A note on the design of the Shakespeare First Folio and the Spanish Marriage Crisis
This article was first published in the Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter (Fall 1998).
For decades anti-Stratfordians have echoed the complaint of James Boswell the younger, the editor who completed Edmund Malone’s Variorum Shakespeare, about the Shakespeare First Folio (1623). There was, believed Boswell, “something fishy” about the folio. Literary historians such as George Greenwood or Gerald Rendall thought they knew the reason for the smell. If you want to hide the writer, what better way than to pin someone else’s face to the cover of his work? When Sidney Lee finally threw down the gauntlet of folio editor Ben Jonson’s authority as the first “Stratfordian,” Greenwood smiled and replied, without missing a beat, “we of the heretical persuasion can afford to smile. For we see no reason to suppose that Jonson might not have taken the course we attribute to him [i.e. participate in a conspiratorial hoax] and considered himself quite justified in doing so…”
Rendall, an early Oxfordian known primarily for the influence his two books on The Sonnets exercised on Sigmund Freud, proposed Jonson as the “skilled and most effective agent of anonymity.” Rendall then followed suit with additional materials pointing directly to folio editor Jonson’s employment by the family of de Vere’s son-in-law Phillip Herbert, Earl of Montgomery, during the two year period in which the folio was under preparation. To this day a suite in Mary Sidney’s Wilton estate is known as the “Jonson room.”
Perhaps for obvious reasons, then, the folio has always been on the list of the seven things one does not discuss in a Freshman Shakespeare survey. Stratfordians, as Charlton Ogburn argues in The Mysterious William Shakespeare (1984, 1992), “have no case if they do not take the First Folio at face value” and “grant it the claim of authenticity.”
Recently, however, the orthodox practice of backpedaling the folio’s irregularities has started to change. In 1988 Leah Marcus authored an astonishing expose of the folio. Although her intentions are orthodox beyond reproach, Puzzling Shakespeare: Local Reading And Its Discontents (1988) is on my list of the top ten orthodox Shakespeare books Oxfordians should love to hate. Indeed, it is the first book by anyone to begin the job of placing the curious semiotics of the folio in a proper comparative light.
And now we have Peter Dickson’s exciting new research on the political context of the 1620s period demonstrating that Henry de Vere, 18th Earl of Oxford, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, and the Herbert brothers (William and Philip) who patronized the folio (with one, Philip, being married to Susan Vere), were all at the forefront of the intense public hostility against the marriage negotiations between Prince Charles and the sister of Philip IV. These staunch English Protestants feared the worst– that the country was about to be auctioned off to the Spanish Crown, and all because the love-struck James I had already delegated a frightening degree of power to the irresponsible Duke of Buckingham George Villiers while the implacable international chess player Gondomar watched, calculated, and maneuvered. The contretemps over the marriage became the greatest domestic dispute of James’s reign.
I daresay that no careful reader of the two past Shakespeare Oxford Newsletters will wish to admit to entertaining any serious doubts that Dickson has established a prima facia case for his theory. Even those who remain skeptical must admit that the circumstances seem remarkably suggestive. Let us consider some of the relevant facts.
The printing of the folio was a sloppy, rushed job; to this day a small industry –which includes the past labors of Emily Clay Folger, Charlton Hinman, Edwin Elliott Willoughby and other luminary scholars–is devoted to establishing a documentary record of folio publication anomalies. So bad is the folio typography that each copy exists in a unique state. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of errors in many copies. Hinman, treading where no cypher-crunching Baconian would dare to go, actually invented a special machine to enable collation of the myriad textual variants to the giant book. Yet, the Stratfordians have no explanation for why the First Folio was so sloppily printed.
The folio was patronized by de Vere’s in-laws. These, like his son, were also among those spearheading the Protestant opposition to the impending Spanish marriage and resisting the rising influence of Villiers and Gondomar in the court. The dates of Henry de Vere’s imprisonment (April 1622 to December 1623) match the dates of production of the folio almost exactly (February 1622 or later to November 1623).
The folio effects a nationalist character which would have served such a political cause well. It celebrates a dramatic tradition which was reputedly an inspiration to both Elizabeth and James. It places the historic deeds of the ancient Brittains and their medieval and Renaissance descendents such as Henry V or the Bastard Falconbridge on a par with those of the ancients.
Are we left, then, with a case–however plausible–which must remain “speculative,” “subjective” or “unproven” in the absence of that much lamented category of thing, the “documentary evidence”? Do we need a note in the Earl of Pembroke’s handwriting to the publisher William Jaggard, “hurry it up, old man, my cousin’s in the tower”?
The purpose of this article is to propose that we do not. There is in fact a document, one well known, I should hope, to all readers of this Newsletter and now available in paperback for $19.95 in many bookstores, which confirms the intrinsic plausibility of Dickson’s thesis. I mean the Shakespeare First Folio itself. Before passing negative judgement on Dickson’s thesis, find yourself a copy of any one of the popular facsimiles of this “smoking gun.” Review the introductory materials, the table of contents, and the general plan of the book; you may begin to understand what Jonson and the other architects of the folio (if any) were up to.
Notice that the first play, for example, is The Tempest. Now, isn’t that, somehow, appropriate? The Tempest tells the allegory of de Vere’s life as an artist, the exiled magi Prospero. Prospero is an older and more-alienated version of the same character we saw as the Duke in Measure for Measure–the artist himself, comically trying to have an impact on a social order which spurns his humors and his magic. The play tells the story of how this man came to be marooned on the desert island of his own art, within the magic circle of the 1623 Folio. Imprisoned here, he is, as Samuel Shepherd wrote of Shakespeare in 1651, “a Shepheard cag’d in stone,” cut off from the common redemption which would be granted through the recognition of his identity could it be restored through prayer, scholarship, or any other means.
If you think that this sounds plausible but you aren’t yet convinced (after all, such an effect could be achieved, in this case, by mere coincidence), consider my second example of how the folio exhibits a structural character which appears to be intentionally designed. Editor Jonson has constructed the folio to communicate messages (particularly messages keyed to the date 1623, or more generally to the politics of the era or of de Vere’s life as the artist) which individual component plays cannot. In other words, the whole of the folio is more than the sum of its parts.
If you think I’m making this up and you can therefore safely ignore it, think again. I’m merely transposing what the best Jonson experts have already said about his careful design of his own 1616 folio. Consider Richard Dutton’s explanation:
Over the last few years there has been a growing recognition that the organization of the Epigrams–like that of Bartholomew Fair–is far more subtle, sophisticated and significant than at first meets the eye; behind the apparent randomness or spontaneity, there is a careful and deliberate structure. In different, though related ways we may now begin to appreciate that the same is true of the first folio as a whole … the organization of the first folio is surely intended to impress upon us the essential interrelatedness of the items within it, inviting us to read it as a unified volume, across generic boundaries.
Obviously, the idea that The Tempest was placed first in the Shakespeare folio to invoke an allegory of authorship finds ample warrant in this description of Jonson’s editorial technique when applied to his own literary corpus. But can we find further evidence for the deliberate arrangement of the component parts of the folio in order to make architectonic statements? Undoubtedly many could be proposed and at least several of these might be “correct” — whatever that means here.
But the one I have in mind is special for one very good reason: to my way of thinking, it supplies all the “documentary” proof Dickson’s theory could ever want. It also happens to make a nice complement to the example of The Tempest. In that case the allegory deduced is of a personal, authorial, perhaps even subjective nature. My second case, on the contrary, concerns public affairs of state and history. This is the fact–the documentary fact–that the last play in the folio is Cymbeline.
Now, why is that? Can anyone think of a really good reason which has escaped my notice? For Stratfordians the placement of Cymbeline is another unexplained anomaly. The play certainly does not belong in the concluding section of tragedies. An early Arden editor conjectured that its placement may have been “the result of late receipt of the ‘copy’ in the printinghouse.” W.W. Greg supposed that it may have been “through a misunderstanding that Jaggard placed it at the end of the volume instead of the section [containing the comedies].” Other Stratfordians may discover other excuses for the play’s placement. I think such explanations are wrong.
If, however, we instead consider the placement of Cymbeline from the point of view of Dickson’s theory about the Spanish marriage crisis, everything seems to fall into place with no need to impute misunderstandings to Jaggard or any other party to the folio’s production. Cymbeline, whatever genre we may assign it to, is conspicuously a play about the prehistoric battle for English independence from Roman rule. In it the English king Cymbeline, with the help of Posthumous Leonatus, defeats the Roman forces and runs them out of the land. The play ends with Cymbeline offering the comic promise that Britain,
Although the victor, [submits] to Caesar
And to the Roman empire, promising
To pay our wonted tribute, from the which
We were persuaded by our wicked queen.
No English reader of 1623 could have considered this plot without being reminded of the parallel between Cymbeline’s war for the independence of Britain and the current counter-reformation politics of James’s reign and the Spanish marriage crisis. The play concludes on a note of British victory, but the victoryis tempered by strenuous protestations of Cymbeline’s desire for peace with Rome–from the vantage of independent equality.
It is the perfect conclusion to a volume sponsored by the era’s leading faction of Protestant nobles and designed to send a forceful message to a monarch who was, they believed, flirting with disaster. Consider the play’s concluding lines:
Cym: Laud we the Gods,
And let our crooked Smoakes climbe to their Noftrils
From our bleft Altars. Publifh we this Peace
To all our Subiects. Set we forward : Let
A Roman, and a Britifh Enfigne waue
Friendly together : fo through Luds-Towne march,
And in the Temple of great Iupter
Our Peace wee’l ratifie : Seale it with Feafts.
Set on there : Neuer was a Warre did ceafe
(Ere bloodie hands were wafh’d) with fuch a Peace.
Note the key phrase, from the point of view of the Folio conspirators,
Publifh we this Peace,
To all our Subiects
As applied to the publication of the First Folio, the phrase means that Pembroke, Montgomery, de Vere, Southampton and the rest, not Buckingham and Gondomar, or even King James, were dictating the terms of an acceptable peace with Spain and international Catholicism. Their “magna carta” was the First Folio of “Shakespeare.”