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“I am that I am” says William Shakespeare…

November 19th, 2011 5 comments

Then Moses said vnto god, Behold, when I shall come vnto the children of Israel, and shall say vnto them, the god of your fathers hath sent me vnto you: if they say vnto me, What is his name? what shall I say vnto them?

And God answered Moses, I Am That I Am.  Also he said, thus shalt thou say vnto the children of Israel, I Am hath sent me vnto you.

Exodus 3: 13-14, Geneva Bible 1599

Many thanks to Sarah B. for her useful comment on my last post, “He that will forget God”:

“Your odd leap from the Richard conversation to the “I am who I am” thing seems illogical. The phrase doesn’t figure anywhere in the conversation.”

You’re right, Sarah, I did take quite a leap, depending more on innuendo and intuition than straight exposition and fact.  But I do appreciate your expectation of logic, and will try to add a few stepping stones to make it easier to follow what I only suggested a few weeks ago:

1). Elizabeth characterized the person responsible for portraying her as Richard the Second as “He that will forget God.”

2). A person who uses God’s own phrase, “I am that I am” without remembering that he or she is what they are by the grace of God has, quite literally, forgotten God.

3).  William Shakespeare, who was not brought to trial, or even brought in for questioning regarding his bit part in the Essex Rebellion, forgot to mention God when he said “I am that I am” in Sonnet 121.  Edward de Vere also forgot to mention God when he proclaimed himself “I am that I am” in a personal letter admonishing his father-in-law.

4). Therefore, William Shakespeare and Edward de Vere – two praised dramatists with well-documented ties to the London theater world -  both qualify for consideration as the subject of Lambarde and Elizabeth’s conversation, that unnamed he of the “wicked imagination”, aka “he that will forget God.”

Edward de Vere seems to hold the better claim, being a creature “made” by Elizabeth, who granted him a thousand pounds a year when he was bankrupt, for naught but keeping state in respectable style, so as to uphold the outward awe of England’s nobility.  And yet, if the earl of Oxford had anything at all to do with William Shakespeare and his poetry, by way of collaboration or subversion, for some reason, he neglected to claim responsibility for his contributions.  Perhaps like “Captain Tucca” of Satiromastix, he was content to let others take “the guilt of conscience” for his dramatic devices.

Of course, Elizabeth may have had many other manifestations of forgetting God in mind, when voicing her ire towards the gentleman with the “wicked imagination”.  She may have found evidence of a proud, humanist spirit in Shakespeare’s plays.  She may have recognized the perplexing impossibility of assessing Shakespeare’s true faith from reading his tragedies, histories and comedies.  She may have looked in vain for humble praise of God or adoration of Jesus Christ in Shakespeare’s published poems.

Did Elizabeth know of Shakespeare’s use of the phrase, “I am that I am”?  Perhaps, perhaps not, since his “sugared sonnets” may have been circulating among a circle of friends that didn’t include her Majesty.  And yet, that circle quite likely included Richard Barnfield, a friend of Meres, and intimate of high-society figures such as Penelope Rich (sister of Essex) and William Stanley, earl of Derby.  Barnfield’s saucy and salacious poem of 1596, brashly entitled Cynthia and dedicated to the queen, certainly caused more than a passing frown of consternation.  It isn’t hard to imagine that someone who had Shakespeare’s private sonnets in hand, sonnets that were being eagerly read among a privileged coterie, would have enjoyed sharing such charming booty with the ever-romantic Virgin Queen.

As for Edward de Vere’s “I am that I am” assertion, Elizabeth’s “spirit”, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, may have felt it his duty to let her majesty know of the incredibly arrogant letter he’d received from her proud subject.  As a devout man with Puritan inclinations, Lord Burghley would have immediately recognized the theological implications of de Vere’s usurping God’s sacred name for his own, tawdry ends.   Chances are he would have felt compelled to issue a stiff corrective to such presumption.

This, I believe, is what actually happened.  Shortly after Burghley received this letter, a legal complaint was allowed to proceed in which Edward de Vere’s legitimacy came under intense scrutiny.  Incredibly embarrassing details about John de Vere’s erratic love life were made public, including a lurid tale about the rape and mutilation of the 16th earl of Oxford’s second, bigamous wife, Joan Jockey.  Both Elizabeth and Burghley had the power to squash these proceedings, but did not.  Could it be that they both agreed that Edward de Vere needed a bit more humbling?  (For more on the connections between Oxford’s letters to his father-in-law Burghley, and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 121, see Robert Detobel’s short essay, “I am that I am”).

In any case, Elizabeth didn’t need to see this letter to know Edward de Vere as “He that will forget God”.   Twenty years before her conversation with Lambarde, she’d read the testimony of de Vere’s cousin Henry Howard, and his former friend, Charles Arundel.  To back up the accuracy of what they say that Oxford said, these men called as witness Lord Windsor, Mr. Russell and Walter Ralegh.  Elizabeth could and probably did ask each of these men if Oxford really did indulge in such talk:

…his most horrible and detestable blasphemy in denial of the divinity of Christ, our Saviour, terming the Trinity as a fable, that Joesph was a wittold, and the Blessed Virgin a whore.  (see Monstrous Adversary, Alan H. Nelson, p. 210)

BTW, I’d appreciate hearing from anyone who has read Jonathan Bate’s discussion of Elizabeth’s conversation with Lambarde (Soul of the Age, 2009), and can either comment on his challenge to the authenticity of the record, or fill in some of the gaps from those pages unavailable on Google books!

“He that will forget God…”

November 7th, 2011 7 comments

For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.  ~Matthew 24:24

What a thrice-double ass was I to take this drunkard for a god, and worship this dull fool. ~ Caliban


In a charming interview last spring Harold Bloom, the world-famous scholar, bibliophile and unapologetic Bardolator proclaimed “If Shakespeare isn’t God then I don’t know what God is.”  Now there’s a bold, new answer to the Shakespeare Authorship Question!  Enough already of chasing after drunkards and dull fools like “Truer than true” Edward de Vere, or his mild-mannered ventriloquist, William Shakespeare.  If Shakespeare isn’t “Shakespeare”, then who else could he possibly be but…  I AM THAT I AM?

What would Ben Jonson have thought of such idolatry, I wonder?  Jonson wrote and published only one new play – The Devil is an Asse -  for the year of William Shakespeare’s demise in 1616.  No eulogy for the dead poet, no epigram or epitaph, nothing like the gracious and heartfelt lines he penned for the loss of his satiric comrade, Thomas Nashe.  Come to think of it, why are both William Shakespeare and Edward de Vere never mentioned by name in Jonson’s Collected Works of 1616?  Perhaps Honest Ben was still smarting from the humiliating “purge” that Shakespeare had given him, way back in the Poet’s War of 1597-1601.  Lest we forget, that war began (as Captain Tucca tells us in Satiromastix) with Jonson’s imprisonment and interrogation by Richard Topcliffe, for his part in writing The Isle of Dogs.

While we’re wondering about idolatry, what would that earthly goddess, Elizabeth Regina, have thought of Bloom’s take on God and Shakespeare?  Though rarely mentioned in biographies of the Bard, there does exist a moment in the historical record that brings William Shakespeare very close to Elizabeth Tudor – closer than anything else scholars have found after centuries of searching the archives.  A few months after the Essex Rebellion of 1601, the queen had a most revealing conversation with William Lambarde, who had just presented her with his “Pandecta” of historical documents.  Upon turning to the reign of Richard II, Elizabeth paused, and exclaimed:

“I am Richard the Second, know ye not that?”

To which Lambarde diplomatically replied:

“Such a wicked imagination was determined and attempted by a most unkind gentleman, the most adorned creature that ever your Majesty made.”

Elizabeth shot back:

“He that will forget God will also forget his benefactors.  This tragedy was played forty times in open streets and houses.”

So, where is Shakespeare in this tense exchange, you might ask?  Well, he should be securely right there in the first line, with Elizabeth’s indignant question to Lambarde.   After all, we know that the rebels had commissioned the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to perform Richard II on the eve of their monumentally stupid rebellion.  With this well-documented background knowledge, even the most cautious scholar may legitimately infer that Elizabeth had found in Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard the deposed king a mirror of her own self as a disposable queen.

If William Shakespeare and no one else was responsible for writing this play, then it stands to reason that William Shakespeare and no one else was responsible for whatever impudent insinuations the queen found in his tragedy of Richard the Second.  Lambarde’s reply, however,  suggests that while he knew just who the queen had in mind, that man clearly was not “Shakespear ye player” from Stratford-on-Avon.

Given that Robert Devereaux, the recently beheaded earl of Essex, certainly qualifies as one of Elizabeth’s adorned and made creatures, historians have generally assumed that Lambarde must have held Essex, rather than Shakespeare, responsible for something – perhaps for staging “forty times in open streets and houses” this potentially seditious play.  But what about that “wicked imagination”?  Wouldn’t that belong, not to the man (or men) who had conspired to use the play for treasonous ends, but to the poet who had initially created this unkind dramatic image of England’s aging Gloriana?

There’s no denying that the author of Richard II is somehow implicated in this conversation.  And yet, nothing really adds up, does it?  Lambarde and Elizabeth obviously know something that we don’t.  Just as obviously, something in Shakespeare’s play cut Elizabeth to the quick.  With her unique intelligence and harrowing experiences as a monarch, Elizabeth had the heart and soul to know Shakespeare and to comprehend his dramatic revisions of English history better than anyone else alive at that time.

This conversation with Lambarde documents an astounding moment, when the queen of England allowed her servant to see through the unique window she possessed into the soul of that “most unkind gentleman”, he of the “wicked imagination”.  The person responsible for imagining her as Richard the Second was someone she knew well, someone whom she herself had uniquely “made” and “adorned”.

For her, this unnamed individual who hurt her so was “he that will forget God.”

In the historical records of Elizabethan England, we find two men – William Shakespeare and Edward de Vere – who used the phrase I AM THAT I AM – God’s own name, as revealed to Moses (Exodus 3:14) – without remembering to add “by the grace of God”.

“He that will forget God”