S&TH: Shakespeare’s Alphabet

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Shakespeare’s Alphabet


In Elizabeth’s England, (and therefore, within Shakespeare’s Globe) the word “alphabet” meant somewhat more than your basic ABCs. An English spy embedded in the court of Spain and suddenly burdened with red-hot top-secret information (concerning, in one infamous case, a young man claiming to be the queen’s bastard son, Arthur Dudley) would wait until he had his “alphabet” at hand to encode the more troublesome details.1

The more power a society gives to its censors, the more deliberate obfuscation an artist will give back with interest to the commonwealth when he decides to tell a dangerous truth. After Lavinia had her tongue cut out, she communicated through signs; in a later revision to Titus Andronicus, (Act III, ii. only found in the First Folio) the author has Titus promise the poor girl that “by still practice” he will “learn to know thy meaning.”

Shakespeare certainly possessed the theatrical know-how to devise his own “alphabet” of winks and nods, intelligible to those who trust the rare brilliance of his mind and pay close attention to his words and contexts. In offering the following guide to the author’s modus operandi, I fully expect that you, dear reader, may hesitate to trust the rare brilliance of my mind (my mother does enough of that!) However, as you review this “alphabet” with appropriate skepticism, a moderate suspension of disbelief will get us through the first few chapters and all of Act I. By then, you should begin to see with what precision the history of the Howards and the play converge. So that his art might not be “tongue-tied by authority,” it seems to me that Shakespeare used these seven dramatic techniques, explained below, to disguise his political satire upon the life and times of the beheaded poet, Henry Howard:

1st: The Cover Story

2nd: Cunning Ambiguity

3rd: Twins or Split Persons

4th: History Rhymes

5th: Ovid’s Metamorphic

6th: Exits and Entrances as Transformers

7th: Temporal Enjambment, or the Disunities of Time and Place

Like political satires of today, one must follow the news to catch the clever quip. Only those of Will’s audience who knew the political landscape of the times like their own backyard could follow the playwright’s acrobatic wit and elusive irony in sending up the vices and follies of the Tudors in his first published play.

In essence, my starting premise implies that William Shakespeare, a young man from the country on the threshold of his stellar poetic trajectory, dared to challenge the Queen of England’s conscience through words performed onstage. Before dismissing the idea as preposterous, one should remember that the author of Hamlet apparently had no problem imagining such a scene, anticipating its reception, and reveling in its execution:

Fye upon ‘t: Foh.  About my Braine.

I have heard, that guilty Creatures sitting at a Play

Have by the very cunning of the Scene

Bene strooke so to the soule, that presently

They have proclaim’d their Malefactions.

For Murther, though it have no tongue, will speake

With most myraculous Organ. Ile have these Players,

Play something like the murder of my Father,

Before mine Uncle. Ile observe his lookes,

Ile tent him to the quicke: If he but blench,

I know my course…

…The Play’s the thing,

Wherein Ile catch the Conscience of the King.

Shakespeare the playwright imagined a prince observing the king as the king observed his cunning play. Imagine Shakespeare the actor at court, if he ever had the chance to perform some part in his first tragedy before the queen and her lords and ladies, in the aftermath of Philip Howard’s trial. How many times would his eyes dart to her face, to search for proof that his barbed lines had scored a palpable hit?

As imagined earlier, Elizabeth, like the King in Hamlet, might have turned, after ten or fifteen minutes of the first act, to the earl of Sussex (or Derby or Pembroke or the Lord Chamberlain himself) and sharply inquired, “Have you heard the Argument, is there no Offense in it?” Shakespeare has Hamlet merrily respond, dismissing his Mousetrap as “a knavish peece of worke” that cannot touch “wee that have free soules.”

This is all well and good for the free soul of a born prince. But what if the queen beheld onstage “something like the murder,” so to speak, of Philip Howard’s father and grandfather, demanded to know who was responsible, and the author found himself hauled into the Star Chamber for questioning? What witty retort would be sufficient to both calm and confound his inquisitors? Flushed with success, yet anxious to turn all eyes away from his culpability, Shakespeare’s Prince patters on nervously, and midstream spills the First Technique of the playwright’s subversive method:

He poysons him i’ th’ Garden for’s estate: His name’s Gonzago: the Story is extant, and writ in choyce Italian. You shall see anon how the Murtherer gets the love of Gonzago’s wife.

Hamlet speaks a strangely garbled truth here. Although no such story in “choice Italian” has been found, there does exist, among the annals of the Italian nobility, the 1538 case of the murdered duke of Urbino, in which the chief suspect, Luigi Gonzaga, (not spelled, as in the play, with a final “o”) supposedly hired an accomplice to pour poison in the duke’s ear.2 Neither man had a “Baptista” for wife; however an earlier duke of Urbino married one Battista Sforza; their matched portraits by Piero della Francesco hang side-by-side today in the Uffizi.

Did the playwright work from a faulty source, now lost? Or did he deliberately invert the choice details, signaling to an audience who knew the true story of Urbino’s murder that Hamlet has turned the truth inside out for some expository purpose now lost to us? For an educated Elizabethan audience, the name “Gonzago” would call to mind Baldesar Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano, an idealized “remembrance of things past”3 from the Urbino court of Duke Guidobaldo (who died in 1508) and his gracious and intelligent wife, Elisabetta Gonzaga.

Travelers to Italy from Elizabeth Tudor’s court would likely return with the correct facts concerning such a fascinating coda to Castiglione’s enchanting memoirs; surely someone would smell a rat in Hamlet’s excuse for his Mousetrap. Anticipating Emily Dickinson’s sage poetic advice, the prince tells the truth about his “extant” story, but tells it slant.

It may be that Shakespeare filched the idea of citing a phantom Italian story to evade responsibility for an offensive piece of writing from another of his literary predecessors, George Gascoigne. After protest from someone on high following the first publication of An Hundreth Sundrie Flowres in 1573, Gascoigne invented an Italian named “Bartello” as author of the non-existent tale upon which he supposedly based The Adventures of F.I.,his risqué novella of courtly romance.4

Before embarking on Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare seems to have sifted through his or someone else’s library until he found two or three “extant” stories to transform, giving him cover for his mousetrap, a technique he documented and immortalized in Hamlet. As Alan Hughes, editor of the New Cambridge Titus Andronicus, reminds us, “Shakespeare is unlikely to have invented [this] story; his only original plots are found in comedy… For tragedy and history plays, he and his fellow dramatists turned to historians… old plays… or to the Italian novella, which the Titus story resembles.”5

The first extant “story” he certainly utilized is the rape of Philomela, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, (translated from Latin to English by Arthur Golding in 1565). Shakespeare makes sure we don’t miss the importance of this connection by having the boy Lucius come running onstage at the opening of Act IV with that very book in his hands.

A second story, derived from Matteo Bandello’s Italian Novelle (1554) and translated into French by Francois de Belleforest in his Histories Tragiques (1570) told of a cruel Moor who rapes his master’s wife. When the husband returns home from hunting and finds his wife and two boys captive to the Moor, he begs the rapist to spare their lives.

The Moor agrees, provided his master will cut off his own nose, yet when the husband does so, he kills the boys and laughs at his wicked deeds. Shakespeare needn’t have assumed a knowledge of Italian or French in his audience, as an English version of this grotesque tale appeared simultaneously with the French.6

As for Shakespeare’s Rome, on the surface, it seems no more than an invented amalgamation of the whole epoch’s politics, peppered with authentic Roman names. However, C. C. Huffman has located some of the confusing Roman material of the play, (such as the non-historic portrayal of Bassianus as the good younger brother) in an English source well known to Shakespeare and every student of Shakespeare’s history plays – Holinshed’s Chronicles.7

Oddly enough, an anonymous eleven-page fable exists, entitled The Tragical History of Titus Andronicus, &c, which combines all of these stories and most certainly has some relation to Shakespeare’s play. Whether this piece is the chicken (primary source of play) or the egg (written afterwards, inspired by the play) has been a matter of some dispute. I tend towards seeing it as Shakespeare’s primary source, (see Appendix A) but since we don’t have proof that the prose History circulated in Elizabethan times, when I refer to it now and then it will be as the “probable source” of the play.

Once the playwright had the first element of his cipher, the cover story, in hand, the next step would be to match his characters (possibly from the prose History) to the real persons whose lives he wished to portray. The challenge here would be to balance his clues to the identity of each with just enough camouflage to sail his drama past the censors and protect him from charges of libel. Ambiguity, the deliberate arrangement of words so that two or more separate meanings perplex and entice a reader at once, naturally became the Second Technique of the playwright’s method.

On one level, every line in the play should make sense within the ostensible story of the old Roman warrior. Only when one is alert to a hidden story will the words be capable of a second interpretation. “Nor wrong mine age with this indignitie,” the eighth line of the play, is an important example of this ambiguity, where “mine age” seems to refer to the speaker’s rights as the eldest brother. However, if cued to the presence of a dissident story, the phrase might refer instead to the speaker’s remarkably vulnerable youth. As we will see, both Henry VIII (aged 17 upon ascension to the throne in 1509) and his son, Edward VI, (aged 11 upon ascension in 1547) might have protested the recorded indignity of their elders, squabbling amongst themselves to take advantage of these two inexperienced young kings.

Shakespeare’s next problem involved a logistical quandary. The Dramatis Personae for the story told within Shakespeare and the Howards will encompass more than thirty major and minor characters essential to a full exposé of the Howard/Tudor tragedy. Yet how many matching prototypes could the playwright squeeze into the brief framework of an afternoon at the theater? When a play has more characters than a troupe has players, some doubling of parts becomes necessary, especially for minor parts, such as a nurse or messenger.

Shakespeare appears to have added a second layer of doubling, perhaps inspired by the doubles found in the lives of the 2nd and 3rd dukes of Norfolk. Both of these warriors were named Thomas, both faithfully served their king forty years, both were considered potential competitors for the crown, and both survived the king’s suspicions to die peacefully at the age of four score and upwards. A second set of doubles followed them quite naturally: the heir to their house, Henry Howard, possessed a great friend, also named Henry, and the two inseparable companions married young ladies within half a year of each other, while all were still in their teens. With carefully chosen words, he could roll the two old men named Thomas into one Titus; the two Henries can begin as Bassianus, while their young wives share the person of Lavinia. This doubling of persons is the Third Technique of his method. As readers of The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night well know, Shakespeare was nearly infatuated with the concept of twins. With characteristic fecundity, he begins with three sets of them to play with in Titus, and manages to produce several more before the final act.

The doubling did not stop there: for most of the recorded traumas that Shakespeare represents in Titus, he discovered a second, similar event within the Howard/Tudor family annals to serve as its twin. One is usually less provocative or daring than the other, which he may have written for additional cover. Most of Act I details the ascension of Saturninus to power in Rome, in ways that mirror the political situation in 1513, a few years after Henry VIII ascended the throne, AND the troubles that preceded the ascension of his underage son, Edward VI.

Not many citizens, high or low, would still nurse a grievance over those undignified power plays at the turn of the century, but Henry VIII’s judicial murder of the poet earl of Surrey, a week before his own death in January of 1547 was another affair. Four of the earl’s five children were still alive in 1589, and none of them was likely to ever forget the wrongful beheading of their father. Throughout the play, Shakespeare presents scenes that mirror troublesome historical situations, always couched in ambiguous language that efficiently allows for a second interpretation of a similar episode involving the Howards. History’s uncanny propensity not to repeat itself, but to rhyme, sometimes even in couplets, became the basis for the Fourth Technique of his dramatic “alphabet”.

The Fifth Technique Shakespeare imbibed as a boy adrift in the midst of Arthur Golding’s free-flowing translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In some region between the clouds and pages lit by the pale sun of a winter’s afternoon, a hunter suddenly turns into a hunted deer, a maiden pursued slips away into a tree, and a god magnificently descends into a swan.

Though the profession of acting depends on flexible individuals who can turn and become someone else, Shakespeare extended this principal of allowed deception by turning the characters within his play. Titus may be introduced with language that calls to mind the hero of Flodden Field, but his creator knew that a few, precise words, in the appropriate context, would turn him into Henry VIII. I’d spent months puzzling over why Titus seemed so much like both the 2nd and 3rd dukes of Norfolk, yet certainly neither one had ever sponsored a religious human sacrifice, such as Henry VIII’s sacrifice of the Carthusian Monks. One day it finally dawned on me how quickly Shakespeare’s audience could conceive and then appreciate the irony of Titus-as-Thomas seeming to take the blame for the king’s atrocities. If he were truly bold, a good actor could take it one-step further, with a subtle onstage metamorphosis that changes the obsequious old warrior Thomas Howard into his imperious master, Henry VIII.

Sometimes Shakespeare works this metamorphic magic with a single exclamation that identifies an earldom, or a well-chosen adjective used in the manner Virgil or Homer employed to tag a character’s personality. An actor who finds these verbal cues could shift his demeanor appropriately, just as a gifted mimic can give us George Washington or George Bush, Mae West or Mary Poppins, Othello or Iago, in one rapid-fire, head-spinning monologue.

As we will see, in two crucial scenes – one in which Titus slays his son Mutius, and later, when he refuses to bury him – Titus-as-Thomas has no historical resonance, but a mid-stream metamorphosis that gives us Titus-as-Henry VIII suddenly makes for a devastating indictment of Elizabeth’s father. Though it may seem too expedient for belief, I believe that Shakespeare trusted his fellow actors and reading audience to find these elusive opportunities within his script, and milk them for all they’re worth. Such a witty invitation to subversion would help to explain what has heretofore remained inexplicable: the tremendous contemporary popularity (as Ben Jonson laments thirty-five years after its first appearance) of Shakespeare’s “worst” play.

As an extension of this subtle, Ovidian technique, Shakespeare saw that he could slip in further metamorphoses during the brief hiatus that occurs every time someone enters or exits the stage. My first revelation of this technique came during a marathon reading of the plays, one after the other in intensely focused succession, accompanied by multiple volumes of history and biographies of all the main characters on Shakespeare’s living Elizabethan stage. In a scene of Alls Well that Ends Well, the king delivers a very heavy-handed cue that when Helena enters, we might wish to re-examine who we think “she” is. If “she” becomes on this next entrance one highly controversial “he” in the minds of the audience, suddenly they would have, uncensored and beyond recourse of a suit for libel, a metaphorical representation of someone well known to both the court and Shakespeare’s fellow poets and playwrights, who warned the queen of a treasonous plot.

Time and again, I’ve found that one curious phrase or pertinent question spoken in anticipation of a new arrival, or announced by the actor himself, once onstage, can serve to turn every character in the ensuing skit, thus re-aligning the play’s action with recorded history. Shakespeare’s method pretty much depends on these moments of theatrical distraction to redefine the historical situation at hand, making the efficient use of entrances and exits the Sixth Technique of his “alphabet”.

This turn of character often demanded a spin of the globe or the hands on the clock. Shakespeare was chastised in his day and long after for ignoring the classical rule that proscribed a strict unity of time and place for the duration of a tragedy, but he proved them all wrong: a poet’s flight of words are more than sufficient to transport an audience over oceans and across generations. Yet why stop there? The Seventh Technique in the playwright’s stagecraft allows for a disguised change of time or place at any entrance or exit and with verbal cues within a scene already underway. As we will see in chapter 1, Marcus introduces us to Titus with words that make him a mirror image of the 2nd duke of Norfolk, after his triumph over the Scots at the battle of Flodden, in 1513. In chapter 3, we’ll see that when Titus finally does make his first entry, carrying a coffin and surrounded by multitudes, (the stage direction calls for “as many as can be”) the details and his words make very pertinent historical sense, but only when we move the scene forward in time to the duke’s massive funeral in 1524. Yet only a few minutes had passed within the ostensible storyline of Titus returning to Rome.

Here again, I am acutely conscious that this supposed technique might test the limit to your suspension of disbelief. How convenient, that just when the pieces don’t seem to fit, I invent a new trick to shave and sand them into place! I must have scolded myself with that thought a hundred times before the mass of accumulated coincidences convinced me that Shakespeare truly intended for every scene in Titus Andronicus to mirror some trauma in the Howard family annals. He must have trusted that some in his audience would recognize the parallels he so cleverly disguises; all it would have taken for them to sort everything out was an intimate knowledge of the true persons and situations he set out to portray.


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