Daily Archives: October 2, 2015

The Young Shakespeare (pt3)



On the Road


The year is now 1574, & so far we have ascertained that the pro-Catholic Shakespeares have embraced the ‘Familist’ sect of Christianity, for whom their young prodigy has composed a couple of pretty little Biblical ballads. Since Elizabeth took the throne, Catholocism had been more or lass banned in England by a paranoid English government. In 1569 a rebellion of Catholic Northern Earls was brutally quashed by Elizabeth, & a year later the Pope excommunicated the Queen, which initiated, according to Stephen Greenblatt (Will in the World 2005),’a nightmarish sequence of conspiracy & persecution, plot & counterplot that continued throughout Elizabeth’s long reign.’ In response, a brave soul named Cardinal Allen had founded a Jesuit seminary in Douay, Northern France, in order to train up a legion of priests to spearhead the spiritual reconquista of England. In 1574 the first batch arrived, cavorting from priest-hole to priest-hole, giving masses in secret to all the favorable nests of papistry.

Having secured the connection between John Shakespeare & the Jesuits through the Sacred Testament, let us imagine for a moment that one of these priests reached Stratford. Support for this reasoning comes through the personage of Simon Hunt, the very headmaster of the Kings School in Stratford, whose lessons Shakespeare must surely have attended. Indeed, one of the earliest Shakesperean biographers, Nicholas Rowe (1674-1718), writes,’ His Father…. had bred him, ’tis true, for some time at a Free-School, where ’tis probable he aquir’d that little Latin he was Master of.

Big Ben Jonson
Big Ben Jonson

Rowe is here referring to the eulogy made by Ben Jonson in the First Folio, printed seven years after the Bard’s death, which reads, ‘And though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek / From thence to honour thee I would not seek.’ Fuller, in his ‘Worthies of England,’ published posthumously in 1662 adds, ‘He was an eminent instance of the truth of that rule, poeta non fit, sed nascitur; one is not made, but born a poet. Indeed his learning was but very little.’ With grammar school children being force-fed a repetitive diet of Latin & Greek, if Shakespeare’s learning ‘was but very little‘ as Fuller says, we may suppose that he was taken out of his school before he got a chance to complete his classically-bent grammar school education. This neatly connects with what his headmaster decided to do with his life the year after the first Jesuit missionaries arrived in England.

By 1575 Lancashire-born Hunt had been teaching in Straftord for three years, but something must have struck him to his holy core about that time, for the following yearhe found himself journeying to Douay in order to train as a Jesuit priest. That Shakespeare went with him is made possible by a comment made in 1695 by the Rev. Richard Davies, rector of Sapperton, who stated that Shakespeare, ‘Dyed a papist.’ In addition, the excellent essay, “To Be or Not to Be (Catholic, That is),” by Daniel Wackerman shows how Shakespeare’s maternal grandfather, Edward Arden, ‘was said to have secretly kept his own catholic priest, disguised as the family gardener.’ He adds that Mary Ardene, “made specific mention of the Blessed Virgin Mary in her will, a practice long out of fashion for all save Catholics in 16th-century England.”

Proof that our wee Catholic bard went to France with Hunt shall appear in a couple of posts, but for now let us join our 11 year-old bard on what is probably his first journey to the capital & beyond. En route the lads would have slept in an English inn or three, of which Fynes Moryson, who was acquainted with the inns of Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, asserts in his Itinerary of 1617;
The world affords not such Inns as England hath, either for good and cheap entertainments at the guest’s own pleasure, or for humble attendance on passengers… as soon as a passenger comes to an Inn the servants run to him, and one takes his horse and walks him till he be cold, then rubs him and gives him meat, yet I must say they are not much to be trusted in this last point without the eye of the master or his servant to oversee them. Another servant gives the passenger his private chamber and kindles his fire, the third pulls off his boots and makes them clean. The Host or Hostess visits him, and if he will eat with the Host, or at a common table with others, his meal will cost him sixpence, or in some places but fourpence (yet this course is less honourable, and not used by gentlemen) : but if he will eat in his chamber, he commands what meat he will according to his appetite, and as much as he thinks fit for him and his company, yea, the kitchen is open to him to command the meat to be dressed as he best likes: and when he sits at table, the Host or Hostess will accompany him, of courtesy to be bid sit down: while he eats, if he have company especially, he shall be offered music, which he may freely take or refuse and if he be solitary, the Musicians will give him the good or if they have many guests will at least visit him

engrogueWilliam Harrison (d.1593), in his Description of England, describes inns lodging up to 300 folk & their horses, with some towns having more than 12 inns, the competition from which ended up in the provision of clean & comfy accommodation accompanied by very fine food & wine. Between these oasi, travel along Elizabethan highways was a most precarious venture. Dodgy roads & bridges & the occasional robber plagued the journey, with organized gangs operating all around London. Shakespeare may even have remembered such a scene, when in Henry IV he depicts;

I am accursed to rob in that thief’s company: the
rascal hath removed my horse, and tied him I know
not where. If I travel but four foot by the squier
further afoot, I shall break my wind. Well, I doubt
not but to die a fair death for all this, if I
‘scape hanging for killing that rogue. I have
forsworn his company hourly any time this two and
twenty years, and yet I am bewitched with the
rogue’s company. If the rascal hath not given me
medicines to make me love him, I’ll be hanged; it
could not be else: I have drunk medicines. Poins!
Hal! a plague upon you both! Bardolph! Peto!
I’ll starve ere I’ll rob a foot further. An ’twere
not as good a deed as drink, to turn true man and to
leave these rogues, I am the veriest varlet that
ever chewed with a tooth. Eight yards of uneven
ground is threescore and ten miles afoot with me;
and the stony-hearted villains know it well enough:
a plague upon it when thieves cannot be true one to another!

They whistle

Whew! A plague upon you all! Give me my horse, you
rogues; give me my horse, and be hanged!

Peace, ye fat-guts! lie down; lay thine ear close
to the ground and list if thou canst hear the tread
of travellers.



It is likely that Shakespeare & Hunt would have entered London – a place Shakespeare would fall in love with & would soon call home. Perhaps on this particular visit, Hunt would have taken Shakespeare to Saint Paul’s Cathedral, one of only three places in the country where one could legally buy books. Perhaps it was as they browsed through the printed wonders on offer that Shakespeare stumbled across George Gascoignes ‘Posies,’ released only that year. Hunt could have bought the book for his budding wee poet, for in those pages we find Gascoigne’s definition of a sonnet as being, not of the Italian model, but that made famous by the Bard himself, which consists of;

Fouretene lynes, every lyne conteyning tenne syllables. The first twelve to ryme in staves of foure lynes, by crosse metr & the last two rhyming togither, do conclude the whole

That Shakespeare experienced the wonders of the London stage during this visit is an unlikely circumstance. In 1575 the profession to which his destiny was intrinsically bound was in a sorry state indeed. The previous December, the puritan-dominated London common council had banned all public dramatic performances from the city, announcing;

Sundry great disorders & inconveniences have been found to ensue to this City by the inordinate haunting by great multitudes of people, specially youth, to plays, interludes & shows, namely occasion of frays & quarrels, evil practices of incontinecy in great inns, having chambers & secret places adjoining to their open stages & galleries, inveighing of maids, specially orphans & good citizens children, to privy & unmeet contracts, the publishing of unchaste, uncomely & unshamefast speeches & doings. Withdrawing of the Queen’s Majesty’s subjects from Divine service on Sundays & Holy days.

The thing is, once Shakespeare got back from France the next year, all this was about to change, a moment in history that would penetrate the puberty of our budding dramatist at just the right moment in his development, a fusion of zeitgeist & genius that would soon mean that Elizabethan theatre & William Shakespeare of Stratford were one & the same spirit.

The Young Shakespeare (pt 2)


The Boy Poet


Throughout this series – which I have decided to continue up until anniversary of Shakespeare’s death next April – the knowledge that Shakespeare was born into a  passionately Catholic family will prove to be a most significant travelling companion. Yet great masterpieces are rarely written in a church, & we must look elsewhere for the inspirations that would diffuse their mimesi all thro’ his majestic ouvre. To do that we must attempt a journey thro Shakespeare’s life, turning over most of the stones we come to, for it is only thro’ a professional litological dig that we may unearth the bones of our illustrious bard.

In April 1564, just as the season of spring was beginning to flood the British Isles with scent & colour, in a small market town in the British midlands called Stratford-Upon-Avon, a certain Mary Shakespeare (nee Arderne) has just given birth to a boy. Holding her hand is her husband, John Shakespeare, excited at the prospect of their baby boy, but nervous as to whether he would survive the rigors of infancy. Their first two swaddling baby girls had pass’d away before they could walk, & it would have been with doubtless trepidation that they scribbled their baby’s name in the Baptismal record of Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church, where on the 26 April 1564 we may read “Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere.” It turned out that John & Mary had no need to worry, even when three months later the plague struck Stratford. But, by fate or by fortune baby Will survived the outbreak, & would eventually grow up into one of the finest young men in the kingdom.



Stratford Baptism records
Stratford Baptism records 1564

The first decade of his life saw John Shakespeare grow in power & affluence in their home town. In July 1565 he was elected one of the 14 alderman of Stratford, becoming chief bailiff between the autumns of 1568 & 69. It was on his watch that the Stratford corporation paid for its first ever set of travelling actors to perform in the town, the Queen’s Players. One can imagine the young Shakespeare observing the theatre for pretty much the first time, a lightning bolt of electricity which would sear his soul with the sheer of it all. Four years later, in 1573, the Earl of Leicester’s Players strolled into town, & were paid 6 shillings for their efforts. Their leader was a certain James Burbage, who would three years hencewards build one of the first permanent theatres in London.

A year later, Mr John Shakespeare was definitely well-off –  His profession, tradition holds, was a glover, while another anecdote that trinkled through time suggests he was a butcher. Whatever he did, however, he had made enough money by 1574 to pay Edmund & Emma Hall £40 for two freehold houses, complete with lovely tudor-style gardens & orchards. Still living at Henley Street, & the owners of properties which Mary had inherited, the Shakespeares were doing rather well for themselves.

Yew Tree - Whittinghame
Yew Tree – Whittinghame

It is in this very year of prosperity that the first official works of William Shakespeare came to light. He was ten at the time, an age where massive minds such as his should have been revealing their first glimmers of genius. If we see creative output as vegetation, Shakespeare’s would be something akin to the vast & ancient yew tree found on the Whittinghame Estate, East Lothian – with a tangled canopy of green & a root system spreading half a mile or more. Those roots stretch deep & far, & when analyzing the Shakespearean metaphysic, we must also follow his roots into his earliest, for as Wordsworth stated;


‘The Child is father of the Man.’


The Horn Book - an essential tool at Elizabethan schools
The Horn Book – an essential tool at Elizabethan schools

In all probabilty Shakespeare would have attended his local grammar school from the age of 5, & force fed a diet of endless Latin repetitions.  After analyzing the Ipswich Grammar School’s course of study held in the 1520s, John Churton Collins, in his essay ‘Shakespeare as a classical scholar’ (The Fortnightly Review 1903) declared Shakespeare would have studied the Roman writers Ovid, Plautus & Seneca. The boys would also be made to learn Greek in order to study the scriptures in their original forms. Lu Emily Hess Pearson, in her Elizabethans at Home, writes, ‘most boys were supposed to be drilled in the Bible until it became common knowledge to them.

A poet creates his talent through exercise, & understanding Shakespeare’s youthful knowledge of the Bible there are two ballads printed in 1574 that could well have been the product of this time. Accredited to a certain W.S., they are  both contain a number of  rather neat, but not amazingly written stanzas. The ballads are packed full of semi-quotations from the bible – in all essence it is a learning tool straight from the cloisters of academe. Printed in Cologne, they seem to have made their way to Germany in the hands of the Dutch spiritualist, Hendrik Niclaes, who printed many of his own poems at the same printers that year; including his Cantica & religious productions such as Exhortatio, Evangelium Regni & Epistola. He was the leader of a radical non-sectarian religious group known as the ‘Family of Love,’ who embraced both Catholics AND Protestants – the perfect group for the schismatic psyche of the Tudor state. Appealing especially to the intelligentsia of Elizabethan society, Margaret Healy, in her ‘Shakespeare, Alchemy and the Creative Imagination,’ highlights some of the possible influences of Niclaean teaching on Shakespeare.

We might look again in this context at the line in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 124, which seems to designate religious martyrs (those who ‘die for goodness’), rather unheroically, as ‘fools of Time.’ One’s inner spiritual state was crucial, outward appearance was mere show (it is intriguing to recall the line in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 102, ‘I love you not less, though less the show appear’, in relation to this). H.N. believed that through Christ & the Resurrection every man could become spiritually regenerated & godded with god or ‘deified’ (an odd word, which appears in A Lover’s Complaint, line 84).

urlTraces of the Familists in Shakespeare’s work indeed. Worshipping in secret, they would conceal their true beliefs while putting on a show of conformity for the outside world. If they were ever outed as a familist, they would stringently deny it, realizing it was better to briefly lie & stay alive in order to worship god rather than let pride lead them to the bonfire. Familism in England began to take hold in the 1550s, led by a certain Christopher Vittels, a former joiner, who had been a disciple of Niclaes in Delph (Holland). It was Vittels who translated Nicaels work into English, through which the Familist doctrine spread throughout England. William H. Brackney, in his ‘Historical Dictionary of Radical Christianity,’ tells us;

English adherents were drawn from the ranks of traders, clothiers, basketmakers, weavers, musicians, & other ‘mean people’ in Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridge & Essex. Queen Elizabeth I issued a proclamation against Familism in 1580, but there were closet Familists at court under the Stuarts. By the 1590s, there were known underground Familist gatherings in East Anglia & the North of England.

Returning to that printers in Cologne in 1574, let us now imagine that through certain secret Familist channels, perhaps a cell in Stratford itself,  two poems written in English came into the possession of Henry Niclaes. Almost 450 years later, only single copies remain, housed in the Bodleian library doon Oxford (Bod6248), the first two stanzas from each poem are given here, Per W.S. Veritatis Amatorem. Anno. 1574.

A new balade or songe of the Lambes feast

(ESTC: S121843)


I Hearde one saye:

Coma now awaye /

Make no delaye:

 Alack / why stande yee than?

All is doubtlesse

 Inb redynesse /

 There wants but Gesse /

 To the Supper of the Lamb.

 For Hee is now blest // in verye deede /

Thats found ad Gest // in the Mariage-weede.


THE Scriptures all /

 Perfourmede shall

 Bee, in this my Call /

 Voyced-out by H.N. (than):

I am Gods Love/

 Com from above /

 All Men to move /

To the Supper of the Lamb.

For Hee is now blest // in verye deede /

Thats found ad Gest // in the Mariage-weede.




Another, out of goodwill



The Grace from God

     thea Father hye /

Which is of Mightes most a /

The Mercye eake from Christ our Lorde /

     And Peace from the holye Gost a /

Com to All // That now shall /

     In Love with us agree a /

And consent // With whole Intent /

     To the Loves Soscietee a.



LOVE the Lorde above al-thinge /

     Is the first Precept by name a:

Love thy Neyghbour as thy-selfe /

     The seconds lyke the same a.

Thus wee see // Love to bee,

     Written with Gods-his owne Hande a /

To geev us Light // And guyde us right /

     Eaven out of that darke Lande a.


A young genius at work (Motzart)
A young genius at work (Motzart)

Amongst all the fractious scholarly squabbling that surrounds the Shakespearean mythos, there’s one thing that everybody agrees on – the guy was pretty good. The best, even. Poetically, he was so far ahead of his peers – & everybody else ever since – that we should really assume one thing… this guy started early. Look at Tiger Woods: his dad first put a club in his hand at 2 years old & by the age of 8 he could shoot below an 80 – an effort millions of golfers across the planet could only dream of emulating. Child prodigies exist : & can also develop mature works of great genius. A classic example is Amadeus Motzart, who at 8 years old wrote his first symphony, At that same age Sylvia Plath had the following poem printed in the Boston Herald (1941):

Hear the crickets chirping.

In the dewy grass.

Bright little fireflies.

Twinkle as they pass.


We must remember that we are searching for England’s greatest poet at work, & his genius would have taken time to develop. But develop it inevitably did, & reading through the 1574 poems one can really feel the youth of their composer, but also the indescribable talent bursting to break out. When Joseph Walford Martin, in his ‘Religious Radicals in Tudor England,’ describes certain Elizabethan literary references as being ‘explicit in their charge that Familist at least incline toward Rome,’ then the possibility seems that the pro-Catholic Shakespeares, in fear of persecution but not wanting to conform to the Anglian church, were dabbling with this new-fangled ‘Familsm’ in the early 1570s. Throughout that decade, the writings of Henry Niclaeus were translated by Christopher Vettels & disseminate throughout England. The brains behind it all, according to popular feeling at the time, were Edmund Campion’s Jesuits, with whom the Welsh clergyman Meredith Hanmer (1543–1604) declared did ‘shaketh hands’ with their ‘brethren,’ the Familists, a ‘detestable’ society of ‘like antiquity… who say that God is hominified in them & they deified in God.’