Its quite apt that Im writing this book at this time, for the 233rd First Folio (out of 800) has just been announced as being found at St Omer, near Calais. Shakespeare in France indeed, & of course Im now placing him there in person. So where were we… ah yes, in Antwerp with William Stanley, William Shakespeare & possibly John Donne, at the commencement of perhaps the most important Grand Tour in History. Being the second son of a noble family generally meant you were left to your own devices, living without the pressure to marry & carry on the family name & lands. Many of these young libertines undertook extended travels across Europe, & William Stanley was no different. He had spent the early 1580s travelling with his tutor, Richard Lloyd, & had returned to England for the Christmas festivities of 1584/85. Lloyd is also listed as part of the 4th Earl’s retinue in the Garter expedition, & William appears as ‘Stanley of Chelsea’ in the same lists. Lloyd may even have accompanied Stanley on this second tour, but to date I have ascertained no supporting evidence, so I am forced to leave him out of the equasion.
Then first Sir William travell’d to France,
To learn the French tongue and to dance ;
He tarried there not past three years,
But he learnt their language and all their affairs
This stanza from the Garland is the only which refers to Stanley’s time in France, from which we get the idea he was immersing himself in the native courts, a memory of which may have been recorded by Shakespeare himself, who writes;
Twere good, I think, your lordship sent him thither:
There shall he practise tilts and tournaments,
Hear sweet discourse, converse with noblemen.
And be in eye of every exercise
Worthy his youth and nobleness of birth. (The Two Gentlemen of Verona 1:3)
It is through this very sojourn through France that Shakespeare would have made his own discovery of the (occasionally) beautiful French language. Rowe tells us that it was, ‘certain he understood French, as may be observ’d from many Words and Sentences scatter’d up and down his Plays in that Language; and especially from one Scene in Henry the Fifth written wholly in it.‘
Navarre is the yellow ‘Bourbon Possesion’ at the foot of the picture, by the Spanish border
The Garland tells us that after France, Stanley visited Spain, so we must now head south with the party, probably perched hard-arsed on horseback. En route they may have visited scenes from the Hundred Years War between England & France. One play in particular, the first part of Henry VI, & one of Shakespeare’s earliest, could well reflect the party’s travels to southern France, for it has scenes in Orleans, Bordeaux, Gascony, Anjou, & Auvergne.
As they journeyed through the country, our party would have noticed the devastation of two decades of civil strife. Between 1562 & 1580, the French had seen SEVEN wars fought between Catholic & Hugenot (Protestant) factions, which had turned many French towns to rubble. These visions of urban desolation seem to be remembered later by Shakespeare;
Look on thy country, look on fertile France,
And see the cities and the towns defaced
By wasting ruin of the cruel foe.
As looks the mother on her lowly babe
When death doth close his tender dying eyes,
See, see the pining malady of France;
Behold the wounds, the most unnatural wounds,
Which thou thyself hast given her woful breast.
O, turn thy edged sword another way;
Strike those that hurt, and hurt not those that help.
One drop of blood drawn from thy country’s bosom
Should grieve thee more than streams of foreign gore:
Return thee therefore with a flood of tears,
And wash away thy country’s stained spots. (Henry VI Part 1 : 3-3)
There is one region in particular in southern France that flags up for William Stanley: his father, the 4th Earl of Derby, had befriended Henri of Navarre, the king of a region in southern France abutting the Pyrynees. It would be no surprise that Stanley would have wanted to visit this hospitable court, & Shakespeare’s visit to Navarre is implicitly suggested by one of his earliest plays – Love’s Labour’s Lost – which was set in that very place. Lefranc describes, ‘an easy familiarity with the atmosphere reigning at the court of Navarre & pervading the comedy Love’s Labours Lost,’ adding that the play’s ‘Park of Navarre… is easily identifiable with the park of Nerac.‘ Shakespeare describes an academic environment which matches that of the kingdom’s capital, Nerac, in which Henry of Navarre had installed a humanist academy.
Love’s Labours Lost is a charming piece, which sees the austere academic endeavours of four young men completely rattled by the arrival of the Princess of France at court, when all pretensions of intellectual ascetism soon descend into a round of sonnets, masques, and love-gifts. The very start of the play shows the state of mind of the four young men, before the arrival of the French princess, & contain language full of passion for study.
Ferdinand. Let fame, that all hunt after in their lives,
Live register’d upon our brazen tombs
And then grace us in the disgrace of death;
When, spite of cormorant devouring Time,
The endeavor of this present breath may buy
That honour which shall bate his scythe’s keen edge
And make us heirs of all eternity.
Therefore, brave conquerors,—for so you are,
That war against your own affections
And the huge army of the world’s desires,—
Our late edict shall strongly stand in force:
Navarre shall be the wonder of the world;
Our court shall be a little Academe,
Still and contemplative in living art.
You three, Biron, Dumain, and Longaville,
Have sworn for three years’ term to live with me
My fellow-scholars, and to keep those statutes
That are recorded in this schedule here:
Longaville. I am resolved; ’tis but a three years’ fast:
The mind shall banquet, though the body pine:
Fat paunches have lean pates, and dainty bits
Make rich the ribs, but bankrupt quite the wits.
Dumain. My loving lord, Dumain is mortified:
The grosser manner of these world’s delights
He throws upon the gross world’s baser slaves:
To love, to wealth, to pomp, I pine and die;
With all these living in philosophy.
Biron. I can but say their protestation over;
So much, dear liege, I have already sworn,
That is, to live and study here three years.
But there are other strict observances;
As, not to see a woman in that term,
Which I hope well is not enrolled there;
And one day in a week to touch no food
And but one meal on every day beside,
The which I hope is not enrolled there
Biron. Study is like the heaven’s glorious sun
That will not be deep-search’d with saucy looks:
Small have continual plodders ever won
Save base authority from others’ books
These earthly godfathers of heaven’s lights
That give a name to every fixed star
Have no more profit of their shining nights
Than those that walk and wot not what they are.
Too much to know is to know nought but fame;
And every godfather can give a name.
When Biron tells us, ‘study is like the heaven’s glorious sun,‘ we feel the importance that Shakespeare attaches to his time in Navarre. The three years that Stanley spent on the continent (1585-1587) are also a direct match for the three-year course of study planned by Ferdinand’s ‘fellow-scholars,’ Longaville, Dumain & Biron; as in ‘I only swore to study with your grace / And stay here in your court for three years’ space.’
Love’s Labours Lost is Shakespeare’s poetical recollection of his time in Navarre, where King Henry should be King Ferdinand, while Longaville, Dumain & Biron would be Shakespeare, Stanley & perhaps Donne. That they were setting out on their quest for educational enlightenment is thoroughly reflected in the play’s ebullient desire for education – which in the play was stymied by the arrival of women on the scene. One could even hazard a guess that Shakespeare got laid in Nerac, as ain;
First, from the park let us conduct them thither;
Then homeward every man attach the hand
Of his fair mistress: in the afternoon
We will with some strange pastime solace them,
Such as the shortness of the time can shape;
For revels, dances, masks and merry hours
Forerun fair Love, strewing her way with flowers.
In support, Emile Montegut describes the familiarity Love’s Labour’s Lost has with the idiosynchracies of the French court of the times, as in; ‘it is something extraordinary to observe Shakespeare’s fidelity to the most minute details of historic truth. The conversations of his lords & ladies are thoroughly French; vivacious, sprightly, witty, an unbroken game of battledore & shuttelcock, a skirmish of bons mots, a mimic war of repartee. Even their bad taste is quite French.’ To this we must add Shakespeare’s uncanny knowledge of local politics. The Ducs de Biron & Longueville were real people who were allies of Henri of Navarre, while Derran Charlton tells us, ‘the names Boyet, Marcade & de la Mothe appear in contemporary registers of court officials. The King’s impetuous riding (4.1.1-2) & his covering the whole sheet, ‘margin & all,’ in his letter-writing (5.2.7-8) were actual habits of Henri of Navarre.’
Whenever the play was written is difficult to say, but it was probably some time after Shakespeare had left Navarre, for in the words of William Wordsworth, ‘Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.’
I do know, however, the exact place & day the play was performed for the first time, but before we reach that moment, there is an awful lot of travel to unravel…