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.
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
William 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!
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
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.