Michael Wood’s In Search of Shakespeare

If you have enjoyed all the Elizabeth’s from Glenda Jackson to Cate Blanchett, if your ideas of history comes from Garrett Mattingly and DL Kier, if, in short, you have drunk deeply from the Gloriana Kool Aide, then Michael Wood’s In Search of Shakespeare offer’s a much needed antidote.

It seems that Shakespeare was from a Catholic, family. In the religious cold war of Elizabethen England, this made him and his family suspect. It was why Shakespeare had to leave school and could not go to University. It also gave him an outsider’s view of Elizabethan England that would serve his well as a playwrite, the ability to see a story from both sides of view, to comprehend how complicated the world is.

Shakespeare studied Latin in Grammar school and it seems that he loved Ovid. This obviously shaped his writing. In all of Shakespeare’s plays, love is the highest ideal, romantic love, family love, but always love.

Wood does a great job weaving the story of the events of Elizabethan England, events in Shakespeare’s personal life and themes of his plays together. It seems that Shakespeare’s most famous patron, the Earl of Southampton, had Catholic sympathies. Speaking only for myself, this adds a twist to the Essex rebellion. Now of Essex’s religious views there can be no doubt. Essex was a descendant of Mary Boleyn. You cannot have a more Protestant pedigree. Moreover, Essex’s stepfather, the Earl of Leicester, was a royal favorite of Elizabeth and a general for her in the war in the Spanish Netherlands, very hard line Protestant. However, it is interesting that Southampton, a Catholic sympathizer, was among Essex chief lieutenants. Did Southampton hope for better treatment for Catholics in the event of a successful
rebellion? No way to know.

And as an additional aside, one wonders if any part of Shakespeare’s Richard III was drawn from Shakespeare’s opinion of Robert Cecil, Essex great rival? For like Richard III, Robert Cecil was a hunch back. Pure speculation on my part, based on no facts whatsoever.

In The Duty of Poets, Wood tells the story of Robert Southwell, a cousin of Shakespeare’s who was hung drawn and quartered for no crime save that of writing Catholic poetry. Afterwards friends of Southwell brought Elizabeth a copy of Southwell’s book, On The Duty of Poets, which was dedicated to Shakespeare. It is said that Elizabeth wept. Elizabeth was a great one for weeping for those she had executed. And here I must interject a check on that famous quote, “no desire to make windows into men’s souls.” We impose a Jeffersonian view on that quote, but Elizabeth was no friend of religious toleration. Soon after Elizabeth ascended the throne, Parliament passed the Act of Uniformity. Now I ask you, does the Act of Uniformity sound like the work of anyone interested in religious toleration? The act required everyone to attend services at their parish church of the Church of England. It outlawed the mass and made being a Catholic priest a capital crime. Does that sound like religious toleration to you? When you make attendance at the state church mandatory there is the question of sincerity. Are people going to church because they believe? Or only because there are penalties for not going to church? This is the meaning of that famous phrase. Under her sister Mary, people had been burned merely for being suspected secret Protestants. Elizabeth took the view that on this side of paradise outward religious conformity was sufficient. It was for God to decide someone’s sincerity, not princes.

Wood does not mention Shakespeare’s portrayal of religion in his plays, but Shakespeare does not give a good press to priests. They are mostly bumblers. As for Protestants, the puritan in Twelfth Night is portrayed as a vain fool who gets his comeuppance, and I bet it was a great favorite with the crowd. Having watched Wood’s documentary I wonder if Shakespeare viewed clerics as fools who got people killed for nothing. Love was always the highest ideal in his plays.

Wood goes into the reality of the Elizabethan police state and even into some detail of her hideous rackmaster Richard Topcliffe. It will surprise no one that her rackmaster was a total pervert who really enjoyed administering long sadistic executions. We get a hint of this in Brian Wilde’s portrayal of Topcliffe in Horrible Conspiracies.

Wood repeatedly makes the point that like all police states, Elizabeth was suspecious of artists and writers in particular. Not entirely without reason. Shakespeare’s Richard II was preformed, complete with sensitive deposition scene, the night before the Essex rebellion.

As a Catholic, Shakespeare had to be especially careful. It seems that the theatre was dominated by Catholics, both members of the company and patrons. This may be an additional reason for Puritan eagerness to shut down the theatres, not only the suspecion of any institution that they did not control, but the knowledge that the theatres were dominated by Catholics would only have fueled the Puritan’s view that theatres were places of subversion. I think it is very significant that both of Shakespeare’s daughters married hardline Protestants. One married a the son of Huguenot immigrants, the other a Puritan.

Wood points out that in The Tempest Prospero throws away his magical powers in the interest of his children. For Shakespeare love was always the highest ideal and it seems that he remained on good terms with his daughters and sons in law.

Shakespeare’s son died in his childhood, leaving his father prostrate with grief. The child’s name was Hamnet, which is WAY too close to Hamlet for coincidence. Except, Hamnet died as a child, so could not in any way serve as a model for Hamlet. Yet, it simply cannot be coincidence that Shakespeare chose a name so close to his child’s. Something is going on. Also at the beginning of the play Hamlet is returning from studies in Wittenburg. That has great significance, even if you don’t know that Shakespeare was a Catholic. Of all the towns he could have chosen, there is great significance that Hamlet went to Wittenburg to study. But I can’t say what, the last time I saw Hamlet was at the Folger Theater in 1985. So without seeing the play again I really can’t work out why Shakespeare decided to insert Wittenburg into Hamlet. After all he could have written Two Gentleman from Wittenburg, but he chose Verona instead. So, there is a reason that Wittenburg appears in Hamlet. Upon further reflection it seems significant that in the play within the play the player king is murdered by having poison poured in his ear while he sleeps. I can’t think of any other story where poison is administered through the ear. Maybe Hamlet is part allegory about theological dispute. Everybody dies. Maybe not. I will have to see the play again.

Shakespeare lived into the Stuart era, and his company became the Kings Players. The first play they preformed for King James VI/I was Macbeth, a play about the murder of a Scottish King, before a Scottish King whose father had been murdered. Shakespeare did not lack for nerve.

Wood goes into the Gunpowder Plot and its aftermath. Not until seeing this documentary did I realize the impact of the Gunpowder Plot in marginalizing British Catholics. I somehow thought that they had been marginalized even before the Armada. But I get the feeling not, so the Gunpowder Plot really put the lid on Catholic England.

Wood shows scenes from Bonfire Night with scenes of people walking around carrying torches in the shape of a burning cross. To American eyes this is a most fearful sight, because in America burning crosses have never symbolized holiday fun. I always wondered where Nathan Bedford Forrest got the idea of burning a cross. Now I know.

Wood ends the documentary with Shakespeare’s famous will leaving only his second best bed to his wife. Wood can’t bear the thought that Shakespeare was a rotten husband, and as he rightly points out, it is impossible to know what is happening inside a marriage. Indeed, the most likely explanation is that they grew apart, this happens. But there are troubling clues that point in a different direction. The Taming of the Shrew. It really is an open apology for domestic violence. As I remember the play, the husband does not actually strike his wife, but he does psychologically batter her. And she becomes sweet and happy under the treatment. No man who respected women could have written such a play. And there is another clue, Othello. Now Wood would have us believe that this play was written to prick the conscious of Britain, because Othello is a tragic figure. Mebbe. Mebbe Shakespeare wrote it for such a purpose, or at least partly. But I wonder. White men have such a gift for projecting their own violence on to black people. Wood informs us of an incident in Shakespeare’s life that offers another possible clue. Shakespeare had a mistress who was a Venetian Jew. In his poetry he describes her as dark. He also describes how he was driven mad by his passion for her. I have not read the poems, but judging by Wood’s description of it, it sounds like she awakened all the control freak in Shakespeare. Domestic violence is peculiarly a crime of control. In the grip of such jealously it is not difficult to imagine Shakespeare imagining a story about a tragic figure who was driven to murder by jealously.

And there is yet another clue. Both of Shakespeare’s children married hard line Protestants, one a Huguenot immigrant, the other a Puritan. Now we don’t know what happened, it could be as simple as they met these men by chance and fell in love. It only happens every day. But I can’t resist the temptation to speculate. What happened in the family after Shakespeare left Avon? Ann and the children where living with Shakespeare’s parents. That cannot have been comfortable for Ann. Who was the preacher in the local church? Was he a fiery reformer? One of the Marian exiles who had studied under Calvin in Geneva? (The role of the Marian exiles in setting the stage for the English civil war has never been adequately examined that I know of.) Did Ann find solace in a Protestant church for her loneliness? Did being deserted by her husband cause a crisis in faith? We really have no way to know, this is all sheer speculation. But the fact that both Shakespeare’s daughter’s married hard line Protestants suggests that there were deep divisions within the family.

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