I realize that most readers of this blog aren't too interested in the Shakespeare authorship question. But it's been on my mind lately. Since I'm currently out of commission with a sinus infection, I have a lot of time on my hands, so I'm rereading Dennis McCarthy's North of Shakespeare. Though a little overenthusiastic and occasionally repetitious, the book makes a strong case for the proposition that William Shakespeare was a play broker and producer who revised other people's plays for popular performance. (Sabrina Feldman's book The Apocryphal William Shakespeare advances a similar argument.)
In the course of rereading McCarthy's book, I was reminded of one particularly knotty problem for the whole issue of the plays' origins. It involves a scene in A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which Oberon, King of the Fairies, addresses his servant Puck.
My gentle Puck, come hither. Thou rememberest
Since once I sat upon a promontory,
And heard a mermaid on a dolphin's back
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath
That the rude sea grew civil at her song
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres,
To hear the sea-maid's music.
That very time I saw, but thou couldst not,
Flying between the cold moon and the earth,
Cupid all arm'd: a certain aim he took
At a fair vestal throned by the west,
And loosed his love-shaft smartly from his bow,
As it should pierce a hundred thousand hearts;
But I might see young Cupid's fiery shaft
Quench'd in the chaste beams of the watery moon,
And the imperial votaress passed on,
In maiden meditation, fancy-free.
Yet mark'd I where the bolt of Cupid fell:
It fell upon a little western flower,
Before milk-white, now purple with love's wound,
And maidens call it love-in-idleness.
Fetch me that flower ...
It should be obvious that the elaborate description of the mermaid on the dolphin's back, the roiling sea, the mad stars, and Cupid's love arrow is largely irrelevant to the apparent point of the dialogue, which is that Oberon wants Puck to retrieve a certain flower for him. But where did all these extraneous details come from?
As McCarthy observes,
That this is an allegory involving Queen Elizabeth has been known since the early 1700s when one of the first Shakespeare scholars, Nicholas Rowe, noted that the "fair vestal [i.e., virgin] throned in the west" is obviously the "Virgin Queen" of England. But every aspect of this fantastic vision … also coincides with the events of a water show presented by the Earl of Leicester on behalf of the Queen at Kenilworth Castle in 1575. According to eyewitness accounts, a boat in the castle-lake had been fashioned into the shape of a dolphin and had a singer in the guise of Arion riding on its back. Musicians with instruments were inside the dolphin, the sweet music thus emanating from its belly, and Arion sang with the melody. The pageant also included an 18 foot figure of the Sea-King Triton with his fishy serpent-like body … The poet George Gascoigne described him as "Triton, in the likeness of a mermaid."
An anonymous article in the Edward De Vere Newsletter tells us,
There are two contemporary accounts of the Earl of Leicester's entertainment for Queen Elizabeth at Kenilworth in the summer of 1575. The first of these is the Langham Letter, the other is The Princely Pleasures at the Courte at Kenelwoorth, attributed to George Gascoigne (1542-1577), although on doubtful grounds, since the first edition of 1576 was printed anonymously and its author speaks of Gascoigne in the third person.
The article goes on to point out serious discrepancies between the two accounts and concludes that the Langham letter was not written by an actual attendee, inasmuch as the writer of the letter makes no reference to the foul weather that required the cancellation of certain outdoor events. Further confusing the issue, the Langham letter is sometimes ascribed to someone named Leneham, not Langham; the identity of the author is not known with certainty.
Despite these complications, it is clear that water pageants played a large part in the Queen's entertainment. Here is the Gascoigne account:
The next thing that was presented before her Majesty, was the delivery of the Lady of the Lake; whereof the sum was this. Triton, in likeness of a mermaid, came towards the Queen’s Majesty as she passed over the bridge, returning from hunting: and to her declared, that Neptune had sent him to her Highness. . . .
And here is the Langham account:
Well, the game was gotten, and her highness returning: came there upon a swimming Mermaid (that from top to tail was an eighteen foot long) Triton, Neptune's blaster: who, with his trumpet formed of a wrinkled whelk, as her Majesty was in sight, gave sound very shrill and sonorous, in sign he had an embassy to pronounce: anon her highness was come upon the bridge, whereunto he made his fish to swim the swifter, and he then declared: how the supreme salsipotent Monarch Neptune, the great God of the swelling Seas, Prince of profundities, and Sovereign Seignior of all Lakes, Freshwaters, Rivers, Creeks, and Gulfs: understanding how a cruel knight, one Sir Bruce sans pity, a mortal enemy unto ladies of estate, had long lain about the banks of this pool in wait with his bands here: to distress the lady of the lake. . . .
In either case, the basic idea is that, after a day of hunting, the Queen stopped on a bridge and was addressed by an outsized figure of Triton. In one account, Triton is depicted as mermaid-like, while in the other, he is apparently riding a mermaid.
According to Gascoigne's version, Triton "soundeth his trumpet, and spake to the winds, waters, and fishes," urging them to calm themselves. Presumably this connects with the Langham letter's reference to the trumpet blast - a "sound very shrill and sonorous" - that preceded Triton's announcement.
The Newsletter article continues:
After Triton's prologue, the allegorical centerpiece of the water pageant took place: in accordance with Merlin's prophecy that the Lady of the Lake "could never be delivered but by the presence of a better maid than herself," the Lady's oppressor, "Sir Bruce sans pity", was forced to withdraw by reason of the Queen's mere presence upon the bridge overlooking the lake. In the account in the Letter, the Lady of the Lake (with Triton nearby, still riding his "Mermaid") then approached the Queen to express her gratitude. [spelling modernized - MP]
The corresponding part of the Langham letter brings in the figure of Arion, an ancient Greek poet who became the subject of a myth in which he was saved from drowning by a dolphin. The image of Arion riding a dolphin and singing his verses was commonplace in Elizabethan art.
The letter reads:
… and the lady [i.e., the Lady of the Lake] by and by, with her two Nymphs, floating upon her movable Islands (Triton on his Mermaid skimming by) approached towards her highness on the bridge: as well to declare that her Majesty's presence hath so graciously thus wrought her deliverance, as also to excuse her not coming to court as she promised, and chiefly to present her Majesty (as a token of her duty and good heart) for her highness' recreation with this gift, which was Arion that excellent and famous Musician, in tyre and appointment strange well seeming to his person, riding aloft upon his old friend the Dolphin, (that from head to tail was a four and twenty foot long) and swimmed hard by these Islands: herewith Arion for these great benefits, after a few well couched words unto her Majesty of thanksgiving, in supplement of the same: began a delectable ditty of a song well apted to a melodious noise, compounded of six several instruments all covert, casting sound from the Dolphin's belly within, Arion the seventh sitting thus singing (as I say) without.
Gascoigne, however, makes no mention of Arion and instead has Proteus, a different mythological character, sing to the Queen.
From thence her Majesty passing yet further on the bridge, Proteus appeared, sitting on a dolphin’s back. And the dolphin was conveyed upon a boat, so that the oars seemed to be his fins. Within the which dolphin a consort of music was secretly placed, the which sounded: and Proteus, clearing his voice, sang this song of congratulation, as well in the behalf of the Lady distressed, as also in the behalf of all the Nymphs and Gods of the Sea ...
Whether Proteus or Arion, it is clear that a singer sat astride an artificial dolphin, and that music emanated from this construct.
Fireworks were also part of the festivities. The Langham letter tells of three separate fireworks shows, while the Gascoigne account mentions only one.
The letter reports the first display:
So passing into the inner Court, her Majesty (that never rides but alone) there set down from her Palfrey, was conveyed up to chamber: when after did follow so great a peal of guns, and such lightning by firework a long space together: as Jupiter would show himself to be no further behind with his welcome, than the rest of his Gods: and that would he have all the Country to know: for indeed the noise and flame were heard and seen a twenty mile off.
And the second:
At night late, as though Jupiter last night had forgot for busyness, or forborne for courtesy and quiet, part of his welcome unto her highness appointed: now entering at first into his purpose moderately (as mortals do) with a warning piece or two, proceeding on with increase, at last the Altitonant displays me his main power: with blaze of burning darts, flying to and fro, [g]leams of stars coruscant, streams and hail of fiery sparks, lightnings of wildfire a [= on] water and land, flight and shot of thunderbolts: all with such continuance, terror and vehemency that the heavens thundered, the waters surged, the earth shook, in such sort surely, as had we not been assured the fulminant deity was all but in amity, and could not otherwise witness his welcoming unto her highness, it would have made me for my part, as hardy as I am, very vengeably afeared. This ado lasted while high midnight was past.
And the third:
… so was there abroad at night very strange and sundry kinds of fireworks, compelled by cunning to fly to and fro and to mount very high into the air upward, and also to burn unquenchably in the water beneath: contrary ye wot, to fire's kind. This intermingled with a great peal of guns: which all gave, both to the ear and to the eye the greater grace and delight, for that with such order and art they were tempered: touching time and continuance, that was about two hours' space.
Meanwhile, Gascoigne's more subdued account gives us only one fireworks show:
On the next day (being Sunday) there was nothing done until the evening, at which time there were fireworks showed upon the water, the which were both strange and well executed; as sometimes, passing under the water a long space, when all men had thought they had been quenched, they would rise and mount out of the water again, and burn very furiously until they were utterly consumed.
To review. The poetical passage speaks of 1) a singer on a dolphin's back, 2) a turbulent sea growing civil, and 3) stars flying madly. This corresponds to 1) the dolphin-boat and singer, 2) the calming of the waters enacted by Triton, and 3) one or more fireworks displays.
The passage also speaks of a misplaced bowshot aimed at an "imperial votaress," which, as McCarthy points out, references the unsuccessful attempt by Leicester (Robert Dudley) to win the Queen's hand:
Even Cupid shooting an arrow at the Vestal Queen, and missing, fits perfectly because Leicester was attempting to use these grand festivities to woo Queen Elizabeth. Leicester's romantic efforts failed, and he ended up married to Lettice Knollys.
Indeed, the whole event was a bust for Leicester, who had hoped to secure the Queen's promise of marriage, which would have meant the kingship for himself. Instead, they quarreled - possibly over the very Lettice Knollys whom Leicester eventually married - and according to one interpretation, the Queen angrily decamped from Kenilworth seven days ahead of schedule.
So tight is the fit between the Shakespearean passage and the events at Kenilworth (both the public events and those behind the scenes) that mainstream scholars have long accepted it as a reference to the 1575 gala. But there is a problem. How did Will Shakespeare of Stratford, 11 years old in 1575, know anything about Leicester's party?
One detail helps them. Kenilworth is only 11 miles from Stratford. Certainly, the Queen's visit would have been known in Stratford, and possibly Will's father, John Shakespeare, took him there to see the crowds and the excitement. But could father and son have obtained admission to the gala? McCarthy notes that Shakespeare biographer Stephan Greenblatt found it unlikely. Greenblatt wrote:
John Shakespeare, a Stratford Alderman at the time, was too insignificant a figure to have got very close … but it is certainly conceivable that he took his son Will to glimpse what they could of the spectacles …
Note that there is no evidence whatsoever that either John Shakespeare or his son Will even went to the affair. If they did go, they would probably not have been allowed on the grounds. But maybe Will snuck in and watched from hiding? Some writers have speculated to that effect. There is no evidence for that, either, of course, but even if it were true, he still could have known nothing about the behind-the-scenes drama of Leicester's play for Elizabeth in marriage. 1575 wasn't 1975; there was no People magazine to clue in the hoi polloi on the romantic escapades of the elite.
Moreover, would any commoner have risked offending the powerful Leicester and the even more powerful (and unpredictable) Elizabeth by making such an obvious reference to court gossip? That kind of talk could get Everyman an up-close-and-personal meeting with Richard Topcliffe, England's most experienced torturer. This was, after all, a society in which a pamphleteer who implored Elizabeth not to accept a foreign prince's hand in marriage was rewarded for his pains by having his right hand chopped off.
Everything about the Midsummer Night's Dream passage points in a very different direction. And since I'm an Oxfordian, at this point I would love to play my trump card and say, "Will may not have been there, but Oxford was!"
Sadly, I can't do this … because Oxford, in fact, was not there. He was traveling in Europe.
This is not a problem for McCarthy. His candidate for the authorship is not Oxford, but Thomas North, the celebrated translator of Plutarch's Lives. McCarthy finds many parallels between specific phrasings in the Shakespearean corpus and North's works. These can be found at his website. He also argues that Shakespeare's most beloved heroine, Rosalinde of As You Like It, was a dramatization of North's daughter Elisa (and that North's play preceded and inspired Thomas Lodge's novel Rosalynde, conventionally taken as its source). In fact, he believes that the plot of As You Like It is directly connected to the facts of North's own life. As for Kenilworth, he assures us that North was among the guests, though I am not sure what his evidence is for this. (I'm not saying he doesn't have evidence, just that I'm not sure what he's citing. North's life isn't particularly well documented.)
At any rate, for those of us who are not Northians (if there is such a word), the Kenilworth festivities are a head scratcher. Neither Will Shakespeare of Stratford nor Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, can plausibly be placed at the event. Yet the author of A Midsummer Night's Dream certainly seems to have been there. True, it could be argued that the playwright simply read Langham or Gascoigne and got his information secondhand. But then why make so much of it? Why would Will Shakespeare know or care about a party that took place when he was still a child? Why would Oxford harp on an event he hadn't even attended?
The Newsletter piece suggests an answer, though it is speculative and may be too much for some readers to swallow. As noted, the authorship of the Langham letter has not been established with certainty. Langham actually was present at the Kenilworth gala, while the writer of the letter apparently was not, inasmuch as he got so many details wrong. So if the letter wasn't written by Langham, who was the author? The Newsletter piece opines that it was Oxford, who (as the true Shakespeare) was the only member of Elizabeth's court who had the literary talent to pull off the 18,000 word epistle, described as "a minor masterpiece."
The letter was published three times and met with great success in each edition. According to the Newsletter, it "is immensely entertaining, and depicts the Queen and her court in a very favourable light. … The Letter represented some of the best public relations material that had ever been written, or would ever likely be written, about [Elizabeth and Leicester]."
If Oxford was, as has been suggested, the true author of the Langham Letter, then the following scenario perhaps merits consideration. Oxford wrote the Langham Letter in advance of the July 1575 entertainment at Kenilworth, and arranged with William Patten to have it published and distributed to members of the court circle while the entertainment was taking place. Because Oxford was away from England at the time, the details in the Letter reflect what he knew in advance of the plans for the July 1575 entertainment, but also reflect, to a large degree, the 1572 entertainment at Kenilworth, at which he was present.
All might have gone well but for certain events which Oxford could not have foreseen. In the first place, the weather in July 1575 was poor. Since many of the shows and spectacles were designed to take place outdoors, a number of them were perhaps cancelled due to inclement weather. The entertainment thus did not measure up to the version given in the Letter. But more importantly, there seems to have been an emotional contretemps between the Queen and Leicester while she was staying at Kenilworth.
The idea, it seems, was that Leicester and his guests would have the fun of reading a detailed description of the events while they unfolded, written by someone who wasn't even there. Owing to changes in the scripted performances, unpredictable weather, and emotional firestorms, Oxford's humorous effort fell flat. Still, having invested a great deal of effort in the enterprise, he would naturally remember it, and so it's not surprising that some of those same vivid details would occur to him when writing Oberon's address to Puck.
Or maybe not. There could be some other explanation. Hell, maybe Thomas North is the guy, after all.
Anyway, that's what I've been thinking about, in between honking into a tissue and coughing up phlegm.