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Who Wrote Prospero’s Epilogue?

February 28th, 2011 2 comments

…Now I want

Spirits to enforce: Art to inchant,

And my ending is despaire,

Unlesse I be reliev’d by praier

Which pierces so, that it assaults

Mercy it selfe, and frees all faults.

As you from crimes would pardon’d be,

Let your indulgence set me free.

The quality of mercy has a trembling, “unmistakable” resonance in both the work of Shakespeare and in the Geneva Bible owned by Edward de Vere (as my colleague William Ray points out in his comments on “The Subtlest Maze of All”).  What’s more, Elizabeth’s beheading of his cousin, Thomas Howard, 4th duke of Norfolk in 1572, just as Oxford was coming of age, must have scorched his psyche with the unbearable horror of mercy denied.

Nevertheless, when we exit the maze of The Tempest, floating on Prospero’s astoundingly Catholic epilogue, with the words “mercy“, “crimes” and “pardon” resounding in our ears, chances are that the artisan responsible for our euphoria was Ben Jonson.   In my view, Jonson trumps everyone as the best candidate for the epilogue’s exercise in octosyllabic couplets, which he used to such touching effect in his elegy “On My First Daughter“.  The evidence is, of course, circumstantial, but strong on both the biographical and literary fronts:

1. THE EPILOGUE IS CATHOLIC: For twelve years, beginning in 1598, Ben Jonson had been a practicing Catholic.  On Nov. 1, 1611, when the King’s Men performed ‘a play called The Tempest’, Ben’s abjuration of his adopted faith was still a recent, and no doubt painful divorce. Curiously, at the start of Prospero’s life story to his daughter, he emphasizes this span of time twice in one line: “Twelve year since (Miranda) twelve year since”, this being the amount of time he’s spent marooned on his enchanted island.
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2. ITS VOCABULARY MATCHES JONSON’S: Five key words in Prospero’s epilogue – fault, despair, mercy, crimes and pardon – appear in Jonson’s Elegy 38, from Underwoods, a poem which articulates the same essential themes we find in The Tempest, including the “menace of a storm” and the power “to forgive”:
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…Help, O you that may

Alone lend succours, and this fury stay.

Offended mistress, you are yet so fair,

As light breaks from you that affrights despair,

And fills my powers with persuading joy,

That you should be too noble to destroy.

There may some face or menace of a storm

Look forth, but cannot last in such a form.

If there be nothing worthy you can see

Of graces, or your mercy here in me,

Spare your own goodness yet; and be not great

In will and power, only to defeat.

God and the good know to forgive and save;

The ignorant and fools no pity have.

I will not stand to justify my fault,

Or lay th’ excuse upon the vintner’s vault;

Or in confessing of the crime be nice,

Or go about to countenance the vice,

By naming in what company ‘twas in,

As I would urge authority for sin;

No, I will stand arraign’d and cast, to be

The subject of your grace in pardoning me,

And (styled your mercy’s creature) will live more,

Your honour now, than your disgrace before…

The link between “fault” and “crime” is a natural one, of course; Shakespeare has it here and there.  But in Jonson’s case, it had a particular resonance, one that is absolutely vital to understanding why he participated in the “cover-up” of Edward de Vere’s identity as “Shakespeare”.  In 1602, he linked these two words in his postscript “To The Reader“, when protesting against those unnamed individuals who took offense to his Poetaster:

“Nor was there in it any circumstance

Which, in the setting down, I could suspect

Might be perverted by an enemy’s tongue;

Only it had the fault to be call’d mine;

That was the crime.”

Can you imagine if the miraculous Tempest had suffered the “fault” to be called “Ben: Jonson’s”?  Would anyone ever have perceived it as sublime?

3. JONSON ACTIVELY SOUGHT MERCY THAT WOULD SET HIM FREE: In 1605, while in prison due to the King’s wrath over some objectionable matter in Eastward Ho!, Ben Jonson wrote letters which document this harrowing moment in his life, including a humble plea for the king’s mercy:

“I speak not this with any spirit of contumacy, for I know there is no subject hath so safe an Innocence, but may rejoyce to stand justified in sight of his Soveraignes mercie.  To which we must humblie submytt our selves, our lives and fortunes”.

In another letter written at this time, we find him still highly aggrieved by the supposed “faults” and “crimes” that others have found in his literary works:

“I beseech your most honorable lordship, suffer not other men’s errors or faults past to be made my crimes; but let me be examined both by all my works past and this present…”

4. JONSON PIONEERED THE EPILOGUE-SPOKEN-IN-CHARACTER: As Stephen Orgel observes in his edition of The Tempest, “Prospero’s epilogue is unique in the Shakespeare canon in that its speaker declares himself not an actor in a play but a character in a fiction.”

Unique perhaps for Shakespeare’s Tempest (pub. 1623), but not for Ben Jonson (as Orgel should know!), who has his “Fox” step forward to speak for himself, in character, at the end of Volpone (pub. 1606).  Again, in The Tempest’s inverted twin, The Alchemist (pub. 1612), we find that Jonson has his linked pair of master and servant,  “Lovewit” and “Face”, speak the epilogue in character.

I’ve been asked many times, “Why would Ben Jonson write The Tempest and not claim credit for this masterpiece?”  In Chapter 30 of his dissertation, Roger Stritmatter reveals the “treasure hunt” aspect of The Tempest’s place in the First Folio.  His insights highlight precisely what I believe Jonson had in mind:

I argue that the positioning of The Tempest as the opening movement in the folio substantiates these anti-Stratfordian speculations that the folio is not what it seems to be. If readers are “set off on a treasure hunt for the author” [emphasis added] by the folio’s introductory matter, they discover a literary emblem of that author in the opening play — the exiled magistrate and magus Prospero. Placed here, as an “entry code” to the folio, The Tempest becomes an allegory of the intimate relation between life and art as seen through the “Oxfordian” interpretation of the canon. Placed here, the play foreshadows and legitimizes the deceit required by the Folio itself. The destruction of Prospero’s book becomes the pretext for the action of the folio editors in hoaxing the literary public with the Droeshout engraving. This “sealing up,” or “drowning” of the text enfolded it within a myth of authorship.

“As You From Crimes Would Pardoned Be”

This sounds quite promising to me.  Not only is The Tempest a guide to the First Folio hoax, its author intentionally set out to create a literary labyrinth, one in which the properly initiated pilgrim may discover the truth of how and why Edward de Vere, 17th earl of Oxford became exiled from his dukedom.  But you won’t read that story aright till you’ve entered the maze of the right Prospero – and his Minotaur.

~ Marie Merkel

“The Subtlest Maze of All”

February 20th, 2011 4 comments

Once more, into the labyrinth: When was The Tempest written?  Whether you ask this question from an Oxfordian, Stratfordian, Jonsonian or non-aligned Shakespearean perspective, there is only one absolutely certain answer:

The Tempest was written sometime before its first publication in 1623.

Though scholars seldom linger long on this unsatisfactory terminus ante quem, the plain truth is that whatever play King James and his court enjoyed on Nov. 1, 1611, IT MAY NOT HAVE BEEN THE SAME, in all respects, as The Tempest that took pride of place twelve years later in the First Folio.  With no prior text for comparison, we can’t rule out the possibility of authorial revision, additions by unattributed “co-authors”, editorial intrusions by Ralph Crane or Ben Jonson, or in-house modifications by the players themselves, however uncomfortable these unknown variables leave us.  Therefore, the “rhetoric and logic of academic discourse” (Roger Stritmatter’s phrase) we adopt for examining any aspect of the play contingent upon this elusive date should reflect this basic limitation on our knowledge.

My theory – that Ben Jonson was primarily responsible for The Tempest of 1623 – posits an intentional correspondence between The Alchemist (published 1612) and its near-perfect inversion, The Tempest, (documented as performed twice at court,  in 1611 and 1613).  With this premise in mind, it is probably no coincidence that Jonson himself provides an earlier terminus ante quem for The Tempest when he embeds the date of the initial performance of Bartholomew Fair within the text of his play.  Onthe one and thirtieth day of October, 1614″, he tells us,  – the day before Hallowmas, that is – he offered the public a rambunctious farce, one in which he seems to cast aspersions on The Tempest that had been performed for the Hallowmas festivities of 1611:

If there be never a servant monster i’ the Fair, who can help it, he says, nor a nest of antics?  He is loath to make nature afraid in his plays, like those that beget tales, tempests, and suchlike drolleries, to mix his head with other men’s heels; let the concupiscence of jigs and dances reign as strong as it will amongst you.

If the documents of court performances in 1611 and 1613 had not survived, Jonson’s sly but unmistakable allusions to Caliban and Trinculo under the gabardine would have been the strongest indication available to scholars that The Tempest must have been written before 1614 – except for one pesky detail.  This play, too, was not published until much later, in 1631.

Yes, we do have a record of Bartholomew Fair played at court on Hallowmas, the following day, confirming Jonson’s internal date.  However, we have no text or manuscript dated 1614 to prove that Jonson’s embedded references to servant monsters and tempests were in the play performed on that day.  When we accept this covert allusion as evidence in dating The Tempest, we do so on faith.  Jonson’s complete overhaul of Every Man in His Humour for publication in his 1616 Collected Works should keep us alert to the chance that he may have inserted something new into the text, convenient to his own purposes.

On the other hand, if we can be certain that no one has monkeyed with the 1612 publication date for The Alchemist (as Thomas Pavier did with his false dating of Shakespearean quartos in 1619), I believe that this play will eventually yield the surest terminus ante quem, or date before which The Tempest must have been written.  David Lucking has already begun the work, with the intriguing correspondences between the two plays that he revealed in 2004 (“Carrying Tempest in his Hand and Voice: The Figure of the Magician in Jonson and Shakespeare“).  When his project is carried forward to cover every act in both plays, those who play The Tempest’s Dating Game may begin to shift their focus away from Strachey’s letter and onto Jonson’s securely-dated Alchemist.

Now for the other side of the question: What is the earliest possible date that anyone could have written The Tempest?  Here, the terminus post quem theories become infinitely more subjective and nebulous.  However, the paper I delivered at the Shakespeare Symposium in Watertown (“Caliban’s Dream and Shakespeare’s Purge”, May 2010) offered strong evidence that the author of The Tempest drew on the play Satiromastix, published in 1602.  Solely on the basis of Caliban and Prospero’s debt to Captain Tucca (a character who appears in Jonson’s Poetaster and reappears in Satiromastix), I am certain that The Tempest must have been written after these two plays of 1601, which were furiously rushed into print by 1602.

Richard Malim’s theory that the mysterious Tragedy of the Spanish Maze, played at court on Shrove Monday, (February 11, 1605) was really The Tempest is truly tempting, especially from my point of view.  Five months after Edward Oxenford’s lonely death on June 24, 1604 – a death for which not one recorded soul shed a tear or wrote an open, sincere epitaph – the court of King James began its Christmas Revels season with a Hallowmas production of Othello, followed by six additional plays attributed to “Shaxberd”.

Curiously, the only other playwright included in this Shax-fest was Ben Jonson, whose two famous comedies, first Every Man Out of His Humour and then Every Man In His Humour, served as bridges between performances of Henry V , Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Merchant of Venice.  As Malim wisely observes:

Why [Every Man Out of His Humour] was chosen baffles the orthodox professor Peter Thomson, but its clear caricatures of both Shakespeare and Oxford, and the demonstration of the relationship between them, readily explain why the choice was made: to keep the record straight.

Just imagine!  A third, new play, written by Benjamin Jonson specifically for this Shrovetide occasion honoring his beloved “Shakespeare”, the master-poet who gave him that humiliating “purge”.  Here’s his auspicious chance to have Lean Macilente (who’d just appeared onstage in Every Man Out of His Humour) bid a Lenten farewell to the Lord of Misrule embodied by dark, dishonest Iago and merry Sir John Falstaff – ah, heart be still!  I confess, this theory sounds terribly, seductively reasonable to me.

Even the title fits Jonson all too well, making it almost impossible to resist.  Poor Ben, the apprentice Bricklayer, had been publicly scorned in Satiromastix for his rugged acting in The Spanish Tragedy. And his Masque of Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue shows what a strong hold the figure of the labyrinth had on his poetic imagination.  “The Subtlest Maze of All”, a phrase from this masque, is the subtitle of Robert Wiltenburg’s Ben Jonson and Self-Love (1990).  Yes, indeed, there’s solid ore to mine in this vein.

And yet…and yet…alas!  I’m afraid I have to agree with R. Chris Hassel, who faced a similar temptation when imagining the possible relevance of the “lost play” A historie of the crueltie of a stepmother (1578) to his excellent thesis:

However interesting these early parallels might seem, they are finally, of course, inconclusive without an actual play.

~Marie Merkel

Sir John Falstaff vs. Lean Macilente

February 5th, 2011 4 comments

A Movable Feast: The Liturgical Symbolism and Design of The Tempest

by Roger Stritmatter and Lynne Kositsky

Shakespeare Yearbook, Vol. XVII, 2010

So much depends on an impossible-to-answer question: When was The Tempest written?  Oxfordian scholars Roger Stritmatter and Lynne Kositsky have just posted what they believe to be “the most important” in their series of published articles challenging the assumption that Shakespeare wrote The Tempest not long before Hallowmas night, 1611, when The King’s Men performed a play by that name for James and his court at Whitehall.

I agree.  This is the most important of the six pieces that Stritmatter and Kositsky have so far published, for the delightful reason that it’s the first in which they’ve allowed Ben Jonson his place within The Tempest’s rarefied circle of “measured harmonies”.  As a specialist who “understands [the paradoxical merging of pleasure and virtue]“, Jonson even earns a spot in their concluding paragraph:

Evidence adduced in the present essay shows that both the symbolism and design of The Tempest are explicable on the premise that the play was written for a Shrovetide performance.  Indeed, so rich and detailed are the associations between Shrovetide and Lenten practices and the design of Shakespeare’s play that it may safely be concluded that it was in fact written, as R. Christopher Hassel has said of Jonson’s epiphany masques and Twelfth Night, “with the major outlines of the festival season firmly in mind”.

Once again, I agree, but this time with a few reservations.  For all we know, The Tempest may not have been written specifically for an upcoming Shrovetide performance, such as that on “Shrovmonday” of 1604/5, when The Spanish Maze appeared and then disappeared.  And the play’s undercurrent of Lenten imagery doesn’t necessarily rule out its necromantic relevance to a Hallowmas night performance. This seems to me the weakest portion of their essay, with insufficient quotations from the scholars whose theories they dismiss as “incorrect”, and no mention of John B. Bender’s essay, “The Day of the Tempest” (ELH, 1980).  Nevertheless, I do think that the authors have tapped into an aspect of the play’s allegoric design that now seems incredibly obvious, after they’ve pointed out the clues.  Here’s one vivid example:

Among the most popular emblems of the season was Jack-a-Lent, a puppet made from a Leek and a Herring and set up on Ash Wednesday as a scapegoat for the deprivations experienced at Lent.  Decorated with herrings, and pelted with missiles he became “both a manifest and a ubiquitous symbol of the long period of austerity and at the same [time?] operated as a kind of safety valve.”  Caliban’s likeness to this “ubiquitous” Lenten scapegoat, half man and half fish, hardly requires emphasis.

If, indeed, the author saturated his scenes with Shrovetide and Lenten imagery and philosophy, how does this fresh insight affect our view of The Tempest from the Oxfordian perspective?

The answer isn’t immediately apparent in “A Moveable Feast”, since Stritmatter and Kositsky’s arguments for a Shrovetide-Tempest never require a mention of Edward de Vere.  “Shakespeare’s” great rival, however, just happens to come in for a lion’s share of their Shrovetide references.  When collected in one place, Ben Jonson’s résumé in the field of Shrovetide and Lenten entertainment and commentary is quite impressive, as witnessed by these quotes from “A Moveable Feast”:

On p. 338:

“In Time Vindicated (1622) Ben Jonson has Fame denounce “lawless Prentices, on Shrove Tuesday” who “compel the Time to serve their riot:/ for drunken Wakes and strutting Beare-baitings, that savour only of their own abuses.”

On p. 346, a reference to The Haddington Masque:

…the title page of Ben Jonson’s 1608 Shrovetide production celebrating the wedding of Viscount Haddington to Lady Elizabeth Ratcliffe, illustrates the traditional association” [of Shrovetide and marriage masques].

In footnote 41, p. 366:

Jonson’s Chloridia, a 1630 Shrovetide masque [which, like The Tempest] also features Juno and Iris as prominent characters.

In footnote 63, p. 368:

The prologue to Staple of News, a play thought to have been written for Shrovetide, emphasizes the connection between the festival and “merrymaking”: “I am Mirth, the daughter of Christmas, and Spirit of Shrovetide.  They say, It’s merry when Gossips meet; I hope your Play will be a merry one!

In footnote 91, p. 370:

The association between Shrovetide and the labyrinth is conventional in early modern drama and would have been readily recognized by Shakespeare’s audience.  Daedalus even appears as the narrative voice of Jonson’s Shrovetide masque, For the Honour of Wales, constructing a knot so cunningly interwoven that “ev’n th’observer scarce may know/Which lines are pleasure’s and which are not” (225-27)  and R. Chris Hassel calls him the “most important interpreter of the Shrovetide festivities” (132) , one who “understands [the paradoxical merging of pleasure and virtue] better than any …subsequent interpreters of this Shrovetide tradition” (129).

One play NOT mentioned by the authors, but with immense relevance to any study of Edward de Vere and/or The Tempest, is Jonson’s Every Man Out of His Humor. Not only do we find Jonson building his plot within a merry Shrovetide context, but in the 1601 Quarto of the play, the rascal slyly hitches his play to the turnip-cart of Shakespeare’s Gargantuan hero:

Marry, I will not do as Plautus, in his Amphitryo, for all this: Summi Iovis causa, plaudite:  beg a plaudit for god’s sake.  But if you (out of the bounty of your good liking) will bestow it, why, you may (in time) make lean Macilente as fat as Sir John Falstaff.

The evidence offered in “A Moveable Feast” puts a new spin on this passage.  What does Shakespeare’s fat Falstaff represent for Ben Jonson, and his lean and mean Macilente?   The excess of Carnival vs. the sobriety of Lent?  Purses swollen by the hilarious misrule of London’s infamous “Vice” vs. the empty pockets and hungry rumblings of a Virtuous Poet?  Sir Epicure Mammon vs. Surly Caliban?  Subtle the Alchemist vs. Prospero?  Once again, whether we want him or not, Ben Jonson offers himself as the savviest guide to the mysteries of The Tempest.

~*~*~

NOTE: Two small errors that the authors may wish to correct in their online text:  “6 Nov. 1611″ as the date for the first recorded performance of The Tempest (p. 341) and the attribution to Sebastian of Antonio’s very strange and final words of the play: “A plain fish, and no doubt marketable.” (p. 345-6)