By Charles Matthews

Friday, November 19, 2010

4. Soul of the Age, by Jonathan Bate, pp. 53-92

Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William ShakespeareFirst Age: Infant; Chapter 4, Old World, New Man? Second Age: Schoolboy; Chapter 5, Stratford Grammar.
In 1564, the year of Shakespeare's birth, Michelangelo and John Calvin died, and in addition to the plague, England suffered extreme weather including floods in September and a great freeze at Christmas. When nature deviated from routine, Elizabethans got nervous:
In pulpit and classroom, people were taught about the magical correspondences between the order of nature and the structure of society. There was a cosmic hierarchy, with God at the top, and then the angels, and then humankind, and then the beasts. By the same account, there was a social hierarchy, with kings and queens at the top.... Some of Shakespeare's characters -- those who have a vested interest in doing so -- talk about the importance of maintaining this structure of "degree" and "order." But it is disorder that makes good theater.
In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare plays with the disorder that makes good theater, particularly in the character of Bottom, who moves ambiguously about the hierarchy: a human who becomes part animal, a humble man who is wooed by the queen of the fairies. When he is returned to reality, he thinks of his experience as "a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was.... The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was."
The wit of this comes from its play on a famous biblical phrase that must have long since lodged itself in Shakespeare's memory. Many members of the original audience, steeped as they were in the New Testament, would have recognized Bottom's account of his dream as an allusion -- with the attributes of the different sense comically garbled - to a famous passage in the first Epistle to the Corinthians.... In the Geneva translation of the Bible, which Shakespeare knew well, the passage speaks of how the human spirit searches "the bottom of God's secrets." Jesus said that in order to enter his kingdom, one had to make oneself as a child. The same may be said of the kingdom of theater. It is because Bottom has the uncynical, believing spirit of a child that he is vouchsafed his vision. Where does this childlike sense of wonder come from? Perhaps from a country boy remembering how as a child he loved stories of animals and transformations and queens, but how he never dreamed that one day his stories would be played out with all the pomp of court before the very eyes of the Virgin Queen herself. 

One of Shakespeare's friends in later life was Thomas Russell, a prosperous landowner who was executor of Shakespeare's will, and whose stepson, Leonard Digges, wrote a poem published in the First Folio that mentions the monument to Shakespeare in Holy Trinity Church. Leonard's brother, Sir Dudley, may have been the one who told Shakespeare about the wreck of the Sea Venture in Bermuda, which seems to be the source of the title event of The Tempest. The Digges brothers' father was Thomas Digges, "the greatest English geometrician and astronomer of the age."

In 1572, a bright new star appeared in the sky, and Digges suggested that it presented an opportunity to test out Copernicus's recent theory that the Earth revolved around the sun. The supernova faded before it could prove of use, but "It was primarily through Digges ... that the new Copernican cosmology reached an English audience." John Donne's lines, "And new philosophy calls all in doubt, / The element of fire is quite put out," reflect the shock of "the Pythagorean / Copernican / Diggesian theory of a heliocentric universe. According to Donne's ranging, associative mind, the fact that people such as Galileo Galilei -- like Shakespeare, a child of the year 1564 -- have sgtarted looking for new worlds through their telescopes proves that our world has had its day and is in a state of decay.... Stable relationships between prince and subject, father and son, are seen to be subject to the same stress as the cosmic hierarchy, the 'great chain of being.'"

Shakespeare, too, reflects this new uncertainty, as in Ulysses's speech on order in Troilus and Cressida. Ulysses's insistence that society needs "to maintain a strict hierarchical order or 'degree' is a political strategy," but the irony is that to achieve the end of maintaining hierarchy, Ulysses is willing to use disorderly means. And in warning against the consequences of disorder, Ulysses observes that "justice resides not inherently on the side of right, as one would expect it to, but rather in the 'endless jar' between right and wrong." The play reveals "that order, moral and social, is not a predetermined value system answerable to a harmonious cosmic design, but rather a process, an endless debate and negotiation of terms, in which reason and judgment cannot be separated from appetite and will."

The breakup of the settled order of the universe and of society is also at the heart of King Lear, in which Edmund mocks the notion that the stars influence the doings of humankind. For Edmund "the whole notion of astral influences is merely an excuse for the failure of individuals to take responsibility for their own destinies.... Edmund is the embodiment of the 'new man' who emerged in tandem with the 'new philosophy.' The man who, following Machiavelli, defines himself as first and foremost himself, in contrast to the 'old man' who would have defined himself in terms of the old hierarchies as a dutiful subject to his prince and son to his father."

Shakespeare himself was a product of his birthplace: "It is a universal phenomenon that rural communities, regulated by the rhythm of the seasons, are conservative." If he stayed true to his roots, his "own instincts and inheritance were cautious, traditional, respectable, suspicious of change. We may as well say conservative. But then he got the acting bug." It's probable that John Shakespeare was "flabbergasted" when his son wound up in a profession as disreputable as the theater. But we can see how conservative William Shakespeare was when we compare him with Christopher Marlowe, who was also "born in 1564, and there were other similarities in their beginnings -- provincial rather than London, a father in trade, an education at a local grammar school." But Marlowe had gone to Cambridge and embraced "atheism and Machiavellianism. What is more, he made the autonomous self the very basis of his drama: what are Tamburlaine, Faustus, and Barabas if not new men incarnate?" But Marlowe died young and Shakespeare was "the great survivor," who was never "imprisoned or censured in connection with his work," who became wealthy and retired when he was ready to.
He abhorred and yet he was fascinated by the new men, of whom his great examples were Edmund in Lear and his forerunners, Richard III, Aaron in Titus Andronicus, the Bastard in King John, and Iago in Othello. Perhaps that was because he was the true new man himself.
Shakespeare's school day began at 6 a.m. in the summer, 7 a.m. in the winter, and lasted until dusk. Every day except Sunday was a school day, year round, though Thursday and Saturday were half days. His school was the King's New School, established during the short reign of Edward VI, Henry VIII's son, and its curriculum consisted entirely of Latin grammar. "For a bright boy like Will, a few years in an Elizabethan grammar school would have yielded enough Latin to last a lifetime. He would have achieved a level of proficiency above that of many a modern undergraduate student of the classics."

In the first form, student learned to "read perfectly, pronounce also and sound their words plainly and distinctly." In the second, they were introduced to grammar by learning by rote William Lily's Introduction of the Eight Parts of Speech.  The third form read Terence, Aesop's Fables, Virgil, and Cicero's Epistles, and as soon as the master thought they were ready they moved on to the fourth form and Sallust, Ovid, Cicero's Offices, Caesar's Commentaries, Erasmus, and the art and rules of "versifying (if he [the master, that is] be expert therein)." The fourth form also translated sentences from English to Latin and vice versa, and learned to compose letters in Latin. The third and fourth forms also spoke nothing but Latin in the classroom -- except when they were assisting the first and second form students.

Shakespeare parodies the instruction in The Merry Wives of Windsor, when the Welsh schoolmaster Hugh Evans drills a young student named, of all things, William in Latin grammar as Mistress Quickly listens and converts the Latin into bawdy English:
WILLIAM  Genetive: horum, harum, horum.

MISTRESS QUICKLY:  Vengeance of Ginny's case, fie on her! Never name her, child, if she be a whore. 
Bate points out that schoolboys, weary of the drudgery of rote memorization, were probably the source of the jokes that Shakespeare converted into Mistress Quickly's misunderstandings: "A clever boy survives such a regime by sniggering: hog for hoc, fuck-ative for vocative, whore for horum, root and case as not only technical terms in grammar but also slang for, respectively, the male and female parts." He also speculates that Hugh Evans may have been based on one of Shakespeare's masters, Thomas Jenkins, who was "perhaps a Welshman."

There is actually no documentary evidence that Shakespeare attended the King's New School, but his father's status in the community entitled him to such an education. The evidence is provided only "by the exact knowledge of Elizabethan grammar school methods of education revealed in the exchange between William and teacher Evans, together with the pattern of allusions to grammar school texts scattered across the plays." This second of Jaques's ages also reflects "the life of the commoner, not the courtier. Aristocrats such as the earls of Oxford and Southampton had private tutors and did not attend grammar school." [Score another one against Oxford as a "contender" for the authorship of Shakespeare's plays.]

"The way in which Shakespeare learned Latin shaped his subsequent life of writing as decisively as did the content of the books he went on to read in later years." Bate is referring here to the influence of Latin grammar and rhetorical devices that were drilled into Shakespeare:
In order to illustrate Latin grammar at work, textbook and master have to keep building word upon word. An adjective is added to a noun and the class is required to make them agree. Then bring together a pair of adjectives and a pair of nouns. Such doublings and amplifications were drilled into Shakespeare in the classroom so thoroughly that they became second nature in his writing, sometimes obsessively so, as in Hamlet, where one epithet will never do when two are possible: "one auspicious and one dropping eye," "disjoint and out of frame," "impotent and bedrid," "the trappings and the suits of woe," "An understanding simple and unschooled" -- all these and more are to be found in the first hundred lines of the first court scene of the play.
Lily's textbook was also full of examples of the changing agreement of subject and verb, such as
Ego pauper laboro, I being poor do labour.
Tu dives ludis, Thou being rich dost play.
This sort of thing is echoed in Richard III:
QUEEN MARGARET.  I had an Edward, till a Richard killed him:
I had a husband, till a Richard killed him:
Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard killed him:
Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard killed him.
Shakespeare would also have been exposed to Latin rhetorical devices when it came to translating the orator Cicero's words into English, thereby, at a very early age, learning to speak "like a poet, seeking to move an audience through the elaborately patterned manipulation of language." The most familiar example of this comes in the play Julius Caesar, in which Cicero himself has a small role. "And in dramatizing the Ciceronian world, Shakespeare will also take to new heights that art of moving a public audience through the force of rhetorical patterning," most famously in Mark Antony's "Friends, Romans, countrymen" speech, with its ironic repetition of "Brutus is an honourable man." "The art of rhetoric, whereby advanced students were taught to argue both sides of a case, is what makes the dramatic opposition possible." 

In the third form he would begin writing in Latin, often by imitating writers such as Erasmus, who in a discussion of the use in correspondence of the salutation Salve moved from common uses such as "Salve pater: 'greetings, father'" and "Salve mi frater: 'greetings, my brother,'" to facetious ones such as "Salve vini pernicies: greetings, 'consumer of quart-sized pots of wine.' And in response: Salve et tu, gurges helluoque placentarum, 'greetings to you too, you who devours cakes into the bottomless pit of your stomach.' The flyting of Hal and Falstaff, the wit combats of Beatrice and Benedick, have their origins here." Other exercises called on pupils to "Write a letter as if you were Antenor persuading Priam that he should return the stolen Helen to her Menelaus." Bate observes, "Write that, Master William, and you're on the road to inventing dramatic character, to composing Troilus and Cressida."

Hugh Evans is not the only schoolmaster in the plays. There's also the pedantic Holofernes in Love's Labour's Lost, "a distinct suggestion on Shakespeare's part that there is something insane about the verbosity of so-called learning." After a long speech, Holofernes "turns to Dull the Constable and says, 'Via, goodman Dull! Though has spoken no word all this while.' To which Dull replies, in a line that guarantees a huge laugh in the theater, 'Nor understood none neither, sir.' There is more warmth than scorn in Shakespeare's remembrance of both the schoolmasters and the dullards of his Stratford boyhood. The key to his theatrical magnanimity was his capacity to imagine Holofernes and Dull with equal affection."

Ben Jonson, who was a city boy who learned his Latin at Westminster School, famously remarked on country boy Shakespeare's "small Latin," and in Timber: or, Discoveries made upon Men and Matter also criticized Shakespeare's rhetorical excesses, and accused him of writing nonsense, "as when he said in the person of Caesar, one speaking to him, Caesar thou dost me wrong. He replied: Caesar did never wrong, but with just cause and such like, which were ridiculous. But," Jonson added, "he redeemed his vices with his virtues. There was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned." To which Bate comments, eliciting cheers from those of us who are fed up with the so-called "authorship controversy":  "In passing, it is worth wondering how anybody who has ever meditated upon this passage could ever again doubt that the author of the plays was William Shakespeare of Stratford, friendly rival of Jonson and colleague of the players." But the point here is that Jonson "regards Shakespeare as an overintelligent schoolboy who has gone too far with the advice of Erasmus's fourth-form handbook concerning the art of copiousness in composition: he just does not know when to stop.... To Jonson's more logical mind, the reply [of Caesar] is ridiculous: if the cause is just, the action cannot be wrong. Shakespeare nearly always preferred the doubleness of rhetoric to the singularity of logic." Moreover, Shakespeare is always willing to sacrifice logic in order to be true to his character: "Dramatically, it is perfectly appropriate for a character as powerful as Julius Caesar to assume that he can do wrong with just cause." (In any case, the phrase Jonson objected to doesn't appear in the surviving text of Julius Caesar. Did Shakespeare take Jonson's advice and "blot" the line?)

If Shakespeare made it to the fourth form, he would have begun learning "the art and rules of versifying," because Stratford did have a master who was "expert therein," John Brownsword. The model used for verse composition was "the pastoral Eclogues of the Italian neo-Latin poet Giovanni Baptista Spagnuoli, known (from his birthplace) as Mantuan." Holofernes quotes "good old Mantuan" in Love's Labour's Lost. But Shakespeare's favorite Latin poet was a greater one, Ovid. "We do not know exactly how much Ovid he read in school, but it is demonstrable from his work that of all the writers on the syllabus Ovid was the one who appealed to him most strongly, and whom he sought out -- albeit mostly in English translation -- after he left school."

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