By Charles Matthews

Monday, November 22, 2010

7. Soul of the Age, by Jonathan Bate, pp. 162-185

Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William ShakespeareThird Age: Lover, Chapter 11, Before the Bawdy Court
In 1612, Shakespeare was a witness in a civil case in the Court of Requests at Westminster, Belott vs. Mountjoy. Mr. and Mrs. Mountjoy, from whom Shakespeare rented lodgings, had hired an apprentice, Stephen Belott, with a view to his marrying their daughter and taking over their business. But when they failed to pay the dowry agreed on, Belott took them to court. Shakespeare was called as a character witness for Belott, and revealed in the testimony that Mrs. Mountjoy had asked him to persuade Belott to go through with the marriage. Shakespeare knew something about persuading young men to marry, the subject of Venus and Adonis, the first group of sonnets, and the plays All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure.

Cases involving marital problems could be tried in either a civil court or an ecclesiastical one. "The church consistory courts ... heard many cases involving sex, marriage, adultery, and divorce. They were the place where love entered the public arena." So many of Shakespeare's plays hinge on love disputes that it's worth recalling that "he would have been exposed to questions of a similar kind when as a boy and a young man he witnessed his fellow townspeople doing penance in the church or the marketplace, or when -- as is bound to have happened in a small community -- he heard the gossip about the latest case to have come before the consistory court. Given the nature of its most interesting business, the people gave that institution a more colloquial name: the 'bawdy court.'"

In fact, Shakespeare's own daughter, Susanna Hall, was plaintiff in a bawdy court case in 1613, when she accused John Lane of slandering her by saying that she was a loose woman who had had an affair with a man named Rafe Smith. Lane failed to appear at the hearing and "was excommunicated and Susanna's name was cleared -- if a name can ever fully be cleared once an alleged scandal has reached the public domain." And in 1608 both his brother Richard and his sister Joan were defendants in cases in the bawdy court, although details of the accusations have not survived.
Women, who were habitually encouraged to be silent and submissive, had the opportunity to become active agents in the bawdy court, just as fictional women are active agents -- usually wittier and more eloquent than the men -- in Shakespeare's comedies. According to one historian, in the city of London in the early seventeenth century, 80 percent of sex and marriage cases were brought to the bawdy courts by women. 
In Shakespeare's plays, however, most of the "noxious gossips and accusers" are men: Iago, Claudio, Don John, Bertram, Posthumus, "and for that matter the entire body of the Greek generals slandering Cressida." Even the notorious "bed tricks" in which an unfaithful man is tricked into sleeping with his own wife, as in All's Well and Measure for Measure, are documented in the records of the bawdy court.
There is a sense, then, in which the theater, so often condemned as a place of extreme bawdry, functioned as an alternative bawdy court.... A church court case and a staging of The Taming of the Shrew: each in its way could be a testing of the limits of domestic violence and the language of sexual combat.... To a Shakespearean audience, the trial of Queen Hermione for adultery in The Winter's Tale would at one and the same time have evoked a high-level treason trial and a mundane bawdy-court marital case.... Shakespeare's most sustained dramatization of bawdy court matter occurs at the climax of All's Well That Ends Well, one of the bitter comedies that he seems to have written around the time that he was being dragged into the marital business of the Mountjoy household. 
As for Shakespeare's own extramarital sex life, Bate notes that he "seems to have had a reputation for being sexually active outside his marriage," as exemplified by the familiar story that when Richard Burbage was playing Richard III, Burbage made an assignation with a woman after the play, but Shakespeare got there first and enjoyed her favors. "Then message being brought that Richard the Third was at the door, Shakespeare caused return to be made that William the Conqueror was before Richard the Third."

Inevitably, given that there is "a preoccupation with sexual disease in the plays written early in the reign of King James," some have speculated that Shakespeare himself contracted syphilis. "Given the close links between the theaters, the taverns, and the sex trade, Shakespeare would have seen many people suffering the grotesque symptoms of the pox. But we cannot rule out the possibility that he became infected himself.... The only women in Timon of Athens are a pair of prostitutes who put in a brief appearance in order to be abused by Timon in a series of speeches that allude to the symptoms of secondary and tertiary syphilis, including the playwright's own affliction of premature baldness."

The prolonged separation of William and Anne also raises the question of how faithful either of them may have been to the other. "The Winter's Tale was written sixteen years after 1594, the year when he became firmly established as a London-based writer and player with the formation of the Lord Chamberlain's Men. Is it a coincidence that it is a play about a man who asks his wife for a second chance after sixteen years of separation?" And both The Winter's Tale and Cymbeline center on unfaithful wives. "If we are to play the game of inferring Shakespeare's love life from his plays, then we cannot rule out the possibility that he was -- or imagined himself to be -- the victim of marital infidelity as well as the perpetrator of it."

Such inferences underlie the speculations of those who see the bequest to Anne of the "second-best bed" as an insult to her. Others point to the scarcity of happily married couples in the plays:
Petruchio and Kate are a match for each other, but theirs is hardly a tranquil household. Hotspur and his Kate in Henry IV Part 1 have terrific gusto, but their relationship is tempered by the sense that he is happier astride his horse than his wife..... Aufidius in Coriolanus speaks of his love for his wife and his happiness on his wedding night, but suggests that he takes more pleasure in ... reminiscing about a dream of wrestling Coriolanus to the ground.... Of all Shakespeare's married couples, the pair who seem most intimate, whom the audience senses are in love as man and wife as they were when first they wooed, are the Macbeths. That is a fact that may give pause for thought.
The only one of Shakespeare's plays that has the word "love" in its title is Love's Labour's Lost. It bears some resemblance to a book by Peter de la Primaudaye, The French Academy, published in France in 1577 and in an English translation in 1586. Set at the time of the French religious civil wars in the second half of the sixteenth century, it tells of four gentlemen who retreat from the world and under the guidance of an elderly tutor study moral philosophy. The setup of Shakespeare's play is similar, and it "seems to have been written not long after the king of Navarre converted to Catholicism and took the French throne. 'Paris is worth a mass,' he was reputed to have said." In the play, Navarre suggests to three noblemen, whose names are those of actual nobles of the king's court, that they retreat from the world (and women), now that they have won the war, and devote themselves to study.
The premise of the exercise is that there is no place for love in intellectual life. Shakespeare, who did not of course spend three years in the all-male environment of an Oxford or Cambridge college, clearly thought that this was nonsense and set about mocking the idea. Love, he proposes instead, is at the center of intellectual life. The really interesting task is not to reject it, but to find the appropriate language to express it.
Berowne agrees to the king's plan, but like Shakespeare he is skeptical of it. "The unfolding action proves Berowne right. Wisdom, as often in Shakespeare, comes from the mouth of a fool: the clownish Costard's irrefutable statement that "It is the manner of a man to speak to a woman" comes to the core of the play.... Love's Labour's Lost is a play packed with wit, elegance, philosophical reflection, and filthy jokes. For Shakespeare, love meant immersing oneself in each of these four dimensions." In the end, the Princess of France arrives with three ladies, and they show the foolishness of the men's retreat.

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