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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

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.

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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)

Just Released: Brief Chronicles Vol. 2, take two

November 28th, 2010 3 comments

It’s here!

Brief Chronicles: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Authorship Studies, Vol. 2, published by The Shakespeare Fellowship, is now available online.

Here’s what the journal aims to provide:

We solicit relevant original scholarship and essays that shed critical light on the Shakespeare canon and its authorship–particularly those written from an informed Oxfordian perspective–on theories and problems in the study of early modern authorship and literary creativity, and on related questions of early modern literary culture, aesthetics, bibliography, psychology, law, linguistics, biography, and history.

An “informed Oxfordian perspective”, we may safely assume, means informed by the theory that the earl of Oxford was “Shakespeare”.  Though it may seem obvious, I’d like to clarify the point for readers of this site, where the emphasis is on re-examining the earl’s place in Elizabethan history and literature without bias for or against his person, due to theories of authorship.  To distinguish between the two, I think of the second approach as an “Oxenfordian perspective”.

In any case, I’m sure there will be many examples of unbiased critical thinking relevant to Oxford’s life and times in this issue, and readers will find nuggets of information or insights that remain valid no matter whom you favor as “Shakespeare”.

For example, Robert Detobel’s “An Accident of Note: Chapman’s Hamlet and the earl of Oxford” examines the historical anomalies of Bussy D’Ambois and the ghost of Hamlet that seems to hover at Chapman’s elbow, to give us a challenging new interpretation of the play’s “liberal as the sun” reference to the earl of Oxford.

And Christopher Paul’s original research on Oxford’s July 1594 letter to Lord Burghley, “The 17th Earl of Oxford’s Office, Illuminated”  – that office being Lord Great Chamberlain of England, as shown by a secretary’s endorsement – promises to be another important contribution to securing the earl’s biography, and debunking one strand of the perennial “Ox-myth” regarding the earl’s thousand-pound annuity.

For the rare pleasure of Oxfordian critical thinking done up with both wit and style, I recommend Warren Hope’s two contributions, “Is That True?”, his reply to James Shapiro’s Contested Will, and his review of the late Peter Moore’s collection of essays, The Lame Storyteller.

General editor Roger Stritmatter closes his introduction to this second issue of Brief Chronicles with a curious caveat to the reader:

“It ought not to require any special emphasis that Brief Chronicles is not an ape to mock a dogma by imitating it, but an intellectual forum for the exchange of sometimes controversial ideas. Both the reasoning and the conclusions of our contributors — which are unlikely to ever be entirely in one harmonious accord — in the first instance belong to them, and not to the Shakespeare Fellowship, the editorial board, or even the editors, of the publication.”

“Not an ape to mock a dogma” has a lilting cadence to it, with a touch of mystification.  Ape or not, dogmatic or otherwise, Brief Chronicles provides the Oxfordian community with a second major outlet (and competitive challenge to The Oxfordian) for scholars looking to publish research or criticism involving Edward de Vere without needing to beg, “Mother, may I?”  The best support we can offer this admirable venture is to read, recommend, and critique the essays that these writers have labored over, and so generously shared.

Update Nov. 28, 2010: I am pleased to report that Michael Delahoyde’s review of Charles Beauclerk’s controversial Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom (I confess, the first item I turned to when Brief Chronicles Vol. 2 “hit the stands” last week)  has returned to the Table of Contents.