By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

2. Soul of the Age, by Jonathan Bate, pp. 13-29

Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William ShakespeareFirst Age: Infant; Chapter 2, The Discovery of England
The break with Rome and the end to the domination of a "universal" church led to a surge in English nationalism, "a perceived need to buttress the English nation by proving the dignity of the English language and the native culture." Elizabeth's decision to remain unmarried, rather than to see an alliance with a prince from another nation was prompted in part by the unpopularity of her half-sister, Mary, whose marriage to Philip II of Spain "effectively placed a foreign king on the English throne."

Her favorite, Robert Dudley, the earl of Leicester, played an effective role in the development of English culture: "he commissioned an array of publications, including history books and translations of the Latin classics, as a way of flying the flag for English traditions and the English language." He was the patron of a troupe of players that in 1574 received a royal patent. Their leader, John Burbage, leased a site in London in 1576 and built a theater -- "simply called The Theatre." Puritan objections to the drama meant that "public playhouses were always built in the 'liberties' on the margins of London to the northeast or south of the river Thames." Their objections also led Shakespeare to create such characters as Malvolio in Twelfth Night and Angelo in Measure for Measure.

In 1581 Edward Tilney, the master of the revels in the lord chamberlain's office, was given jurisdiction over all plays, which he was to screen before allowing their performance. Bate comments, "This sounds like state censorship but was intended as an opportunity for him to familiarize himself with the repertoire in order to get the best shows to court." Two years later, twelve actors formed the Queen's Men, a traveling company whose itinerary included Stratford-upon-Avon. In 1587, a new theater, the Rose, opened in Southwark, managed by Philip Henslowe, and provided competition for the Queen's Men. One of the companies that played at the Rose was Lord Strange's Men, whose patron was Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange. Shakespeare's first plays were performed by the company. The leading actor in Lord Strange's Men was Richard Burbage, who would form a new company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men in 1594.
When the Puritans took power in 1642, they closed the theaters. But quite intangibly, those same theaters had prepared the way for the moment seven years later when the ax came down on the king's head in Whitehall. Where was it that Londoners had previously confronted the image of monarchs being removed from their thrones? Where was it that they had seen ordinary people -- actors, who were still regarded as little better than rogues and vagabonds -- daring to look into the minds of princes, and in so doing showing that kings and queens are not so much God's vice-regents on earth as ordinary mortals like all the rest of us? In the theater. 
 In 1592 the Dutch artist Marcus Gheeraerts painted a portrait of Queen Elizabeth in a white dress standing on a map of England and Wales, as if shielding her country from the threatening storm in the painting's background. The map on which she is standing was drawn up by Christopher Saxton in 1579, and "was the first-ever accurate map of the whole country. It was one of the keys to the Elizabethans' discovery of their own land."
Christopher Saxton's Map of England and Wales, 1579
"Thanks to Saxton, the Elizabethans were the first English people to have a clear sense of the physical shape of their own nation. And that gave them a new sense of belonging." But "belonging" was a layered concept: "Elizabethans were as loyal to their county as they were to their country. William Shakespeare was renowned as a Warwickshire man, and Sir Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake were proud of their Devonshire heritage." They relished the individuality of their various regions, and Shakespeare is unique among the Elizabethan playwrights in setting scenes in Warwickshire and neighboring Gloucestershire. "This little-observed fact is something of a problem for those conspiracy theorists who do not believe that the plays were written by a grammar-school boy from Warwickshire."

In Henry VI Part 3, he introduces a character named Somerville, who doesn't appear in the chronicles from which Shakespeare took the historical material of the play. "To an Elizabethan audience, or at least to anyone from the West Midlands, the name would immediately have evoked a Warwickshire man ...:  John Somerville of Edstone, a village four miles north of Stratford." Somerville had been arrested in 1583 for allegedly boasting about a plan to kill the queen. He was the son-in-law of Edward Arden, a Warwickshire Catholic family very probably related to Shakespeare's mother, née Mary Arden. Somerville was killed in prison, but Arden was hanged, drawn and quartered. His wife, another Mary Arden, was reprieved. "The tiny role of Somerville in Henry VI Part 3 may have been Shakespeare's way of saying that it was possible to be both a Warwickshire Catholic and a 'true-hearted friend' of queen and country."

Another Warwickshireman, Michael Drayton, took it on himself to celebrate the whole country, county by county, in his poem Polyolbion, which he began in 1598 and published in 1612. The frontispiece shows Britannia wrapped in a map like Saxton's.  The implication is "that the essence of the nation lay not only in the monarchy but above all in the land itself."

Warwickshire came to be regarded as "the heart of England" in large part because of Shakespeare, with an assist from Drayton.
That identity perhaps becomes tangible at the moment in Henry IV Part 1 when Falstaff breaks his journey from London to Shrewsbury along the old Roman road of Watling Street near Coventry, the capital of the Midlands, the place where the boy Shakespeare would have gained his first smell of city life. And in Part 2, when Falstaff goes recruiting in Justice Shallow's parish in the neighboring shire of Gloucester, Shakespeare begins the invention of deep England.

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