By Charles Matthews

Friday, November 19, 2010

3. Soul of the Age, by Jonathan Bate, pp. 30-52

Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William ShakespeareFirst Age: Infant; Chapter 3, The Boy From the Greenwood
Shakespeare's paternal grandfather, Richard Shakespeare, was a yeoman farmer; his maternal grandfather, Robert Arden, owned the land that Richard farmed. It lay on the edges of the Forest of Arden. "Like Corin in As You Like It, the Arden family farmed on the edge of the forest.

In the romance, Rosalynd, by Thomas Lodge that was Shakespeare's source for As You Like It, the forest was actually the Ardennes, in France. Although Shakespeare "domesticated the setting," hints of that foreign location remain in the play: "The first we hear of the exiled Duke is that, 'like the old Robin Hood of England,' he is in the forest with a group of 'merry men.' Ostensibly the qualifier 'of England' is an indication that the action is supposed to take place in France, but the deeper effect is to identify Arden with Sherwood."

One of the themes of the play is the contrast of "the natural order of the forest with the flattery and envy of the court" -- the two polarities of Shakespeare's own life, Stratford versus London. Shakespeare invented two characters not in Lodge's original, Jaques and Touchstone, who "spar with each other because the satire of the former and the witty foolery of the latter are rival modes of mocking courtly pretensions."

"The merging of Ardennes and Arden is only the most extreme example of Shakespeare's tendency to swerve back to his point of origin." The fairies and artisans of A Midsummer Night's Dream are more English than Athenian, and in All's Well That Ends Well, Helen "disguises herself as a pilgrim on the way to 'Saint Jaques le Grand." Since she is traveling between Italy and France, Samuel Johnson, who assumed that the object of her pilgrimage was the shrine of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, "remarked that she appeared to have gone someway out of her road." But Shakespeare is also alluding to the parish church of St. James the Great in Snitterfield, the village where his father was born. Other such allusions appear in the Henry IV plays: "Peto was the name of a commissioner in a 1581 Stratford law case involving John Shakespeare, while a Bardolph and a Fluellen appear alongside Shakespeare's father in a 1592 list of those absent from church for fear of process for debt."

"The social and natural ecology of rural Warwickshire plays a key part in his vision.... He was a provincial outsider, and that may go some way to explaining why he was so fascinated by outsiders such as Shylock the Jew and Othello the Moor in Venice." The first reference we have to him in London, by the rival playwright Robert Greene in 1592, stigmatize him as an outsider, "an upstart crow." "English culture has a long history of men from the professions, armed with degrees from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, looking down their noses at hardworking men from a trade background who lack a degree (which in the Elizabethan age allowed you to call yourself a gentleman). Greene's Groatsworth of Wit goes on to call Shake-scene a 'rude groom' and a 'peasant.'"

But Shakespeare was up to the challenge, and he wrote Venus and Adonis "as if to show that you didn't need an Oxford or Cambridge degree to turn out elegant poetry in imitation of the classics of ancient Rome." But even in it he introduces elements of country life that have an actuality that comes from direct observation, such as his account of "poor Wat," a hunted hare. "There can be little doubt that poor Wat is a Shakespearean memory of a pursuit through the warrens of his native Warwickshire." In one of his earliest plays, The Taming of the Shrew, he adapts an earlier anonymous play. Both begin with the framing device of Christopher Sly watching the performance, but in the earlier play "this scene is completely without local realization, whereas Shakespeare's version ... is full of detail, ranging from questions of the proper pedigree of rural gentry families to specific Warwickshire place-names."

About ten years later, writing As You Like It, he uses his own given name, William, for the country bumpkin  who encounters the court fool Touchstone.
Katherine Duncan-Jones brilliantly suggests that Touchstone as well as William is a version of Shakespeare: "Their dialogue can be read as an exchange between the wealthy and quick-witted playwright and the provincial youth he has left behind him in the Forest of Arden."
Shakespeare's Warwickshire origins are also reflected in the play King John, which is, Bate asserts, the one history play "that most explicitly asks what it might mean to speak for England." It deals with the questions of legitimacy and inheritance that were especially significant "at a time when an aged childless queen was sitting on the throne." King Lear also deals with the question of legitimacy in the conflict between the virtuous legitimate heir Edgar and the villainous bastard Edmund, but King John provocatively reverses things with "a more challenging possibility: suppose that a great king dies and that his bravest, most honest, and most intelligent son is an illegitimate one."

The Bastard in King John was born in Northamptonshire and "is the voice of Shakespeare's own place of origin, the Midlands, deep England. He is given a choice: to inherit the Falconbridge estates or take his 'chance' and assume the name, though not the patrimony, of the royal father who sired him out of wedlock." The Bastard's identification with the Shakespearean Midlands is also emphasized by his allusion to his his half-brother as "Colbrand the Giant," a legendary Danish invader who was defeated by Guy of Warwick in a popular folk tale. "If Robert Falconbridge is symbolically Colbrand, then Philip the Bastard is symbolically Guy, a Warwickshire folk hero. Perhaps he is even a version of Robin Hood, with the sheriff of Northampton standing in for his colleague from Nottingham." And just as Robin Hood was a supporter of Richard Coeur de Lion, "As the play progresses, the Bastard's role shifts to that of stand-in for the dead Coeur de Lion.... The Bastard is the conscience of the nation, the symbolic heir of Lionheart, the voice of the shires." And Bate sees him as a surrogate for Shakespeare as well: "Who speaks for deep England? A challenger of legitimacy. An entrepreneur. A player. A man who idealizes the shires even as he leaves them to enter the theater, the market, the emergent empire. Who speaks? A Shakespeare."

The only other member of his family to follow William Shakespeare to London was his brother Edmund, sixteen years his junior. Edmund died in 1607, and the records of the church where he was buried, "a short walk from the Globe Theatre," list him as "a player." It's possible that he served as an apprentice to his brother, for a list of the apprentices in the company of the Lord Chamberlain's Men dated 1597 or early 1598 includes the name "Ned." Edmund would have been the right age at the time, about seventeen. Bate says that Edmund probably died of the plague: "For most of the time from the summer of 1606 to the summer of 1608, plague raged and the theaters remained closed." William probably spent much of this time in Stratford, where his daughter Susanna married the physician John Hall in June 1607 and gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth, the following February.

John Hall was a skilled herbalist, and he left a casebook describing many of his cures.
We must always be wary of attempts to map Shakespeare's life onto his work. But writers cannot avoid drawing on their experience. Is it a coincidence that in Shakespeare's earlier works there are just two comic doctors -- Pinch in The Comedy of Errors and Caius in The Merry Wives of Windsor -- whereas in the plays written after John Hall's arrival in Stratford-upon-Avon, there are several dignified, sympathetically portrayed medical men? Among them are the physician who has to deal with that difficult patient Lady Macbeth, the doctor who revives the exhausted King Lear in the quarto version of that play, and Dr. Cornelius in Pericles, that play about father and daughter, death and rebirth, written in the wake of Edmund Shakespeare's death and during the final months of the pregnancy of Susanna and perhaps the first weeks of the life of Shakespeare's first grandchild, Elizabeth.
The later plays also make much of the contrast of city and country: the court in Sicilia and the countryside of Bohemia in The Winter's Tale, and the court in Cymbeline contrasted with the countryside of Wales.
For Shakespeare, London was the place associated with the pursuit of honor, status, wealth, and recognition at court, but also the place of plague and mass death. And of the commercialization of sex: the link between the theater industry and the sex trade was symbiotic.... Stratford-upon-Avon, in contrast to London, was associated with stability, community, garden, field, and health.... It is unlikely to be a coincidence that Shakespeare turned to pastoral romance in the plague years around 1607-10: of all his plays, Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale are the ones that have the most distinctive air of having been written back home in Stratford.
John Hall's herbal knowledge also dovetails with his father-in-law's own botanical interests. Of the reference to Innogen's mole, "cinque-spotted, like the crimson drops / in the bottom of a cowslip," Bate asks, "Is there any other English poet, save the countryman John Clare, who has such an eye as this?" (Bate has written a biography of Clare.) Ophelia's flowers and Lear's garland are two of the more familiar instances of Shakespeare's botanical knowledge. "When Lear's fantastic garland is described, it contains exactly what one would find in an arable field and its margins in England at the end of summer or the beginning of autumn.... Shakespeare, brought up in the country, had a field education, in all probability before he even went to school."
Shakespeare was born into the herbal economy of rural England.... Perhaps because he toured Kent with his fellow actors, Shakespeare observed the thriving samphire-gathering trade on Dover cliff. But he always remained more interested in the domestic rather than the global plant economy. He evinced little interest in the international spice trade. Not even The Tempest, with its imperial matter and semi-New World setting, is about the things on which empire was built; trade, spice.... Provincial Shakespeare, who had been an infant deep in the shires, was always more interested in different species of pear and apple than the globalized nutmeg and saffron market.
[Bate's observations reinforce something I've always thought about in considering the arguments of those who claim that the country bumpkin couldn't have written the sophisticated plays, and that therefore they must have been the work of an educated nobleman like the Earl of Oxford. But turn the argument on its head: Would Oxford -- or Bacon, or Marlowe, or Queen Elizabeth, to name the more far-fetched "contenders" -- have had the kind of first-hand knowledge of rural life and specifically of Warwickshire that Bate amply demonstrates William Shakespeare to have had?] 

No comments:

Post a Comment