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“He that will forget God…”

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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the queen had a most revealing conversation with William Lambarde, who had just presented her with his “Pandecta” of historical documents.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”


  1. Marian H
    October 10th, 2015 at 11:07 | #1

    Most scholars think that “He that will forget God ” etc is a reference to Essex. In staging an attempted coup against Elizabeth Essex was ” forgetting” that Monarchs at this time were considered to rule by divine right i.e God’s will – so an attempt to overthrow her would be considered forgetting God and also forgetting that she was his benefactor. The wicked imagination was his imagining he could overthrow her and using the example in Richard II to stir people up for this plan.

    After all the Richard II play was originally produced by a man called Hayward and then re-written by Shakespeare but the facts of the play come from history. At the time of Essex’s rebellion it was considered an old play but it had not been previously banned or considered dangerous. It was its commissioning by the plotters to be played just before the attempted coup against Elizabeth that made it dangerous. In the end the players were not blamed and suffered no penalty.

    • Marie Merkel
      October 11th, 2015 at 12:32 | #2

      Thanks for your comment, Marian. Most of what you say represents the orthodox view of Lambarde’s report, which will not have taken into consideration the as-yet unproven hypothesis that Edward Oxenford was the true author of Richard II. My piece approaches the famous quote from a “What if?” perspective. If the 1623 First Folio of “Shakespeare’s Collected…” had come down to us as the work of Edward Oxenford, I believe that scholars would have taken the author of Richard II to be the more troublesome object of Elizabeth’s fury, rather than Essex. Lambarde’s reply seems to hedge his bets, allowing room for her comments to apply more closely to Essex.

      If you are at all familiar with the life of Oxford, you will know that he was a disgraced figure at this point in his life, and in one of the last vivid accounts we have of his life, we find a strange refusal to even state his name. This reluctance to mention Oxford’s name is similar to the reluctance shown by both Lambarde and Elizabeth to name the person they are discussing.

      Essex was immediately arrested for his moment of rebellion, but as you astutely note, “the players were not blamed and suffered no penalty.” Essex would lose his head, and one can’t know Elizabeth and not know that she would hurt, grievously, for this awful but just verdict on the man who had played cards with her till dawn, many a time. Yet this leaves the other culprit, also responsible for her cry of “I am Richard II, know ye not that?”, who was not punished.

      If we posit Oxford as the author of the play in which she saw this disturbing portrait of herself, this anecdote would seem to reflect her continued frustration at having no easy means to silence her “monstrous adversary”. As the father of Lord Burghley’s three noble granddaughters, any public exposure of Oxford as Shakespeare would only excite public awareness of the earl’s highly personal and often cheeky dramatic “mirrors” (such as the one we find in his original use of “Oldcastle” for “Falstaff”; see Scoufos, Shakespeare’s Typological Satire). Public disgrace would cast a shadow on the future prospects of those three young girls, two of them still seeking husbands.

      We may glimpse a touch of the scholar’s uneasiness with their own orthodox consensus on this anecdote in recent attempts to discredit Lambarde’s witness.

      You wrote:

      After all the Richard II play was originally produced by a man called Hayward and then re-written by Shakespeare but the facts of the play come from history.

      You seem to be stating this as a fact, but are you quite sure that Shakespeare based his play on a “play” that was “produced” by Hayward? Perhaps you could provide a link to support this. I am aware of Hayward’s prose History of Henry IV, and that there has been speculation as to borrowing, with some scholars favoring Shakespeare inspired by Hayward, some musing that Hayward was inspired by Shakespeare. Is this what you had in mind?

  2. Carl Caruso
    September 6th, 2012 at 01:27 | #3

    @Carl Caruso

    “He that will forget God will also forget his benefactors…”

    Marie, Helen, Sarah, Michael, Linda: Thank you all for the stimulating discussion. I hadn’t known that ‘I am that I am,’ or some approximation was part of a Freemason ritual. From The Mark of the Scots,” I recall that organized Freemasonry began with a Scottish chapter ca. 1599 at a time when ‘the craft’ was disappearing on the continent of Europe. Yet I doubt if Oxford himself would have been a member, as there were no Freemason Temples in England until the eighteenth century. He was acquainted with the symbolism, however, which can be seen in the Shakespeare canon of plays.

    The point I wanted to make, though, is that those two ‘blasphemous’ instances of the phrase were not likely have been known to the Queen and her antiquary in 1600-1601.
    The Sonnets weren’t published until 1609, and the private use of the phrase was in a letter to Lord Burghley (William Cecil), wherein he was upset that his father-in-law had some of Oxford’s servants reporting on his activities and behavior. This was written shortly after he had returned from Europe. He had secretly become a Catholic in Europe, and perhaps was being careful to protect that secret, although if he thought he was being spied upon, that would have been quite enough to raise his hackles.

    Unless one can acquaint Catholicism with atheism, there is no doubt that Oxford’s conscious use of the sacred phrase was not indicative of atheism.

    The Queen of course would have had a different view of it, and after the Christmas Confession of 1580 -81, the accusations of Lord Henry Howard and his comrades would have made a lasting impression on her. Even worse, perhaps, they said he hated the Queen’s singing!

    Unless I am mistaken, Bernard Ward also seems to have other evidence about Oxford, summing up his spiritual life in one place: writing that Oxford had turned ‘to Catholicism, and then to atheism.’ Lord Burghley also equated Catholicism with atheism, and said so in a letter to one of his sons who had ‘turned Catholic’ while in Rome. ‘Serve the Queen. All else is from the devil,’ was how he put it.

    Meanwhile, those who are using similar language today might consider adding the phrase: “by the grace of God” to ‘I am what I am.’

    Yours by the grace of God,

    Carl Caruso


  3. Carl Caruso
    August 26th, 2012 at 15:30 | #4

    Thank you, Marie, for this excellent article!

  4. November 29th, 2011 at 11:55 | #5

    Marie, in my book THE SECRET LOVE STORY IN SHAKESPEARE’S SONNETS I also point out that the phrase “I am that I am” is the answer to be memorized and expressed during a Freemason ritual. Knowing that Oxford was associated with Freemasons and Rosicrucians, whereas the Stratford businessman was not, this adds another bit of information for Oxford’s candidacy.
    Helen H Gordon

  5. Sarah B.
    November 19th, 2011 at 09:26 | #6

    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.

  6. Michael M
    November 8th, 2011 at 23:42 | #7

    It’s been too long, Marie.

  7. November 7th, 2011 at 12:53 | #8

    Thanks for the delightful essay, Marie; it’s nice to hear from you : )

    • Marie Merkel
      November 8th, 2011 at 00:48 | #9

      Glad you enjoyed it, Linda.

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