By Charles Matthews

Saturday, November 27, 2010

11. Soul of the Age, by Jonathan Bate, pp. 319-342

Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William ShakespeareFifth Age: Justice, Chapter 19, The King's Man. Sixth Age: Pantaloon: Chapter 20, The Myth of Shakespeare's Retirement
Jaques's "lean and slippered pantaloon" is derived from the commedia dell'arte character Pantalone. "In the commedia, he was a lean, foolish old man in a red costume, with skullcap and Turkish slippers, close-fitting jacket and baggy trousers -- pantaloons." The theater was no respecter of old age, and Shakespeare followed suit, repeatedly portraying "fathers who show folly, not wisdom, in their attempts to make or break marital arrangements for their daughters." Polonius is the most significant example. Pantaloon was "the frequent butt of the clown's jokes. Hamlet's baiting of Polonius is one of the many signs that he has taken over the role of the dead court jester Yorick: he is at once both hero and clown."
At the heart of comedy is the triumph of the young over the old, of the forces of life over those of killjoy Puritanism. Pantaloon is lean: a sign of his parsimony. Shakespeare has more time for the unashamedly fat, for Sir John Falstaff and Sir Toby Belch. "Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?" Theater will always prefer cakes and ale to virtue.... The "pantaloon," then is an invitation to consider Shakespeare's representation of age and folly as fellow travelers The pairing reaches its apogee with King Lear and the Fool.

Shakespeare never became old: He died at fifty-two. But the tradition has been to regard his last years as "retirement," taking Prospero's final speech as the author's valedictory to the stage. Bate insists that this is a "myth." In November 1614, Shakespeare's kinsman Thomas Greene wrote in his memorandum book of a meeting with Shakespeare in London, "just eighteen months before Shakespeare's death." A further note in December indicates that Greene wrote to Shakespeare, who was still in London, suggesting that he still had business there, perhaps related to the stage.

His involvement with the theater was complicated by the fact that "during the first six and a half years of James's English reign, the public theaters were closed for more than four years, open less than two" because of outbreaks of the plague. Because of his investments in property in Stratford, this would have given him a reason to spend more time there, but there is no evidence that he played "a part in local government or the civic life of the community" that might be expected of a man of his wealth and status.

It does seem, however, that he gave up acting: "He is in the cast lists of Ben Jonson's plays Every Man in His Humour (1598) and Sejanus (1603), but, unlike Richard Burbage, John Hemings, Henry Condell, and the rest of his fellows in the King's Men, not those of Volpone (1605), The Alchemist (1610), and Catiline (1611)." In his copy of the First Folio, an owner made notes beside some of the actors listed as having performed in Shakespeare's plays, indicating what he knew about them. By Shakespeare's name "he wrote 'ceast' or 'least' or possibly 'best' (the initial letters are hard to decipher) 'for making.'" Bate observes that the words dramatist and playwright were not commonly used at the time: "the author of a play was known as the maker." So the annotator may have meant that Shakespeare ceased playmaking, or did the least acting and instead wrote plays, or was best at making plays. "Whatever the reading, the suggestion is that this early reader who knew something about the King's Men associated Shakespeare with play-making rather than acting." A recently discovered list of players in the royal household for 1607 omits Shakespeare, and  "is the strongest piece of evidence that during the Jacobean plague years Shakespeare was no longer sharing in the grind of being a working, touring actor."

The later plays, such as Othello, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, and Cymbeline,  are also "among his longest and poetically grandest plays," more suited for performance at court than for the popular theater. Bate concludes that "there is a Stratford Shakespeare before 1611, but by the same account there is a London Shakespeare after 1611, albeit on a part-time basis." There are no official records of his being in London from autumn 1604 to May 1612, which "is consistent with his absence from the casts of Jonson's later plays and the 1607 list of players at court." There are, however, business and legal records that put him in Stratford during that time, including an investment of "£440, the equivalent of nearly £100,000 or $200,000 in early-twenty-first-century terms." We don't know what kept him away from London: The sonnets hint at a "stain" on his name, and it's possible that illness, including syphilis, was to blame for his exile. "To put all this another way: Shakespeare may never have fully retired, but he may well have semiretired much earlier than we suppose."

In his early career, there is evidence of his collaboration with other playwrights, "but every play that can be dated with security to the [Lord] Chamberlain's [Men] period is solo-authored," from The Comedy of Errors through Troilus and Cressida. "He also worked alone in writing the earliest Jacobean plays: Othello, Measure for Measure, All's Well That Ends Well. The solo-authored Macbeth, King Lear and perhaps Antony and Cleopatra were big court showpieces for the year 1606." But after the theaters closed, he returned to collaboration, with Thomas Middleton on Timon of Athens and George Wilkins on Pericles. He also seems to have "worked with Middleton on a lost play -- or rather series of short plays -- called Four Plays in One. Only one of the four survives, the darkly compelling Yorkshire Tragedy. Most scholars attribute it to Middleton, but it was published in 1608 under the title A Yorkshire Tragedy written by W. Shakespeare."

After the theaters reopened, John Fletcher seems to have taken over Shakespeare's job as the in-house dramatist for the King's Men. In 1613, a new play called Cardenno (aka Cardenio) was performed to great success by the King's Men. The original, based on an episode in Don Quixote, has been lost except for a "heavily altered eighteenth-century adaptation." The 1613 version was "registered for publication as 'The History of Cardennio, by Mr Fletcher and Shakespeare,' but it never appeared in print. "Its success at court may have been what prompted Shakespeare and Fletcher to work closely together on another new play, All is True, representing some Principal Pieces of the Reign of Henry VIII." During one of its first performances, some guns were shot off at the entrance of Henry VIII, setting the thatched roof on fire and burning down the Globe. The theater was rebuilt, and at its opening in the summer of 1614, the first production may have been The Two Noble Kinsmen, which was attributed to Fletcher and Shakespeare when it was published in 1634
So here is Shakespeare still at work in late 1613, maybe even sometime iinto 1614. That he was still active at this time accords with the purchase of the Blackfriars gatehouse in 1613 and the meeting with Greene in London in the autumn of 1614. What kind of retreat to rural retirement is this? 

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