Did Shakespeare Have a Mom? – 08 May 2016

BIRTH

Of course he did. Her name was Mary Arden, the daughter of a wealthy farmer. We know hardly anything about Mary Arden, except that Shakespeare decided to honor his maternal family’s name by setting his play, As You Like It, in the ‘Forests of Arden’.

Interestingly enough, As You Like It contains one of the strongest and most progressive female characters in all of Shakespeare’s plays, Rosalind. Not only is she still extraordinary today, in Shakespeare’s time she would’ve been almost unrecognizable in a world where women were considered property, and rarely played any role in society outside of mothers, servants or prostitutes (the singular exception of Queen being duly noted). I’m not suggesting Shakespeare based Rosalind on his mother, there’s absolutely no evidence of that. But I think it’s neat that Rosalind tromped about in the Forests of Arden.

Mary Arden most definitely fulfilled the role of mother. She bore her husband John Shakespeare eight children, and most certainly suffered her share of tragedy: Will Shakespeare had seven siblings, yet three of them died either in infancy or childhood. Many of the extended Arden family were Catholic, though we really don’t know about Mary herself or her husband. And Will Shakespeare? He kept his religious beliefs–if he even had any–wisely secret.

What impact did this virtually unknown woman have on the Bard of Avon? It’s hard to ever know, but we do know this: the role of mothers don’t appear often in Shakespeare’s plays. Too much shouldn’t be read into this, for in Shakespeare’s times, women weren’t allowed to perform on stage. Shakespeare designed his plays for an existing company of actors, and he had to make certain he had boy actors for every very female role.

Gertrude, the mother in Hamlet, isn’t the world’s greatest mom. Lady Macbeth, the supreme villainess, muses that she probably wouldn’t have made a great mother. So many of the other scintillating females in Shakespeare’s plays are not mothers or, if they are, never really address the issue. But getting boys to play moms? That would be tough.

There is, however, one famous monologue delivered by a mother in grief. Shakespeare must’ve had an extraordinary lad in his troupe to perform this. I hate to end this blog–on Mother’s Day–on a negative note. But in writing this speech, Shakespeare shows he strived to reveal a mother’s love, and the kind of raging grief the deaths of sons could elicit. It’s a powerful speech, words that could only ever come from the heart of a Mother.

From Richard III, here is Queen Margaret’s magnificent speech:

QUEEN MARGARET:

If ancient sorrow be most reverent,

Give mine the benefit of seniory

And let my griefs frown on the upper hand.

If sorrow can admit society,

Tell over your woes again by viewing mine.

I had an Edward, till a Richard killed him;

I had a Harry, till a Richard killed him:

Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard killed him;

Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard killed him.

Thou hadst a Clarence too, and Richard killed him.

From forth the kennel of thy womb hath crept

A hellhound that doth hunt us all to death:

That dog, that had his teeth before his eyes,

To worry lambs and lap their gentle blood,

That foul defacer of God’s handiwork,

That excellent grand tyrant of the earth

That reigns in gallèd eyes of weeping souls,

Thy womb let loose to chase us to our graves.

O upright, just, and true-disposing God,

How do I thank thee that this carnal cur

Preys on the issue of his mother’s body

And makes her pew-fellow with others’ moan!

Bear with me! I am hungry for revenge,

And now I cloy me with beholding it.

Thy Edward he is dead, that killed my Edward;

Thy other Edward dead, to quit my Edward;

Young York he is but boot, because both they

Matched not the high perfection of my loss.

Thy Clarence he is dead that stabbed my Edward,

And the beholders of this frantic play,

Th’ adulterate Hastings, Rivers, Vaughan, Grey,

Untimely smoth’red in their dusky graves.

Richard yet lives, hell’s black intelligencer;

Only reserved their factor to buy souls

And send them thither. But at hand, at hand,

Ensues his piteous and unpitied end.

Earth gapes, hell burns, fiends roar, saints pray,

To have him suddenly conveyed from hence.

Cancel his bond of life, dear God, I pray,

That I may live and say, ‘The dog is dead.’

I called thee once vain flourish of my fortune;

I called thee then poor shadow, painted queen,

The presentation of but what I was,

The flattering index of a direful pageant,

One heaved a-high to be hurled down below,

A mother only mocked with two fair babes,

A dream of what thou wast, a garish flag,

To be the aim of every dangerous shot;

A sign of dignity, a breath, a bubble,

A queen in jest, only to fill the scene.

Where is thy husband now? Where be thy brothers?

Where be thy two sons? Wherein dost thou joy?

Who sues and kneels and says, ‘God save the queen’?

Where be the bending peers that flatterèd thee?

Where be the thronging troops that followèd thee?

Decline all this, and see what now thou art:

For happy wife, a most distressèd widow;

For joyful mother, one that wails the name;

For one being sued to, one that humbly sues;

For queen, a very caitiff crowned with care;

For she that scorned at me, now scorned of me;

For she being feared of all, now fearing one;

For she commanding all, obeyed of none.

Thus hath the course of justice whirled about

And left thee but a very prey to time,

Having no more but thought of what thou wast,

To torture thee the more, being what thou art.

Thou didst usurp my place, and dost thou not

Usurp the just proportion of my sorrow?

Now thy proud neck bears half my burdened yoke,

From which even here I slip my weary head

And leave the burden of it all on thee.

Farewell, York’s wife, and queen of sad mischance!

These English woes shall make me smile in France.

The image is of the house on Henley Street in Stratford-Upon-Avon, where Mary Arden gave birth to her playwright son.

Sunday Shakespeare – 10 April 2016

Stratford-upon-Avon-12

I spent the day today with my aged mother. Her growing infirmity, and the difficulty with which she confronts her daily tasks, had me ruminating on age, and the whole cycle of life. All this was happened under a shadow, for earlier this week a beautiful young soul I know of was cut down in her prime. Which is worse? They both have their evils.

This strange cycle of birth, growth, prime and the winding down toward death versus capricious strokes of accident or disease are all tragedies humans have had to struggle with since we first made fire. Shakespeare recognized it, of course, and in his day just as today, those that lived into old age (which was much earlier than it is today), had to struggle with that downward spiral. But of course, Shakespeare also know what it was like for the young to die; his own son Hamnet died at age eleven.

Interesting, and perhaps wise, that Shakespeare should choose one of his comedies, As You Like It, rather than a history or tragedy, to lay out the great cycle of human life in an eloquent monologue. It’s delivered by the melancholy cynic, Jaques:

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,

Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.

And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like snail

Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,

Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad

Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,

Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,

Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,

Seeking the bubble reputation

Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,

In fair round belly with good capon lined,

With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,

Full of wise saws and modern instances;

And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts

Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,

With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,

His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide

For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,

Turning again toward childish treble, pipes

And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion,

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

As You Like It, Act II Scene vii

George Bernard Shaw hated the Jacques character for his cynicism, and Oscar Wilde mocked this speech–‘All the world’s a stage, and the play is badly cast’–and there’s reason to believe the Elizabethans might’ve thought this monologue banal; the seven ages of man are borrowed from Aristotle.

I’m no Shaw or Wilde, and so I find the speech comforting. It tells me that what my mother’s suffering she isn’t suffering alone. As to the other tragedy this week–nothing can mitigate it. But so much of Shakespeare is so full of unjust death and bad luck, the beautiful and innocent–as well as the bad–being cut down in full-bloom. Live life while you may.

Yes, I love this monologue, for with each stage of life, it employs some vital characteristic, going beyond just a list: with image, sound and action it takes the audience through the journey of age: infants puke; school children whine but shine; young lovers sigh like furnaces; soldiers utter oaths, filled with jealously, sudden and quick; middle agers saw wisely; older middle agers shrink, their booming voice of youth raising into trebles; and last, oblivion.

Other writers mock it, or hate Jacques’ cynicism, or wonder why this speech doesn’t show up in Macbeth along with Macbeth’s own stage metaphor, but I love it where it is: a gentle reminder, gently placed, that the Elizabethans struggled with the same things we do. Shakespeare, time and again, endures.

The image is of Nash House in Stratford-upon-Avon. Right next to this Tudor building stands the foundation of New Place, now gone: the building where Shakespeare died.

Sunday Sonnet – 27 December 2015

Shakespeare's grave

The central conceit of Sonnet 31 is strange, almost supernatural, and creepy.   By this point in the sonnet sequence, the Poet has fallen in love with the Young Man and now sees in this fair youth the loving essence of every old lover the Poet has ever had–to the point of likening the Young Man to a grave:

31

Thy bosom is endeared with all hearts,
Which I by lacking have supposed dead,
And there reigns love and all love’s loving parts,
And all those friends which I thought buried.
How many a holy and obsequious tear
Hath dear religious love stol’n from mine eye
As interest of the dead, which now appear
But things removed that hidden in thee lie!
Thou art the grave where buried love doth live,
Hung with the trophies of my lovers gone,
Who all their parts of me to thee did give;
That due of many now is thine alone:
Their images I loved I view in thee,
And thou, all they, hast all the all of me.

‘Thou art the grave where buried love doth live’ – you’re a grave where dead loves return to life

‘many a holy and obsequious tear / Hath dear religious love stol’n from mine eye / As interest of the dead, which now appear’ – I’ve shed tears at funerals for old loves I believed dead, only to find them in you

It’s pretty crazy. But when you consider the Elizabethan world and its life expectancy–plague, disease, bad nutrition, horrific medicine–and the middle-age of the Poet in love with a younger man, perhaps this grave and resurrection analogy isn’t so out of place.

And in the final couplet, the Poet says something beautiful and eloquent: That the Young Man embodies all of the loves the Poet’s ever known, and in that the Young Man has all of the Poet:

Their images I loved I view in thee,
And thou, all they, hast all the all of me.

Shakespeare was a genius at bringing together opposites: tragedy and comedy residing check to check in his plays; seemingly disparate themes and notions not colliding, but coalescing into one. The despair of the grave becoming the joy and solace of great love.

The image is of Shakespeare’s own grave at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon.  Photo taken by Yours Truly.  

Sunday Sonnet – Summer Solstice – 21 June 2015

Poster produced for the London, Midland & Scottish Railway (LMS) to promote rail travel to Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, and the LMS Welcombe Hotel, described as 'England's newest country house hotel'. As the birthplace of the playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Stratford-upon-Avon was promoted extensively to the American market. c 1923. Artwork by Warwick Goble, who studied at Westminster School of Art and started out as a lithographer. He exhibited at the Royal Academy and other leading galleries. He illustrated many books and designed posters for the LMS and Great Western Railway (GWR).
Poster produced for the London, Midland & Scottish Railway (LMS) to promote rail travel to Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, and the LMS Welcombe Hotel, described as ‘England’s newest country house hotel’. As the birthplace of the playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Stratford-upon-Avon was promoted extensively to the American market. c 1923. Artwork by Warwick Goble, who studied at Westminster School of Art and started out as a lithographer. He exhibited at the Royal Academy and other leading galleries. He illustrated many books and designed posters for the LMS and Great Western Railway (GWR).

In celebration of the Summer Solstice this morning, let’s enjoy The Bard’s sonnet famous for its seasons metaphor. Three winters have overcome three summers; and three springs have led to three autumns. It even references June:

104

To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I eyed,
Such seems your beauty still. Three winters cold
Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride,
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turn’d
In process of the seasons have I seen,
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burn’d,
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.
Ah! yet doth beauty, like a dial-hand,
Steal from his figure and no pace perceived;
So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
Hath motion and mine eye may be deceived:
For fear of which, hear this, thou age unbred;
Ere you were born was beauty’s summer dead.

Beyond the beauty and cleverness of the metaphorical seasonal changes–and the natural aging that comes with them–Shakespeare tantalizes us with what seems to be a time span of how long he’s known the Young Man. About three years (or, if you’re a numerologist or conspiracy theorist, 9 years or 12 years). And so for those of us who like to hope or believe that the Young Man was an actual person Will Shakespeare knew in real life, this sonnets seems to suggest that when this was written, Will had known his Young Man for three years.

But the important thing about this sonnet is its message, one Shakespeare obsessed over in many of the sonnets and in his plays: time, and how it so slowly steals away youth and beauty:

‘So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
Hath motion and mine eye may be deceived’

Yet, despite the aging of time, Love can blind us to those changes.

The image comes from a tourism poster for Stratford-upon-Avon (Shakespeare’s birthplace and home town), produced by the Midland and Scottish Railway, circa 1923.

Sunday Sonnet – 5 April 2015

Startford

When does Easter fall every year? The simplest explanation is that it’s always on the Sunday after the first Full Moon after the Spring Equinox, though this hasn’t always been the case. The point is that the Early Church Fathers wanted to approximate the timing of Easter to match the of year they imagined the first one occurred on. Anyhow, tying the lives of people to the cycles of Nature–that’s what today’s sonnet is all about: 

5

Those hours, that with gentle work did frame

The lovely gaze where every eye doth dwell,

Will play the tyrants to the very same

And that unfair which fairly doth excel;

For never-resting time leads summer on

To hideous winter, and confounds him there;

Sap checked with frost, and lusty leaves quite gone,

Beauty o’er-snowed and bareness every where:

Then were not summer’s distillation left,

A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass,

Beauty’s effect with beauty were bereft,

Nor it, nor no remembrance what it was:

   But flowers distilled, though they with winter meet,

   Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet. 

I believe this sonnet is best enjoyed for its wonderful extended metaphor, and not for its lame argument. Its argument is that Poet’s beautiful Young Man should procreate in order to preserve the ‘summer’s distillation’ of his physical beauty so that in the face of hideous winter, something is left. But what’s really lovely is how Shakespeare ties in the progression of human life through the seasons and how they all relate to one another. Especially flowers, that wilt once winter comes, but remain memorable because of the perfume there were used to create: 

   But flowers distilled, though they with winter meet,

   Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet. 

What I most like in this sonnet are the lines: ‘For never-resting time leads summer on / To hideous winter, and confounds him there.’ A wise warning to us all to cherish and embrace the ones you love, especially on a day like today. 

The image is from my visit a few years ago to Stratford-upon-Avon on a very spring-like rainy day. This is leading up to entrance of Holy Trinity Church, where William Shakespeare is buried.

Sunday Sonnet – 25 January 2015

Shakespeare's grave

Shakespeare was obsessed with Time. He saw what the ravages of time did to those he knew and loved. His own son Hamnet died at the age of eleven. In Elizabethan times, death was all around: plague, pestilence, violence, war and the Elizabethan judicial system.   Perhaps in no other sonnet does the destructive power of Time enjoy such concrete imagery as in Sonnet 60:

Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crown’d,
Crooked elipses ‘gainst his glory fight,
And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth
And delves the parallels in beauty’s brow,
Feeds on the rarities of nature’s truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow:
And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.

There’s so much going on here. The imagery of time: waves on pebbled shore as minutes. The powerful language of struggle: toil, fight, confound, delves, scythe. The journey of human life set down: nativity to maturity. Time as gift-giver and the gift-taker. And finally, the triumph of Art, which is the only thing we have that can defeat time: ‘in hope my verse shall stand.’

Here’s the thing about this Sonnet: To read, study and understand this single ‘Young Man’ sonnet is to understand much of Shakespeare: so many of the chief themes worked out in his plays and poetry are all here: The universal struggle against time’s destruction, and the only way to defeat it–to create Art. In Shakespeare’s case, to write. 

The image is of Will Shakespeare’s grave in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon. I took this photo when I visited several years ago. Notice how Shakespeare is identified as “Poet.” The was his greatness, and how, in the end, he defeated time.