A Series of Three Talks given at the Grosvenor Chapel, Mayfair, London, W.1. in 2009.
Towards the end of his comparatively short life, William Shakespeare took a look at his soul.
Then he took a look at his body.
The contrast shocked him.
He’d spent a fortune on his outward appearance – and on food and drink – but his soul was wasting away.
Why bother, he asks, to slap paint onto a building that’s falling apart?
Why gorge on food? It will only give the worms a feast after you’re dead.
In Sonnet 146 Shakespeare, like many of us here, resolves to go on a diet. But this diet was spiritual as well as physical:
Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth
Feeding those rebel powers that thee array
Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? Is this thy body’s end?
Then soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss
And let that pine to aggravate thy store;
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross
Within be fed, without be rich no more.
So shalt thou feed on death, that feeds on men
And death once dead, there’s no more dying then.
Shakespeare could never resist a joke: ‘dyeing’ refers to cloth and hair as well as body and soul.
Did Shakespeare succeed in his physical diet? Judging from his bust in the Stratford-upon-Avon Church, it would appear not.
But what about his spiritual diet?
From Birth to the Armada.
Queen Elizabeth came to the throne six years before Shakespeare was born. She succeeded her hated half-sister, Queen Mary, otherwise known as ‘Bloody Mary’. A Roman Catholic, she thought the more Protestants she could burn, the more pleased God would be.
Elizabeth moved warily at first: but it soon became clear to Vatican spies that she intended to eradicate Catholicism from the shores of England. For ever.
Katherine Parr – Henry VIII’s sixth wife – had given Elizabeth some much needed love. But Katherine was a secret Calvinist who profoundly influenced her step-daughter’s thinking.
John Calvin was taking the Continent by storm with his ideas about predestination: God knows everything in advance, so whether you’re going to heaven or hell has been decided way before you were born. And if you are going to heaven, God will show his favour by giving you wealth, position and power.
When Bloody Mary came to the throne, she threw Elizabeth into the Tower. Forced to enter by way of Traitor’s Gate – the same fateful gateway her mother Anne Boleyn had passed through – Elizabeth prayed to God to save her. When, to her astonishment, she was not only freed from prison but made Queen of England, she was convinced she was one of God’s ‘Elect’.
Shakespeare’s father, John, a Catholic, had seen it all before. He had lived through King Henry’s break with Rome, King Edward’s adoption of the English Prayer Book then Bloody Mary’s re-adoption of full-blown Catholicism. Elizabeth’s new Protestantism, like Edward’s, would soon blow over. Or so he thought…
John Shakespeare was a butcher, a glover, a wool-brogger, a money-lender, a wheeler-dealer and a notorious crook: but he was also a man of faith. He put his mark – he couldn’t write – to a last will and testament, so Roman Catholic it even appointed the Virgin Mary as its executor. He hid the document behind the walls of his Stratford home. Had the State found it, the State would have executed him.
Shakespeare’s mother, Mary, came from one of the oldest Catholic families in the land – the Ardens. Her relative, Edward Arden, was hanged, drawn and quartered for keeping a Catholic priest, disguised as a gardener. But, worse, he’d had the audacity to criticise the Earl of Leicester….
Leicester, reputed to be Elizabeth’s lover, had restored Kennilworth Castle, not a dozen miles away from the Shakespeare home. He lived a life there that shocked Catholics and Protestants alike.
He was said to poison anyone who got in his way (including his young wife), use black magic to seduce women and take massive bribes which bought his influence with the Queen. Never heard to utter a private prayer in his life, he styled himself the leader of the Puritan movement in England.
One of Leicester’s henchmen was Sir Thomas Lucy, M.P. and sadist, licensed to raid the homes of Catholics and torture them. The young Shakespeare, an eccentric boy, full of songs and fun, who would make high, dramatic speeches when butchering animals, poached deer and hares from Lucy’s estate – an activity positively encouraged by the Vatican. Lucy, true to form, whipped and imprisoned him.
Shakespeare’s schoolteachers, all of them Catholic, sent the lad away, for his own safety, to a grand old Catholic family in Lancashire. But the State persecuted ‘Papists’ just as effectively in Lancashire as it did in Warwickshire. At eighteen Shakespeare was forced to flee back home.
He celebrated his return by impregnating a woman ten years his senior and by composing – probably late at night in a pub – a ballad about Lucy which he hung on the gates of his estate:
A parliament member, a justice of peace,
At home a poor scarecrow, at London an ass,
If lousy is Lucy, as some volke miscall it
Then Lucy is lousy whatever befall it.
He thinks himself great, yet an ass in his state
We allow by his ears but with asses to mate.
If Lucy is lousy as some volke miscall it
Sing lousy Lucy whatever befall it.
Shakespeare had to get out of town. He did the honourable thing and married the pregnant Anne Hathaway: but in his plays his characters give dire warnings against sex before marriage.
London was the obvious place to go. And the obvious place to seek sanctuary was St. Giles Church in Cripplegate. Lucy worshipped there when he was in town – and the young Shakespeare could get the vicar to plead on his behalf. But the vicar, an eccentric old Protestant called Robert Crowley, did more than that: he managed to tame the boy’s dark, wild talent.
Crowley, (who refused to wear a surplice – ‘the Devil’s conjuring robe’) composed songs and ballads to popularise his own radical theology. The rich must give up their wealth, women must give up their make-up and all must give up their fine clothes, food and drink and distribute the money to the poor. Crowley said ‘It is better to die poor with a clear conscience than to have mountains of gold and a guilty conscience.’
These are exactly Shakespeare’s thoughts in the Sonnet we began with. The voice of Crowley, often at war with the voice of the Vatican, resonates through the whole of Shakespeare’s work – but never more beautifully than in King Lear’s prayer to the dispossessed – in the middle of a heath, in the middle of a storm:
Poor, naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your lopped and window’d raggedness defend you
From seasons such as these? O I have ta’en
Too little care of this: Take physic, pomp,
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou may’st shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.
Man, by his charity, can rise above the blind cruelty of the universe.
Encouraged by Crowley to turn Biblical stories into plays, Shakespeare set off on a tour of the Midlands, using as his actors a bunch of alcoholic, bisexual, failed tradesmen. His repertoire was an unlikely mix of New Testament parables, fairy stories and lurid accounts of wives murdering their husbands.
But then the Spanish Armada came. And the Armada changed everything. The winds famously blew and it seemed that God was truly on the side of Protestantism, Elizabeth and England.
Actors were suddenly redundant: the English wanted ‘real’ men and tore the costumes off the actors’ backs for uniforms for the soldiers. Vatican spies had predicted that the Catholics in England would rise up to overthrow Elizabeth: but in the event, the Catholics realised that they loved England more than Spain. Possibly even more than Rome.
But there was an old Catholicism lurking in the new Anglican Church because there was an old Catholicism lurking in the strange, divided soul of the Queen.
Elizabeth, whose beloved father, Henry, had remained a Catholic till his death, said the Mass in Latin for months after she herself had banned it. She insisted on candles for her altars and beautiful vestments for her priests. So, to celebrate the Armada victory, the priests dug out the old, far more splendid, Catholic robes.
How Shakespeare really fell in love….
Many playwrights at this time left the theatre and joined aristocratic households as tutors. Shakespeare, pulling Catholic strings, went to Place House in Titchfield, to teach the teenage 3rd Earl of Southampton, ell in love.known to everyone as ‘Harry Southampton.’ It was here, in Hampshire, that Shakespeare’s life changed.
The Earl’s attractive, widowed, mother, the Countess Mary Browne, commissioned Shakespeare to write seventeen sonnets to celebrate Harry’s seventeenth birthday and to encourage him, as her only son, to carry on the family line. But there was a problem: Harry had no interest in girls. He wore his hair down to his shoulders, loved to have his beauty praised and, from the evidence of a newly attributed painting, was up for a bit of cross-dressing.
Shakespeare had mixed in flamboyant circles in London: but he was now part of a grand, crypto-Catholic family, so knew he had to behave. Countess Mary, whose late husband had disowned her because of her love for ‘a common person’, took a shine to the lower class Shakespeare and lavished clothes and jewels on him. He adopted the pose of a detached, cynical wit – a sort of Tudor Noel Coward.
In Sonnet 20 Shakespeare eulogises the girlish beauty of young Harry, suggesting he has all the best attributes of a woman but none of the faults. Echoing Crowley, he praises Harry for not needing make-up and suggests that Dame Nature intended him to be a woman, but falling in love with him, turned him into a man instead:
A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted
Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion;
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue, all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men’s hearts and women’s souls amazeth;
And for a woman wert thou first created,
Till nature as she wrought thee fell-adoting,
And by addition me of thee defeated….
Shakespeare, in language not entirely appropriate for Sunday morning at the Grosvenor Chapel, completes this sonnet with the assertion that he has no physical interest in Harry.
Harry, though, who like his mother was attracted to lower class men, had other ideas…
The following year Queen Elizabeth came to visit Hampshire – along with her entire court and army. These ‘progresses’ as they were called, allowed her to tour her isle and meet her people: but they also allowed her to spy on Catholic families. In Norfolk her troops had found a wooden Madonna hidden in a hayloft. Elizabeth burned it in the fireplace of the Great Hall – and imprisoned her hosts for life.
At Titchfield the Queen outraged country folk by shooting deer, at point blank range, from a stand – a custom started by her father when he grew too fat to mount a horse.
The Queen liked music to accompany the carnage and this was provided by the famous Bassano family, a group of dark-skinned Hassidic Jews from Morocco. They had travelled to Venice and become Catholics and then travelled to England and become Protestants. Among them was the ravishing, wilful, beauty, Emilia Bassano.
Shakespeare, like many before him and many after him, fell in love with her. But she was spoken for. Lord Hunsdon, the Queen’s cousin, a bluff old ‘sword and buckler man’ nearly fifty years her senior, kept her in jewellery, fine clothes and money to the tune of £40 a year – the equivalent today of £20,000.
Shakespeare was not the man to be put off by details like these: he not only wrote sonnets to seduce Emilia – he wrote a whole play as well. Love’s Labour’s Lost is a parody of the Queen’s visit to Titchfield, originally played on the very spot she had shot deer, the park at Place House. Shakespeare cast Emilia as the sharp-tongued, black-eyed coquette, Rosalind and himself as the world-weary, sardonic, ‘Berowne’ – a play on Countess Mary’s surname, ‘Browne’:
‘BEROWNE: Did not I dance with you in Brabant once?
ROSALIND: Did I not dance with you in Brabant once?
BEROWNE: I know you did.
ROSALIND: How needless was it then to ask the question.!
BEROWNE: You must not be so quick.
ROSALIND: ‘Tis long of you to spur me with such questions.
BEROWNE: Your wit’s too hot, it speeds too fast, ‘twill tire.
ROSALIND: Not till it leave the rider in the mire.
BEROWNE: What time of day?
ROSALIND: The hour that fools should ask.
BEROWNE: Now fair befall your mask.
ROSALIND: Fair fall the face it covers.
BEROWNE: And send you many lovers.
ROSALIND: Amen so you be none.
BEROWNE: Nay then will I be gone.’
Rosalind’s coolness heats Berowne up:
O! And I forsooth in love!
I that have been love’s whip!
A very beadle to a humorous sigh: a critic,
Nay, a night-watch constable,
A domineering pedant o’er the boy…
What I love? I sue? I seek a wife?
A woman that is like a German clock,
Still a re-pairing, ever out of frame,
And never going aright, being a watch:
But being watch’d that it may still go right.
Nay, to be perjur’d, which is worst of all.
And among the three to love the worst of all,
A whitely wanton with a velvet brow
With two pitch balls stuck in her face for eyes,
Aye, and by heaven, one that will do the deed,
Though Argus were her Eunuch and her guard…
Berowne, giving in to his feelings, celebrates heterosexual love in a passage of exquisite beauty:
But love first learned in a lady’s eyes,
Lives not alone immured in the brain:
But with the motion of all elements
Courses as swift as thought in every power
And gives to every power a double power
Above their functions and their offices.
It adds a precious seeing to the eye:
A lover’s eyes will gaze an eagle blind
A lover’s ear will hear the lowest sound
When the suspicious head of theft is stopped.
Love’s feeling is more soft and sensible
Then are the tender horns of cockled snails.
Love’s tongue proves dainty Bacchus gross in taste,
For valour, is not love a Hercules
Still climbing trees in the Hesperides,
Subtle as sphinx, as sweet and musical
As bright Apollo’s lute strung with his hair,
And when love speaks, the voice of all the Gods,
Make heaven drowsy with the harmony….’
This was all too much for Harry, who, ‘fond on praise’, wanted to be the centre of Shakespeare’s attention. The plague was raging in London, so Harry, Emilia and Shakespeare were stuck for the summer in Titchfield – in a painful, complex love-triangle.
Emilia’s technique was to play hard to get, promising more than she delivered. Shakespeare made the great mistake of asking Harry to plead his love-suit. A handsome, rich young aristocrat was much more of a prize for Emilia than an ageing, balding playwright – so she swooped.
Harry wanted to hurt Shakespeare. Overcoming his repugnance to women, he returned Emilia’s advances. Shakespeare, desperate and confused, fled from Titchfield to go on tour. He sent a troubled, vicious sonnet to Harry, comparing him and Emilia to two spirits, one good and one evil, fighting for his soul:
Two loves I have of comfort and despair,
Which, like two spirits, do suggest me still:
The better angel is a man right fair,
The worser spirit a woman coloured ill.
To win me soon to hell my female evil
Tempteth my better angel from my side,
And would corrupt my saint to be a devil,
Wooing his purity with her foul pride;
And whether that my angel be turned fiend
Suspect I may, yet not directly tell;
But being both from me, both, to each, friend,
I guess one angel in another’s hell.
Yet this shall I ne’er know, but live in doubt
Till my bad angel fire my good one out.
Shakespeare’s agonised suspicion – that Harry and Emilia have been to bed together – will only be confirmed when he learns that Harry has become diseased.
Away from Titchfield, and on the road, Shakespeare was forced to examine his feelings. He had to admit that he was more upset at the loss of his ‘lovely boy’ than his ‘dark lady’ – and that, like Romeo with Juliet, he had fallen in love with Harry the first time their eyes had met.
Emilia, on this occasion, did deliver – so much so she became pregnant and was married off to a minstrel called Alphonse Lanier. But she was soon back on the scene, converted to Christianity and with a whole new set of wedding vows to break.
But Shakespeare and Harry were together. Rejecting conventional poetic imagery in the same way as he rejected conventional sexual morality, Shakespeare released his pent-up adoration in the greatest expression of love the world has ever known:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ows’t,
Nor shall death brag thou wanders’t in his shade
When in eternal lines to time thou grows’t:
So long as men can breath or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Coming Out to the Countess.
Homosexuality – though the Tudors never used the word – carried the penalty of death in Elizabeth’s reign. Henry VIII had instituted laws against ‘buggery’ which King Edward endorsed. But Bloody Mary, though intolerant of Protestants, was accepting of homosexuals. She rescinded the laws.
Elizabeth, threatened in her rôle as ‘Queen Bee’ by the numbers of men taking advantage of this change, soon had the laws back on the statute book. They were rarely invoked: but they were a background threat to her sexually ambivalent enemies.
So there was an illicit thrill in Shakespeare’s love for Harry – as there was an illicit thrill in celebrating the Old Latin Mass, always in secret and often after dark. Shakespeare’s genius was to fuse the two. In As You Like It Rosalind says of Orlando: ‘And his kissing is as full of sanctity/As the touch of holy bread’ and Romeo, calling Juliet his ‘holy shrine’, compares his lips to ‘two blushing pilgrims’.
Speaking in his own voice Shakespeare talks about his ‘dear religious love’ for Harry, comparing the treat of seeing him with Church ‘feasts’ which are all the more enjoyable because they are spread throughout the year. He even describes his love for Harry as ‘the sin of self-love’ because to love Harry is to love himself.
Shakespeare appropriates the language of the Wedding Service in Sonnet 116 in which he suggests that his relationship with Harry is superior to a heterosexual marriage. It is spiritual in nature and so avoids any earthly ‘impediments’. It is an absolute force which time cannot touch, which cannot be dissolved at death and which will survive right up to the day of ‘Doom’ – the Day of Judgement itself:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments; love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no, it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks ,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved
I never writ nor no man ever loved.
In Sonnet 121 Shakespeare draws on the language of the Bible itself to justify his sexual orientation – even to celebrate it. If people think you’re immoral you might as well be immoral. Why get all the blame and miss out on the fun?
Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed,
When not to be, receives reproach of being,
And the just pleasure lost, which is so deem’ed
Not by our feeling, but by other’s seeing.
For why should others’ false adulterate eyes
Give salutation to my sportive blood?
Or on my frailities why are frailer spies,
Which in their wills count bad what I think good?
No, I am that I am, and they that level
At my abuses reckon up their own…
‘I am that I am’ is exactly the phrase God uses when he speaks to Moses in Exodus.
Was Shakespeare being blasphemous? I believe not. He found his love for Harry so overwhelming, so sublime, and so ultimately pure he reaches naturally for the language of religion. He often describes his love for Harry as second only to heaven. And in Sonnet 124 he describes his love as ‘builded far from accident’ – like the Catholic Church built on the rock of St. Peter. Shakespeare even calls on the English Catholic martyrs, ‘the fools of time’, to stand witness for his love for Harry. They have died because of their ‘goodness’. Their faith, like Shakespeare’s love, was a ‘crime’ in Elizabeth’s England.
But what did the Countess think of her son’s relationship with Shakespeare? All’s Well that Ends Well gives the answer. Helena, like Shakespeare, comes from the lower classes and falls in love with the aristocratic Bertram who, like Harry, has ‘arched brows’ a ‘hawking eye’ and ‘curls’. Bertram’s mother in the play, also a Countess, also a Catholic and who has also fallen in love with ‘a common person’, comes to hear of Helena’s infatuation with her son – and cross-examines her:
COUNTESS: Do you love my son?
HELENA: Your pardon noble mistress?
COUNTESS: Love you my son?
HELENA: Do you not love him, madam?
COUNTESS: Go not about. My love hath in’t a bond,
Whereof the world takes note. Come, come, disclose
The state of your affection, for your passions
Have to the full appeach’d.
HELENA: Then I confess
Here on my knee, before high heaven and you,
That before you, and next unto high heaven,
I love your son….’
The Countess, recognising the worth and sincerity of Helena, gives her blessing to the match – as the Countess Mary gave hers to Shakespeare. Mary’s own love had crossed borders of class. Why couldn’t love cross borders of gender?
Shakespeare was set up for life. He was accepted into the Southampton household, commissions were tumbling in and Harry, on his majority, gave Shakespeare a present of £1,000 – half a million in today’s money.
But there are bad fairies at every feast. And the most important of them, as we shall find out in Part Two of this talk, was the Fairy Queen herself.
(It’s best to read Part Two now.)