“He that will forget God…”
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the queen had a most revealing conversation with William Lambarde, who had just presented her with his “Pandecta” of historical documents.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”.