HOW TO READ SHAKESPEARE
William Shakespeare had to write in code.
Elizabeth I was not the liberal cinema has made her out to be. She loathed free speech, even from her appointed Parliament, and if you libelled her, or ‘the State’ (which could mean anyone or anything) you could be imprisoned, racked, hanged, drawn and quartered.
Elizabeth believed that God had freed her from the Tower and placed her on the throne of England for one purpose only: to turn the whole country Protestant. She had no interest in conquering other lands. She wanted to be the shepherdess to her simple island flock. Fearing that diversity of belief would lead to Civil War, she wanted everyone in England to think the same way that she did.
This would be a challenge to any writer: but it was a particular challenge to Shakespeare, who had inherited from his wheeler-dealer, rogue-trader father a mischievous, anarchic streak. From Shakespeare’s teenage years, any figure of authority was fair game. He began with the powerful persecutor of Catholics, Sir Thomas Lucy, whose sex-life and personal hygiene he lampooned in the famous ‘Lucy is lousy’ ballad. He ended up with Elizabeth herself.
Fascinated by politics, Shakespeare knew that to stay alive he needed to find new ways of saying the unsayable. He had to develop a series of codes which his audience would understand but which would bamboozle the authorities. If challenged, Shakespeare must be able to throw up his hands and say:
What on earth are you talking about? It’s all in your mind!
One of his most powerful weapons was history. The Tudors thought the world was in irreversible decline and likely to end soon. They considered their ancestors to be every bit as clever, and wicked, as they were. History was on a loop, so the past was an inspiration to them. And a caution.
For Queen Elizabeth it was also a threat. Obsessed with her place in history, she did not want her subjects to judge her by history. So she span it. In 1590 she recalled Holinshed’s recently published historical Chronicles on the grounds they were ‘fondly set out’. She ordered her players, the Queen’s Men, to perform Pro-Tudor historical propaganda instead.
One of their plays was a risible version of Richard III ….
A horse! A horse! A fresh horse!
It portrays the hunch-backed King, enemy of Elizabeth’s grandfather Henry VII, as a cannibal as well as a child-killer. At the end of the piece a messenger miraculously prophesies the glory of Elizabeth’s reign:
She is the lamp that keeps fair England light
And through her faith her country lives in peace
And she hath put proud Anti-Christ to flight
And been the means that civil wars did cease.
Then England kneel upon thy hairy knee, [sic]
And thank that God that still provides for thee.’
The real historical challenge to Elizabeth came from an anonymous book, published in 1584, called Leicester’s Commonwealth. Francis Bacon possessed a manuscript copy and several pages are in Shakespeare’s hand.
It is a demolition job on Robert Dudley, later the Earl of Leicester, a childhood friend of Elizabeth who had given her money, love and hope during the dark days of her sister Mary’s reign. When Elizabeth became Queen he became, naturally enough, the most powerful man in England.
Two years later his teenage bride, Amy Robsart, was found with her neck broken at the bottom of a short flight of stairs. The way was then open to him to share the throne of England.
Detested for his greed, his lust, his murders, his adultery, his lies and his hypocrisy, Leicester was given, as a gift from Elizabeth, KenilworthCastle, a dozen miles from Stratford-upon-Avon, around the time that Shakespeare was born. Claiming, preposterously, to lead the Puritan religious cause, Leicester oppressed all Warwickshire Catholics, including Shakespeare’s family.
Leicester’s Commonwealth compares Leicester and Elizabeth with all the weak or villainous figures from the past: Richard II, Richard III, Richard of York, Henry VI, Warwick, Queen Margaret, her lover the Earl of Suffolk and even the Ancient Roman rapist, Tarquinus Superbus.
All of them feature heavily in Shakespeare’s plays and poems.
Many of Elizabeth’s subjects thought it was perverse for a woman to rule over them – even more perverse for Leicester to submit to one. When Shakespeare writes about feeble kings, boy kings, tyrannical kings, over-bearing mothers and adulterous lovers from history, his audience would know he was really talking about ‘now’.
Mythical, pre-Christian settings were a way of dealing with taboo subjects like religion. Though born and brought up a Catholic, the worldly, hedonistic, malt-hoarding, tax-avoiding, litigious Shakespeare was never a fanatical follower of the Old Faith. He was a ‘political’ Catholic.
He had seen his own family members suffer for their belief and a relative executed. Shakespeare actively supported the movement for religious toleration, equating it with freedom of speech.
In 1605, as the result of a devastating emotional crisis, Shakespeare lost all his faith: but he fought hard to regain it and, mixing Paganism with Christianity in his later plays, he famously ‘died a Papist.’
Symbols are also a vital part of the Shakespeare Code. Queen Elizabeth, for example, loved to be compared to the moon. Shakespeare has great fun sending up this idea…
It was well known that Elizabeth was violently jealous of her young Ladies-in-Waiting. She forbad them to flirt with any of her courtiers, put them in the Tower if they married without her consent and forced them to wear black and white dresses to set off the splendid colours of her own. One of these ladies was Elizabeth Vernon, a cousin of the dashing Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex. She had caught the eye of Henry Wriothesley, (‘Harry Southampton’) 3rd Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s patron, friend and lover.
Essex, knowing that the tentatively heterosexual Harry would need encouragement to pursue the affair, commissioned Shakespeare to write Romeo and Juliet. So when Romeo says:
But soft! What light through yonder window breaks
It is the East and Juliet is the sun.
Arise fair sun and kill the envious moon
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid are far more fair than she
Shakespeare really was playing with fire.
Even more outrageous is the line from the earlier A Midsummer Night’s Dream, performed when Elizabeth was in her sixties:
But O! methinks how slow this old moon wanes…’
Animals could also be a code for people. Sir Robert Cecil, Burghley’s small, round-shouldered son, became ‘The Ape’, the ruthlessly crafty Sir Walter Raleigh ‘The Fox’, and Leicester, who inherited the Warwick family’s heraldic device of the Bear and Ragged Staff, ‘The Bear’.
Shakespeare’s most potent code, though, was the English language itself. When he began writing, English was despised, even by the English themselves, as barbarous; by the time of his death it was celebrated as the glory of Europe. Shakespeare and his contemporaries had so refined, developed and enriched the language that a complex ambiguity was the inevitable outcome. Ambiguity breeds code. Shakespeare used that code to protect his life.
Like many men in Elizabethan England, Shakespeare led what we would now call a ‘bisexual’ love-life. In 1563, the year before his birth, Elizabeth had made what she called ‘buggery’ punishable by death. Her father Henry VIII had introduced these anti-homosexual laws, but her Catholic sister Mary had rescinded them when she came to the throne. Elizabeth reintroduced them because, she claimed, ‘diverse evil-disposed persons have been more bold to commit the said most horrible and detested vice of buggery, to the high displeasure of almighty God.’
And, of course, the high displeasure of Elizabeth who insisted on being the heterosexual centre of everyone’s attention. She teased the homosexual men, like Francis Bacon, at her Court; but she exercised control by the existence of the law. It could be enforced at any time.
This blog will show that for fifteen years, from 1590 to 1605, Harry Southampton was the overwhelming love of Shakespeare’s life. Shakespeare wanted to express that love in words that would last for ever, but, at the same time, did not want to die. So he developed a code which Harry and his friends would understand but which other people might miss. He was so successful that for over three hundred years scholars did not realise that Shakespeare was bisexual.
Some do not till this day.
The code uses the imagery of wounding, hunting, death and blood to represent falling in love, love-play and orgasm. The vocabulary of the face can also represent the genitals: ‘beard’, for example, can mean pubic hair and ‘eye’ the testicle or penis. Money, in all its forms, can symbolise semen, and spending money, ejaculation. Abstract words (‘largesse’ or ‘excellence’) can also be bantering references to the genitals.
For example, Sonnet 94 begins:
They that have power to hurt, and will do none
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who moving others are themselves as stone,
Unmoved cold and to temptation slow.’
The ‘power to hurt’ has the additional Chaucerian meaning of ‘the power to arouse others sexually’. ‘The thing they most do show’ is a joking reference to a penis in an elaborate cod-piece.
So the opening lines really mean:
Those that have the ability to arouse love in others and refrain from doing so; who do not engage in making love, no matter how much their cod-pieces show off their manliness, who, although they excite others, remain stone-like themselves, unroused, cool and reluctant to rise to temptation…
They rightly do inherit nature’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
‘Nature’s riches’ is semen which chaste young men conserve through refraining from sex. ‘Faces’ means ‘genitals’ and implies that these pure men are really the ‘lords and owners’ of their bodies. Young men who sleep around are merely the stewards, not the possessors, of ‘their excellence’.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The bravest weed outbraves his dignity’.
The flower here also symbolises the penis and ‘dying’ is code for orgasm. Shakespeare is praising masturbation: it is better to satisfy yourself alone than meet with ‘base infection’ – that is, consort with lower class men who will contaminate you both by their lack of breeding and their venereal disease.
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.’
This is a graphic description of a penis poisoned with disease and a soul poisoned by association with unworthy companions. The moral and physical collapse of an aristocrat (the lily) is more total than it is for a ‘base fellow’ (the weed) for whom there are no high expectations. ‘Base’ itself was often code for ‘homosexual’.
Shakespeare employed code to attack other people. Other people used code to attack him.
Re-naming Shakespeare ‘upstart crow’, ‘ignorant ale-knight’, ‘unlearned sot’, ‘brainless buzzard’, ‘unlearned idiot’, ‘rude rhymer’, ‘idleby’, ‘peaking pageanter’, ‘scoffing fool’, ‘artless idiot’, ‘babble book-monger’, ‘upstart antiquary’, ‘father of interludes’, ‘poet ape’, ‘mimic ape’, ‘base groom’, ‘ragged groom’, ‘hostler’, ‘buckram gentleman’, ‘country author’, ‘Caesar’, ‘johannes fac totum’, ‘absolute interpreter of the puppets’, ‘Old Player’, ‘broking Pander’, ‘unkind gent’, ‘usurping Sol’, ‘saucy upstart Jack’, ‘old Jack of Paris Garden’, ‘base insinuating slave’, ‘son of parsimony and disdain’, ‘dunghill brat’, ‘trencher slave’, ‘drone’, ‘self-conceiving breast’, ‘Sir Simon two shares and a half’, ‘gloomy Juvenal’, ‘Cuthbert Coney-Catcher’, ‘petulant poet’, ‘malicious papist’, ‘Sir Adam Prickshaft’, ‘Fungoso’ and the not very subtle ‘W.S.’, ‘Shake-bag’, ‘Shake-rag’ and ‘Shake-scene’, jealous writers lambasted Shakespeare’s class, lechery, drunkenness, meanness, ingratitude, boastfulness, plagiarism, ruthlessness, ambition and, obliquely, his brilliant, immortal talent.
A consistent picture of Shakespeare emerges from these attacks. By cracking the code of his enemies, we can build up a detailed picture of his life….
The ‘Lost Years’ were never lost at all….