Country Life, Shakespeare and midsummer madness

Country-Life-May-20-2015-400px-300x387Like most people, I suspect, I was surprised by the news that someone had discovered a contemporary portrait of Shakespeare. And bemused, too, that they would chose to reveal the fact in Country Life.

My heart sank, though, when I saw that the case relied on ciphers. I am sure there are carefree souls for whom the word ‘cipher’ conjures up the happy image of Alan Turing/Benedict Cumberpatch at Bletchley Park. Well, happy-ish. For anyone with any knowledge of the Shakespeare authorship controversy, however, it brings back the chilly absurdities of Baconianism, which twisted language, logic and sense with ciphers in order to torture Bacon’s hand from the handiwork of Shakespeare.

Would the much-trumpeted discovery of botanical historian Mark Griffiths be any different? The promise of identities encoded in flora was at least novel and refreshing. But what level of certainty could the argument possibly claim after 500-odd years?

I think you know where this is going.

The answer is: Not much.

Are there any actual facts in Griffiths’ piece associating Gerard with Shakespeare? No. What Griffiths presents are a range of speculations – typographical, literary, historical – which mutually reinforce each other without any reference to provable evidence.

The maker’s mark
The keystone of his argument is the mark beneath the portrait of “the fourth man”, having identified the first three portraits as Gerard himself; Rembert Dodoens, Gerard’s collaborator until the latter’s death a decade before; and Gerard’s patron of twenty years, William Cecil, Lord Burghley.

You will have to read Griffiths’ piece yourselves to see the heavy lifting he has to do to turn what has usually been regarded as a printer’s mark known as a sign of four into a cipher for Shakespeare’s name. It involves far more wishful thinking than any decent argument should, finding a bewildering range of nuances in character widths, Latin puns, and other factors besides. It requires the presumed owner of the book to identify Shakespeare by knowing the colour of Shakespeare’s coat of arms and relating what looks like an A in the mark to his maternal familial roots in the Forest of Arden. It also involves ignoring the very evident numeral 4 in the mark.

Mark Griffiths clearly regards his discovery as following iron laws of logic. The identification he puts forward is not a suggestion. It is incontrovertible fact. This is far from the case. Ockham’s razor is an imperfect tool but I fear Griffiths was rash to discard it.

He describes the title pages as being full of “encoded, typically Cecilian cleverness”; but the cleverness – an excess of it – is all his. The laboriousness of it; now that is authentically Cecilian.

It is through Burghley that Griffiths seeks to bring Shakespeare and Gerard together. But he fails to make the case that this ever, in fact, happened. His argument is based on the premiss that Cecil’s political reputation was so damaged by his handling of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1587 that three years later he needed to hire the then unknown William Shakespeare as a kind of Tudor Dan Draper to restore his fortunes.

The former is, to say the least, wildly over-stated; the latter without historical basis.

He also asserts that Shakespeare addressed Venus and Adonis to Southampton on behalf of Burghley, the latter’s guardian. Is there any evidence adduced for this? No. Yet the idea that Southampton himself might have been Shakespeare’s patron is brushed aside with reference to an 18th-century anecdote about Shakespeare being given £1,000, which is as convenient a straw-man argument as you will find.

Of course, none of this necessarily means that Shakespeare and Gerard weren’t familiar with each other’s work. Shakespeare’s writing is famously full of detailed observation of English flora; they both share a sense of the landscape and its infinite possibility, great riches in a little room. But the lack of corroborating evidence ought to at least to cause Griffiths – and his editor at Country Life – some concern.

Certainly, Griffiths pads his argument with a range of speculative readings of plays and entertainments. None of the latter have been attributed to Shakespeare before, although Griffiths clearly wishes to do so with regard to the 1591 Theobald’s Entertainment. A “new” Shakespeare play is promised next week; perhaps that is it. But the readings do little to enhance Griffiths’ case.

Griffiths begins his piece with the revelation that he made the discovery on Midsummer’s Night. He might have paused at some point to reflect that if Shakespearean comedy teaches us anything, it’s that midsummer night is when hobgoblins and sprites famously plant foolish conceits in human heads to make them seem ridiculous in the morning.

Ralegh and Gerard
One last thought, a little mischievous perhaps.

As regular readers will know, I have written a book about Walter Ralegh. It seems to me that if the figure in the engraving represents any contemporary figure – a tendentious claim, still – Ralegh is a more plausible candidate than Shakespeare. A low boast, I agree.

The mysterious fourth figure is holding an ear of maize, a clear reference to the Americas, with which Ralegh was publicly – even notoriously – associated. Moreover, Ralegh, a known patron of and enthusiast for scientific knowledge and progress, was the dedicatee of Gerard’s Catalogus Arborum, published the following year.

Griffiths notes that the two men were friends and comments that Gerard was an investor in Ralegh’s first Virginia colony – something Griffiths dates to 1589 rather than 1585 for some reason.

So: Ralegh was a friend of Gerard’s, one of his patrons in the late 1590s and was closely associated with one of the plants apparently linked with the mysterious fourth figure in the engraving.

Is this a strong case for Ralegh? Not particularly. But it is far stronger than anything Griffiths has to offer for Shakespeare, alas.

Heart of darkness: from the time-honoured barbarity of the Tudors in Ireland to Islamic State

The leader of a small military force – perhaps 500 strong – is determined to subdue a province, and to do so quickly. Terror is his explicit policy. Every inroad he makes into enemy territory is followed by indiscriminate slaughter and destruction. Every man, woman and child is killed. Houses, churches, crops – everything is burned and despoiled.

Each night, the heads of all those who have been killed are lain in a path to the commander’s tent so “the people . . . see the heads of their dead fathers, brothers, children, kinsfolk and friends, lie on the ground before their faces, as they come to speak with the colonel”.

If this sounds like the barbarity that Isis has made commonplace in the news in the last couple of years, think again. It is not Isis. It is the English in Ireland in 1569 and the leader in question is Humphrey Gilbert. He was knighted for his efforts within months; the following year he became an MP.

Drawing analogies between events at different times in history is always fraught; circumstances change. But where there are echoes we do well to heed them, because what resonates with the past can inform our understanding of the present. And while there is little in English history per se to match Isis, our record in Ireland is a different matter. It is there that we succumbed most deeply to the poisonous cocktail of religious self-righteousness and nascent nationalism that so intoxicates Isis. Protestantism and Wahhabism are closer cousins than we care to think.

Five years after Gilbert, the Earl of Essex at the head of the English army in Ireland hunted down and butchered 400 women and children of the M’Donnell clan at Rathlin Island off the northern coast of Antrim. A few made it down to the caves by the sea but Essex’s men followed them and smoked them out, cutting them down on the shore as they ran choking from their hiding places.

At Smerwick on the west coast of Ireland in November 1580, a group of 600 or so Spanish soldiers surrendered a small fort to an English force under Lord Grey of Wilton. Grey sent in a number of men under the captaincy of the young Walter Raleigh. Once disarmed, the Spanish were all put to the sword; there were too many bodies in the fort for the English to count. Pregnant women were hanged. Three men were dragged off to the local blacksmith where their joints and bones were smashed with a hammer on the anvil. They too were hanged. The English used their bodies for target practice as they hung on the gallows, literally shooting them to pieces.

Elizabeth I was delighted. Her handwritten note of thanks to Grey said, “You have been chosen the instrument of God’s glory”.

As for the kind of destruction practised by Isis at Nimrud and elsewhere, the remains of Protestant iconoclasm – Shakespeare’s “bare ruined choirs” – still litter our landscape. To erase all taint of Catholicism, windows were smashed, statues pulled down and broken, paintings defaced and whitewashed, plate melted, jewels taken, books burned.

Some buildings were destroyed more thoroughly than others. Thomas Cromwell, who personally took possession of the great Cluniac priory at Lewes, employed an Italian military engineer to raze the building to the ground.

There were over 800 religious houses before the Dissolution. The extent of the loss across the country is hard to underestimate. And there were other, more subtle, but no less catastrophic, destructions. The religious houses looked after the poor, the sick, the elderly, the infirm. There was no national health service back then, but the religious orders came close. They were the country’s principal education providers too.

In many parishes, church treasures were hidden among the parishioners. They were being vigorously hunted out and destroyed for decades. As late as August 1578, Elizabeth I’s progress through East Anglia brought her to the house of a Catholic gentleman named Edward Rookwood. His house was searched and an image of the Lady Mary discovered in a hay rick. It was “such an image . . . as for greatness, as for gayness, and workmanship, I never did see such a match”, reported Richard Topcliffe, later infamous as the government’s principal torturer.

Elizabeth ordered the image to be burned in sight of everyone that evening.

That Isis is depraved is beyond question. But if history teaches us anything, it is that the human talent for depravity does not belong to one people or one faith or one era. All evil is banal, repetitive in its cruelties.

The question shouldn’t be why Isis behaves this way, but what conditions enable or encourage any human to behave like that. The line from Gilbert to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – by way of Conrad’s Colonel Kurtz – is a short one, and surely too short for our moral comfort.

NOTE: This piece was first published by the New Statesman online.

Sir Walter Ralegh: the price of fame?

Ralegh minatureralegh 88

Further to my earlier review of the National Portrait Gallery exhibition, Elizabeth I and her people, I thought I’d just post two contrasting portraits of Ralegh. The first, on the left, is a Hilliard miniature from 1584. The second is a close-up photo I took of the 1588 portrait currently on display at the NPG. (My apologies for the slight lack of focus!)

My first thought when I saw the latter was: what a toll those four years at the heart of Elizabeth’s court had taken on him. One can read too much into these things, but if the earlier portrait seems to capture the brash confidence – arrogance, even – with which Ralegh was and is often associated, the later portrait suggests a man whose self-belief – for all the studied magnificence of his appearance – is not what it was.

Review: Elizabeth I and her people – National Portrait Gallery exhibition

Elizabeth exhibitionThose whose interest lies outside the Tudor era could be forgiven for exasperation at the extent to which the long sixteenth century still dominates our nation’s cultural life. But the new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery – Elizabeth I and Her People, which runs until January 5 2014 – is nevertheless good enough to excite the curiosity of even the most stubborn Tudor-phobe; and for those of us who find the period particularly fascinating, it is a delight.

The exhibition has been curated by Dr Tarnya Cooper, both chief curator and 16th-Century curator at the gallery. She is the author of the recent Citizen Portrait – Portrait Painting and the Urban Elite of Tudor and Jacobean England and Wales, 1540-1620, and her interest in the representation of lives outside the courtly elite is evidenced throughout.

Late Tudor England grew into an economic powerhouse, based on a flourishing mercantile culture, the increasing financial heft of the City of London and the political and religious stability – relatively speaking – of the Elizabethan state. And this middling sort, aspiring, ambitious, self-conscious, are superbly represented here.

A trio of portraits, for instance, reveals the Wittewronghele, family – father, mother and son – who established a prosperous brewing business in the capital. Thomas Gresham – arguably the most brilliant financier of the 16th century – is here. We see, too, the court portraitist George Gower, who chooses to be painted holding the tools of his trade – the brush and palette – rather than with something that might represent a claim on family title or another, more obviously self-aggrandising, social status. The times were changing. Trade itself was becoming respectable.

But beyond the portraiture, we also see something of the texture of people’s lives. There is some wonderful Tudor clothing here, from a seaman’s cloak to a superbly detailed woman’s waistcoat. And there is much, much more: a tankard inscribed with ‘Think and Thank’, surely the 16-century equivalent of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’; a pristine set of drawing instruments; pins, without which many Tudor garments wear simply unwearable; an intricately carved ivory comb featuring the Judgement of Paris and David’s message to Bathsheba; and so on.

For many, perhaps, the portraits will still be the point, and one room is given over to those of Elizabeth herself, including Hilliard’s sumptuous ‘Ermine’ Portrait. Even here, though, the exhibition is careful to delineate between the kind of representations that would have been available to the different strata of society, from the full length paintings that hung in noble houses, through the more modest copies owned by members of the gentry, down to the portraits that every person in the country had access to. When Elizabeth I recalled the coinage early in her reign, she became the first English monarch to sit for the image that represented her on her currency: it was a powerful statement of intent.

There is, too, a room of portraits of courtiers and nobleman. Again, however, the exhibition goes beyond representations of mere power, to offer a more unconventional and human perspective on the way portraiture embodied a kind of power – but also a negotiation with it. Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton, appears in – in context – a shockingly private portrait of herself in a bedgown beside her dressing table. She had been one of Elizabeth’s maids of honour and her marriage to Shakespeare’s patron, Henry Wriothesley, the year before had caused controversy at court resulting in her banishment.

William Cecil, Lord Burghley, whose ward Wriothesley had been, had wanted him to marry his own daughter. He is pictured here, mostly likely in his lost palace at Theobalds in Essex, somewhat charmingly athwart a donkey among some strawberry plants, as if to plead with his queen for the quiet pleasure of a country life away from the explosive tensions and rivalries of the court.

Last but not least, Sir Walter Ralegh is here, in 1588 at the very height of his power and influence. The gallery’s restorers have revealed a hidden detail in the portrait: a sea beneath the sway of the moon. It was a trope Ralegh used often in describing his own, often tempestuous, relationship with Elizabeth and here it affirms his subjection to her. He looks, if truth be told, exhausted. And perhaps he was. The tumults of the Tudor era took their toll on winners and losers alike.

Tracy Borman reviews The Favourite in BBC History magazine

The September issue of BBC History magazine carries a really nice review of the paperback edition of The Favourite. I’m particularly pleased with this, since it’s by Tracy Borman, whose Elizabeth’s Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen is wonderful.

Tracy writes:

The Favourite explores the complex, “narcotic” relationship between Elizabeth and Ralegh, and in so doing the author claims to “rescue them from their own myths”. So often caricatured as a vaguely ridiculous flirtation between an ageing queen and a dashing and flattering courtier, their relationship emerges as altogether more extraordinary than that. Drawing parallels between their upbringings… [Lyons] traces Ralegh’s rise from an obsure Devonshire gentleman to a courtier so high in the queen’s favour that it was rumoured they were lovers.

The dangerous interplay between their equally passionate, imperious and unyielding characters (which are brilliantly sketched by Lyons) made for a stormy relationship, but also a bond which Ralegh’s many rivals feared would never be broken.

The full review doesn’t seem to be up online at the moment, but I will post a link to it as and when it is.

Ralegh’s reputation in the 20th century

This article first appeared in the July issue of History Today. It was part of the magazine’s regular ‘From the Archives’ feature, and is a response to an excellent 1998 essay by Robert Lawson-Peebles titled ‘The Many Faces of Sir Walter Ralegh’, which traced Ralegh’s reputation through history. Lawson-Peebles essay can be viewed in History Today’s archives here.

Sir Walter Ralegh did not have a good 20th century. As Robert Lawson-Peebles’ excellent 1998 article illustrates, but does not quite say, the man – whose heroic persona was so well fashioned it could shine through every era since that in which he made his name – has struggled to find an identity fit for the modern age.

This may in part be due to a kind of exhaustion: the narratives with which he has been most associated shared an expansive views of England’s destiny – whether in terms of its imperial ambition or, as among the Parliamentarians and radicals of the 17th century, of its providential role in history. These ideas of England are not mutually exclusive; but they are not synonymous either. But if such visions were Ralegh’s only gift to us, then it is no surprise that his iconography should seem stale and jaded: they belong firmly in our past.

Yet Ralegh is still famous. Clive Owen played him with a moodily old-fashioned swagger opposite Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007). He featured extensively – albeit unflatteringly – in a Blackadder episode. And anecdotes about Ralegh’s life still resonate, most notably the story of his laying a cloak on the ground to keep Elizabeth’s shoes clean. Indeed, Tom Stoppard and Marc Jacob were confident enough of its ubiquity to build a sequence on it in Shakespeare in Love (1998).

Such things are trivial, of course, but they indicate the tenacity of his purchase on our imaginations. More importantly, they also point to two facets of Ralegh that make him profoundly relevant to modern culture.

The first of these is that Ralegh was something very much like a celebrity during his lifetime. Certainly he achieved much and aspired to more, but the protean nature of his interests and ambitions were consistently overshadowed by his charisma, by the projection of an idea of himself as a star in the Elizabethan firmament, to be gazed at in envy and wonder.

The second is that Ralegh’s image was something he – and later his wife, Bess – laboured hard to establish and maintain. As Anna Beer established in her superb 2004 biography of the latter, Bess: The Life of Lady Ralegh, Wife to Sir Walter, after her husband’s death Bess proved herself to be a shrewd manipulator of the media, carefully releasing his often provocative unpublished political writings to obtain maximum impact and exposure.

But she was carrying on work Ralegh had begun himself. “In all that ever I observed in the course of worldly things,” he had written, “I ever found that men’s fortunes are oftener made by their tongues than by their virtues.” Whatever Ralegh’s other talents, he had a genius for self-imaging. If proof were needed for that statement it can be found in the fact that we have accepted Ralegh’s crafted versions of himself – the prophet of empire, the standard-bearer for political liberty, and so on – so readily for some four hundred years.

It follows from this that if we want to find a Ralegh for the 21st century we need an approach that questions what we think we know of him. The most fruitful recent insights into his life have come from those working on subjects tangential to him, through which we can glimpse a more complex, flawed and human character that belies the many myths. Anna Beer’s work is certainly one such, but I would also mention Alan Nelson’s Monstrous Adversary: The Life of Edward De Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Although some of groundwork had been laid by John Bossy and Dwight Peck, Nelson’s exploration of Oxford’s association with Ralegh in the late 1570s throws a brilliant light on the character and attitudes of the man before he found fame and favour.

Today, then, Ralegh’s status is less certain than it has ever been. He is that rare beast: a historical figure about whom everyone knows something, but whose greatness largely eludes us. Yet that could prove a blessing: finally free from the afterglow of his celebrity we may at last be able to examine his extraordinary allure without once again falling prey to it.

My article in July issue of History Today

I have a brief piece in this month’s History Today on the subject of Sir Walter Ralegh’s reputation in the 20th century. It is part of the magazine’s regular ‘From the Archives’ feature, and is a response to an excellent 1998 essay by Robert Lawson-Peebles titled ‘The Many Faces of Sir Walter Ralegh’, which traced Ralegh’s reputation through history. Lawson-Peebles essay can be viewed in History Today’s archives here.

My article is currently available online here – and I will post it on my blog in a couple of weeks – but of course History Today is a great magazine, so why wouldn’t you want to buy it, if you don’t already subscribe? Alternatively, subscription details are online here!

UPDATE: The article is now up on my blog here.