Wednesday, April 23, 2014

National Poetry Month—The Bard

We are taking advantage of the anniversary of the William Shakespeare’s death back home in Stratford-upon-Avon on April 23 1616 at the age of almost exactly 52.  I say almost exactly because his birthday is lost, but we know he was Baptized on April 26, 1584.  Since baptisms in such rural villages usually occurred within days of birth, lots of folk think he may have been born on the 23rd as well which would make for a tidy story indeed.  That would make this also his 450th birthday.  To make matters even more interesting this is also the Feast of St. George—a Greek dragon slayer who morphed into a shining knight on horseback and became the Patron Saint of England.  If Will had written a play about that, it would have been perfect.

Amazingly little is known about Shakespeare’s life.  Which means you will be spared another tedious blow-by-blow of his career.  We do know he was born into a prosperous provincial family.  His father was a successful glover, a career which in the days when both men and women of the better classes wore gauntlets or dancing gloves year around was evidently was quite profitable.  His mother’s family was landowning farmers.  They had a handsome, half-timbered home in the village and his father was an alderman.

Will was the third of eight children and the oldest son.  Although no records confirm it, he was almost surely given an education at Kings New School in the village.  Such Grammar Schools offered a rigorous course in Latin grammar and studied from classic Latin texts.  While well short of what the son of a nobleman or prosperous London merchant might receive or the instruction at Oxford or Cambridge, this still would have been a better education than 80 % of the boys in England.

Any chances for further education were squashed when he was 18 and had to enter a rushed marriage with 26 year old Anne Hathaway, who we can assume looked nothing like her modern movie star namesake.  We know it was rushed because the local Vicar read only the first of the three required bans and because six months later daughter Susana was born.  A couple of years later there were twins, Hammet and Judith.  The children were born in February 1585 and their baptism is the last record of Shakespeare’s life in the Village until he returned there in retirement.

No one is clear on what he did, or how he made a living.  Some surmised that he clerked for his father or tutored the children of the local gentry yet no trace is left behind.

We do know he had a roving eye.  The evidence lies in his Sonnets which include ardent praises of “his coy mistress” and raptures on the beauty of a black haired girl.  Likely this made home life less than idyllic for all concerned.

For whatever reason—an apocryphal  but oft told tale has it that we was escaping a Sheriff’s warrant for poaching a deer on a local gentleman’s estate—sometime between 1685 and 1592 Shakespeare decamped for London.

The latter years finds reference to him as an already established writer dabbling in play writing.  It seems an astonishing career choice with no hint of it is his background.  He was a member and minority owner of a troop of actors known as The Lord Chamberlin’s Men.  Based largely on the success of Shakespeare’s early plays, mostly those known as the Histories, the troop prospered enough that they were able to erect the Globe Theater on the banks of the Thames in 1699.  With three tiers of box seats in circle under a thatched roof and an open, uncovered pit surrounding a thrust stage for the rabble, up to 3000 customers could view a production.  In the winter months the company performed more intimately at the indoor Blackfriars Theatre, converted from a part of a priory, in 1608.

After Elizabeth I died in 1603 theater loving James I gave the company a Royal Patent and afterwards they were known at The King’s Men.

With Shakespeare as their primary playwright the company thrived even bettering companies featuring the work of established, university educated writers like Christopher Marlowe, Robert Greene, and Thomas Nash.  Some of them, Greene in particular did not take well to completion from a cloddish upstart. 

Like Shakespeare, these men began as actors themselves.  But as they met with success they retired from the boards.   Not Shakespeare.  He evidently never stopped acting until he retired from London altogether.  In fact, evidence suggests that he may always have considered himself to be, first and foremost, an actor.  What roles he played is not clear except for surviving cast lists of a couple of plays by the company not written by him.  He is thought to have played the ghost of Hamlet’s father.  There is passing reference to him playing “kingly roles.”

In all, Shakespeare is thought to have written about 38 plays, the last few probably in collaboration.  They included the Histories, comedies, tragedies, and the latter romances.  A few of his plays were published in his life time, but probably without his consent.  These were probably loosely transcribed from the audience as there are considerable differences with the canonical versions.  An early form of video piracy, you might say.

From time to time plays, or fragments of plays, pop up that are suggested to be the unknown work of the master.  Just as frequently his claim to this or that play is challenged.  But by far the biggest game in the world of Shakespeare scholarship is denying that he wrote the plays at all.  Several candidates have been suggested and new ones seem to pop up every few years.  Among the suspects have been Francis Bacon, Marlowe who would have had to be so prolific that he could keep two theater companies provided with fodder, and assorted noblemen up to and including members of the Royal family.

I for one don’t buy any of it.  It is all rooted in the deep class bias of the English upper classes, who could never admit that a commoner with a rude education could have the widest vocabulary of any Englishman ever; an encyclopedic knowledge of classic literature, myth, and folklore; a firm grasp on English history and the political sense to write about it in ways that kept his head attached to his torso; plus an unparalleled fluidity of style.  They discount native genius as impossible.  But such great genius, exploding from unexpected sources erupts from time to time in history in all of the arts and sciences.  I, for one, prefer to think that the son of a glover could lay quill to parchment and create say Macbeth.

The success of his plays and the troop made Shakespeare a moderately wealthy man.  He purchased property in London and sent money back home to buy the second grandest house in Stratford, New House.  He ostentatiously generously subscribed to the tithes of the local parish where wagging tongues had probably once gossiped about his sexual offenses.

The original Globe burned down when cannon fired in a production of Henry VII in 1613 ignited the thatched roof.  Although the company rebuilt the theater on the old foundations, the fire may have hastened Shakespeare’s retirement.  So might ill health.

At any rate, he returned to Stratford and the perhaps not so loving arms of his wife not long after.  He died of unknown causes in 1616 leaving the bulk of his estate to his daughter Susanna.  His wife, Anne, was automatically under English law, entitled to a third of the estate, so it might not have been quite as mean as it looked when the bard left her only “his second best bed” in his will.

After his death two of his comrades in the King’s Men arranged for the publication of the famous First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays in 1623.  It contained all but two of the plays now commonly attributed to him.  It also featured a cover woodcut of a balding man with a moustache and soul patch which, in the absence of any verifiable contemporary image, is how we picture him today.

Of course Shakespeare is best remembered for his plays, which are perpetually in production in theaters large and small around the world.  But this is National Poetry Month so today we salute his verse.  Of course there is plenty of memorable and highly quotable poetry in the plays themselves.  But most folks think of the Sonnets, 154 poems written over most of his adult life.  But he had earlier published, with some success two long erotic poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece while London theaters were closed down during the plague years of 1593 and’94.  Another long poem, The Lover’s Complaint was added as a kind of bonus to the first edition of the Sonnets.
A Fairy Song

Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough brier,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire!
I do wander everywhere,
Swifter than the moon’s sphere;
And I serve the Fairy Queen,
To dew her orbs upon the green;
The cowslips tall her pensioners be;
In their gold coats spots you see;
Those be rubies, fairy favours;
In those freckles live their savours;
I must go seek some dewdrops here,
And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear.

—William Shakespeare

Carpe Diem

O mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O stay and hear! your true-love's coming
That can sing both high and low;
Trip no further, pretty sweeting,
Journey's end in lovers' meeting—
Every wise man's son doth know.

What is love? ‘tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What’s to come is still unsure:
In delay there lies no plenty;—    
Then come kiss me, Sweet and twenty,
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

—William Shakespeare

From you have I been absent in the spring...

From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in everything,
That heavy Saturn laughed and leaped with him,
Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odor and in hue,
Could make me any summer's story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew.
Nor did I wonder at the lily's white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
Yet seemed it winter still, and, you away,
As with your shadow I with these did play.

—William Shakespeare

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