The Young Shakespeare (1): Did He Even Exist?
Discovering the fascinating truth
Of Shakespeare’s missing years
‘God comes first,’ declared Heinrich Heine, ‘but surely Shakespeare comes next,’ & at some moment in our lifetimes there may come the time when we truly understand the profound genius of a mind which conjured such a sequence of brilliant plays they shall remain in our collected consciousness forever. More than any other single individual, Shakespeare’s natural creativity has improved & modernized the English tongue; while at the same time his uncanny penchant for the dramatic arts invented, fermented & cemented a theatrical tradition still thriving to this day. The problem is, we don’t really know that much about Mr. William Shakespeare, gent. But we do know a bit..
back in 1603 – when Shakespeare was 39 – John Davies of Hereford writes of his admiration for an actor called W.S. whom Davies also loved for poetry. Six years later Davies then wrote the following poem which names Shakespeare & compares him to the Roman dramatist, Terence, alongside allusions to many contemporary statements about Shakespeare – the tip of a cultural iceberg if you will;
To Our English Terence, Mr Will. Shake-speare
Some say (good Will). which I, in sport, do sing,
Hadst thou not played some Kingly parts in sport,
Thou hadst been a companion for a King;
And been a King among the meaner sort.
Some others rail; but, rail as they think fit,
Thou hast no railing, but, a reigning Wit:
And honesty thou sowst, which they do reap;
So, to increase their stock which they do keep.
In the Elizabethan era, the art of English ‘biography’ was very much in its infancy. The first proper attempt to record actual details of Shakespeare’s life was made in the 1660’s, when John Aubrey included a gossipy sketch in his, ‘Short Lives.’ Another half-century would pass before anybody else tried to flesh out Aubrey’s work, when the poet-laureate-to-be, Nicholas Rowe, took upon himself the task of modernizing Shakespeare into the English of his day. There is also an account of Shakespeare by John Ward, vicar of Stratford-upon-Avon and physician, whose Notebook for 1662-1663 reads;
I have heard that Mr. Shakespeare was a natural wit without any art at all. He frequented the plays all his younger time, but in his elder days lived at Stratford: and supplied the stage with 2 plays every year and for that had an allowance so large that he spent at the rate of £1000 a year as I have heard.
Combining Rowe, Ward & Aubrey gives us the bare bones of the historical Shakespeare, which in essence are just a scrappy handful of unlikely anecdotes & second-hand memories, into which we can stitch a few dozen ‘official’ details such as his marriage to Anne Hathaway; the christening records of their three children; legal affidavits; & his famous will. In the official spheres, six of Shakespeare’s signatures have been raked up from the ashes of historical bureaucracy, the last of which scratched loosely upon his will. This last document also contains the only known handwriting we possess in his hand. Even then, this consists of only the four letters of ‘by me,’ or even ‘by mr;’ a scanty authentic sample of our greatest writer’s gargantuan wordsmithery.
Shakespeare spent a great deal of his adult life in London, but upon his death in 1616, at the age of 52, he was returned home to be buried in Stratford. Seven years after this entombment thirty-six of his plays were printed together for the first time in a rather large tome known as the First Folio. This brilliantly influential book contains a woodcut engraving which has provided us with the definitive image of the Bard; a balding & bearded man, nestling quite unegregiously in his middle-age. Unfortunately, & for various reasons, this printed testament & definitive image of Shakespeare are not enough to prove he existed. By some obtuse glitch there exists today a rather large & angry mob of academics who, with growing defiance, absolutely & positively deny that William Shakespeare ever composed his own plays.
There are two principle reasons for this chronic conclusion of the anti-Shakespeareans: the first is a complete lack of any manuscripts in Shakespeare’s hand. But none of the great playwrights of the period left behind any actual manuscripts of their plays: in a time without copyright, these precious reams of paper were jealously guarded & then destroyed by the theatres. It was far better for a play to dwell in the memory of an actor or three, than to fall into the hands of a rival company. The second objection to Shakespeare’s existence comes from an intellectually snobbish attitude prevalent throughout the halls of academe, which assumes that literary genius may only be taught & never be acquired through natural means.
From this vulgar stance comes the conclusion that an uneducated country yeoman could not have acquired the intellectual capabilities to produce such a fantastic treasury of writings that constitute Shakespeare’s majestic oeuvre. This, then, is the case against, which has not been enough to convince the majority of scholars, & the rest of the world at large, that Shakespeare the man was not also Shakespeare the author. Such defenders of his noble name are known as Stratfordians, while pitted against them are the non-believers, who go by the name of ‘non-Stratfordians.’ Of this most bitter & increasingly fractious academic battleground, the modern scholar Leo Daugherty, postulates, ‘most of the “warfare” emanates from scholars and critics deeply entrenched in ideology far more than in commitment to good evidence.’
The ‘ideology’ mentioned by Daugherty manifests itself as an intellectual world shaking collective & disbelieving heads at Shakespeare’s meteoric rise, combining voices in an open declaration that the works of Shakespeare must have been created by some university-educated nobleman & not the Swan of Avon. This has seen the promulgation of a series of candidates onto which has been deflected more than a century of critical scholarship. Like any of our great world mysteries, a crazed wild-fire has broken out among the pages of our normally rational academics, smouldering charcoal embers which are distorting the truth about Shakespeare to this day.
Contenders include Christopher Marlowe, despite the fact he was stabbed to death in 1593; which would have made it rather difficult for him to have penned a play such as the Scottish-influenced Macbeth, written to celebrate the succession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne in 1603. A year after this – in 1604 – Edward De Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, also died. This starbright gentleman is the main focus of most anti-Shakespearean scholarship, but he simply could not have written plays such as the Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline & Coriolanus. The latter, for example contains the fable of Menenius as drawn from the ‘Remaines’ of William Camden, which were published in 1605. We can also see that in 1598, De Vere was placed among the great writers of the age alongside Shakespeare, by their contemporary Francis Meres.
The best for Comedy amongst vs bee Edward, Earle of Oxforde, Doctor Gager of Oxforde, Master Rowley, once a rare scholler of learned Pembrooke Hall in Cambridge, Maister Edwardes, one of Her Maiesties Chappell, eloquent and wittie Iohn Lilly, Lodge, Gascoyne, Greene, Shakespeare, Thomas Nash, Thomas Heywood, Anthony Mundye, our best plotter, Chapman, Porter, Wilson, Hathway, and Henry Chettle.
Despite this glaringly obvious separation of Edward De Vere & Shakespeare, by an eye-witness so to speak, the Oxfordians – as this largest pack of Anti-Stratfordians are more commonly known – have been fiercely advancing the Earl of Oxford’s candidacy for decades. En route, wherever they meet with sound evidence which shows De Vere could never, ever have been William Shakespeare, like tigers cornered in a cave they will thrash out with increasingly bewildering conspiracy theories to negate the challenge to their theories. Somewhere into this mix of baseless conjecture is sometimes tossed a love child of Queen Elizabeth, & I am sure in one strand of the Oxfordian theories Shakespeare was said to have been his own father.
The vita of William Shakespeare is more famous for what it does not contain than what it does. One of the enduring Shakespearean conundrums revolves around the seven-year period between 1585 & 1592, the so-called ‘Lost Years,’ a wilderness of remembrance in which our budding bard might as well have been living on the moon! All we know is that at the beginning of 1585, when his twins were baptized in Stratford, Shakespeare seems nothing but a simple family man. Seven years later, however, he is setting London alight with the first resonant tromp-blasts of his miraculously brilliant plays. The occasion was a rather popular performance of ‘Henry VI’ at the Rose Theatre, dated to the 3rd of March, 1592. Takings for the performance were £3 6sh 8d, outdoing Christopher Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, played in the Rose only the previous week, by almost a full pound. Shakespeare was now the starry darling of the London literary scene, but what journey had he made from rural Stratford for him to have ever become so? Of this curious puzzle, Bill Bryson writes, ‘There is not a more tempting void in literary history, nor more eager hands to fill it.’ The thing is, looking through the kaleidoscopic lens that is the Chisper Effect, a figure quite like Shakespeare can be easily identified. It is time for a fresh investigation.
On first encountering this contentious arena, my instinct was to say I believed what it said on the tin, that Shakespeare had written his own plays. Having looked at a great deal of the available evidence, I am rather inclined to agree with my first instinct, for with a wee waft here & there, when those paper trails of history that have been blown about by the blustery gales of many centuries settle in just the right order, all of a sudden they form a series of cogent patterns to illuminate a path through the murky mists of Shakespeare’s history. Some of the key patterns center upon a certain Lancastrian nobleman called William Stanley, who became the Sixth Earl of Derby in 1594. His feudal demesne was not in Derbyshire, however, but Lancashire, whose ‘capital’ was the palatial stately home at Knowsley, on the outskirts of Liverpool.
In Shakespeare’s day the Derbys were the second family of England, direct descendants of the first Tudor king, Henry VII, through Mary, one of the two sisters of Henry VIII. The elder sister, Margaret, had married into the Stewart line of Scottish kings, whose great-grandchild would eventually inherit the English crown as King James I. Before that momentous occasion of national unification, the Stanleys were the ideological focus of many a plot throughout Elizabeth’s childless reign. But, being shrewd operatives & canny northern lads, this noble family never once challenged the hegemony of the Tudors, remaining content enough to lord it over their private kingdom in the North. Instead of plotting for the throne, the Stanleys were content to patronise the dramatic arts, running private troupes of player to perform up & down & all across the land. They even had a private playhouse built at Knowsley, which would have attracted Shakespeare like a moth to a dramaturgical flame. That our bard had been in the vicinity of Knowsley can be observed in the creochisping, money-obsess’d character of Shylock in the Merchant of Venice. He is based upon Thomas Sherlock, a coin-counting churchwarden in the Lancashire parish of Prestcott, bordering the Stanley’s estate at Knowsley. The Churchwardens Accounts of Prescott read;
1581: imprimis, receyved bye me, the sed Thomas Sherlock at the handes of the olde churche wardens, ouer theire accountes the last year as appereth bye this booke
1584: item, paid to Thomas Sherlocke for the repairinge of the olde slate upon the sowth syde of the church
In his younger years Stanley, as we shall call him from now on, undertook an epic tour of Europe just at the commencement of the Shakespearean ‘Lost Years.’ According to the ‘History of the House of Stanley,’ by John Seacome, the good folk of Lancashire were addicted to his ‘whole travels, martial exploits, and bravery abroad, which this county (especially) gives us many large accounts, as well in story, as song, and frequently made themselves merry therewith.’ The thing is, if we were to place Shakespeare in the company of Stanley on his continental tour, it is singularly remarkable how much of the Shakespearean oeuvre begins to fit snugly into the minute nooks & crannies of the Stanleyan Grand Tour. Actualizing Shakespeare in the entourage of Stanley begins within the rustic pipings of an obscure ballad called ‘The Garland of William Stanley.’ Anonymously penned, it was printed in the 18th century, a ‘garland’ or collection of stanzas telling the story of Stanley’s Continental wanderlust. The poetry of the Garland is not the finest, falling far below the standard of even the most ordinary of broadside ballads; but what it lacks in beauty of language is more than made up for by geographical & historical content. The story it tells is more a montage of three separate journeys; Stanley’s first in 1582-1584 with his tutor Richard Lloyd, the second between 1585-87 with Shakespeare, & a third in the early 1590s, just before he became the Sixth Earl.
The Garland explains how Stanley conducted a twenty-one year tour of the Continent (a clear exaggeration) via France, Spain, Italy, Rome & the mountainous Alpine parts of southern Germany known as ‘High Germany.’ Stanley then went to North Africa, visiting Egypt, Algeria & Morocco, before sweeping back north to meet the famous Elizabethan magus, John Dee, at the court of the Russian Emperor. Another grand sweep would see Stanley returning to the Mediterranean once again, in order to tour the Near East. After conducting the obligatory a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, before finding himself imprisoned in Constantinople for blasphemy against Mohammed. After his release at the behest of an infatuated Turkish woman, Stanley moved up to the frozen north, where he became stranded upon the island of Greenland. Fortuitously rescued by a whale-ship, he would eventually be dropp’d off in Holland, from where he boarded a boat for England & his homecoming at Lathom Hall. I think it hardly a coincidence that in every place Stanley visited in the Garland we can site one or more of Shakespeare’s continental scenes, with the only exception being the Elsinore of Hamlet.
Love’s Labour’s Lost – Navarre
All’s Well that Ends Well – Roussillon, Marseilles
All’s Well that Ends Well – Florence
Two Gentlemen of Verona – Verona, Milan, Mantua
Romeo and Juliet – Verona and Mantua
The Taming of the Shrew – Padua
The Merchant of Venice – Venice
Othello – Venice
Titus Andronicus – Rome
Coriolanus – Rome, Corioli, and Antium
Anthony & Cleopatra – Misenum
Much Ado about Nothing – Messina
The Winter’s Tale – Sicily
The Comedy of Errors – Syracuse
The Winter’s Tale – Bohemia
Measure for Measure – Vienna
To NORTH AFRICA
Twelfth Night – Illyrian coast
Anthony & Cleopatra – Egypt
Tempest – Between Tunisia & Sicily
Timon of Athens – Athens
A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Athens
Othello – A sea-port in Cyprus
The Comedy of Errors – Ephesus
Pericles – Pentapolis, Lybia, Tarsus, Antioch, Tyre
Troilus and Cressida – Troy, Turkey
Like all art, poetry grows naturally out of accumulated materielle, to which is added an individual poet’s personality & technique. Their creations should be seen as the fragrant flowers of a bush, the roots of which are buried deep under the earth. By following these roots to their sources of nourishment, we can slowly create a picture of the poet’s unseen life, the one that lives beneath the surface of the page. If Shakespeare had accompanied Stanley, the sheer wealth of scenery & culture that Europe contains should have found an eventual memorial among his plays. When the English poet Lord Byron visited the Continent in the early 19th century, his composition of a long poem called Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimage is more or less a record of his travels. In the same fashion, it is through the Chisper Effect that we can see how the plays of Shakespeare are a metacreative journal of his travels with Stanley. Doctor AW Titherly concurs with such a notion by stating, ‘Shakespeare’s geography, being ubiquitous in its range, is evidentially inconclusive, except in so far as its abiding realism manifestly betrays extensive travel experience as distinct from mere book-learning.’
Shakespeare’s continental ‘ticket’ would been paid for by the wealthy Stanley. These ‘Grand Tours’ were partaken only by the very rich, in particular young aristocrats wanting to complete their education by visiting foreign ‘academes’ & basking in the natural beauties of the Continent; whether it be the delights of scenic scenes, or the bosom of some pretty damsel. That Shakespeare accompanied Stanley should appease the anti-Shakespeareans, for foreign travel alongside a man of noble birth would have furnish’d Shakespeare’s brain with all the courtly mores, continental languages & classical scholarship our poet would ever need to create his masterpieces. Looking into the Italian plays in particular, one cannot help but notice Shakespeare’s attention to both topographical & cultural detail. By placing Stanley & Shakespeare together readily explains how the Bard would have gained such an impressive, one can only say love, for Italy. As we journey alongside William Shakespeare & William Stanley, in the absence of any external evidence of their Grand Tour, it is thro’ the internal evidence fermenting inside Shakespeare’s copious corpus that we are able to trace the route of the most important adventures in the history of the English language.
This series of essays will tell the story of how Shakespeare came under the Stanleys’ aquiline wing in the first place, of the numerous ports of call along his Grand Tour with William Stanley, all finished off by the first few years of our fledgeling bard’s writing career, fully inspired by his travels on the continent. This journey of early adulthood The Mumble shall now serialize in a neat, chronological & hopefully unclutter’d fashion…