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.

Please join over 70,000 people on facebook, Twitter & Google Plus following Shakespeare Solved ® -- the number one Shakespeare blog in the world!

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

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Shakespeare's Real Polonius

23 April 2016 is one of the most exciting moments in Shakespeare history.

It is the 400th anniversary of his death. He died 23 April 1616.

On a happier note, it is also the 452nd anniversary of his birth, since he was born on or about 23 April 1564.

In 2014, for Shakespeare’s birthday, I solved the meaning of the name ‘Shylock’ — yes, the name ‘Shylock’ means ‘Shakespeare!’

In 2015, for Shakespeare’s birthday, I solved the meaning of why the ‘cocke crows’ in Hamlet.

Not long ago, I wrote about the real Claudius, the real Gertrude and the real Hamlet.

So, for 2016, I would like to share a new discovery with you.

I have solved the meaning of the name ‘Polonius’ — and this helps to support a theory about the real man whom Shakespeare based the character on.

Delacroix's Hamlet and Polonius

The name ‘Polonius’ is clearly derived from ‘Polonia’ which is Latin for Poland.

A person from ‘Polonia’ would be a ‘Polonian.’

In the Edward III play, King John of France mentions “The stern Polonian, and the warlike Dane.” He is referring to the Polish and Danish mercenaries who serve in his army.

But the other uses of the word ‘Polonian’ in other plays from Shakespeare’s lifetime are far more interesting.

King Richard II arrives to arrest Thomas of Woodstock

In the Thomas of Woodstock play (also known as Richard the Second Part One) the word ‘Polonian’ appears twice.

The first time it appears is when Queen Anne asks about her husband King Richard II, and how he spends his time with his flattering favourites:

Saw’st thou King Richard, Cheney? Prithee tell me 
What revels keep his flattering minions?

Cheney answers her that they waste time worrying about how to dress in the latest foreign fashions:

They sit in council to devise strange fashions 
And suit themselves in wild and antic habits 
Such as this kingdom never yet beheld: 
French hose, Italian cloaks, and Spanish hats; 
Polonian shoes, with picks a handful long 
Tied to their knees; with chains of pearl and gold 
Their plumed tops fly waving in the air 
A cubit high above their wanton heads.

The criticism he makes is that the king is more interested in foreign fashions than in running the country.

Later in the same play, Richard II sends a Courtier to summon Thomas of Woodstock to court. 

Thomas of Woodstock, who is the hero of the play, and the embodiment of everything that is good and honest and solidly English, notices the Courtier’s ‘Polonian’ shoes:

Then this at court is all the fashion now?

The king himself doth wear it;
Whose most gracious majesty sent me in haste.

Woodstock probably has to stifle a laugh at these ridiculous shoes:

This pick doth strangely well become the foot.

But the Courtier is proud as a peacock at his shoes, and that the king honored him with courtly duties:

This pick the king doth likewise wear, being a
Polonian pick; and me did his highness pick from forth the rest.

As a good and true Englishman, Thomas of Woodstock wouldn’t be caught dead in such foreign clothing. He tells the Courtier that his humble and plain clothing would not suit the Court of the king.

There are several other uses of the word ‘Polonian’ in plays from Shakespeare’s time — by Thomas Dekker, and Samuel Rowlands, for example.

Each time the word ‘Polonian’ is used in these other plays, it is to express something flashy, flamboyant and excessive. But most importantly — foreign. 

It is used to represent something or someone who is not English.

In these plays, ‘Polonian’ is an insult.

So, what does the name ‘Polonius’ mean in this context? 

Ian Holm as Polonius, 1990

It clearly is not meant to be flattering. After all, Polonius is one of the most evil characters in the entire Hamlet play. It would make sense that Shakespeare would choose a foreign name that is loaded with a meaning that underscores how evil he is.

In Hamlet, Marcellus and Horatio have just seen the Ghost of King Hamlet. Marcellus asks Horatio if the Ghost looks like the dead king:

Is it not like the king?

As thou art to thyself:
Such was the very armour he had on
When he the ambitious Norway combated;
So frown'd he once, when, in an angry parle,
He smote the sledded Polacks on the ice.

So, King Hamlet once fought against Norway and he battled ‘Polacks.’ This means that Norway and Poland are Denmark’s enemy.

Polonius is the most senior official in the Court of the King and Queen of Denmark. But if his name suggests that he is from Poland, and Poland is Denmark’s enemy, what is he doing anywhere near the Court?

Oliver Davies as Polonius, RSC 2008

It would be as if the British Prime Minister during World War II was not Winston Churchill but a man named Hans Berliner.

Or if during the Cold War, the American Secretary of State was named Ivan Muscovsky.

So, Shakespeare has chosen a name for this villian that suggests that he is not Danish, but rather Polish — he is foreign.

I am not the first person to deduce that the Polonius character is based on a real person, namely William Cecil, Lord Burghley.

Burghley was Queen Elizabeth’s most trusted councillor for forty years, until his death in 1598.

William Cecil, Lord Burghley

Some people dispute that Shakespeare was basing the character on Burghley, but there is a great deal of evidence to conclude that Polonius is Burghley, some of which I discovered myself, and which I included in my version of Hamlet.

But what did Shakespeare mean when he gives Burghley the name Polonius?

Did Burghley like gaudy shoes? Was he a fancy dresser? It is unlikely that he had expensive taste in clothing. But he did invest huge sums into his estates.

But if the meaning of ‘Polonian’ means something or someone who is foreign, then is Shakespeare calling Burghley foreign, or something less than English?

It is possible that Shakespeare is simply accusing Burghley of serving England as badly as Polonius served Denmark.

But I think there is more to Shakespeare’s character assassination of Burghley.

During Shakespeare’s career, England’s greatest enemy was Spain. It was the superpower of its day, far more powerful and wealthy than England.

During Elizabeth’s reign, two parties emerged during the long conflict with Spain: the ‘peace party’ and the ‘war party.’

The war party wanted to fight Spain everywhere and anytime. The peace party wanted a negotiated peace with Spain.

Burghley was the leader of the peace party. Over and over again during his long career, he would argue that it would be better to make peace with Spain than to fight Spain, even if such a peace was considered ‘dishonourable’ by the war party.

Battle of the Gravelines, Spanish Armada

For example, in the months leading up to the Spanish Armada in 1588, Burghley sent his own son, Robert (who would succeed his father in power and influence) to hold peace negotiations with Spain’s notorious commander, the Duke of Parma.

Those negotiations were of course a ruse, a waste of time, because Spain was hell-bent on conquering England.

During the 1590s, while Spain pretended to want peace and would arrange more peace negotiations, Spain would also continue to scheme to conquer England, and sent several more armadas — all of which happily did not succeed in destroying England.

Another example involves one of England’s greatest heroes, Sir Francis Drake, most famous for his circumnavigation of the globe. Drake hated Spain with a burning passion, for it’s cruelty against him. 

Sir Francis Drake, photo by Gary Nicholls

On a voyage in 1577-78, Drake accused his co-commander Thomas Doughty of witchcraft and treason, and executed him. 

It is possible that Doughty was a spy for Burghley, who may have put him on board to hamper the voyage. Why? Because Burghley wanted to appease Spain, and not interfere with Spain’s naval exploits and overseas colonisation. 

Therefore, to Shakespeare and men like him, who loved England with every fibre of their being, Burghley appeared to be serving the interests of Spain more than England. 

For all Shakespeare knew, and he probably suspected as much, Burghley might have been employed as an agent by Spain, or paid money to keep England out of Spain’s way.

Sir James Croft

Another English member of that delegation to negotiate peace in 1588 was Sir James Croft (a member of the peace party) who did in fact receive Spanish bribes. 

So it is not impossible to believe that Burghley, Croft’s superior at Elizabeth’s Court, would accept Spanish bribes, too.

There is no evidence to prove that Burghley ever took bribes from Spain, but there is evidence that his son Robert later would. 

Burghley with his son Robert

And there is every reason to think that Robert inherited not only his position at court, and family property, from his father — but also perhaps a craving for Spanish gold. Like father, like son.

William Cecil, Lord Burghley is a fascinating character in history, and we can debate whether what he did was good or bad.

But we should not rule out what men like Shakespeare had to say about him.

To Shakespeare and men like him, he was an apologist for Spain. His loyalties seemed too Spanish, and not English enough. 

Shakespeare feared, like so many at the time, that Spain might one day really succeed in conquering England.

We have the benefit of hindsight. Today we might believe that Spain never had a real chance of conquering England, or that Spain never really meant to conquer England.

But in the 1590s, to Shakespeare and men like him, Spain was a clear and present danger. They thought that Burghley might end up leading England to her doom, and might allow Spain to invade and conquer the nation.

Of course, had Shakespeare written a play with a villain named Burghley, he would not have lived very long. He would have been put in the Tower to rot and to die. Other playwrights were tortured and imprisoned, and Shakespeare could easily have shared their fate.

Due to the censorship during Queen Elizabeth’s reign, Shakespeare could not write how and what he liked. He had to disguise his thoughts and feelings. 

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex

Shakespeare was not part of the Queen’s Council, and had no say there. But Shakespeare did write plays for and about Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, who was the leader of the ‘war party’ during the 1590s. He was also Her Majesty's commander for the army.

Shakespeare wrote many plays to support the political position of his artistic patron, the Earl of Essex, who argued time and again with Burghley about the foreign policy as it relates to Spain.

As I have often written elsewhere on this blog, Shakespeare based his Hamlet character on Essex. Therefore the story of Hamlet is in large part a story about Essex’s struggle at Court with men like Burghley.

In that play, Shakespeare creates a villain named Polonius whose schemes directly and indirectly lead Denmark to its doom: King Claudius, Queen Gertrude, Prince Hamlet, Ophelia, Laertes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern all die — and Prince Fortinbras of Norway conquers Denmark.

Hamlet was a nightmare scenario for men like Essex and Shakespeare, a nightmare they believed would come true for England. 

We can be thankful for the fact that Spain never did conquer England. But we should also properly remember Essex and Shakespeare for the part they played in keeping England safe. 

Shakespeare’s plays, for and about Essex, shaped public opinion and restored a national pride that prevented men like Burghley from weakening England.

It has often been said and written that Shakespeare’s plays helped England survive some of the darkest hours in her history, especially World War II. 

For example, Sir Laurence Olivier’s film version of Henry V, released in 1944, helped England through that war.

But we should not forget that Shakespeare’s Hamlet play, and other plays during the 1590s, were no less important during some hours that were no less dark.


BUY NOW from Amazon

No comments:

Post a Comment