Friday, January 1, 2016

Shakespeare's Deathday

Shakespeare's four hundredth deathday is approaching, and Shakespeare enthusiasts everywhere are unleashing a frenzy of commemorative and celebratory Shakespeare events to mark the milestone. However, because it is a downer to celebrate someone's death, the occasion is being described as the anniversary not of a playwright's shuffling off of his mortal coil, but of the birth of his legacy, which mostly means his plays. This festive rebranding requires a little chronological fudging, since the First Folio -- the first collected edition of Shakespeare's plays -- appeared not in the year of his death but seven years later, in 1623, even though the Folger Library is choosing 2016 as the year to lend some of these priceless Folios to universities throughout the U.S. to be feted and celebrated because it's Shakespeare's 400th deathday (or deathyear. The actual day will be April 23rd). Yes, I do mean the books themselves will be feted and honored, almost as though they are visiting dignitaries. And why not? As the source of four hundred years worth of performance scripts and hours of reading pleasure, they deserve to be. If we're going to fetishize a book, it might as well be the First Folio. Of course, since Shakespeare lovers jump at any chance to
make a big deal about Shakespeare (as in the commemorations of his 450th birthday two years ago), we can look forward to a similar outburst of celebrations in the Folio's actual four hundredth birth year, 2023.

I'm on board with all of this. In fact, I'm participating in the upcoming Folio celebration at Wayne State University in Detroit in March. I'll be one of a group of scholars who will speak about Shakespeare's attitude toward the printing of his work. Right now I'm just blogging.

As I blog, aimlessly and with no special goal, it occurs to me that one good thing about celebrating Shakespeare's deathday instead of his birthday (and we sort of think he had the same deathday as birthday, paradoxically enough) is that doing so shifts our focus from the Elizabethan to the Jacobean period. "Elizabethan" is used too frequently as a kind of synonym for "English Renaissance." In fact, half of Shakespeare's greatest plays were written during the Jacobean period, meaning the reign of King James (1603-1625). Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, The Tempest, and The Winter's Tale were all composed between 1603 and 1610. Yet the popular imagination has Shakespeare stuck in a 1590s conversation with Queen Elizabeth, writing Tudor-propagandistic history plays and reviving Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor because the queen wanted to see that gluttonous rascal in love. And Elizabethan Shakespeare is indeed interesting. But what about the Gunpowder Plot?

Yes. The Gunpowder Plot. That was the attempt of a group of Catholic zealots to blow up the House of Lords on Parliament's opening day in 1605, blasting all the Protestant lords and the Protestant King James to hell. (I would have said "to Kingdom Come," but the plotters thought the Protestants were going to hell. And hoped so.) Gary Wills and James Shapiro, among other scholars, have written of the Plot's connection to the plays of King's Man Shakespeare. There's even been a play about the Gunpowder Plot and Macbeth.

So, why has no one yet focused, not on Shakespeare's interest in the Plot, but in the plotters' obsession with Shakespeare?

We already know that a 1601 plot against Queen Elizabeth, led by supporters of the Earl of Essex, paid Shakespeare's company to perform Richard II (a play about a royal deposition) on the eve of his, meaning the Essex, rebellion, with the intent of encouraging support for their vague cause. It should be clear to all of us that Shakespeare's second group of history plays -- written in the late 1590s, the years right before the Gunpowder Plot, and continuing in the early seventeenth century in repertory performance -- were a lodestone for various English gentlemen who were unhappy with the realm's present government, and found dramatic inspiration for their own ambitions in the poetic representation, on the Globe stage, of English rebellions of days past. As for the Gunpowder Plotters, they were mostly men from the Catholic north of England, and one of their leaders was named Percy. They hated King James, who had broken their hearts with his faint and ultimately unkept promises of leniency toward Catholics in England. What must these angry adherents to the Old Religion have thought of Shakespeare's Henry IV, part 1, with its glorious representation of a medieval-(Catholic)-Church-supported Northern rebellion against an English king who had betrayed them? And whose rebellion was led by a valorous knight nicknamed Hotspur, whose real name was -- yes -- Percy?

All this is history. Yet the history of Shakespeare's historical plays is a history of historical fictions. Is historical fiction a genre that clouds or reveals historical truth? Or, if you're Shakespeare, does such fiction go beyond casting light on the past, and change the present, and the future? What did the Gunpowder Plotter think of, and then do with, Shakespeare's historical fictions? Did those plays drive them to the brink of regicide, and to a plot which, in its uncovering, and completely against their will (ha ha), assured England's destiny as a Protestant nation, sealed in its hatred and fear of Rome?

I say those plays did. But just to be safe, in case I'm called in by Star Chamber, I say it in fiction. My sixth novel, Gunpowder Percy, will be published by Bagwyn Books in March, 2016 -- a month before Shakespeare's four hundredth deathday. Read it, and judge. 


  1. Several years ago I attended a conference at Davidson College in North Carolina, where the RSC was in residence. One of the programs was a panel on historicism conducted by Stephen Greenblatt and another scholar, whose name escapes me (let's call him Less Famous Scholar, or "Les" for short). In the course of his lecture, Greenblatt read a fairly lengthy passage by a 19th Century (I believe) author who observed that it was odd that Shakespeare never once in his plays referred to the Gunpowder Plot. In the question period I asked Greenblatt to read that again, as I wanted to be sure I heard it right. He did; and I did. So I observed that the author of that statement evidently did not "remember the porter" in the Scottish Tragedy. I explained that a comment in a 1606-07 play about an "equivocator" who "committed treason enough for God's sake" must allude to the Jesuit priest Henry Garnet, who was tried and convicted in early 1606 of being in the conspiracy. During his trial he admitted to having deliberately employed equivocation to falsely deny his involvement with the plotters. Greenblatt did not reject this outright but he was skeptical. Les, his co-panelist, kindly came to my defense and said that I was "of course, obviously correct." Still, it strikes me as strange that Greenblatt, of all people, had trouble connecting the dots.

    Larry Weiss

  2. It is pretty surprising, since this is not exactly an obscure or unrecognized connection. I think what may explain it is that Greenblatt doesn't read much of what other scholars have to say. He often comes out with something, thinking it is manifestly original, when it has in fact been said before by quite a few people. It stands to reason that he would miss a lot of stuff.