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, June 29, 2016

Shakespeare and The Globe

403 years ago today The Globe theatre burned down, on 29 June 1613.

During a performance of King Henry VIII, a prop cannon set a fire, and the whole theatre burned to the ground.

Luckily, no one died, and it seems that the costumes were saved, as well as the precious playbooks.

This moment in history is fascinating, and I think it tells us a lot about who William Shakespeare was.

With the fire at The Globe, it was yet another moment in his life where he had to make a very big decision.

Would he give up London and go home, retire from the theatre and never return? 

Or would he double down, rebuild the Globe, or another playhouse perhaps, and keep writing and producing plays?

This Chandos Portrait of Shakespeare was probably painted around 1610
Shakespeare had turned 49 years old in April 1613. He had been living and working in London for probably about 25 years at this point.

About half of his life was spent London, as an actor/playwright, and he had enjoyed great success and suffered great losses.

He was the last of a dying breed of playwrights. When Shakespeare came to London around 1587, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd were arguably the two greatest playwrights. They were gone now.

Most of Shakespeare friends and rival playwrights were all gone, including Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe and John Lyly.

Shakespeare’s great friends, and artistic patrons — Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, Ferdinando Stanley, Earl of Derby, and Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon — were all long dead.

The Earl of Essex
The Earl of Derby
Lord Hunsdon

The actor/comedian Will Kemp was dead. He arguably had the greatest influence on Shakespeare, and he helped to invent the unforgettable Falstaff character.

And of course, Queen Elizabeth, for whom Shakespeare had performed for on many occasions, had died in 1603. 

Queen Elizabeth, circa 1601

With all of these people gone from his life, I would imagine that London was becoming a less happy place for Shakespeare. Almost every street and every place Shakespeare frequented in London was filled with ghosts.

Shakespeare had just written, or co-written the King Henry VIII play. That play had only been performed a couple of times before The Globe caught fire.

Did Shakespeare consider that a bad omen? Did he consider the possibility that he had maybe written the last play he should ever write?

In his career in London, he had seen theatres come and go. And Shakespeare had a hand in making them come and go.

Shakespeare probably saw The Rose open in 1587, on Bankside.

But when he built The Globe on Bankside in 1599, it ruined The Rose’s business.

The Globe Theatre between The Beargarden, at top, and The Rose, at bottom

The owners of The Rose, Philip Henslowe and Edward Alleyn abandoned it, and it was torn down. They left Bankside altogether and built a new theatre, The Fortune, on the other side of London.

After The Globe burned down, Henslowe and Alleyn started to build a new Bankside theatre, The Hope.

It seems they wanted to steal the Bankside audiences away from Shakespeare, and discourage him from rebuilding The Globe.

If Shakespeare decided to rebuild The Globe it would face stiff competition from The Hope. Even if he did rebuild The Globe, there was simply no way of knowing if it could survive against The Hope.

Shakespeare and his fellow men had great success recently, performing at the court of King James several times. The King’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth had married in February of 1613, and Shakespeare’s company performed 14 plays during the events surrounding the wedding.

Princess Elizabeth, in 1613

They were paid 153 pounds. They must have been excited at this windfall. But now, with the fire destroying their theatre, whatever profits they were enjoying could be erased by having to rebuild The Globe.

Sadly, Shakespeare’s younger brother Richard died in February, only days before Elizabeth’s wedding.

We don’t know anything about Richard Shakespeare, but it is very likely that Shakespeare wasn’t even at court for the wedding, and had to arrange and probably pay for the funeral of his brother.

In March of 1613, Shakespeare and some of his friends bought a property in Blackfriars area of London. Too little is known about this real estate deal to understand why Shakespeare purchased it, but it would seem to be something of a retirement investment.

It is rather clear that Shakespeare was preparing for his final exit from London’s stage.

The burning down of The Globe could have settled the matter, and it would have been the perfect opportunity for Shakespeare to bow out.

And not long after The Globe burned down, there was a massive fire in Stratford-upon-Avon in July. 54 houses burned down — but not Shakespeare’s.

However, the financial strain and the local efforts to rebuild the town may have pulled Shakespeare away from London, just as he was deciding whether to rebuild The Globe.

Despite the grief over his brother’s death, despite the loss of so much money and the cost of rebuilding The Globe, despite the stiff competition of The Hope, despite whatever other reasons why Shakespeare could have left London and never looked back, the decision was made to rebuild The Globe precisely where it originally stood.

I think that gives us a very good measure of Shakespeare the man.

He had faced so much adversity in his life, with the death of his son Hamnet, with the execution of his great friend the Earl of Essex — but each time he carried on.

Shakespeare was a fighter. He had fought his way into the theatres, against the very stiff competition of Marlowe, Kyd and the rest, to win his place as the greatest of all playwrights. No easy feat.

He was a tough businessman, who clearly was not afraid of The Hope. It seems that he realized the financial potential of a new Globe, in spite of the competition from Henslowe and Alleyn's new theatre.

He must have been able to set aside his fears and pessimism. I like to think of Shakespeare as idealistic, and optimistic, even after a lifetime of enormous struggles.

Also, I have to think that had The Globe not been rebuilt, it might have signaled not just the end of Shakespeare’s career — it might have helped to erase Shakespeare’s name from history.

It is possible that we would never know his name, or enjoy all the brilliance of his plays if it had not been for the decision he made in the summer of 1613 to rebuild — piece by piece, board by board — The Globe.


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Friday, June 24, 2016

Young Shakespeare's First Play

About 447 years ago today, William Shakespeare saw his first play.

The earliest recorded performance by a troupe of actors in Stratford-upon-Avon was in the summer of 1569, when Shakespeare was 5 years old.

The Guildhall where Shakespeare probably saw his first play

He had the pleasure of seeing none other than the Queen’s own troupe of actors, the Queen’s Players.

John Shakespeare, his father, was the Bailiff (or Mayor) of Stratford. He was the man in charge of receiving the Queen’s Players, and approving their performance. He also paid them 9 shillings for their performance.

It is fun to imagine what kind of boy Shakespeare was. I like to think that was headstrong and funny. In other words, his parents probably couldn’t control him, and perhaps didn’t want to, since he was such a humorous child, so full of life.

Did young William look something like this?

I am fascinated by those moments in history when great artists are first introduced to the medium with which they will change history. What was it like for Shakespeare to see his first play? Or when Mozart first heard the sound of violin? Or when Michelangelo first touched paint?

There are great moments like this, when the universe aligns to create incredible beauty, that have happened throughout the ages. With any luck, it is happening right now somewhere with other children.

I like to think that as young William Shakespeare watched his very first play, there wasn’t just a lightbulb going off over his head, but rather there was the light of billions of neurons firing inside his brain and exciting him like nothing ever had or would.

But what play did he see?

Could it have been The Cradle of Security? It was performed by any number of troupes at the time.

It was a morality play, in which simple moral lessons were taught. The characters represented good or bad qualities, like Virtue or Vice, for example.

Examples of Morality Play characters -- Charity and Youth

It is very likely that his parents, John and Mary, sat with him as they watched this performance. Perhaps he sat on their laps, or was he so excited by the event that he stood, on the bench, between them?

In the play, evil councillors turn a good king into a bad king, with the help of three women who represent Pride, Covetousness and Lust (and/or Luxury).

Young William probably enjoyed rooting for the good king who should turn away from evil and sin, but doesn’t. And he probably joined the rest of the audience who hissed and booed at the evil characters who corrupted the king.

The women persuade the king to lie down “in a cradle” -- they rock him to sleep with a siren’s song until his face turns into the face of a pig!

At the tender young age of 5, young William probably was shocked and mesmerized as the king turned into an animal (with the help of a crude mask). Did the king oink and snort like a pig?

Animal masks in mummers plays

And young William probably was anxious and scared that the king was perhaps going to lose this battle of good versus evil — the dramatic tension must have been unbearable for such a young boy.

But later two men appeared on stage, one as the End of the World and the other as the Last Judgment, carrying a sword!

Did the Last Judgment look something like this?

Did young William cry? Did he yell, with the audience, for the king to wake up before it was too late? Did he stomp his feet and clutch his hair in despair?

But the king is not saved. His sins defeat him, and he is carried away by these wicked spirits to his doom.

How did young William react to this tragic and apocalyptic climax? Did he cry his eyes out? Did he bury his head in his father or mother’s lap, and want to wake up from the hellish nightmare he had just witnessed?

Did he lose sleep all night, restless and afraid, replaying the images of evil and the king’s destruction over and over again in his mind? Did he talk about, think about, chew over this play in the days and weeks afterwards?

Did he play out the story himself, with his friends? Did he play the king. I can’t help but think he played anyone other than the king. Did he change the story — from the tragic destruction of the king, to a victorious king, who instead triumphs over evil? 

Did he pray to God, and ask Him for guidance? 

Did young William make a firm resolution to spend the rest of his life in the service of protecting his monarch from the forces of evil?

I think it is reasonable to think that this play was permanently seared on his still-developing psyche. 

Ralph Fiennes as Richard II

This simple moral story shows up repeatedly in his plays. Richard II was famous for his evil councillors. In Hamlet the entire court of Elsinore is carried away into the abyss. In King Lear, he stubbornly drags his nation to its doom.

And is it just me, or does the king's turning into a pig seem a lot like Bottom's turning into a donkey?

To say that this morality play influenced Shakespeare is an understatement. I think it shaped his mind and his character, and inspired him to make the world a better place, and protect his beloved England from evil.

After all, Shakespeare was born on St. George’s Day —  and St. George, the patron saint of England, was believed to be the protector of the royal family.

What greater calling could a young boy have than to preserve and protect his countrymen and their monarch from harm? 

What boy wouldn't want such a life -- to be a knight in shining armour?


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Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Shakespeare and the Spanish Armada

I love “what if’s” of history.

What if Queen Elizabeth I did not inherit the throne from Mary?

What if King James did not inherit Queen Elizabeth I’s throne?

What if Shakespeare was never born?

I think we all suffer from hindsight bias, the belief that things that have happened could not have turned out any other way than how they did.

I see it all the time when I read about history. Scholars and historians often take it for granted that King James succeeded Elizabeth, for example, as if the other claimants to her throne didn’t have a chance.

So the “what if” game is a fun and interesting way to challenge our assumptions about history, and explore what might have happened.

I have been reading about the Spanish Armada in 1588, and I came across a great "what if."

On 29 July, the Spanish Armada sailed within view of the English coast, south of Plymouth Harbour.

The Armada was a fleet of 130 ships, sent by King Philip II of Spain to invade and conquer England. The Armada was under the command of the Duke of Medina-Sidonia.

There had been a cold war between England and Spain for many years, and King Philip wanted to turn it into a very hot war.

King Philip II of Spain, ca 1580

Philip’s personal motto was non sufficit orbis, which translates to “The world is not enough.” He clearly wanted to conquer as much land as possible during his lifetime, and England was his next target.

At the same time that the Armada was coming within view of England, Queen Elizabeth’s fleet was in the harbour at Plymouth. Under the command of Lord Admiral Charles Howard and Sir Francis Drake, the ships of the Queen’s fleet were loading provisions on the ships, to prepare for the coming Spanish Armada.

Lord Admiral Howard
Sir Francis Drake

Little did Howard and Drake know that the Armada was already preying upon their shores.

On board Medina-Sidonia’s flagship, the San Martin, there was a council of war. Some of the captains of the Armada argued to immediately go to Plymouth harbour in search of the English fleet.

If the English fleet was there, they wanted to launch a surprise attack.

Little did Medina-Sidonia know that even if Howard and Drake wanted to leave the harbour, they could not. The wind and the tides were keeping the English fleet trapped in the harbour.

The Spanish didn’t know that the English ships were in fact there, and they were trapped by the weather. The English fleet were sitting ducks.

What if the Spanish Armada had attacked the English fleet on 29 July 1588?

If they had attacked right there and then, it is very possible that Howard and Drake, and many more Englishmen, would have lost their lives. No matter how valiantly they would have fought, it would probably have been a terrible loss for England and a terrific victory for Spain.

Once the English fleet was defeated, ships sunk in the harbour, or crippled and no longer sea-worthy, the Spanish Armada could have sailed on up the coast of England without anyone to stop them.

The Armada could have proceeded with their plan, to take a Spanish army across the Channel and land them at Margate, where the invasion of England would have begun.

Could Spain have really invaded England? Could Spain have really invaded and conquered the England? I think the answer is yes. It certainly had the navy and army to do it. And it certainly had the desire. 

No doubt Englishmen would have rallied to fight the Spanish, and there would have been victories and losses on both sides. But it is entirely within the realm of possibility that London could have fallen, and Queen Elizabeth I removed from power.

Spain was the only superpower in the world at the time. England was much poorer and weaker, and was struggling to assert itself as a power to rival Spain.

But in July 1588, Spain could well have won this war, and could have conquered England.

But none of that happened. Medina-Sidonia decided against attacking the English fleet at Plymouth.

Soon after he made this very fateful decision, Howard and Drake received word that the Armada had arrived.

As soon as the wind changed, and the tide turned, Howard and Drake sailed from Plymouth. They would battle the Armada over several days in some of the toughest and bloodiest battles in the history of the world.

These bravest of Englishmen turned the tide of war, and made history. They saved England in one of her darkest times, and saved Elizabeth's throne.

Queen Elizabeth, in her Armada Portrait

What does this have to do with Shakespeare?

Well, Shakespeare had probably arrived in London by this time, and was just beginning to perform as an actor, and write his plays.

It is very doubtful that he would have had any success if a Spanish king had taken the English throne. I doubt very much that any English poet or playwright would be remembered at all, under a Spanish monarch.

We probably wouldn’t know Shakespeare’s name, and there would be no plays of his performed today.

What if there were no Shakespeare?

We have Howard and Drake and their band of brothers to thank for Shakespeare, too.


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