in which Shakespeare acted and wrote.

Shakespeare probably knew Emilia Bassano and others in her family quite well. He may have known that her father Baptiste was born in Venice. It has been suggested that Emilia was the "Dark Lady" in the Sonnets.

He would have also known that the Bassano family were Jewish, and it makes sense that in Shakespeare’s only play about a Jewish character, he refers to this Bassano family by name, with Bassanio.

So, within the space of a few lines in the opening of Shakespeare’s Merchant play, he has made fun of John Spencer many ways — through his overseas trade, his cronies, and through the relation to the Bassano family.

But then Shakespeare introduces Shylock and his only child, a daughter Jessica.

Jonathan Pryce as Shylock
with Phoebe Pryce as Jessica

Jessica wants to run away from her father, and elope with Lorenzo.

Shylock all but locks her up in the house and when Lorenzo and his friends arrive. Jessica appears above them, from a balcony or window. She then runs off with Lorenzo to get married.

John Spencer also had problems with his only daughter, Elizabeth.

By 1598, Elizabeth was in love with Henry Compton, and wanted to get married.

Her father didn’t approve of the match. He was so abusive to his daughter, that Compton got Spencer locked up in Fleet Prison!

Sometime later, Elizabeth eloped with Compton — by lowering herself from a balcony or window in a bread-basket!

Spencer, who was famously stingy all his life, gave his daughter no money when she got married.

Even when she was about to give him a grandchild, he was still angry.

It seems that Queen Elizabeth, who knew Spencer, and had even visited his home in the past, had to intervene to get father and daughter to make up.

When we look at John Spencer, and the story of his daughter’s elopement, it is impossible to think that Shakespeare was NOT lampooning him with his Merchant of Venice play.

The similarities are too striking.

Anyone in the audience watching this play would have been laughing at Spencer. 

There must have been a great deal of gossip around London about Spencer and his daughter. Why else would Shakespeare put it in his play?

What is even funnier is that Shakespeare probably wrote the play, with Jessica and Lorenzo’s elopement, before Elizabeth and Compton eloped!

Is it possible that they were inspired to elope by Shakespeare’s Merchant play?

Also — after Elizabeth and Compton eloped — did Shakespeare re-write the play so Jessica was lowered in a bread-basket? I would bet on it.

In conclusion, there are many reasons why Shakespeare wrote Merchant, and inventend the character of Shylock.

But we must consider that Shakespeare wrote for his audience in a very specific period of time. And since this was a comedy, he would have wanted to pack as much humour in it as possible.

Unfortunately for Spencer and his family, Shakespeare packed them in the play too.


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Thursday, September 3, 2015

Shakespeare Snared

What was Shakespeare’s fascination with birdlime?

Birdlime is a sticky substance which is spread on twigs and branches to catch birds.

A bird caught in birdlime

In his fantastic biography of Shakespeare, Peter Ackroyd observes that the playwright was “preoccupied with the liming of birds” and that “he responds eloquently to the idea of being checked or free flight being hampered; the picture of a bird struggling to be free impressed itself upon him.”

Shakespeare refers to birdlime and birds caught in birdlime often in his plays.

Ackroyd refers to two examples: when Claudius prays on his knees in Hamlet and cries “O limed soul… struggling to be free” and the bush “limed” for the Duchess of Gloucester in Henry VI Part 2.

But there are many more examples.

In Two Gentleman of Verona, Proteus advises Thurio: 

As much as I can do, I will effect:
But you, Sir Thurio, are not sharp enough;
You must lay lime to tangle her desires
By wailful sonnets, whose composed rhymes
Should be full-fraught with serviceable vows.

In All’s Well That Ends Well, Mariana warns Diana not to get trapped by men:

I know that knave; hang him! one Parolles: a
filthy officer he is in those suggestions for the
young earl. Beware of them, Diana; their promises,
enticements, oaths, tokens, and all these engines of
lust, are not the things they go under: many a maid
hath been seduced by them; and the misery is,
example, that so terrible shows in the wreck of
maidenhood, cannot for all that dissuade succession,
but that they are limed with the twigs that threaten

In Much Ado About Nothing, Ursula and Hero plot to trap Beatrice, and make her fall in love with Benedick:

She's limed, I warrant you: we have caught her, madam.

In Twelfth Night -- which is full of bird references, especially "gull" -- Malvolio declares that “I have limed her” as he fools himself into thinking that he has caught Olivia.

In Macbeth, Lady Macduff refers to her son as a bird:

Poor bird! thou'ldst never fear the net nor lime,
The pitfall nor the gin.

In The Tempest, Trinculo tells Caliban to put lime on his fingers, to make him a better thief.

In Othello, Iago says he can’t think of anything to say because his thoughts are sticky like birdlime.

In Rape of Lucrece, Shakespeare writes “Birds never limed no secret bushes fear.”

A birdwatcher gathers twigs to catch birds with lime

I think it is important to consider all of the ways in which Shakespeare creates the image of a bird caught.

It is curious that most of the time he uses the image in regards to love and falling in love, or catching someone as if catching a bird.

But I think there is more to it than that.

As I have written before, Shakespeare was fascinated by birds.

I wrote about the rooster crowing in Hamlet - here.

I wrote about how Shakespeare may have been a lecherous "sparrow" - here.

He wrote about them constantly, and arguably used bird allusions more than any other poet.

As a boy growing up in Stratford-upon-Avon, he must have seen birds every day of his life, and perhaps had a keen interest in them — watching them, and observing their behaviour.

And very likely, he saw birds caught in lime, and how they struggled in vain to free themselves.

I have to think that this sight did not please him.

Even as a schoolboy, he read Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This book, more than most, had a great influence on his imagination.

He was probably thrilled by the stories about humans turning into animals and animals into humans. Ovid was presenting a nature where there is little difference between animals and humans.

Cygnus (on the right)
metamorphoses into a swan

Perhaps from the time he was a boy, he may have thought of himself as a bird. 

After all, the name Shakespeare would have been spelled many ways, including Shaxbeard, and Shagspur, and so forth.

That means that his name could have been spelled and pronounced like Shagspeare, or maybe even Shagsbird. 

I don’t know if he ever saw a shag bird, also known as a cormorant, but he knew well enough that it was a bird that eats greedily. From the Bible he would have learned that the cormorant is considered an “unclean” bird.

A European Shag

The (now obsolete) word “cormorous” means greedy, insatiable, ravenous. 

Shakespeare uses the word “cormorant” in four plays, as a synonym for “voracious.”

Therefore, the shag bird, or cormorant, had a hold on his imagination. I think it was, for lack of a better description, the animal he most thought of to describe himself.

It is curious that in Ackroyd’s book, he describes how Shakespeare borrowed from other writers, imitated their style, and so forth. As Ackroyd writes, Shakespeare “was indeed a great cormorant of other writers’ words.”

Ackroyd also accurately describes how Shakespeare, in addition to everything else he did, would have occasionally acted as a money-lender and money-broker.

When he wrote The Merchant of Venice, which I consider the most personal play he ever wrote, he invented the name Shylock, for the Jewish money-lender.

Patrick Stewart as Shylock

The name Shylock is from the Hebrew word “shalach” which means “cormorant” — and therefore a “shag.”

It would seem that the name “Shylock” really means “Shags-bird” which means “Shakespeare.”

Shylock means Shakespeare. (more here)

I propose that Shylock is Shakespeare’s self-portrait.

To further support this theory, it is helpful to look at another discovery I made about the character Malvolio, from Twelfth Night.

Katherine Duncan-Jones, in her wonderful book, Ungentle Shakespeare, makes a entirely convincing argument that Shakespeare was the first actor to perform the role of Malvolio in early 1602. It can be argued that he wrote the role just for himself and no other actor.

Stephen Fry as Malvolio
and Mark Rylance as Olivia

Why did he write this role for himself? Because it was meant as a self-deprecating joke based on his Coat of Arms.

When we look at Shakespeare’s Coat of Arms — which he designed himself — at the top is a falcon with its wings not close to the body, nor fully extended, but rather in the middle. This position of the wings is called "shaking."

This bird is shaking with a spear in his talons: Shakespeare.

Shakespeare's Coat of Arms

It is a bird that is about to take flight, but is not flying yet.

Doesn’t it also look like a bird caught in birdlime?

Doesn't the spear look like a birdlime twig?

I think that the name “Malvolio” should be translated as “bad flight” because Shakespeare, in early 1602, was at a low point in his life. He had endured many of the worst months of his life, after one of his artistic patrons was executed, and the other was still in the Tower.

In early 1602, he was uncertain where his life would lead him, and even if he had a future as a playwright any longer.

In other words, he was a bird that was stuck on the ground, and was not flying free in the air.

At this moment in his life, he probably felt like a bird snared by birdlime.


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