By a close reading of the works of Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe, George Peele, John Marston, Thomas Dekker, Ben Jonson, John Aubrey and, of course, ‘Anonymous’, we can establish that Shakespeare, after recklessly libelling Sir Thomas Lucy, as well as poaching his deer, had to flee from Stratford-upon-Avon to London in 1585, leaving behind his older wife, Anne, and his three young children.
He had worked, as a teenager, as a servant, musician and entertainer for the Catholic Hesketh family at Hoghton Hall in Lancashire. But the only man who could help him was the eccentric highly Protestant Vicar of St. Giles, Cripplegate, Robert Crowley ‘the vicar of St. Fools’ who numbered Lucy amongst his parishioners and whose friend and fellow-preacher at the church, John Foxe the martyrologist, had been Lucy’s tutor.
Crowley, an ardent Protestant who had refused to wear a surplice when he celebrated communion, wrote and printed religious ballads which profoundly influenced Shakespeare. They advocated plain-speaking, the avoidance of affectation, abandonment of all adornment (including make-up for women) and the voluntary redistribution of wealth.
The tension between this new ‘intellectual’ Protestantism and the old ‘magical’ Catholicism of Shakespeare’s youth was to underlie all of Shakespeare’s work. In Hamlet, for example, the ‘advanced’ Wittenberg students are astonished to find a Purgatorial ghost clunking round the battlements at Elsinore. They are forced to concede that folklore might be true.
Shakespeare’s father, John, was a notorious figure in the City as well as Stratford-upon-Avon and used his prestige as a Bailiff to broker shady money deals. He bought wool at Westminster, reported on the doings of Parliament to the Stratford Council and was fined £40 [£20,000] in 1580 for not appearing at a London Court to give security he would keep the peace.
Drawing on information in Knack to Know a Knave and Eastward Ho! we can work out that Shakespeare’s father fixed his son an apprenticeship in London: but Shakespeare, who wore flashy clothes, took frequent scented baths and boasted possession of a prostitute girlfriend and a racing gelding, had ‘ideas above his station’. When his father fell ‘seven score pounds’ [£70,000] behind in paying sureties for his son’s apprenticeship, Shakespeare was free to lead a life of drinking, gambling, money lending, ballad writing and fraternising with ‘gallants.’
Under the guidance of the great communicator Crowley, Shakespeare wrote homespun plays based on ballads, the Bible and mythology - lost plays with names like Delphrigus, The Prodigal Son, Dives and Lazarus and The King of the Fairies which allowed Shakespeare to ‘thunder terribly’ upon the stage.
Shakespeare, though, picked up – or was picked up – by a very different mentor, the playwright Thomas Kyd. ‘Sporting Kyd could as well have met Shakespeare as a race-meet as the theatre. He wrote sensational, wildly popular ‘revenge’ plays, like The Spanish Tragedy and Soliman and Perseda, where ghosts regularly cry out for vengeance, people go mad and suicide is presented as a triumph over fate. He was also happy, if paid, to write anti-Catholic pamphlets and turn his hand to patriotic rubbish for the Queen’s Men.
Kyd, like Shakespeare, was a grammar school boy, and a legal clerk. The two naturally bonded, theatrically starched their beards and lodged together in promiscuous, bisexual chaos.
The University Wits, fresh from Oxford and Cambridge, like Greene, with his ‘ruffianly hair’and ‘gag-toothed’ Nashe despised these ungowned rivals. They thought culture itself was at risk from men who knew the classics only in translation and who, if catapulted from their class, would prove ruthlessly vindictive.
In 1586 a group of actors, including Will Kemp, returned from playing at Elsinore, bearing news about Danish drinking customs, the topography of its castle and stories of its ghost. Kyd, with Shakespeare as junior collaborator, set about writing the first version of Hamlet with its personified ‘Fates’, slapstick humour, jokes about false teeth and an Ophelia who, having fallen in love with a courtier called Phantasmo, chases him round the stage.
Hamlet himself escapes death at the hands of the pirates by ducking: his captors shoot each other instead.
Queen Elizabeth, at this time, was at the height of her indecision about her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary had been plotting against her, but did this give Elizabeth the right to execute her? Should she kill a blood relative?
William Camden, a contemporary historian, describes how ‘in the midst of these doubtful and perplexed thoughts, which so troubled and staggered the Queen’s mind, she gave herself over wholly to solitariness, sat many times melancholic and mute and, frequently sighing, muttered to herself, ‘Aut fer aut feri: either bear with her or smite her. And ne feriare, feri – Strike lest thou be stricken…’’
This is the questioning, arguing voice of Prince Hamlet. Elizabeth even took to wearing black after Mary’s execution.
Less satisfying for Shakespeare was the work with Kyd for the Queen’s Men. In their version of King Leir Goneril quotes the parliamentary speeches of Queen Elizabeth, the wicked sisters are Roman Catholics and Leir himself, divinely protected from all harm, represents old England happily restored to Protestantism.
Shakespeare, with a life-long inability to compromise, had to get out of London. He gathered a company of four or five actors, ex-tradesmen like the players in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and toured the provinces. With his rehearsals plagued by well-off ‘ingles’ (homosexuals), the penurious, balding, exhausted, foot-slogging, fardel-bearing Shakespeare was more like a pub-entertainer, singing his ballads and drunkenly improvising bits of doggerelverse. His company, often forced to sleep under canvas in their props and costumes cart, would perform in your bed-chamber if you could pay…
Shakespeare had wanted to call his men ‘The Politician Players’ but by law he had to have a patron. ‘Sir Oliver Owlet’ (code for Lord Strange, later Earl of Derby) allowed Shakespeare to use his name and his money. With help from Greene, who was not above collaborating with ‘the buckram gentleman’ if he could pay, Shakespeare wrote the The Fair Em, based on a ballad set in Lancashire and Cheshire where Strange was Lord Lieutenant.
Shakespeare created a sympathetic, aristocratic lead rôle for himself – Valingford, who falls in love with the beautiful miller’s daughter, Em. She pretends to be deaf and blind to test Valingford’s integrity. When he triumphantly proves his worth, she reveals that she is secretly aristocratic as well.
With Greene, Shakespeare also gave us, in the 1588 Armada year, a ‘shabby little shocker’: The Lamentable and True Tragedy of M. Arden of Feversham in Kent who was most wickedly murdered, by the means of his disloyal and wanton wife, who for the love she bare to one Mosbie, hired two desperate ruffians Blackwill and Shakebag, to kill him. Wherein is shown the great malice and dissimulation of a wicked woman, the unsatiable desire of filthy lust and the shameful end of all murderers.
‘Shakebag’ is a coded in-joke: the real life villain was called Loosebag. The other ‘baddie’ in the play is called ‘Greene’. Even in this questionable piece there are ideas that Shakespeare was to develop in his later plays. Ales, the wicked wife, cannot wipe the blood from the floor when she kills her husband (Macbeth) and his corpse bleeds when she comes near it (Julius Caesar).
Shakebag also daringly refers to Leicester’s murder of Amy Robsart:
‘But whether she would or no, I got me by
And as she followed me I spurned her down the stairs
And broke her neck’
Ales’s murder of her husband is another coded reference. Leicester, to almost everyone’s relief, had died a few weeks after the Armada. People said his wife, Lettice, in love with a younger man, had poisoned him.
The nationalistic fervour provoked by the fight with Spain made theatre unfashionable. Actors were viewed as parasites whose playing costumes should be torn off their backs and given to the ‘real men’, the soldiers fighting the Spanish. People were beginning to tire of Shakespeare’s naïve morality plays, written in ‘Old England’s mother words’. On top of that, Strange’s patronage had gone to Shakespeare’s head.
When Shakespeare’s company toured to Cross Keys in November 1589, the Lord Mayor forbad the actors to perform. Their repertoire consisted of plays about ‘Divinity and State’ which the mayor thought ‘unfit to be suffered’. ‘Caesar’ Shakespeare, ‘the absolute interpreter to the puppets’, ‘parted from him [the Mayor] in a very contemptuous manner’ and his men played that very afternoon. Shakespeare ended up in jail, minus a patron and with state censorship even more firmly in place.
Shakespeare and Kyd were forced into a change of career. They teamed up again and, between forays into City brothels, scraped a living translating stories and brokering shady money deals.
Kyd, however, cut and ran in 1590. Strange had offered him a job as tutor to his daughters.
Shakespeare, deeply scarred by poverty and Kyd’s betrayal, knew that to survive he had to make an alliance with the rich.
He got back in touch with his old Catholic network…
And got in touch with the extraordinary, dysfunctional Southampton family….