[Applause] J: I’m going to ask you to sit for one moment while I introduce Ian Gadd who is Professor of English Literature at Bath Spa University in the United Kingdom. Now he is of course a Shakespearean, but he brings to this conversation a special perspective as President of the Society for Authorship, Reading and Publishing and his expertise very relevant in this setting in the National Library of Australia in the history of the book so Ian, will you also join me on the stage?
[Applause] J: Now, our master of ceremonies today for what I hope will be sufficient time for a short interaction, is Dr Kate Flaherty, who will stay seated at the front until later in the proceedings. She is a lecturer in English and drama at the ANU and she brings to this conversation the expertise of performance, and in particular the history of performance of Shakespeare’s works, especially here in Australia, and the interplay between those performances and the public culture of the day. Finally before I sit down, and as I sit down we will seamlessly go through the proceedings, I want to recognise specifically Nicholas Jose who is the Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide and serves on the Advisory Board for the EU’s Centre for Global Affairs. And really it’s Nick Jose’s powerful imagination which has shaped today’s conversation in order to design specifically to be able to mark both Europe Day 2016 and the quarter centenary of Shakespeare’s death. Ian.
[Applause] I: Thank you so much, Jane, for that very generous—overgenerous—introduction, and thank you all for coming along this afternoon. It’s wonderful to be back in this familiar city and familiar venue amongst so many friends and familiar faces.
On the 23rd of April 1616, 400 years ago to this very day, William Shakespeare died in the small Warwickshire town of his birth. He was 53 years of age, still young or youngish by modern reckonings, though his death mightn’t have seemed to his contemporaries like an early departure from the world. Most of the population who survived childhood in this period in England were apt to die before the age of 60. And old age, or senectitude as it was sometimes rather lugubriously called, was a state that one entered at what today might be thought as surprisingly youthful age. Many of Shakespeare’s fellow writers had died, or were soon to do so, at a younger age than he: Christopher Marlow, you remember, in a violent brawl in a tavern at the age of 29; Francis Beaumont following a stroke at 31; Robert Greene, panacent and impoverished, of a fever in the garret of a shoemaker’s house at 34; Thomas Kidd after bitter times and privy-broken passions as he put it, at 35; George Herbert, the poet, of consumption at 39; John Fletcher, Beaumont’s collaborator from the play, at 46; Edmund Spenser, for lack of bread so it was rumoured, at 47; and Thomas Middleton also at 47 from causes unknown.
The cause or causes of Shakespeare’s death are similarly unknown. They’ve become in recent years a topic of persistent speculation. Syphilis contracted by visits to the brothels of Danville Street; mercury or arsenic poisoning following treatment for this infection; alcoholism; obesity; cardiac failure; a sudden stroke brought on by the alarming news of a family disgrace, that Shakespeare’s son-in-law, Thomas Quiney, husband of his younger daughter, Judith, had been responsible for the pregnancy and death of a young local woman named Margaret Wheeler. All these have been advanced as possible factors leading to Shakespeare’s death. Francis Thackery, Director of the Institute for Human Evolution at the University of Witwatersrand believes that cannabis was the ultimate cause of Shakespeare’s death and has been hoping, in defiance of the famous ban on Shakespeare’s tomb—remember, ‘cursed be he who moved my bones’—,to inspect the poet’s teeth in order to confirm this theory. Teeth are not bones, Dr Thackery—somewhat controversially, I would have thought—insists.
No convincing evidence, alas, has yet been produced to support any of these theories. More intriguing than the actual pathology of Shakespeare’s death however may be another set of problems that have I think extraordinarily largely escaped the notice of his biographers, though there seem at times I think in a wider, more general sense to have held the poet’s own often rather playful attention. They turn on the question of fame, how it’s constituted, what fame actually is. How slowly and indirectly it’s often achieved. How easily as the King of Navarre and his courtiers for all their fine resolutions soon discover in Love’s Labours Lost. It may be delayed or diverted or lost altogether from view.
On the 25th of April 1616, two days after his death, Shakespeare was buried in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church at Stratford, having earned this modest place of honour as much it would seem through his local reputation as a respected citizen as from any deep sense of his wider professional achievements. No memorial gatherings were held in the nation’s capital where he’d made his career or it would seem anywhere else in the country. The company of players that he’d led for so long didn’t pause so far as we know to acknowledge his passing, nor did his patron and protector, King James, whom he’d loyally served. Only one writer, a minor Oxfordshire poet named William Bass, felt moved to offer at some unknown date following his death—it may have been years later—a few lines to the memory of Shakespeare, with whom he may not have been personally acquainted. Hoping that Shakespeare might be interred at Westminster, but foreseeing problems of crowding in the Abbey, Bass began by urging other distinguished English poets to roll over in their tombs in order to make room for this new arrival.
‘Renowned Spenser, lie a thought more nigh a learned Chaucer, and rare Beaumont, lie a little nearer Spenser to make room for Shakespeare in your threefold, fourfold tomb.’ Well none of these poets actually responded to Bass’ injunctions and Shakespeare was not to win his place in the Abbey for more than a hundred years when Richard Boyle, third Earl of Burlington, commissioned William Kent to design and Peter Scheemakers to sculpt, this life-size white marble statue of the poet standing cross-legged, leaning thoughtfully on a pile of books to adorn poet’s corner. On the wall behind the statue erected in the Abbey in January 1741 is a tablet with a Latin inscription that was perhaps contributed by the poet, Alexander Pope, conceding the belated arrival of the memorial. In English it reads ‘William Shakespeare, 124 years after his death, erected by public love’. Public love because it was erected by subscription, but notice those words ‘124 years after his death’. It took some time for this honouring to happen and my question this afternoon is why?
Bass’ verses were in early circulation but they weren’t published until 1633 and then mistakenly along with the poems of John Donne, who was thought to have been their author. No other poem to Shakespeare’s memory is known to have been written before the appearance of the first folio in 1623. No effort appears to have been made in the months and years following the poet’s death to assemble a tributary volume honouring the man and his works. None of Shakespeare’s other contemporaries noted the immediate fact of his passing in any surviving letter, journal or record. No dispatches, private or diplomatic, carry the news of his death beyond Britain to the wider world. Why did the death of Shakespeare cause so little public grief, so little public excitement in and beyond the country of his birth? Why wasn’t his passing an occasion for widespread mourning and widespread celebration of his prodigious achievements? What does this curious silence tell us about Shakespeare’s reputation in 1616, about the status of his profession and the state of letters more generally in Britain at this time?
Shakespeare’s often thought to have died on his own birthday which in the early modern world was considered quite a feat. For as one writer, Sir Thomas Browne, put it ‘when there is no less than 365 days to determine their lives in every year, that the first day should make the last, that the tail of the snake should return into its mouth precisely at that time, and that they should wind up upon the day of their nativity is indeed a remarkable coincidence.’ In fact, we don’t know when Shakespeare had his birthday; we don’t know when he was born. We know that he was baptised in Holy Trinity Church, ‘cause the record is still there on the 25th of April, 1564. Very often baptism took place three days after birth, but very often it didn’t either, so he may have died on his birthday or may not. But if you were an astrologer or an almanac-maker or a eulogist in early modern Britain you didn’t care terribly much about pedantic detail of that kind. If you could see some sort of correspondence, there’s great interest in the circularities and the symmetries in the lives of wondrous people, prominent people.
So, for example, when in 1603 Queen Elizabeth died, in April of that year, Thomas Dekker writing his book in that year about what he called the wondrous year of 1603 looked immediately for symmetries in the life and death, the birth and death of Elizabeth and he was able through a good deal of ingenuity to find these here, her nativity and death, he wrote, being memorable by this wonder. But when Shakespeare died in 1616 no one ... I think remarkably no one actually pointed this out, no one felt inclined to comment on a similar apparent symmetry in the dates of his birth and death. So at that point, you might perhaps conclude, he wasn’t yet regarded as what was called in the early modern world a wonder. Nor did anyone in 1616 choose to remark on another curious fact which strikes us certainly today about the death of Shakespeare, that it had occurred upon St George’s Day. That day was famous in Shakespeare’s time for the annual rights of prayer, procession and feasting at Windsor by members of the Order of the Garter, England’s leading chivalric institution, founded in 1348 by Edward III. Marking as it did the anniversary of the supposed martyrdom in AD303 of St George of Cappadocia, St George’s Day was celebrated in numerous countries in and beyond Europe, as it is today. But it emerged somewhat bizarrely as it’s always seemed to me in late medieval times as day of particular national significance in England.
There is an image which you probably recognise as Uccello’s representation of St George murdering the dragon. That’s to be dated around 1440, and you’ll notice that flag St George is carrying is the flag of England. For a hundred years before that it had been associated with England, so already we have this tradition. The day was struck out of the calendar in Henry VIII’s time because it was thought to be a popish superstition, worshipping saints of any kind, but particularly someone like this who’d killed a dragon. But a dozen years before Shakespeare’s birth it was restored into the British calendar, and it was further revived under King James, and celebrated in England with jousts and tournaments and other diversions. There is the so-called Red Cross Knight from Edmund Spenser’s famous epic poem, The Faery Queen and there he is killing another dragon on behalf of England.
In 1616, St George’s Day then might well have been seen as an appropriate date upon which the man who is now viewed as England’s greatest writer had met his death but this happy coincidence, so attractive in later times to the moulding of a national legend was seemingly ignored by Shakespeare’s contemporaries. We know what was happening at court. On St George’s Day 1616—this is the day exactly 400 years ago of Shakespeare’s death—we know what was happening on that day thanks to an assiduous court gossip, a man who was called John Chamberlain, who used to hang around the court and write long newsy gossipy letters to his friend, the Ambassador Sir Dudley Carleton, and not much escaped his notice.
And from his correspondence we know that what happened at court, how James I—seemingly without knowledge of what was happening in Stratford, that the leader of his own acting troupe, the King’s Men, was laying dying at that very minute—had summoned another poet to court to entertain him on that day. He was a man who I imagine you have never heard of called William Fennell. William Fennell was a writer of doggerel verses but he was a real royal favourite. James loved the terrible verses that he wrote often in company and in competition with another writer of doggerel who had been a Thames bargeman who was known as John Taylor, the water poet who took epic journeys around Britain and beyond and then wrote poems about them. And these two, Fennell and Taylor, used to meet for what were called at that time flytings, that is, poetic competitions. And James loved watching and listening to these and intervening.
So Fennell, on this day, chose to recite to King James his own versified history of the Order of the Garter, which concluded with a prayer that the Order and its members might serve as a bulwark against the growing Catholic threat. So Chamberlain reports all this and he reports on the calibre of those who were admitted that day to the Order of the Garter, he talks about the growing tensions between Spain and England but he says nothing whatever about William Shakespeare. And in the days and weeks that followed when the news of Shakespeare’s death we must imagine began to filter through eventually to London. There is no surviving mention in private correspondence or official documents of Shakespeare’s name. Other more pressing matters were now absorbing the nation. Shakespeare had made a remarkably modest exit from the theatre of the world, largely unapplauded, largely unobserved. It was a very quiet death.
Now, the silence that followed Shakespeare’s death, I think, is the more remarkable. Coming as it did in an age that had developed such elaborate rituals of public mourning, panegyric and commemoration, most lavishly displayed at the death of a monarch or a peer of the realm but it was ... occasionally you had these huge funerals and celebrations at the death of an exceptional commoner. Let me just very quickly show you a couple of these. Consider the case of this man; this is a man who was very famous in his day called William Camden. He was a great antiquarian scholar, he was headmaster of Westminster School, he was Ben Johnson’s teacher actually at that school and teacher of actually most of the great 17th century English poets at one stage or another. And he died in London in November 1623 just a couple for weeks, as chance would have it, after the publication of Shakespeare’s first folio in that year.
Now Camden was a man of really very humble social origins like Shakespeare himself. Shakespeare’s father, as you probably know, was a glove-maker in Stratford-upon-Avon, and a leather merchant, and it’s thought Shakespeare probably worked in his shop as an apprentice at some time and may have been expected to continue in the family business. Camden was the son of a man who was called a painter-stainer, that’s to say a man whose job it was to decorate coats or arms and heraldic devices, choosing the appropriate colour for those. It was ... they had a certain amount of skill in that but it was nevertheless a mechanical job. And Camden was thought to ... expected to follow in his father’s footsteps but other things occurred and he came England’s great historian. And at the time of his death he was widely recognised as a great scholar, and when he died eulogies were delivered in Oxford and they were published along with a lot of other tributes in a memorial volume published soon after his death. And he had this great funeral in Westminster Abbey accompanied by a large retinue of mourners led by 26 poor men wearing gowns and followed by soberly attired gentlemen, squires, knights, members of the College of Arms, earls, barons, peers of the realm, bishops, divines and so on.
Now there was one reason in particular why he was given such a terrific send-off: because he was the man who had helped to organise another big funeral. This is Queen Elizabeth’s funeral; if you’re looking for big funerals, and remember that if you lived in England at the time, instead of going along to a football match on a Saturday afternoon you looked around for other events, you looked for a good hanging or with better luck a funeral of this sort. And they processed through the streets of London and the public turned out in their hundreds and thousands to watch these events and the funeral of Queen Elizabeth in 1603 was a huge event and Camden was the man, ‘cause he was Herald of Arms who planned out the whole thing.
And he was there, there he is in the middle as Herald of Arms at the funeral and he did his own drawings of the funeral. There are some of his sketches which are now in the British Museum and so there he was so there were particular reasons why you would expect that when his time came he would also be given a very good send-off. But, you will ask, Shakespeare too, Shakespeare was ... he was the top man in the day, was he not? He was the outstanding poet in Jacobean England, the outstanding dramatist, surely very celebrated. He’d written all of these players, nearly 40 plays, so why wasn’t he honoured in a similar fashion?
Well, it’s curious to realise, that he probably wasn’t recognised at that time as England’s outstanding writer. At this extraordinary moment in the history of English letters and intellectual life there are actually a lot of contenders for that particular honour to be the great writer. There were those who thought that Francis Bacon, for example, was the great writer in England but there were others too. Camden himself made a list of what he called the most pregnant wits of these our times whom succeeding ages may justly admire. And he put Shakespeare’s name in there but he put a lot of other names in too and some of these names you’ll know and some of them I guess you won’t. Edmund Spenser, John Owen, Thomas Campion, Michael Drayton, George Chapman, John Marston, Hugh Holland, Ben Johnson, both of whom he taught at Westminster School. They were all okay, he thought they were pregnant wits but the top writer he thought of the time was another man altogether, it was this man.
It was a poet that Camden himself had got to know at Oxford called Philip Sidney, Sir Philip Sidney, and he was the one that Camden most passionately admired and continued to regard following Sidney’s early death at the age of 32 on the battlefield at Zutphen in 1560 as the country’s supreme writer. Britain is the glory of the earth and its precious jewel but Sidney was the precious jewel of Britain, he wrote. And others wrote in similar terms, his friend, Richard Carew, wrote will you have all in all for prose and verse, take the miracle of our age, Sir Philip Sidney? So Shakespeare and the rest that I just named, they were all admirable writers, they were all very good, they were all pregnant wits but Sidney was something else, Sidney was the miracle of the age and when—I’ll skip through this—but when the time came for Sidney’s funeral he was given a send-off such as never had been seen in England up until the moment. And this is a scene from a most remarkable scroll that actually the antiquarian John Aubrey saw in Gloucestershire, saw when he was a boy, and wrote about. It’s a kind of ... it’s an early movie, it’s on a long scroll, it’s on two pins and you can wind it and you can see the whole funeral procession. ‘Tis pity it is not redone,’ said Aubrey, at the end of his encounter. It has been redone, if you Google it you’ll get it online, you’ll be able to watch the whole procession. There’s Sidney’s 13 year old page boy with a broken lance trailing the lance, following up the end but this was a huge thing you know it goes on all day long.
So the question remains why didn’t Shakespeare get something like this? Well alright, there are political reasons, Sidney’s funeral was a political event. He was seen as a real European because he had travelled for two years very methodically through Europe being seen as a kind of Protestant champion and he was in touch with writers and statesmen and monarchs right across Europe. His funeral took place eight days after the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots so it was a politically very sensitive moment of have a bit show of this kind. But the way in which ... if you go back and look at the funeral, the way in which he was being acclaimed repeatedly was as England’s top poet and in a gesture which was unprecedented at this time but then became a matter of habit at the death of poets four volumes of memorial verse were produced from the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge and Leiden. And it included verses by King James himself.
If you go back and think of other English poets here’s Thomas Wyatt, Sir Thomas Wyatt. He had what his most recent biographer calls a chorus of epitaphs, eulogies, mortuary sonnets and funeral songs at his death. Edmund Spenser, at his death in 1599 was buried in the Abbey next to Chaucer, his hearse being attended by poets, mournful eulogies and poems with the pens that wrote them thrown into his tomb. Michael Drayton at his death in 1631 was buried in turn at the Abbey next to Spenser’s tomb. His funeral also, the antiquary William Fullmann reported, was attended by the gentlemen of the four ends of court and others of note about the town in order by two and two in a procession stretching from Drayton’s lodgings in Fleet Street all the way to Strand Bridge, the present site of Somerset House.
Twenty-one years after Shakespeare’s death here’s Ben Johnson, his old friend and rival and colleague and for many at the death of Johnson in 1637 this marked the end of an entire era in England as Sidney’s death has, they wrote about this at the time. It was though English poetry itself had died. He also had a huge funeral at the Abbey attended by nobility and others and with his death it was said English poetry itself had seemed to die. Let me just give very briskly one last example. This is a man I’m sure you won’t have come across at all, he was called William Cartwright and he was a great favourite of Charles I. And when he died in 1643 Charles I actually went into mourning saying that since the muses had so much mourned for the loss of such a son it’d be a shame for him not to appear in mourning too for the loss of such a subject.
Shakespeare: silence. So why? If I ... it’s just reached the ... some tentative answers to this question. Well one reason was that Charles was terribly keen on the theatre and James wasn’t actually very much, he was a very impatient theatregoer so that’s why nothing much happened at court. But what about for the general public? Because if you remember the King’s Men not only performed regularly at court they performed at the two theatres, Black Friar’s and the Globe Theatre and this is Richard Burbidge who was the lead actor for the company and when Burbidge died in 1619 he died just a few days short of the death of Queen Eliz ... Queen Anne, I should say, Queen Anne, Anne of Denmark, and the public was terribly upset at the death of Burbidge and the fact that not only had Burbidge died but the theatres had all been closed down out of respect for Anne’s death. And there are verses written at the time, noticing the public complaint and sadness at his death but there are no such comments of the death of Shakespeare.
Why is that? Why was Burbidge more mourned than the playwright whose works he’d interpreted? Well I think ... my tentative answer to these questions is this: that I think the reason lay in the status of the profession to which Shakespeare belonged, a profession which didn’t yet have a name. The very words playwright and dramatist hadn’t yet entered the language. People knew about the lead actors, they went along to the theatre, they went along to the Globe to see Burbidge, he was a famous man. They didn’t necessarily know who’d written that play, Macbeth, that he was so good in because the playwrights were backroom boys. They were invisible men. They worked often anonymously, often in small teams and there was no ready way of discovering their identity, there were no theatre programs. There were play bills that were posted you know in the theatre but they didn’t have the author’s names, they had the players’ names, not the author’s name at the time.
So at that time people would not have known what Shakespeare had really done. Players were published, yes, they were, they were being published and Professor Gadd who’s an expert in this area is going to talk to us in a moment about the publication of players and how this bears on the question of Shakespeare’s visibility at this time. And a lot of Shakespeare’s plays were published but not by any means all. There was as yet no collected edition of the works of Shakespeare, you would not have known really what the man had done in 1616. So this is the contrast that I want to put to you today, the contrast between what I’m calling the unknown Shakespeare and the Shakespeare that we’re celebrating today who we would have to say is the most famous writer the world has ever known. He belongs today not simply to England the flag of St George but to readers and playgoers throughout the world. Today’s event—aptly and generously sponsored by the EU Centre at the University of Adelaide—reminds us that Shakespeare was also in a significant sense as we’ve heard earlier this afternoon a European writer. He drew many of his plots from French and Italian sources, he located his plays in Verona and Venice and Rome and Athens, cities incidentally that he’d never visited because it seems that he never left England. But he’d been adopted over the years, as we’ve heard in Germany, in Italy, as though he were a native son.
Last year a group of British and continental scholars journeyed to Brussels to petition the EU to have Shakespeare instated as the first European poet laureate in this year, 2016, in celebration of the 400th anniversary of his death. I’ve been trying the last week through my friends in Britain to find out exactly the status of that petition. I hear from the prime mover that they got a very friendly reception in Brussels but I don’t know what’s happened beyond that. But Shakespeare’s imagination, Shakespeare’s reach extended well beyond Europe and he’s now been embraced as no other writer has in human history by nations in every corner of the world.
In 2012, the year of the London Olympics, the Royal Shakespeare Company in collaboration with other institutions organise the World Shakespeare Festival initiating the production in London of all 37 players in the Shakespearean canon performed by actors from more than 50 countries speaking in nearly 50 different languages. True to the spirit of the theatre in which so many of his plays were performed ... that’s the ... Shakespeare had now indeed gone global. Today, 23rd of April, 2016, as we meet here in Canberra to remember and to celebrate his extraordinary achievement we can recall the predictive phrase that his colleague, Ben Johnson, used in his memorial poem to the author, ‘My Beloved’, as to William Shakespeare and what he has left us, that stands now at the head of Shakespeare’s first folio: ‘He was not of an age but for all time.’ No one had said that, no one had said anything approaching that in 1616. No one had ranked Shakespeare with the great writers of antiquity in that way, no one had foreseen that he would be remembered as he is here in this distant corner of the globe today so many centuries after his death. Thank you.