Week 115: ‘Honour is Purchased By the Deeds We Do’

WP_20150803_16_37_18_ProOur dog Bingo shares an official birthday with HM Queen.  His, admittedly, is a date arrived at for slightly different reasons: less in need than Her Majesty for a date when the sun might be presumed to shine (ha!) on the public outpourings of congratulation, Bingo has rather more in common with Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear, who has an official birthday to make up for the fact that he has mislaid his own in his long travels to a new life.  While we, of course, feel honoured to have been adopted by this small and determined cocker spaniel, it is the Queen’s privilege to bestow honours from the sweetie-jar of the British array of knighthoods, dameries, and orders of this and that.  This year’s little lot have attracted the opprobrium of the ranting Brexiters, who, glittery-eyed as the madness takes hold, see evidence in the Birthday Honours that everyone’s being horrid to them and you have to be pro-EU to get a medal around here.  Well, it’s a point of view, I suppose, but it does rather miss the point that you have to earn honours by achieving something.  Unlike, for example, the drear lists of the aeons-before-yesterday third-raters driven by grudges, arrant xenophobia and an inability to comprehend (or indeed to think it worth teaching) the basics of history or economics.

So, having got that off my chest (thank you: there will undoubtedly be more despairing pro-twenty-first-century bleatings from me as we move ever more swiftly to the referendum clifftop), how does the Honours system fare in books?

Once upon a time, it seems, things were much simpler.  Some chaps were knights, principally because of their prowess at killing other people in a very sporting manner, and others were lords, principally by dint of being the sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons of other chaps who had not only been awfully good at killing people but who had impressed some king or other (himself a chap awfully good at killing people but with the added finesse of getting other chaps to do at least some of the killing for him) and been given a slightly casually carved-off chunk of  Britain to go and be mini-me in – sorry, make that ‘go and hold in the name of King Whoever’.   Presumably on the grounds of ‘keep your friends close and your enemies even closer’, many of these lords were brothers or younger sons of kings.  The whole thing is the teeniest bit testosterone-fuelled – girls only got to be ladies by marrying, or being the daughters of, knights and lords (which is one in the eye for all those mothers who told their daughters that being a lady is all about good manners and having a hankie on you at all times).  And what all this leads to, in bookish terms, is of course Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (read the fabulous translation by Simon Armitage) and Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (now I come to think about it, that’s a knight and a lord doing the writing: come on, Ma’am, a knighthood for Mr Armitage please).  It does not take a social commentator of genius to spot that the whole world of Arthurian legend is really frightfully County, where, darling, absolutely everyone knows everyone else and is titled, has a huge country estate and enjoys blood sports.  Oh, and the girls hang g and laround in inappropriately flimsy frocks and lust after the brawny chaps rather than the infinitely rarer thoughtful ones (Gawain, for example; brave and handsome and with an IQ struggling towards a whole number on the evidence of the text; or indeed Arthur himself, the last man on the planet to spot what is going on between his wife and  —  Freud-thou-shouldst-be-living-at-this-hour —  Lancelot).

All this land-owning brings us to Shakespeare.  William himself didn’t have much of it, but what he had he held, grimly moving boundary stones to gain an extra few inches on his fields in Stratford and buying the biggest house in his old home town.  But knights, lords and kings were his stock-in-trade, and his English history plays are awash with people called Suffolk, Warwick and York.  A moment’s inattention at the theatre and one can feel high and dry in a sea of people addressing each other as Leamington Spa or Chipping Sodbury, bringing about strong feelings of solidarity with Winnie the Pooh, who querulously enquired, ‘Three Cheers for Pooh! For who? Why, what did he do?’.  When you add into the heady mix the fact that there were very few Christian names to go around, you can see what a social nightmare living in Mediaeval England must have been, as exemplified in the snappy little dialogue between Queen Margaret and the Duchess of York in Richard III (it’s Act 4 Scene 4 if you’re dying to read on):


Tell o’er your woes again by viewing mine:
I had an Edward, till a Richard kill’d him;
I had a Harry, till a Richard kill’d him:
Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard kill’d him;
Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard killed him;


I had a Richard too, and thou didst kill him;
I had a Rutland too, thou holp’st to kill him.


Thou hadst a Clarence too, and Richard kill’d him.

The Queen is cheating at this point, because the Duke of Clarence (the one who gets drowned in a butt of malmsey) has a perfectly good first name, George, which has the unique selling point of being unbagged by anyone else in the play (although to be honest there are so many bit-parts for Lord This and Lord That, any one of whom might have been known to their friends and relations as ‘good old George’, that I’m afraid I did not go and look them all up for you.  Sorry).

But to end on a bright note.  The NorthernReader household has long presumed that Penelope Wilton’s Damehood must have been lost in the post.  Today, hurray and hurrah, it arrived.   To a truly great actress, congratulations.Dame Penelope Wilton


Week 24: Books about Shakespeare

shakespeare-from-cobb-and-chandosThere’s not much to go on.  A few documents, a handful of publications, some court proceedings.  Our total harvest is six signatures, and the name isn’t spelt the same way twice. And yet out of those few straws we have built our conviction that we know the man called William Shakespeare (or, if we were to take his word for it, Shakspere).

Here are the facts.  Trinity Church, Stratford upon Avon, has a baptismal register which was compiled in about 1600, transcribing records from earlier registers, that has an entry for 26th April 1564 for the baptism of ‘Guilielmus filius Johannes Shakespeare’.  The episcopal register for Worcester has an entry for 27 November 1582 recording a marriage licence for Wm Shaxpere and Annam Whateley.  The next day, William Shagspere and Anne Hathwey were married.  The couple had three children: Susanna, baptised 26 May 1583, and twins Hamnet and Judith, baptised 2 February 1585.  At the end of 1592, an actor and playwright in London makes some catty remarks about ‘the only Shake-scene’, suggesting that our man was making a name in the theatre.  In 1593, William Shakespeare publishes Venus and Adonis.  Over the next twenty years, there are spasmodic records enabling us to see him working and living in London while building up a property portfolio back in Stratford (where, incidentally, he gets done for hoarding and for moving the boundary stones between his fields and a neighbour’s).  The registers for Trinity Church in Stratford record the burial of Will Shakespeare, gent, on 25 April 1616.  Oh, yes, and then there’s that will (as in Last Will and Testament: don’t worry, Shakespeare spent his professional life making puns about his name).

You see?  He even flaunts a pen-name

You see? He even flaunts a pen-name

This is as good a place as any to state firmly that the various conspiracy theories that the plays and poems of William Shakespeare were written by the Earl of Oxford/Francis Bacon/Christopher Marlowe/Elizabeth I/Winnie-the-Pooh (all actual candidates hotly supported, sometimes by people who otherwise come across as quite well-balanced.  Alright, maybe not Winnie-the-Pooh; but it can only be a matter of time) are all nonsense.  Bunkum.  Rubbish.  Ludicrous.  The theories principally stem from the unattractively snobbish belief that a glover’s son (or possibly a butcher’s son – I did warn you we don’t know much) from the Midlands couldn’t possibly have written – well, the stuff we call Shakespeare.

So what sort of a fist have people made of writing Shakespeare’s story?  Well, the tendency has been to flesh out those meagre facts with lots of information about everyday life in Elizabethan and Jacobean England and with accounts of what we know about the practice of theatre.  If non-fiction, the result can be a history of a place and time which is more or less successfully draped around the central, rather vague, figure of Shakespeare.  For my money, the best recent stab at this has been Bill Bryson’s.  Charles Nicholl takes a more focused approach in his highly readable quite scholarly account of Shakespeare’s domestic life in London, The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street, which uses documentary evidence to reconstruct Shakespeare’s business concerns and social world.  It’s a thought-provoking reminder that this was a real person who ate and slept and shopped and had friends and neighbours.  Will in the World is another winner, largely because Stephen Greenblatt wrote it: Greenblatt is one of the most engaging, vivid and articulate of Shakespearean scholars and couldn’t be dull if he tried.

What of fiction?  George Bernard Shaw (and we must talk one day about writers who get saddled, by themselves, their parents or, even more bafflingly, by posterity, with a range of names) dashed off a one-act play called The Dark Lady of the Sonnets, which is a hoot, playing on the tiresomely concrete insistence that all poetry must be autobiographical and that therefore Shakespeare’s sonnets are no more than an embarrassingly public series of love letters.  I have to say that I’ve never quite understood why, according to this annoying theory, he is allowed to have had no trouble imagining, say, a tenth-century Scottish king or a couple of Veronese teenagers, but can only be plonkingly recording his own amours in the sonnets.

Caryl Brahms and Ned Sherrin got together to write No Bed for Bacon, a gloriously enjoyable comic romp which bears an astonishing resemblance to Tom Stoppard’s script for Shakespeare in Love a generation later.  Sherrin, ever the gentleman, must have been amused by the coincidence.  Anthony Burgess took time off from writing A Clockwork Orange to come up with both Nothing Like the Sun (which is fun but complex and elliptical to the point of archness) and   Shakespeare, a ‘speculative biography’: I’m not sure the absence of either would make this week’s bookshelf feel too hauntingly empty.

I owe discovering Jude Morgan’s The Secret Life of William Shakespeare to the Anarchist Librarian of Hexham. It had been shelved as detective fiction, where it caught my eye and persuaded me to pick it up, thinking it as interesting an angle in the increasingly crowded field of detective-fiction-with-an-historical-setting as any.  In fact, it isn’t a crime story.  What it is – and I say this as someone with reservations about Shakespeare ‘biographising’ so deep they would fit snugly in the Mariana Trench – is a triumph.  It is completely, compellingly, poetically believable.  Read it.  Tell me if you don’t find yourself thinking, ‘yup: this is him alright.’ And then – of course – go back and read the poems and the plays. As someone said to me only yesterday when I bought a cup of coffee, but this time meaningfully, enjoy.