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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Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Shakespeare The First Poet Laureate

I apologize for my long absence from this blog. I have been working on a new project for Shakespeare Solved, and I hope to share some exciting news with you about it in the near future.

So, as an apology for my absence, I want to share with you one of my favorite theories about Shakespeare:

Shakespeare was England's first Poet Laureate.

Was Shakespeare England's first Poet Laureate?

History books tell us that King James created the position of Poet Laureate for Ben Jonson in 1616. Ben Jonson is considered England's first Poet Laureate.

I do not mean to insult the memory of Ben Jonson, but he was not the first Poet Laureate. Shakespeare was.

Or was Ben Jonson?

Let's look at the history behind all of this.

Gulielmus Peregrinus was a "Versificator Regis" -- a "King's Poet" -- to both King Richard the Lionheart and King John. He was known as William the Pilgrim and he was active in the years of 1190 to 1207.

Richard I anointed at Westminster Abbey

Over the centuries there would be other men who were called "Versificator Regis" or even "Poet Laureate." 

Geoffrey Chaucer served both King Edward III and Richard II in various court offices. Edward III made Chaucer a Poet Laureate. To reward Chaucer for his writing, he was given a gallon of wine every day for as long as he lived.

Geoffrey Chaucer as a Pilgrim

During Shakespeare's career as a playwright, both Edmund Spenser and Samuel Daniel were acknowledged as Poets Laureate.

Shortly after King James and Queen Anne arrived from Scotland in 1603, Samuel Daniel was made Master of the Queen's Revels and later the Queen made him a Groom of her Chamber.

Samuel Daniel

But even more importantly, King James made Shakespeare a Groom of the King's Chamber. Also, Shakespeare and his fellow actors became The King's Men -- the royal official playing company for the King. 

There was simply no greater honor King James could bestow upon Shakespeare. Shakespeare was the undisputed champion of the theatre.

But what if he had also made Shakespeare his Poet Laureate?

It is my argument that Shakespeare was England's first de facto Poet Laureate, whether King James created the position for him or not.

King James, ca. 1606

King James's reign was from 1603 to 1625. But from 1603 to 1616 (when Shakespeare died), there was no more popular playwright and poet than Shakespeare.

To be sure, Ben Jonson was a popular playwright, but was often in trouble with the law and the King's Court. 

Shakespeare was a much more productive playwright than Jonson, who wrote 7 or 8 plays in this period. Shakespeare wrote perhaps 13 plays, including some of his greatest masterpieces like King Lear and Macbeth.

However, Jonson did create a great number of masques, which were grand spectacles and were undoubtedly very popular. But honestly, who reads them or performs them today?

Shakespeare did not write masques, and this is perhaps part of the reason why we do not remember him as England's first Poet Laureate.

But what is most mysterious is 1616, the year in which Shakespeare died.

In February 1616, while Shakespeare is on his deathbed, King James gave Ben Jonson a pension of 100 marks, or about £60, and he made him the first official English Poet Laureate.

In March, the well-known playwright Francis Beaumont died. He was honored with a grave at Westminster Abbey. 

Francis Beaumont

Shakespeare died in April. There were hardly any tributes written to mourn his passing at the time. It was as if he was already forgotten, as if he didn't matter.

In November, Jonson published a First Folio collection of his own works.

In 1623, Shakespeare's First Folio collection of plays was published by his great friends and fellow actors, John Heminges and Henry Condell. 

Shakespeare's First Folio, 1623

There were hardly any tributes to Shakespeare in this Folio. Ben Jonson did write a eulogy, but I consider it back-handed.

Jonson writes:

I will not lodge thee by
Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie
A little further, to make thee a room :
Thou art a monument without a tomb

Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser and Francis Beaumont were all buried in Westminster Abbey, as Jonson himself would be. To say that Shakespeare does not belong with them is not only plain wrong, but is in very poor taste.

There is also the possibility that there was a debate whether to move Shakespeare's remains from Stratford to Westminster Abbey. This eulogy may have been Jonson's vote against it. You can read more -- here.

Shakespeare did get a monument in Westminster Abbey's Poets' Corner -- in 1740!

Poets' Corner, with Shakespeare's 1740 monument in the center

In the eulogy, Jonson also writes that Shakespeare's education was not very impressive, that Shakespeare "hadst small Latin and less Greek." It would seem that whatever rivalry there was between these two playwrights, Jonson was still nursing a grudge 7 years after Shakespeare died.

Jonson's eulogy was also long overdue. Why didn't he write one in 1616, after Shakespeare died?

Also, in 1616, King James himself published a Folio collection of his own writings. It is strange that the King did not publish a Folio collection to remember Shakespeare, his own King's Man in 1616. Apparently, it was not a consideration.

I find it rather odd that Shakespeare -- the King's Man, and Groom of the King's Chamber, and the most important playwright and poet of the last quarter century -- died without any royal or literary honors.

Shakespeare's Stratford Grave

When Ben Jonson died, he was buried at Westminster Abbey. Shakespeare was buried in a rather humble grave in his hometown of Stratford-Upon-Avon.

The absence of honors for Shakespeare, or a grave at Westminster Abbey, are real mysteries. If it was not meant as an insult to Shakespeare's memory, then what was the meaning?

The fact that King James created the position of Poet Laureate for Ben Jonson is also mysterious. Did King James all of a sudden get the idea in February 1616? 

No, it is very reasonable to think that the position had been filled, and it was filled by Shakespeare for perhaps as long back as 1603, when King James become King of England and Scotland.

If Shakespeare was in fact the first English Poet Laureate -- the "Versificator Regis" or "King's Poet" -- and that fact has been lost or erased from memory and history, then what does that say about the relationship he had with King James?

That is a question I am exploring with my writing, and I am very eager to share more of these questions, discoveries and theories with you in the future.

There is much more to this story, and much more proof that King James celebrated Shakespeare early on in their relationship, only to have that relationship sour and turn very ugly towards the end.


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