Since his death four centuries ago, there have been few important discoveries about William Shakespeare, the genius that Samuel Johnson called quite simply “our poet.” Yet this year several revelations have appeared, and they are major. An English historian has thrown new light on our poet’s long-hidden life, and two American scholars have hit on a convincing -- at last! -- explanation of his great and baffling poem, “The Phoenix and Turtle.” Shakespeare buffs and readers everywhere, after hundreds of years, are given fresh insights into his family and his work. The discoverers have received little or no attention in America, and they deserve our thanks.
A BBC television series, “In Search of Shakespeare,” is the source of the family discoveries. It was researched and written by historian and filmmaker Michael Wood, who, since leaving Oriel College, Oxford, has created many TV documentaries, including the highly praised “Conquistadors,” and published several well-received books, including “Domesday” and “In Search of England.” To accompany the TV series, the BBC published an impressive, admirably detailed book by Wood, which appears here under the imprint of Basic Books in the same large, handsome format.
The most important news concerns the “secret” life of John Shakespeare, our poet’s father, who was long regarded as either a jolly farmer or an uneducated butcher. Wood establishes that in 1564, when William was born, John was a well-to-do citizen of Stratford -- the town bailiff (equal to mayor), as well as a glove maker, wool dealer, real estate investor and moneylender. A contemporary Stratford document lists John as a “gentleman,” but by the late 1570s he was in deep financial and local trouble, owing to the family’s Catholicism. He was no longer dealing in the town’s affairs and had stopped attending church, ostensibly to avoid arrest for his debts. John was a recusant: He had refused to give up his religion or to fake it by attending Protestant services at least once a year, as required by Queen Elizabeth’s new law. When he was bailiff, John had been ordered to whitewash the church murals of ancient saints and symbols, and when he did nothing about it for a year, his troubles began. His wife, the former Mary Arden, was also a recusant; so were her well-born relatives, including Edward Arden, head of the family, whose estate, Park Hall, was a “safe house” for recalcitrant Catholics.
The first inkling that Shakespeare’s family was Catholic appeared in 1757, when some Stratford workmen, repairing his Henley Street birthplace, stumbled on a handwritten English testament to the old faith, hidden in the eaves. The document was attacked as spurious until Edmond Malone, the great Shakespeare scholar of that period, pronounced it authentic. Wood reports another, more recent (1964) clue to the family’s recusancy: the discovery of church records of Stratford recusants who failed to attend Protestant Easter services in May 1606. The list bears the name “Susanna Shakespeere,” William’s daughter. The date, 10 years before her father’s death, leads Wood to call it “one coincidence too many. This looks very much like family loyalty.”
Was Shakespeare a recusant? Certainly not in the public eye. Several factors may have saved him from papist-hunters: the amount of time he spent in the London theater, his position as a shareholder at the Globe and the lack of any evidence of churchgoing. In the 1590s, he gained a powerful patron in the young Earl of Southampton, whose mother was Catholic and harbored a fugitive priest in her house in Holborn.
Shakespeare’s rise to fame began after England’s triumph over the Spanish Armada, with his patriotic play “Henry VI.” It was hailed as a smash hit by poet Thomas Nashe, whose review sheds light on the box office receipts. Invoking “brave Talbot (the terror of the French)
Shakespeare’s biography as we have known it has also been altered by three important discoveries about Elizabethan poet Robert Southwell, who had decided to become a Jesuit at age 14. The Southwells, a distinguished family, antedated Henry VIII, and Southwell’s mother, as a child at court, was a playmate of the king’s daughter, Elizabeth, the queen-to-be. Southwell, auburn-haired and good-looking, was known for his breeding and elegant manners. After deciding to become a Jesuit, he went abroad and eventually to the Jesuit College in Rome before returning to England as an outlaw in 1586. Wood reveals that Southwell was related to the Earl of Southampton; the revelation that Southwell had also become the confessor and spiritual advisor of the 18-year-old earl just when he became Shakespeare’s patron comes from an unexpected source, the prison records of Richard Topcliffe, a brutal torturer of recusants whom Southwell’s Jesuit companion Henry Garnet described as homo sordidissimus (“a superlatively bad man”), relentless in his pursuit of Jesuits, whose capture meant disembowelment at Tyburn as traitors.
It is Southwell himself who claimed to be distantly related to Shakespeare, through the Arden family, addressing him in a book of poems as “my loving and good cousin.” Cousins can, of course, be far removed; Wood gives genealogical lists for all the connections. But the relationship per se does not matter as much as its influence on Shakespeare. For example, Southwell had access to a manuscript copy of Shakespeare’s first long poem, “Venus and Adonis,” because it was dedicated to Southampton as “the first heir of my invention.” “Venus,” of course, is a highly erotic poem (“I’ll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer / Feed where thou wilt, on mountain or in dale,
As for Southwell, he was finally captured by Topcliffe and tortured on 10 occasions without revealing the name of a single recusant. At last, in 1595 there was a trial, at which Topcliffe brought up the charge of Jesuitical “equivocation,” and Southwell was condemned. He died at a degrading public execution the next day.
After Elizabeth’s death, Shakespeare made two references to Southwell in his new play, “Macbeth.” An echo of Southwell’s Christmas poem “The Burning Babe” occurs in Act 1, Scene 7, uttered by Macbeth after Lady Macbeth has persuaded him to murder King Duncan. His soliloquy (“ ‘Twere well / it were done quickly,”) has the Southwell echo at line 21:
The deep damnation of his [Duncan’s] taking off,
And pity, like a naked newborn babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye
That tears shall drown the wind....
The other echo turns up in Act 2 as the drunken porter intones: “Knock, knock! ... Faith, here’s an equivocator that could swear in both the scales against either scale, who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven. O come in, equivocator!”
These revelations have been my chief concern, but I should point out that Wood’s book covers Shakespeare’s entire life, illuminating small details, like the mention in Shakespeare’s will of the “second-best” bed, interpreted as a slight to Anne Hathaway but exposed by Wood as a family obsession: He cites various Hathaway wills with clauses keeping certain fine beds in their hands.
“The Phoenix and Turtle,” Shakespeare’s strangest poem, was first published in 1601 in a small collection of poems titled “Love’s Martyr.” The book’s title page proclaims that the poems were “Done by the best and chiefest of our modern writers,” starting with Shakespeare. (Explain that, you silly Oxfordians and Baconians!) It reveals the names of only four: besides Shakespeare, these are John Marston, George Chapman and Ben Jonson, followed by Ignoto (anonymous) and Chorus Vatum (poets’ chorus). Shakespeare comes first either because he was at the height of his fame or because his poem is the best and longest; the others are shorter and rather dull. The poem is not like anything else Shakespeare wrote, except that it is a great poem. It fascinates and puzzles readers because its language is so modern and self-contained. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his preface to “Parnassus,” was so baffled by it that he implied it was a hoax. In 1956, poetry critic A. Alvarez disagreed, calling it “a difficult poem, but it is knowingly so. The complications are intentional, witty and precise.” I first read “The Phoenix and Turtle” many years ago, in the 1930s, in poet Mark Van Doren’s Shakespeare classes at Columbia. Professor Van Doren defined the poem as great for its use of language alone and concurred with the verdict of English critic G.B. Harrison: “The poem is difficult and enigmatic. No one has ever offered a satisfactory interpretation of its inner meaning, and until the events and persons for whom he originally wrote it are identified, it will remain an enigma.” Van Doren was convinced that Shakespeare meant it to be impenetrable, but he believed that three facts were clear: The phoenix stands for male love and the turtledove for female constancy; the final words show the poem to be a dirge for the couple; and the third tercet states that their marriage was celibate.
“The Phoenix and Turtle” remained impregnable until this year, when two American scholars published their discovery in the Times Literary Supplement in London. Both men are eminent professors of law: John Finnis at Oxford and Notre Dame and Patrick Martin at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. They worked as a team for several years, starting with individual words, like “requiem” and “defunctive” (and discovering, for instance, that the latter word occurs nowhere else in Shakespeare’s writing). The poem’s date, 1601, led them to search for a public event in that year that matched the poem’s details. They finally found it: the execution of “Mistress Ann” on Feb. 27, 1601, at Tyburn.
Ann Line, a gentlewoman, was born Ann Higham in 1561, the daughter of a wealthy and ardent Calvinist. On her conversion to Roman Catholicism, she was disinherited and thrown out of the house by her father. She married Roger Line, another young convert, who was also disinherited. The couple lived miserably in poverty until Roger was arrested for attending Mass, spent months in a London prison and was exiled alone to Flanders in 1591. Ann tried in vain to join him abroad. Roger fell ill and died there in 1594. Ann never remarried, and her last seven years were lived “in destitution and holiness.” Garnet called her veramente Santa (“truly a holy woman”). In 1601 she was arrested at a secret Mass. On her way to Tyburn, her body was so wasted -- her legs “were as thin as the ropes” -- that she could not walk and had to be carried. In the falling February snow, she kissed the gallows. Ann Line was the only woman known to have been executed under Queen Elizabeth for religious reasons, and in 1970 she was canonized by Pope Paul VI.
It is now obvious that Shakespeare knew, from childhood, more horror than many suspected. All the more wonder that he became as great a comic writer as a tragic one. In this early couplet, he described himself more accurately than anyone else has: “He had the dialect and different skill, / Catching all passions in his craft of will.”
The last bit of news comes from a 17th century Protestant clergyman, the Rev. Richard Davies, who wrote: “William Shakespeare dyed a papist.” As Michael Wood puts it, “Davies had no reason to lie, and plenty of reasons to know.” *
From ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’
Let the bird of loudest lay,
On the sole Arabian tree,
Herald sad and trumpet be,
To whose sound chaste wings obey....
Let the priest in surplice white,
That defunctive music can,
Be the death-divining swan,
Lest the requiem lack his right....
Here the anthem doth commence:
Love and Constancy is dead,
Phoenix and the turtle fled
In a mutual flame from hence
So they loved, as love in twain
Had the essence but in one;
Two distincts, division none.
Number there in love was slain.
Hearts remote, yet not asunder;
Distance, and no space was seen
Twixt the turtle and his Queen.
But in them it were a wonder.
So between them love did shine,
That the turtle saw his right
Flaming in the phoenix’ sight;
Either was the other’s mine....
Beauty, Truth, and Rarity,
Grace in all simplicity,
Here enclosed in cinders lie.
Death is now the phoenix’ nest,
And the turtle’s loyal breast
To eternity doth rest,
Leaving no posterity.
‘Twas not their infirmity,
It was married chastity.
Truth may seem, but cannot be;
Beauty brag, but ‘tis not she;
Truth and Beauty buried be.
To this urn let those repair
That are either true or fair;
For these dead birds sigh a prayer.