_____In 1600, the conflict with Spain brought to London representatives from the northern African region known as Barbary, which included modern-day Morocco, seeking an alliance. The presence of such exotic figures in Elizabethan London would certainly have come to Shakespeare's notice, and since the Lord Chamberlain's Men performed before the queen during their visit, Shakespeare may have seen them in person.
The Mediterranean was then divided between Spain and the Ottoman empire. Spain dominated the northern shore of the western section, from Cádiz to Naples to Messina. "The southern shore, from Alcazar to Algiers to Tunis, was a place of uncertainty, ruled by a wild mix of client regimes and wayward corsairs." Much of the conflict in the region centered on the islands of Sicily, Cyprus, and Rhodes. For Shakespeare, Bate conjectures, islands may have held a particular interest "because they constitute a special enclosed space within the larger environment of geopolitics, perhaps a little like the enclosed space of the theater within the larger environment of the city." [And maybe because he lived on one: the island known as Britain.]
The ambassador himself, Abd-el-Oahed ben Massaood, sat -- or rather stood -- for his portrait. The very image of a noble Moor, berobed and wearing a magnificent sword: as many critics have recognized, the figure of ben Massaood must have been in the hinterland of Shakespeare's imagining of Othello a few years later. An ambassador in London transformed into a general in Venice.
Abd-el-Oahed ben Massaood
Christopher Marlowe may have recognized the efficacy of setting a play on an island, too. After Tamburlaine "name-checked the whole of known Asia and Africa," Marlowe may have recognized, "that Tamburlaine's dramatic weakness was its episodic structure, the inevitable consequence of the Scythian shepherd's long-distance marches," so in his next play, The Jew of Malta, "he invented a story that focused the contest between Christianity and Islam on a single pressure point, the island of Malta." He gave Barabas's henchman Ithamore a complex "alien" background: his "name suggests 'Moor,' though he is described as a Turk. Since a specific point is made of his having been born in Thrace, he may have originated as a Christian child abducted from the Balkans and forcibly converted to Islam. To complicate matters further, his name seems to derive from the Jewish Ithamar, one of the sons of Aaron in the Bible." In Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare names his Moorish villain Aaron. The character is "clearly influenced by that of Ithamore ... so Shakespeare wittily calls him after Ithamar's father!"
Shakespeare also inverted things when it came to Othello, The Moor of Venice. The Jew of Malta was so popular that someone going to a play called The Moor of Venice would expect "that this Moor too would be a Barabas or an Aaron, a barbarian who puts Venice in peril." He made many significant changes to his source, a story in Giovanni Battista Giraldi Cinthio's Gli Hecatommithi. He enriched the atmosphere of the story, which is pretty much all plot and dialogue, with details that gave it "local texture -- Venetian, Cypriot, and Moorish," probably drawn from recently published books about the region. He adds the conflict with the Turks, representing "Cyprus as an island embattled in the Ottoman sea," a detail that recalls the Malta of Marlowe's play.
To Shakespeare and his contemporaries, Turk, Arab, and Moor all represented the Islamic "other," but they were not necessarily homogenized into a single image of generic "barbarianism." Arabic culture was frequently associated with learning and civilization, in contrast to the prevailing images of Turk and Saracen.... How you judged the Islam "other" depended not only on ideological stereotype but also on the particularities of diplomatic liaison and changing allegiance in a world of superpower rivalry.To the original audience of Othello, the word "Moor" meant Muslim, and "was frequently used as a general term for 'not one of us,' non-Christian." But Shakespeare's Othello is a Christian convert, so one of the marks of Iago's villainy for the audience would have been that he "re-converts Othello from Christianity.... In this sense, it is fitting that Iago appeals to a 'Divinity of hell' and that Othello acknowledges at the end of the play that he himself is bound for damnation." To the Elizabethans, "Moor" also meant a native of Mauretania, which encompassed parts of today's Morocco and Algeria. "Given that the Spanish empire was England's great enemy, there would have been a certain ambivalence toward the Moors -- they may have overthrown Christianity, but at least it was Spanish Catholic Christianity." There may also be some significance in the fact that the villain in Othello has "a Spanish name, reminiscent of St. Iago of Compostela, who was known as Matamoros, the Moor killer."
The Winter's Tale also has some unexpected twists that seem to be the product of Jacobean diplomacy. In the source for the play, Robert Greene's Pandosto, it is the king of Bohemia who accuses his wife of being unfaithful with the king of Sicilia. Shakespeare turns it around: "The jealous fit falls upon Sicilia instead of Bohemia." It's an odd change, since the original places "the chilly court of Leontes in snowy middle Europe and the summer shepherding in sunny Sicily, which was, besides, the reputed birthplace of Theocritus, father of the pastoral genre." Moreover, Shakespeare's change results in one of his most famous gaffes: a stage direction indicating a seacoast in landlocked Bohemia. Bate notes that Stephen Orgel argues that Shakespeare made the change to remove "the action from the world of literal geographical space as it is removed from historical time."
But Bate argues that even the romances are not without geopolitical concerns: "The Tempest is very interested in statecraft and dynastic liaison, while Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare's two extended meditations on what political historians call the British Question." He thinks the switch may have been made because "Sicilia -- or more exactly the kingdom of the two Sicilies, one consisting of the island and the other of southern Italy (otherwise known as the kingdom of Naples) -- was at the heart of the Mediterranean empire of Philip II of Spain, while Bohemia (the western two thirds of what is now the Czech Republic) became the core of the Holy Roman Empire." Moreover, Sicily was Catholic, whereas Bohemia had been the site of the Hussite rising of 1419-20, one of the first Reformation movements. "There were strong links between the courts of James in England and Rudolf [II] in Prague."
Bate thinks it "eminently plausible" that "Shakespeare thought it would be politic to make the monarch with Spanish associations the one who is irrational, cruel, and blasphemous" and that "tact was required in the invocation of the names of European kingdoms." That Shakespeare knew of Sicily's ties to Spain is evident in his other play set in Sicily, Much Ado About Nothing, in which "the Messina of Don Pedro is manifestly in Spanish hands."
The Tempest also reflects some of the animosity toward Spain. "In the imaginary afterlife of the play's plot, Ferdinand, son of Alonso, will one day be both king of Naples and duke of Milan. In the historical reality of early modern Italy, both Milan and Naples were under the dominion of the Spanish crown." Moreover, the names of both Ferdinand and Alonso echo those the Spanish rulers of Naples: "Alfonso V, the first Iberian king of Naples was succeeded by his illegitimate son Ferdinand." And his son, another Alfonso, abdicated to a son named Ferdinand. "Prospero is ... likely to have been regarded as the victim of intrigue that had Spanish villainy behind it." But the play as written has no actual historical references. "The evacuation of historical specificity from The Tempest is a conjuring trick that creates the illusion that Shakespeare prophesied the subsequent history of British imperialism. This made possible the manner in which the play was most frequently read in the post-Vietnam, postcolonial portion of the twentieth-century Cold War."
Othello is located on the east-west frontier between Christianity and Islam, with Othello himself functioning as the tertium quid that veers between the world's two dominant religions. The Winter's Tale plays off the Catholic south and the Protestant north. The Tempest returns to Marlowe's strategy in The Jew of Malta of compression all the world onto the stage of a single island. But with a difference. Shakespeare could have grounded his play in the Balearics, made Caliban a renegade, Prospero an exile from Spanish power, Stephano and Trinculo English privateers. He did not. He replaced Malta with a darkened version of Utopia, rendering the island a pure conceptual space -- or rather a purely theatrical space, for it is here that our sense of the resemblance between an island and a theater is strongest.
Shakespeare's "lost years," the seven-year period between the christening of his twins Hamnet and Judith in February 1585 and the disparaging reference to him by Robert Greene in autumn 1592, are a challenge to biographers. But in fact he didn't completely disappear: His name appears in a legal document in 1588 pertaining to a suit brought by his father, John Shakespeare, in which William is named as a party to the suit. "The case might just be the missing link between Shakespeare and London."
In Henry IV Part 2, we meet Justice Shallow and Justice Silence, "the justices of the peace in the Gloucestershire scenes, [who] are embodiments of the process whereby the Tudor regime sought to unify the administration of the nation through a network of local officials." They are "mildly corrupt officials who are all too often sentimentalized on the stage." In the scene in which Shallow and Silence meet, Shallow refers to "before I came to Clement's Inn," which Silence observes was "fifty-five years ago." Clement's Inn was one of the Inns of Chancery, where attorneys began their training. "Shakespeare was the only dramatist, indeed the only literary author, of the period ever to mention Clement's Inn by name. So how did he know about it?"
In 1588 John Shakespeare filed suit against John Lambert for £20 that Lambert owed him, naming William as partner in the suit. Their attorney was John Harborne, who had begun his legal studies at Clement's Inn. It is possible that 24-year-old William was the one who went to London to confer with Harborne on the case, which "provides as good an explanation as any as to why Clement's is repeatedly mentioned in the reminiscences of legal training in Henry IV Part 2." It also suggests that Shakespeare was in London "in the Armada year of 1588, when the drama was beginning to flourish, above all in the plays of Marlowe. Could this have been the moment when he decided to stay in town and try his fortunes on a larger stage than that of the small provincial town where his father was still struggling?"
Shakespeare's plays are full of knowledge of the law and lawyers, but "It is thin in comparison with that to be found in the dramas of many of his contemporaries, such as fellow Warwickshire man John Marston, who trained at the Middle Temple.... But we cannot rule out the possibility that Shakespeare underwent some kind of rudimentary legal training in the 1580s." Justice Shallow refers to "my cousin William" who is at Oxford and who "must then to the Inns of Court shortly," repeating the fact that Shallow himself "was once of Clement's Inn." John Shakespeare could not afford to send his son William to Oxford, but "it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that this snatch of dialogue contains the trace of a plan for Shakespeare to follow the road taken by Harborne." The grammar school education he had received "was undertaken with an eye as much on the law as on the church."
While he was in London conferring with Harborne, he may have begun his writing career. Marlowe's The Jew of Malta was probably performed early in 1589, and it certainly made its impression on him: "His Aaron in Titus Andronicus is a part written in response to Marlowe's Ithamore, and his Shylock in The Merchant of Venice is his answer to Barabas the Jew, with the play's resolution achieved through a courtroom instead of a boiling cauldron and a bloodbath."
Marlowe's play begins with a prologue spoken by Niccolò Macchiavelli, the name "anglicized to 'Machevil,' creating a suggestion of 'much evil.'" [Or "make evil."] The speech advances some subversive ideas:
Religion as an illusion; the idea that human knowledge does not require divine sanction; the notion that it is "might" not "right" that decides who rules; the proposition that the most effective laws are those based not on justice but on the severity exemplified by the ancient Greek lawgiver Draco (from whose name we get the word draconian). French and English thinkers of Shakespeare's time demonized Machiavelli for holding these views, but for Marlowe the act of thinking the unthinkable made Machiavelli a model for his own overreaching heroes.Shakespeare has his own Machiavels: Aaron, Richard III, Iago, Edmund in Lear. But his put the emphasis on "not so much the subversive politics as the stage panache of the unapologetic villain." The character of Richard III is what makes the play about him "a better play than the three parts of Henry VI that precede it." He is the first Shakespearean "figure with the compelling stage presence of a Falstaff or an Iago." Marlowe had to introduce Machiavelli himself to establish Barabas as a villain in his mold. Shakespeare does it by beginning the play with Richard's "Now is the winter of our discontent" speech. "Where Marlowe had cast Barabas in the role of the Machiavel by means of a pointed structural device, Shakespeare's Richard casts himself."
Unlike Marlowe, Shakespeare was careful, even conservative; he "never wrote plays that put him on the wrong side of the law." His "reputation for being able to handle potentially explosive material with equanimity" made him the man to call on when Henry Chettle was having trouble with his play Sir Thomas More. The master of the revels objected particularly to a scene in which More addresses a rioting crowd. In the speech, More judiciously balances the "old idea that sovereignty derives from God" with "the (much more modern-sounding) idea that the maintenance of law depends on a social contract, which is best understood by means of imaginative empathy." The argument advanced by Shakespeare is very much like that found in Richard Hooker's Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. [This edition of Bate's book misprints Polity as "Policy."] (There is no evidence otherwise that Shakespeare read Hooker.)
Shakespeare's plays are full of usurpers who are "usually self-serving Machiavels. But this does not make Shakespeare an uncritical apologist for the divine right of kings: when a Richard II or a Henry VI fails to fulfill the responsibilities of sovereignty, the state totters." In Henry V the king himself, the son of a usurper, grapples with the question of sovereignty and the king's responsibility to his subjects on the eve of Agincourt, when he goes out disguised and talks to his soldiers. He even "confronts the possibility that the whole edifice of sovereignty is nothing more than a quasi-theatrical performance.... The notion that the 'ceremony' on which kingship depends may be a device for the creation of 'awe and fear in other men' is deeply Machiavellian. Shakespeare's deep political cunning manifests itself in the decision to put this thought not into the mouth of Machiavelli, as Marlowe did, but into that of his most heroic king."
This complex scene on the eve of Agincourt reveals that for Shakespeare politics was a matter for serious debate. And debate is premised on the notion of opposing points of view each having an element of validity. Shakespeare does not impose his own political views. He leaves a space for his audience to make up their own minds, and that is inherently a way of giving the power of free thought to the people.Even Shakespeare couldn't save Sir Thomas More: "the script languished in manuscript until the nineteenth century, when a scholar realized for the first time that here were a few precious pages in Shakespeare's fluent, barely punctuated hand. He had succeeded much earlier in his career with his handling of the Jack Cade rebellion in Henry VI Part 2, where he undercut Cade's radical ideas by demonstrating that "Cade does not really want representative government. He wants to be king himself." He returned to this trick in The Tempest, in which Gonzalo's utopianism is undercut by the observation that he advocates "No sovereignty. / Yet he would be king on't."
Shakespeare's political beliefs are as elusive as his religion, his sexuality, and just about everything else about him that matters. Precisely because he was not an apologist for any single position, it has been possible for the plays to be effectively reinterpreted in the light of each successive age. In the four centuries since his death, he has been made the apologist for all sorts of diametrically opposed ideologies, many of them anachronistic -- we should not forget that he was writing before the time when toleration and liberal democracy became totemic values.But just as we reinterpret Shakespeare's plays in the light of our own concerns, so he rewrote history to suit his time. He took the concerns of Roman history, early Britain in King Lear and Cymbeline, and the Wars of the Roses and afterward "and mapped them onto his own time and state with fascinating effect."
He had to do some backpedaling after the Essex affair. One of the supporters of Essex who was killed by a sniper on the day the plot was put down was Owen Salusbury. His brother, John Salusbury, was on the other side and was knighted by the queen for his loyalty. A volume of poems called Love's Martyr was published on the occasion, and contributions were sought from all the major poets. "Shakespeare, who ... did not usually undertake such commissions, contributed his own brilliant little vignette of the mystical marriage of the phoenix and the turtle[dove], the Virgin Queen and her loyal courtier. It was a very good way of aligning himself with the loyal Salusbury rather than the disloyal one.
"Troilus and Cressida, written soon after the dramatic events of 1601 may have been another subtle repositioning on Shakespeare's part." George Chapman had dedicated his translation of the Iliad to Essex, describing him as "the modern Achillles -- an obvious analogy, in the light of Essex's espousal of the cult of chivalry and military honor." But Shakespeare turns the Homeric heroics upside down: "In its love plot the play is an antiromance, while in its martial plot it is an antiepic. In his antiheroic representation of the exemplary heroes of the Trojan War, Shakespeare undermines both the style and the attitudes of Chapman's recent translation." Hector is killed in the midst of an act of vanity, when he takes off his armor to put on the golden armor of a slain warrior. Ajax is "a singularly unheroic blockhead." And Achilles "has withdrawn from the battle and is camping around in his tent with his gay lover, Patroclus."
Again and again Troilus and Cressida reveals the discrepancy between the polished surface that is projected by a value system, whether the heroic code or courtly love, and the tawdry reality beneath. At a philosophical level, the effect of this is deeply troubling: it is to question whether there can be such a thing as an absolute moral value.