Review – Cymbeline at the RSC, Stratford, 27 July, 2016

28 07 2016

I enjoyed this. My attention was held throughout and at times it was an utterly absorbing production of a play that is difficult to make so. The songs were a highlight, funky, funny and poignant in turns. Imogen was pleasingly buxom, Posthumous appropriately intense, the Italian scene brilliantly contrasted with a Britain where even the Queen dressed like she was on benefits. There were ‘issues’ – there are always issues – but there were some very effective touches that freshened up the play. The two teenagers I was with expressed pleasant surprise as we left the theatre. They had assumed, on prior experience of Shakespeare, that they would be left emotionally traumatised, but in Cymbeline everything resolves. The final scene is spent tidying up the stage rather than littering it with gore.

All the best action involved a spot-on, suave Iachimo, played by Oliver Johnstone. They say that the baddies are more fun to play and Johnstone revelled in his part, at least until he is humbled and repentant at the end which he seemed to find more difficult to carry off. Some gimmickry is to be expected with the RSC and there was one novelty that worked and one that partly failed. The good one came with the transition to an Italian/Roman setting where we suddenly had the dialogue switching to Italian and found ourselves glancing up at English sur-titles projected onto the scenery wall. It was a move that first worked and then amused as a wonderful, ex-pat, lothario-Philario, pronounced his Italian with a home-counties drawl to the delight of the Stratford audience. For some reason it reminded me of a character in The Talented Mr Ripley. Later, when the Romans land in Britain, we get Latin dialogue, also very effective.

The gimmick that half-worked was having a female Cymbeline. Making the king of the ancient Britons into the Queen of the ancient Britons may not seem to be of much consequence and was played with assurance by Gillian Bevan, but actually it disrupts one of the sub-plots. The problem is with the partner of the monarch who changes from being a Queen to being a male consort and strangely much of the potency of the character is lost in the process. In Shakespeare’s version of the play, we have a decidedly male King Cymbeline who is basically well-disposed towards the Romans and is magnanimous at the end of the play in proclaiming a general pardon and peace and cementing that peace by agreeing to reinstate the tribute to Rome. The problem comes with the two ‘Brexiteers’, the Queen and her son-from-a-previous-marriage Cloten, whose belligerence causes war to break out. Shakespeare’s Queen is another ruthlessly ambitious and manipulative Lady Macbeth but with a new twist. While appearing very sweet to her husband, she is planning to poison both him and his heir Imogen to clear the path to the throne for her son Cloten. Gratuituous gender swappery doesn’t really work here because women tend to do evil and conniving differently to men. Take Iachimo for example. Could you change him to a woman? Call me old-fashioned but I don’t think so, even with major surgery. If you disagree, try this production of Cymbeline and you might see what I mean. The male consort as father of Cloten has nothing like the impact he should have or would have as a mother. This is not even to mention the classical reference to Nero and his mother Agrippina that I have written about elsewhere. I have no doubt that this parallel would have been recognised by at least some of Shakespeare’s original audience but is evidently lost on the RSC (Agrippina was said to have poisoned her husband Claudius with a dish of mushrooms so that her son-from-a-previous-marriage could become emperor).

Lastly, on the subject of Cloten, I thought Marcus Griffiths made a valiant effort but was miss-cast. Cloten is tricky to play because (like Nero) he is both a ridiculous idiot and a physically menacing and politically powerful bully, setting out to rape Imogen while dressed in the clothes of her exiled husband. He is a projection of the kind of thorough-going scum-bag that many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries had cause to fear. We are meant to laugh at him but also despise him. The usual error is to make him such a twit that the sense of threat and disgust is lost, but here the problem was that try as he might, Griffiths was just a little too cool and handsome. Note to casting: try harder to find someone convincingly loathsome.

MCD 28/07/2016





And you shall find me a grave woman

4 01 2016

New Year Resolution 2016

I am resolved to resurrect this blog, which, like Imogen in the cave, has seemed to die a death.  2016 is set to be a big year for Shakespeare with the 400-year anniversary but I doubt we will be any the wiser for all the hoohah. Boris Johnson and some of the big publishers will cash-in, but will they tell us anything new? What fascinates me is that there are still mysteries to solve after so many years. Those who have read my biography of Anne Line will be aware that there are an intriguing series of links between the character Imogen in Cymbeline and the Catholic martyr. Of course one can dismiss such connections as coincidental but there comes a point when there are too many coincidences for that to be credible and it becomes very hard to avoid the conclusion that the author has deliberately set them up. Here are some new ‘coincidences’ to add to the collection. Comments appreciated.

When Imogen awakes she seems half dazed, half mad. She says, as though to someone in her dream,

Yes, sir, to Milford Haven. Which is the way?

I thank you. – by yond bush? – Pray, how far thither?

Od’s pittikins! Can it be six mile yet? –

I have gone all night. ‘Faith, I’ll lie down and sleep.’ (Cymbeline 4.2.291ff)

I take this not merely as the confused ravings of a cross-dressing princess waking from a drug-induced coma (Dame Helen Mirren once played it brilliantly) but also as a master-class in secret writing. The subtext at the core of this play was written for a coterie audience of papists who could, if they were alert enough, pick up the subtle clues. For those who did it was a poignant reminder of the saintly Anne Line. I imagine they took great comfort and delight in the way Shakespeare could bring a symbol of their suppressed and denigrated faith into the heart of the court of King James, concealed like one of the hidden priests in a highly effective disguise. Not so very different from the way I now take pleasure in secret readings of which the great authorities in the world of Shakespeare seem to be oblivious.

‘Can it be six mile yet?’ Why six miles? Everybody knew that the journey from Newgate prison to the Tyburn gallows was three miles, but Anne Line’s body went another three miles – back into London in the middle of the night. After the execution her naked corpse was buried in the road near the execution site, but her body was retrieved and taken to the house of the stubbornly Catholic Countess of Arundel. ‘How found you [her]?’ ‘Stark, as you see: Thus smiling, as some fly had tickled slumber’ (4.2.209). Arundel House was on the Strand near St Clement Danes Church. There, behind a muddle of connected buildings and outhouses was an extensive garden that reached down to the bank of the river Thames. To the east was Essex House, formerly Leicester House, and beyond that the grounds of the Middle Temple.

Nobody knows exactly where St Anne Line was buried, but the chaplain to the Countess of Arundel tells us ‘conveniently’, which suggests nearby. Shakespeare gives us another clue:

‘Yes, sir, to Milford Haven. Which is the way?

I thank you. – by yond bush?’

The way, or road – is ‘by yond bush’? Shakespeare is happy for the vast majority of his audience to be mentally transported to Wales and to see no great significance in this, but his coterie audience are still in London following the six-mile journey of Anne Line to the site of her (probable) burial in the Countess of Arundel’s garden, and they do see a great significance. Why? Because the little lane between the Countess’s property and her neighbours to the east was called Milford Lane. It had a little stream or culvert beside it and led from the Strand down to Milford Stairs on the river where there was a wharf, and thus the London equivalent of a Milford Haven. From the Countess’s garden Milford ‘way’ was literally ‘by yond bush’. ‘Ods pittykins!’ – the perspective is shortened, diminutive, closer to home.

If you are among the doubting Thomases and need further demonstration of this reading, consider the following. Imogen/Fidele’s seeming death is discovered just after Guiderius has beheaded Cloten the Queen’s son. He says he will throw the head ‘into the creek behind our rock, and let it to the sea’. Ostensibly, again, this scene is in Wales, somewhere not far from the town of Milford Haven, but if the subtext is referring to Milford Stairs in London, it resolves another apparent absurdity. At 4.2.184ff. Guiderius says ‘I have sent Cloten’s clotpoll [head] down the stream in embassy to his mother; his body’s hostage for his return’. The question is, why would something thrown in a river ‘return’? Is that not very odd? Why add that quip about ’embassy to his mother’ at all for that matter, but it is the business of throwing something into a stream and expecting it to return that is most bizarre, especially if we imagine that something having to bob its way from Milford Haven in South Wales all the way around the south coast and up the Thames Estuary to London, and then back again. But the apparently absurd throwaway remark is transformed by the subtext into a perfect little clue that evokes and confirms the London location. Queen Elizabeth would receive foreign ambassadors at the great royal palace at Whitehall, and they would often arrive by barge at the Queen’s wharf. It was just under a mile upstream from the wharf at Milford Stairs and this part of the river is tidal, i.e. it can flow ‘upstream’ at high tide, and then reverse and resume its normal flow downstream towards the Thames Estuary to the east. The Thames was a main thoroughfare for London when Cymbeline was written so it would be common knowledge that sometimes it appeared to flow one way, sometimes the other. Flotsam could return to its starting point.

Sadly, the Countess’s garden has long since been built over so the chances of finding any grave in this location appear to be nil. But I don’t think Anne Line has been too hard done by. Her secret burial monument in Shakespeare’s play has lasted 400 years already, and in black ink it still shines brightly enough.

Happy New Year!

[For a map online try searching for ‘John Norden’s map of Westminster, 1593’. Arundel House is to the right on the river with ‘Mylford’ Stairs also marked.]

MCD posted 4 Jan 2016





Text, Power, Authority and the Secrets of Cymbeline

14 07 2014

[Paper presented at the British Shakespeare Association conference, Stirling University, 3 July 2014. The full version with notes is available as a pdf here

This play has many just sentiments, some natural dialogues, and some pleasing scenes, but they are obtained at the expense of much incongruity. To remark the folly of the fiction, the absurdity of the conduct, the confusion of the names, and manners of different times, and the impossibility of the events in any system of life, were to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecility, upon faults too evident for detection, and too gross for aggravation.

Such was Samuel Johnson’s seminally scathing verdict on Shakespeare’s play about the first century British king, Cymbeline, who, as Shakespeare has it, bravely spurned demands from the Romans for tribute, defeated their invading army in ferocious battle, but then with a great fanfare and smiles all round, agreed to pay them the tribute after all. Subsequent scholarship on this play could be characterised as ‘footnotes on Johnson’; many critics have been kinder than he, but none have succeeded in resolving the manifest incongruities and ‘delving’ this play ‘to the root’. Even Martin Butler, editor of the Cambridge Cymbeline (2005) who declares this play the product of a dramatist ‘at the height of his powers’ and waxes lyrical about a narrative that ‘grips and compels, rising inexorably … to a peripeteia of dazzling artfulness’, has to admit to a ‘problem’ that he suggests ‘is not implausibility so much as the difficulty of identifying the play’s inner dynamic’. Precisely, this is indeed the issue. The answer, I propose, is that Cymbeline is an allegory, but this is a possibility that Butler, in company with other recent scholarship, dismisses. He declares, ‘At worst, [Cymbeline’s] topicalities have been seen as a puzzle to be cracked, a code that could be broken were the right cryptographic key found.’ In similar vein, Alison Thorne, in Shakespeare’s Romances, (2002) could write:

Instead of trying to solve the riddle of the play’s ‘meaning’ by identifying the key to its multiplicity we might more profitably attend to the ways in which this, the most elusive of Shakespeare’s so-called ‘romances’, reflects ironically on the question of its own illegibility.

The problem these modern critics have is that they sound like modern critics. It seems to me that the very first thing the sophisticated Jacobean audience is going to do is assume that there is a puzzle here to be cracked. They may not be able to crack it, because they may not be part of the coterie audience with access to the key, but that was all part of the game. In this paper I will claim that this elusive, riddle of a play, appears illegible because it is an allegory, and I propose a key that resolves it. The credibility of such a reading of the play, rests to a great extent on the detail of the analysis. For this reason, and in deference to the theme of this conference, I propose to sketch the allegory itself very briefly, and then move on to specific textual issues. I make the claim that there are at least four occasions where the earliest text of Cymbeline, that in the First Folio, has been emended by editors of the critical editions, but where the original spelling fits precisely the subtext that I identity in this play. I will focus on two of these instances: the question of Imogen versus Innogen (with a double n) and ‘oaks’ versus ‘rocks’ in the queen’s ‘Neptune’s park’ speech, (3.1).

In considering the meaning of the text, let me start by uttering the heresy that I read Cymbeline as a Catholic play. The point has often been made that allegory tends to emerge in circumstances of repression as a means of speaking in a veiled fashion that which it is difficult to speak openly, and Catholics in England in the years following the Gunpowder Plot, when it is believed Cymbeline was written, certainly had reason to veil their speech. I am not the first to argue along these lines; Clare Asquith and Peter Milward have both argued strongly that there are elements of Catholic allegory in Cymbeline, as has, more tentatively, Velma Richmond. Willy Maley remarks in his book Postcolonial Shakespeare: British identity formation and Cymbeline, that Shakespeare, ‘could be seen to be … championing a residual Catholicism’. The most obvious indication of the Catholic standpoint is in the tribute storyline referred to above. Roman power and authority can stand for Roman Catholic, or Papal, power and authority (as in the Protestant, Mirror for Magistrates). The refusal to pay the tribute, evokes the banning of Peter’s Pence, a significant step in the English Reformation that was both a symbolic and real rejection of power and authority.4 Conversely, if the refusal to pay evokes the English break with Rome, King Cymbeline’s magnanimous decision to recommence payment evokes the Catholic hope that the British crown would at some future providential time accept the authority of the papacy once again. One can see both why this might appear ridiculous to Samuel Johnson and also why Shakespeare might want to throw a veil over it, albeit a rather transparent one – transparent because this element of the subtext is more or less evident to the contemporary audience without any particularly specialised knowledge. This is in contrast to that which I wish to move on to next, which is the more concealed allegory I propose at the core of the play designed for a coterie audience of English and Welsh Catholics.

In this instance, Shakespeare does not give his ‘caviare to the general’ (Hamlet 2.2), and he does not give his caviare to the coterie audience either. He makes them work for it. He sets them a series of cryptic clues or devices. He expects them to ask ‘Who is Imogen? What is she?’ and the like. He leaves them trails of clues, and he depends on very specific in-crowd knowledge. It is meant to be complex. It is designed as an intellectual challenge. Essentially my proposal is that he deploys the same allegorical key that he had used several years earlier with his intensely cryptic poem, ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’. In brief, the phoenix and the turtle-dove correspond to Anne Line, a Catholic hanged in 1601 for assisting priests, and her exiled husband Roger Line who pre-deceased her by about seven years. The latter interpretation was proposed by John Finnis and Patrick Martin in 2003, and I have extended it in one crucial respect, which is this: Anne and Roger Line represent the spiritual and temporal dimensions of the Roman Catholic Church in England/Britain. They function as synecdoche in other words, and Shakespeare’s poem then becomes a lament on the ‘death’ of Catholicism in England. Just as the death of the phoenix is not the end because new life emerges from the ashes, so the death of Catholicism marked in Shakespeare’s 1601 poem is not final. He returns to this same allegorical schema in Cymbeline where Imogen corresponds to Anne Line and thereby to the spiritual dimension of the Church, and Posthumus to her husband, Roger Line of Ringwood, who corresponds to the temporal aspect of the Church. The play Cymbeline then becomes a reflection on the Catholic experience during the intervening period, when hotheads among the ‘temporals’ had almost destroyed that which they professed to love by engaging in the Gunpowder Plot. Shakespeare examines these traumatic events through the medium of the wager story and the descent of Posthumus into fury and hate. By the end of the play, however, he has offered a profoundly hopeful vision to his Catholic audience whereby division in the Christian Church and in the wider world is overcome.

So we move on to the textual issues, the first being the case of Imogen versus Innogen (with a double ‘n’). The first record of Cymbeline is an account of the play in Simon Foreman’s diary in which he refers to the female protagonist as Innogen, though the first edition of the play, that in the First Folio, has her name as Imogen. In recent times, notably since the Oxford Edition of 1986, the name has often been amended to Innogen on the assumption that the ‘Imogen’ of the Folio is the result of a typographical error, and this is clearly a possibility. The name Imogen is almost unknown prior to Shakespeare’s play, but Innogen, though not commonly used, was highly significant as this was the name of the wife of Brytus, the supposed founder of Britain, and therefore Innogen could be considered the mother of the British nation. The case for Innogen is further enhanced by the fact that in Cymbeline, the Imogen character is married to Posthumus Leonatus, and in Much Ado we have a Leonato, who, in an early version, has a wife called Innogen. This earlier pairing of names is taken to reinforce the case for Innogen in Cymbeline. On the face of it then, Stanley Wells et al., who opted for Innogen in the Oxford Edition, have a strong case, but it has been challenged, notably by Ros King and John Pitcher, and I have my own contribution to add to their objections.

I mentioned earlier that Shakespeare sets trails of clues to his subtext. There are two that I wish to draw attention to in this paper. One concerns coins and medals, but the one we are concerned with here, is the trail of names. I propose that Shakespeare intends to allude to Innogen, the pseudo-historical figure, but he chooses quite deliberately to change the name slightly. Why would he do that? Because this is the beginning of a trail: there are a whole series of names in Cymbeline, I suggest, that allude to historical or pseudo-historical figures that have names that are very slightly different. For example, Belarius, relates to Belisarius; Posthumous to Postumus; Polydor to Polydorus; Cadwal to Caedwalla; Euriphile to Herophile, etc.3 Shakespeare is indicating to his sophisticated audience that Innogen, for example, the mother of the British nation, tells us something about the character Imogen: she is not exactly the same, it is not a straight-forward identification, but the one tells us something about the allegorical identification of the other; in this case, that Imogen represents something about Britain as a whole.

Before I skip on rapidly to the second textual issue, a word about the pairing of Leonato and Innogen in Much Ado, because this is often noted but never explained. The action takes place in the house of Leonato. The lion is the heraldic symbol of England. The implication to the sophisticated audience may be either that this play is really about what is going on in England, or possibly about English exiles in Italy. The reference to a wife called Innogen is simply to reinforce the hint that this is a play with an English/British setting hidden under an Italian veil.

In Act III, scene I of Cymbeline, the queen is trying to put some backbone into her husband to persuade him to defy the Roman demands for tribute and she gives us the patriotic ‘Neptune’s park’ speech. What Shakespeare has done here, I suggest (following Asquith and Butler, among others), is put into the mouth of Cymbeline’s queen an English, Protestant, nationalist, rhetoric – the defiance of Roman power and authority, a thinly-veiled, thumbing-the-nose-at-the-pope.4 The queen’s son Cloten is the other character with a similar voice, and it is one of the more telling indications of the Catholic standpoint of the text as a whole that this Protestant rhetoric is put into the mouths of the two wicked characters in the play.5 I have referred previously to clues involving coins and medals, and in the Neptune’s park speech we find an instance of this. The imagery deployed appears to reflect the designs on medals struck in 1588 and 1589 to commemorate the victory over the Armada.6 To take just one of a number of parallels, these medals commonly depicted Britain as a park in the middle of the sea. Here is the speech:

Remember, sir, my liege,
The kings, your ancestors, together with
The natural bravery of your isle, which stands
As Neptune’s park, ribbed and paled-in
With oaks unscaleable and roaring waters,
With sands that will not bear your enemies’ boats,
But suck them up to th’ topmast. A kind of conquest
Caesar made here, but made not here his brag
Of ‘came and saw and overcame:’ with shame
(the first that ever touch’d him) he was carried
From off our coast, twice beaten: and his shipping
(Poor ignorant baubles!) on our terrible seas,
Like egg-shells mov’d upon their surges, crack’d
As easily ‘gainst our rocks. For joy whereof,
The famed Cassibelan, who was once at point,
(O giglot fortune!) to master Caesar’s sword,
Made Lud’s town with rejoicing-fires bright,
And Britons strut with courage. (3.1.17-34)

Now, just to point up a couple of the other medal links: there were two principal designs of Armada medals struck in England, one has the park image, the other has Spanish ships being smashed on the rocks and one of them looking somewhat like an egg being broken open with men spilling out into the sea. Moreover, on this medal, ironic reference is made to Caesar’s ‘Veni, vedi, vici’, with the inscription ‘veni, vedi, vive’ – ‘come, see, live’. The depiction of England as a park on one of the medals shows what looks like a fence of wooden paling around it, and this brings us neatly to the textual issue. Where the Folio has ‘Neptune’s park, ribb’d and pal’d in with oakes unscaleable and roaring waters’ the editors of the Arden Shakespeare, have amended ‘oakes’ to ‘rocks’. Another suggestion is ‘banks’. The Oxford, Textual Companion, tells us, ‘Editors agree in rejecting F [the folio ‘oakes’]; but banks seems preferable to rocks in suggesting both ‘sea-coast’ … and ‘an artificial earthwork, an embankment for military use’.’ This question has long been at issue on the grounds that Britain is not surrounded by a defensive wall of oaks, and hence ‘rocks’, for example, would seem to make a lot more sense. It also alliterates. The Textual Companion is slightly out of date, however, because more recently the Cambridge Cymbeline has reverted to ‘oakes’. The latter version is supported by the description of Neptune’s park as ‘ribbed and paled-in’ because paling is wooden fencing such as might surround a park.5 Moreover, a deer-park would have high, ‘unscaleable’, fencing and would commonly have strong uprights at regular intervals like ribs. Where is the great rocky cliff-face that has this feature? Hence, I concur with the Cambridge Cymbeline that Shakespeare wrote ‘oakes’ because he meant oaks, but I have some new evidence to present that gives us a very specific reason why he might have done that, as we shall see.

The queen declares, ‘A kind of conquest Caesar made here, but made not here his brag / Of ‘came and saw and overcame’. We can take this at face value: Caesar’s ‘veni, vedi, vici’ refers to a rapid and decisive victory achieved in Asia Minor, very different from his foggy adventures in Britain that were a much more bruising affair.6 But with his ‘made here, but made not here’, Shakespeare is drawing attention to location, and alert contemporaries, aware of his propensity to play with times and places, may have detected another subtle clue to the subtext. About 90 years after Julius Caesar’s incursion, another Caesar – Claudius – made ‘a kind of conquest’ at the settlement of Camelodunum, as this was the town where he received the ritual submission of the British chieftains, that great historic occasion that formalised the Roman conquest. Camelodunum had been the location of King Cymbeline’s court, and therefore is the place where the queen is making her speech. So, when the queen declares, ‘a kind of conquest Caesar made here’ there is at the very least a note of irony, but I suggest there is more than that. It was believed by Shakespeare’s contemporaries (notably Camden) that Camelodunum was at the coastal town of Maldon in Essex that stands at the head of the Blackwater estuary, a location that matches imagery in the queen’s speech (and a town where Shakespeare may have performed early in his career). Significantly, the coast at this point has ‘sands that will not bear your enemies boats’, and there is an archaeological site just outside Maldon, at Maylandsea, where an ancient boat has literally been sucked up to the topmast. The really telling point is that embedded in the mud of this estuary are long lines of ancient wooden posts, including oak posts nine inches in diameter and regularly spaced as though the remains of a great fence. There are a number of these structures at different points around the estuary and one of them is no less than 390m long. Wood from these structures has been carbon-dated to the 8th century though some are thought to be considerably older, and they are now believed to be the remains of fish-traps, though this was unknown to Shakespeare. I suggest that Shakespeare’s oaks are one hint among many, by which he is directing his sophisticated audience to Maldon. He does this because he is giving clues that will unlock his allegory. If his coterie audience register that Cymbeline and his daughter Imogen lived at Maldon, and they know that Anne Line and her angry father also lived at Maldon, they can begin to make a connection. Once they start to explore this they will soon discover other clues that confirm the identification.

To conclude: I am suggesting that overzealous editors have smoothed the text of Cymbeline according to the surface layer of the play but in the process have destroyed deliberate discrepancies which are there in the First Folio as clues to the subtext.

Martin Dodwell 3 July 2014





BSA Conference 2014

12 07 2014
Braveheart monument (not very good likeness!)

Braveheart monument (not very good likeness!)

View from Stirling Castle

View from Stirling Castle

The British Shakespeare Association held its biennial conference, ‘Shakespeare: Text, Power, Authority’, at the University of Stirling from 3 – 6 July, drawing delegates not only from Britain but ‘the great globe itself’; Korea, Japan, Australia, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Spain, Italy, Poland, Denmark, France, Canada, USA and the Republic of Ireland. This list is just from the people I personally had the pleasure to meet over the 4-day event.

The first plenary was graced by Margreta de Grazia expounding on ‘Shakespeare’s First Anachronism’. As someone who knows what it is to creep to a lecture like a snail on the way to dusty intellectual death, I seem to have undergone a miraculous transformation and actually found the whole thing quite stimulating. Troilus and Cressida, set during the Trojan Wars, is the Shakespeare play set furthest back in time. In Act 2, Scene 2, Hector compares Paris and Troilus to ‘young men, whom Aristotle thought unfit to hear moral philosophy’. This is the sort of quip that might be made by an Elizabethan master to his boys at the Stratford Grammar school – to take an entirely random example – but is anachronistic in the mouth of Hector speaking 800 years before Aristotle was born. There was a time, apparently, when triumphant scholars leapt on this and brandished it as an example of a glaring error by William Shakespeare, the sort of thing that would have been picked up had he a decent editor. The provincial over-achiever had been found out as not merely having little Latin and less Greek but as evidently unreliable when it came to History as well. In other words, apart from Drama and Poetry (which doesn’t really count) he was quite useless. Scholars have identified numerous other anachronisms in Troilus and throughout the canon to add to this ‘first’ concerning Aristotle. De Gratia, who mesmerised her audience by a certain turn of the head and flashing of teeth and eye as much as by the turn of her argument, is of the view that Shakespeare probably new exactly what he was doing. He was adding spice to the text or added relevance for the benefit of his contemporary audience. And so, De Gratia proposes that anachronisms are better thought of as modernisms. As evidence she cited Golding’s translation of Ovid and Chapman’s Homer, in which, apparently (I haven’t checked) ancient weapons are modernised to cannons etc, even though they recount events many yonks before the invention of gunpowder (even in China). Good point. Actually, Deo Gratia went further, she suggested that we STOP using the term anachronism with it’s connotation of error and use the word modernism instead.

This post is already long enough but I want to tell you about another plenary, this time by Colin Burrow. If Margreta was a brainy butterfly, Colin was a genial wasp and their contributions were almost identical. For Colin the offending word was source, as in narrative and dramatic sources, i.e. texts that Shakespeare data-mined, plagiarised, or was otherwise influenced by in writing his own material. He suggested that we use the term ‘authority’ in place of ‘source’. Whatever. Anachronism/modernism, source/authority, we are talking semantics. The interesting point for me about Colin Burrow’s presentation is that he thinks Shakespeare is very familiar with his Classical sources/authorities. In other words, in company with Margreta de Grazia, he thinks Shakespeare knows exactly what he is doing. The implication is that if we think Shakespeare has made a mistake, we should probably think again. It may be that he is just several steps ahead of us.

No time to tell about Bogdanov, Andrew Murphy, the ‘Tavern Scenes’, and lots of fascinating papers and people, but it was great. Thank-you BSA.





First Things Review

22 04 2014

The May edition of First Things – ‘America’s most influential journal of religion and public life’ – has a nice review of Tragic Muse.

Thumbs up:

‘fascinating book … what Dodwell does in the book is elucidate connections – in the network of clandestine Catholics; between players, playhouse owners, and landlords with one another and with Line’s family – and in Shakespeare’s plays and poetry – that make at least possible, and in my view plausible, his postulation that Anne Line was ‘Shakespeare’s tragic muse’’

Thumbs down:

‘His thoughts on Anne Line and The Tempest are regrettably elliptical’

It is in the ‘briefly noted’ section (behind a paywall in the online edition) and is by William Tighe, an historian who has specialized in Tudor and Stuart Britain. His doctoral thesis (Cambridge) was on the Gentlemen Pensioners at the court of Queen Elizabeth, and he has published on various 16th and 17th century subjects so he is in a pretty good position to make an assessment.

The one real criticism he makes: ‘His thoughts on Anne Line and The Tempest are regrettably elliptical’. I am not entirely sure what the problem is but perhaps he is implying that my thoughts do not really go anywhere, that I am somehow chasing my own tail. If so, he has a point. Although I am quite clear that Stephano’s ‘Mistress line’ (IV.i) in The Tempest is a reference to Anne Line, how this fits into the play as a whole was obscured from my mind by the dark clouds and lashing rain of incomprehension (despite seeing the force of arguments that it was a signing-off play and a psychomachia). With Cymbeline or ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’, it is quite different – I feel confident that I can see the whole work and show how the parts make up that whole – but with The Tempest the big picture eluded me. More recently though, I have been given pause by the following comment from Hugh Richmond (Emeritus English prof at Berkeley) :

The Tempest has long been recognized as directly deriving, in part, from Montaigne’s essay “Of Cannibals” (including Gonzalo’s famous speech) in which Montaigne prefers the values of the Cannibal tribe (of which Caliban is an anagram) to those of contemporary Europeans. Cannibal is a variant of Carribal (or Carribean), a name derived from the indigenous inhabitants of that region. Montaigne suggested that eating dead people was not as bad as the tortures inflicted on the living in the European religious wars.

If the theme of religious toleration is central to the play, and central to the argument is that point of Montaigne’s about the inhumanity being perpetrated in the name of religion, the hanging of Anne Line fits this precisely, as do the macabre allusions to the horrors inflicted on the two priests who died with her (‘jerkin under the line’ and references to the quartering process).

Shakespeare’s Catholicism

As part of his review, Tighe provides a summary of evidence for Shakespeare’s Catholicism that bares repeating:

And Shakespeare? Evidence has been mounting over the past thirty years to support the following claims, none of them uncontested, and presented here in order of descending agreement: that Shakespeare came from a strongly Catholic family; that in all of his works he refrains from disparaging Catholic practices and beliefs, or abusing the papacy, which all would have gone over well with his audiences had he done it; that many of his plays and poems display a sympathetic attitude towards, or at least a nostalgia for, Catholicism; that he may have studied in a Lancashire Catholic gentry household (as “William Shakeshafte”) in the early 1580s, or abroad in a Catholic educational establishment; even that on three occasions in the mid-1580s he may have registered as a visitor to the English College in Rome; that he appears to have avoided making his Easter Communion in the Church of England during the years that he resided in Southwar[k] (where unusually good records of communicants have been kept and preserved); and that “he died a papist” (to cite Richard Davies, writing some decades after Shakespeare’s death).

Not a bad list, but the big miss in my opinion is the John Speed quote from 1611: ‘this papist and his poet, … the one ever feigning, the other ever falsifying the truth’. The ‘poet’ here is believed to be Shakespeare, and the ‘papist’ is Nicholas Doleman, a pseudonym of the chief Catholic propagandist of the day, the Jesuit exile Fr Robert Parsons. This hostile comment from the Protestant Speed slams Shakespeare as a ‘papist’ but it is often overlooked or underestimated because Shakespeare is not actually named in the text.





Talking Catholic Shakespeare

20 03 2014

Later today, 20 March, Dennis Taylor of Boston College (editor of Shakespeare and the Culture of Christianity in Early Modern England) will be giving a public lecture on ‘Shakespeare and Catholicism’ at Holy Cross College, Worcester. That is Worcester Massachusetts. If t’were Worcester, Worcestershire, I would it t’were done quickly as I could go and hear what he has to say without the need to alight on the other side of a neighbouring pond. But I will not be disappointed, (or unaneled, unhousled etc) because I have received a treasured invite to this year’s Tyburn Lecture on the same subject to be given by the inestimable Clare Asquith on 6 May. The Tyburn Lecture is intended to be given by a Catholic prominent in public life here in the UK and previous speakers have included Chris Patten, Chairman of the BBC Trust, and Cherie Blair, human-rights lawyer, avid ebay practitioner, and wife of some guy from long, long ago. Asquith is billed as ‘the Countess of Oxford who is an independent scholar and author of Shadowplay‘ and it is both fascinating and encouraging that a book published in 2005, nearly ten years ago, is still making waves. It is the ideas in that book that are creating the interest, and so they should. I always considered it a seminal work that would prompt a whole series of more detailed studies and eventually a sea-change in approaches to Shakespeare.

In other news, I have had my paper ‘Secrets of Cymbeline’, on the Catholic subtext of that play, accepted for the British Shakespeare Association conference in July. More anon.





Candlemas Talk

24 01 2014

Updated 3/3/2014

Candlemas celebration, South Woodford

Candlemas celebration, South Woodford


Introduced by Fr Francis

Introduced by Fr Francis


I am delighted to say that I have been invited to give a talk at the Parish of St Anne Line in South Woodford, London, by the parish priest, Fr Francis Coveney. It will be on Sunday, 2nd February at 3:30pm in the parish hall behind the Church and I will be speaking on the subject of my book, Anne Line: Shakespeare’s Tragic Muse. If you are in London, do come along. The address is:

St Anne Line Parish, Grove Crescent, South Woodford. E18 2JR. It is a short walk from South Woodford Station on the Central Line so it is not difficult to get to. By road it is near the end of the M11.

The date, 2nd February, is highly significant. It is Candlemas day, known more formally as the Feast of the Presentation and in the past as the Feast of the Purification of Our Lady. It commemorates the time that Mary and Joseph took the baby Jesus to the temple to offer the sacrifice required in the law and were greeted by the holy widow Anna and the prophet Simeon (Luke 2:22-38). Candlemas is also the day on which the holy widow Anne Line was arrested four hundred and thirteen years ago when there was a raid on the rooms she rented in Fetter Lane. It was the eve of her eighteenth wedding anniversary. The Jesuit Henry Garnet described what happened as follows in a letter written on 11 March:

The hour came when the room of the good lady was betrayed by some Judases (as they label many) on the day of the Purification of the Madonna and a furious band of men authorized by Popham entered. The priest was standing blessing the candles and one of that band nearly seized him when he ran in among the Catholics (the heretics take the guilt for bullying a lady Catholic of good faith as though she were a man). They tried to grab the shirt-tale of the tunic and it was torn as the priest made his escape. All the others were delivered to Popham. He commanded that the tunic be repaired but it stayed in rags. The source of this was the testimony of the other lady that was sentenced to death.

Making a point at South Woodford

Making a point at South Woodford

Popham was the Lord Chief Justice. The ‘other lady’ was Mrs Gage, nee Margaret Copley (brother of Anthony Copley, author of A Fig for Fortune, a Catholic response to Spenser’s Faerie Queen – new critical edition by Susannah Monta expected later this year or 2015). Garnet’s letter is written in Italian. The word ‘tunic’ from Garnet’s Italian ‘tonica’ could be translated as ‘alb’ and that is the obvious meaning. It was a white garment worn as a vestment. From the Jesuit John Gerard we learn that Fr Page rushed up stairs and was safely hidden in a priest-hole. This is interesting because the actual house of the arrest has never been identified but this detail suggests that this was a house used by Catholics for some time. We know that Anne Line had only recently moved there. We know also that two houses used by Catholics in Fetter Lane are mentioned in intelligence reports, one of which was owned by the Payne family. It has been suggested that the execution of Fr John Payne at Chelmsford in 1581 may have had a significant influence on Anne Line’s conversion. Later on she was known to the Roper sisters of the family that had hosted John Payne in Beckenham. So, without wishing to sound flippant, it is quite likely that she was arrested at the house of Payne on Fetter Lane, and on the day the Virgin Mary was told ‘and a sword shall pierce your own heart too’.

This is part of Garnet’s letter (digitally enhanced) just to give an idea of the difficulty of working with the source material:

The hour came...

The hour came…


[edit 4/2/14] This is an early and very scrappy transcription of mine of the whole quote above, included some notes:

Hora la stanza de questa buona Signora fu per qualche Giuda [Judases] (Come nd marcano molti) tradita et cosi nel giorno della Purificano della Madonna c’entro [entered] una furia di gente autorizata dal Poppamo, et il sacerdote stando benedicendo le candele, uno di quella brigata l’havea quasi le mani adosso [addosso – siezed] ma urodei [rodare – run in?] Cathci (li heretici mettono la colpa sopru [sopruso-bully] una Signora Cathci se bene cre [cre-do?] do ch’era un huomo) lo tiro per il lembo [shirt-tail] della tonica [tunica], et lo strai: [strai-cio (straccio-cloth, rag)] cio di modo che il sacerdote fuggi et fiascose [fiasco-failure] tutti le altri erano [were] presi [taken] et menati [delivered] a Poppamo. Il quale cdmando che nd si refac [repair] esse [they] quella [that] to: [to-nica-tunic] nica ma che restasse cosi stracciata, p che [perche-because] fosse un testimonia cd radi [radice-root/source] quell altra Signora quale era ancora lei disegnata ella morte,

See the comments for a better transcription by Joe Gobbini

MCD 24/01/2014

Update 3/3/2014
I thought that the talk went really well but the confirmation was that I sold out of copies of the book at the signing afterwards and had to resort to taking orders. People seem surprised that the material is so strong. Well I certainly think so, but it is great to be able to present it directly as well as in a book. On this occasion I tried to focus on the historical research because members of the Essex Recusant Society were in the audience but in a few days time I will be talking to students at the St Anne Line Junior School in Basildon which will present another challenge. I am advised that this age-group are quite unfazed by gory details.