“Much Ado About Italy”: Installment No. 2 of a Talk for the Shakespearean Authorship Trust

Installment No. 2 of my talk about Richard Paul Roe and his book The Shakespeare Guide to Italy at the recent conference of the Shakespearean Authorship Trust (S.A.T.) at the Globe in London:

1st Lt. Richard Paul Roe December 1944, age 22

1st Lt. Richard Paul Roe
December 1944, age 22

“He was no ordinary individual. He had served in Europe during World War Two as a B-17 bomber pilot and during that time he fell in love with Italy – the place, people, culture, the food and wine, the history, and all the rest of it – just as Shakespeare, whoever he was, must have fallen in love with Italy four hundred years ago.

“After the war he went to the University of California at Berkeley and got himself a BA in History. He picked up a law degree paid for by the G.I. Bill, but then in 1952 at age thirty, with a young family to support, he became a victim of the terrible polio epidemic that year. He was paralyzed and spent several months in an iron lung – just like one of these.

Iron Lungs - 1952

Iron Lungs – 1952

“The 1952 polio epidemic became the worst outbreak in U.S. history – well over 57,0OO cases of polio leaving more than 3,000 dead. Dick Roe was among the more than 21,000 victims left with a mild to disabling paralysis – and here was this one life, with this one remarkable journey on behalf of Shakespeare still some three and half decades yet to come in the future, and it would have lost to us.

“But he met that challenge and now we have The Shakespeare Guide to Italy – twelve chapters, dealing with ten of the plays with Italian settings, from Verona to Milan, from Pisa to Padua, to Venice and Florence and Messina – and more. Let us open to Roe’s introduction to his book and listen to some of what he felt was most immediately important to share with us:

“’There is a secret Italy hidden in the plays of Shakespeare. It is an ingeniously described Italy that has neither been recognized, nor even suspected — not in four hundred years – save by a curious few. It is exact; it is detailed; and it is brilliant…

"Romeo and Juliet" First Quarto - 1597 (No Author's Name)

“Romeo and Juliet”
First Quarto – 1597
(No Author’s Name)

“’These descriptions are in challenging detail, and nearly all their locations can still be found in Italy today. It is an Italy that has never before been acknowledged because of a widely accepted dogma that negated its existence, dampening any motive to leave home and go in search of it. Of the few things about Italy which critics admit the playwright got right, they say he must have learned them from a source right there in England, especially since the proclaimed playwright had never been in Italy – a consistently asserted fact used to explain why the author of the plays set in Italy made repeated ‘mistakes’ about that country.

“’In truth, as will be demonstrated, the precise and abundant allusions in those plays, to places and things the length of that country, are so unique to it that they attest to the playwright’s personal travels there. By journeying in Italy today, with the Italian plays in hand, reading them as though they were books of instruction, the playwright’s vast erudition about that exciting country and its civilization is revealed.’

“But right at the beginning of Chapter One is a personal story, which, for many readers of The Shakespeare Guide to Italy, has become a kind of symbol of the entire book – a shorthand way of referring to the many startling and amazing things that Shakespeare pointed to and that Dick Roe wound up finding. This particular anecdote at the beginning is hardly one of the most amazing little adventures, but for some reason it’s memorable and seems to stand for all the others. And we might as well call it, simply enough, The Sycamores.

verona

“It’s the first thing in Chapter One, which is entitled ‘Romeo and Juliet – Devoted Love in Verona.’ And I think that Dick Roe, who never thought of himself as a writer, and in fact who, as I mentioned, never even planned to write a book – that here, he set the tone by putting himself viscerally into the story. And I feel that even those of us who know the book tend to forget the way this very simple personal opening captures our attention and makes a lasting impression. So here it goes:

“’I had not admitted to anyone why I was going to Italy this time. My friends knew that I went there whenever I could, a reputation that gave me the cover that I wanted for my fool’s errand in Verona. But was it so foolish? Had I deluded myself in what I had come to suspect? Only by going back to Verona would I ever know. Of that much I was certain.

“’Then I arrived, and, glad I had come, conflicting emotions began to make my blood race. I was half excited with the beginning quest, and half dreading a ridiculous failure, but obsessed with the idea of discovering what no one had discovered – had even looked for – in four hundred years.

“My start would be – was planned to be – absurdly simple. I would search for sycamore trees. Not anywhere in Verona but in one place alone, just outside the western wall. Native sycamore trees, remnants of a grove that had flourished in that one place for centuries.

“’In the first act, in the very first scene, of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, the trees are described; and no one has ever thought that the English genius who wrote the play could have been telling the truth: that there were such trees, growing exactly where he said in Verona. In that first scene, Romeo’s mother, Lady Montague, encounters her nephew on the street – Benvolio … Romeo’s best friend. She asks Benvolio where her son Romeo might be. Benvolio replies:

Madam, an hour before the worshipped sun
Peered forth the golden window of the East,
A troubled mind drove me to walk abroad,
Where, underneath the grove of sycamore
That westward rooteth from the city’s side,
So early walking did I see your son.

italy-verona

“Here Dick Roe goes into the matter of Shakespeare’s known sources for the play and the question of which sources, if any, mentioned that sycamore grove just outside the western wall. Well, there were different sources. There was an Italian tale from 1535; then that one was embellished by another Italian, Bandello; and then a French writer added some stuff of his own; and finally in England, in the early years of Elizabeth’s reign, there was a prose version by William Painter and also a long poem ROMEUS AND JULIET attributed to one Arthur Brooke. But none of these early renditions, none of these sources for Shakespeare’s play, had any sycamores. So Richard Roe goes on:

“’All this evolution happened before the Romeo and Juliet of the playwright was composed. Shakespeare scholars insist that he got his material for Romeo and Juliet from Brooke’s long poem and that the celebrated playwright had never been in Italy; therefore, he could be expected to make mistakes about its topographic realities. They say he invented a peculiar Italy of his own, with colorful nonsense about what was there.

“But – and here is the inexplicable thing – alone in the playwright’s Romeo and Juliet – there, and nowhere else, not in any other Italian or French or English version – has it been set down that at Verona, just outside its western walls, was a grove of sycamore trees.’

The Sycamore Trees in Verona -- Still There -- Remnants of the Grove "Shakespeare" Had Seen

The Sycamore Trees in Verona — Still There — Remnants of the Grove “Shakespeare” Had Seen

So Roe’s cab took him across the city and then to its edge on Viale Cristoforo Colombo. The cab turned south onto the Viale Colonnello Galliano and began to slow down. This was the boulevard where, long before, when Roe was rushing to get to the airport at Milan, he had gotten a glimpse of some trees – but had no idea what kind.

“’Creeping along the Viale then coming to a halt, the driver, with a proud sweep of his hand, exclaimed, “Ecco, Signore! There they are! It is truly here, outside the western wall that our sycamores grow!”

“‘There they were indeed. Holding my breath for fear they might be mere green tricks of the sunlight, I leapt from the car to get a closer look at the broad-lobed leaves and mottled pastel trunks, to make absolutely certain that it was true; that the playwright had known, and had told the truth. Benvolio was right. And I was not a fool.’

“I can just picture Dick Roe on the airplane heading back home, sitting back with a big smile on his face, and the guy next to him says:

airplane-cabin

“’Were you in Italy on business or pleasure?’

“’Oh,’” says Roe, ‘pleasure!’

“’Ah,’ the man says. ‘The food, the wine, the women — ‘

“’Well, no…’

“’The music, the art, the beauty of it all…’

“’No, not really…’

“’Then what?’

“’Well … SYCAMORES!’

“’I beg your pardon?’

“’Sycamore trees!’

“’You’re a gardener?’

“’Nope. I’m a retired lawyer. But Shakespeare loved Italy, just like I do, and those sycamores are just exactly where, in Romeo and Juliet, he told us where we could find them!’

“I don’t know what the other guy in the seat next to him would have replied to that – but if he had his wits about him he might have asked this man WHY – Why would Shakespeare want any of us to find sycamore trees in his play about Romeo and Juliet?

[Suggested answers, and perhaps the single most important one, in the next and final installment.]

No, Jim, You Can’t Take Away Those Pirates! – Reason No. 5 of 100 Why I Believe Oxford was “Shakespeare”

When James Shapiro came to the Epilogue of his book Contested Will, written to try to block the inevitable tide of doubt about the traditional identification of “Shakespeare,” he described his experience at a performance I gave of my one-man show Shake-speare’s Treason (based on my book The Monument) at the Globe playhouse  in London.  “It was a spellbinding performance,” he wrote, adding that he “found it all both impressive and demoralizing” — because, of course, he wants you to think that any account of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford as the author of Shake-speare’s Sonnets must be pure fiction.  And he went on:

“I left the Globe wondering what mainstream biographers might say in response to Oxfordians who insist that Edward de Vere had a stronger claim to have written Hamlet and King Lear, since — unlike the glover’s son from Stratford — he had been captured by pirates and had three daughters.”

Okay, wait a minute, hold on, Jim!  What exactly are you trying to say here?

A Warship of the 16th Century

A Warship of the 16th Century

No, no, you can’t take away those pirates, just as you can’t erase the fact that the earl, like King Lear, had three daughters!

Let me put it this way.  If the glover’s son from Stratford had been stopped by pirates in real life, by now we’d have whole shelves filled with books with titles such as:

Trauma on the High Seas: How The Bard’s Capture by Pirates Affected His Writing Life & His Play about Hamlet …

Shakespeare’s Fateful Encounter With the Pirates: A Profound Turning Point in His Psyche and Work …

Shakespeare’s Pirate Complex: The Cause of His Tragic Phase?

Shakespeare & The Pirates: A Love-Hate Relationship?

Edward de Vere as Lord Great Chamberlain, carrying the Sword of State before Queen Elizabeth I of England

Although this was just one event among many in Edward de Vere’s life that correspond in some way with what we find in the “Shakespeare” plays, Oxfordians have done little more than mention, in passing, its similarity to Hamlet’s experience.  It’s just one more example of something in Oxford’s life resembling what can be found in the plays.

Does Shapiro think Oxford’s capture and release by Dutch pirates in the English Channel should be a liability, in terms of evidence that he wrote Hamlet?  Does the professor want to twist it all around, turning a positive into a negative?

The episode in Hamlet comes from “Shakespeare” himself, as a writer, not from any of the play’s recognized sources, Mark Anderson reports in his terrific Oxford biography “Shakespeare” By Another Name.  The pirates intercepted and boarded Oxford’s ship in 1576, as he was returning to England from his sixteen-month tour of France, Germany and (primarily) Italy.  They stripped the ship clean.

“De Vere’s luggage was ransacked, and the pirates even took the clothes from the earl’s back,” Anderson writes.  The French ambassador reported that Oxford was “left naked, stripped to his shirt, treated miserably” and he might have lost his life “if he hadn’t been recognized by a Scotsman.”

Model of an Elizabethan Galleon

A member of Oxford’s entourage, Nathaniel Baxter, recalled the pirate episode in a poem published in 1606, writing:

Naked we landed out of Italy/ Enthralled by pirates, men of no regard/ Horror and death assailed nobility” — and Hamlet writes to King Claudius about the encounter: “High and Mighty, you shall know I am set naked on your kingdom.”  (My emphases)

I suppose that same use of naked is just “coincidental”…

There’s an interesting debate over whether Hamlet had previously arranged his own brush with the pirates, so he could escape being murdered by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as per the king’s orders.  In any case, the prince writes to Horatio:

“Ere we were two days old at sea, a pirate of very warlike appointment gave us chase.  Finding ourselves too slow of sail, we put on a compelled valor, and in the grapple I boarded them.  On the instant they got clear of our ship, so I alone became their prisoner.  They have dealt with me like thieves of mercy, but they knew what they did; I am to do a good turn for them.”

 

The prince, like Oxford, had been bound for England; now he turns back to Denmark while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern “hold their course for England,” where, because Hamlet has craftily switched the written orders, they will be killed instead of him.

Professor Shapiro argues against any attempt to turn the Shakespeare plays into works of autobiography, but that’s a straw man he’s setting up in order to knock it down.  Of course Hamlet is not strict autobiography; no one ever claimed such a thing.  The real point, which Shapiro wants his readers to miss, is that the best novelists and dramatists tend to draw upon their personal experiences and then to transmute them, through imagination and skill, into fictional art forms.  It’s not a matter of having to choose between reality and invention; all great art is a blend of both.

Shapiro concedes that “we know almost nothing about [Shakspere’s] personal experiences” and, therefore, “those moments in his work which build upon what he may have felt remain invisible to us.”  And given this vacuum within the documented Stratfordian biography, he boldly [and recklessly] declares that all attempts to link the life of “Shakespeare” with his works should hereby cease!  He means not only such attempts by Oxfordians but also by Stratfordians — especially the latter, since these efforts have always failed and will fail even more glaringly in the future, as the authorship question is brought increasingly into the open.

Oh – I almost forgot: Oxford was targeted by pirates in the Channel not once but twice, i.e., not only in 1576 but also in 1585, when he returned from Holland and his brief command [with Colonel John Norris] of 4,000 foot soldiers and 400 horse.  But after receiving a letter from Burghley that he’d been placed in command of the Horse, he was summoned back home [to be replaced by Philip Sidney, who would die on the battlefield a year later]; and according to one report a ship carrying Oxford’s “money, apparel, wine and venison” was “captured off Dunkirk by the Spaniards.”

Among Oxford’s belongings captured by the Spaniards, according to the report, was the letter from Burghley telling him of the Horse command; and as Anderson notes, “Hamlet contains not only an encounter with pirates but also an analogous plot twist involving suborned letters at sea.”

So, professor, the pirates are here to stay.  They certainly aren’t proof that Oxford wrote the play, but I put them here as my No. 5 of 100 reasons why I believe the earl was “Shakespeare” — and as just another piece of evidence that “authorship” really does matter.

Contesting “Contested Will” – Part One

James Shapiro reaches the climax of his new book Contested Will in the epilogue, where – lo! – he recounts attending my performance of Shake-speare’s Treason (based on The Monument) in November of 2008 at the Globe playhouse in London.

His point, by page 267, is that it’s simply wrong to try to learn anything of substance about the man who was William Shakespeare, either from the documents about his life in Stratford and London or from his poems, plays and sonnets.  All is speculation, virtually all of it off the mark.

The first and foremost culprits are not those who dare to doubt that Will of Stratford was “Shakespeare,” but, rather, traditional Stratfordians, who have attempted to fashion flesh-and-blood portraits of the Bard by linking aspects of his recorded life to elements of his work and vice versa.

This practice has resulted in puffed-up fictions posing as biographies; these scholars should stop doing it, not only because they keep serving up baloney but also because they encourage anti-Stratfordians to keep doing the same thing for their own candidates, such as Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

And since the Oxfordians have so much more biographical evidence from which to pick and choose, they will keep on winning.  Even now, with the coming of Roland Emmerich’s feature film Anonymous about Oxford as Shakespeare (with Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Elizabeth), due out in 2011, the tide of public acceptance may even turn in their favor!

Queen Elizabeth I and Vanessa Redgrave

Shapiro’s solution is extraordinary and courageous and perhaps, in the long run, even foolish:  Let us have no more biographies of Shakespeare!  No more attempts to look in the plays and poems and sonnets to find any reflections of his real life!   Let us stop thinking entirely of Shakespeare the man, before it’s too late!

Such is the problem when you start with the wrong man in the first place!

He criticizes Stephen Greenblatt of Harvard for giving his “seal of approval” for the autobiographical approach with his bestselling Will in the World. Others have erred this way as well, he goes on, admitting that even “I flinch when I think of my own trespasses in classrooms and in print, despite my best efforts to steer clear of biographical speculation.”

Shapiro writes:

“The more that Shakespeare scholars encourage autobiographical readings of the plays and poems, the more they legitimate assumptions that underlie the claims of all those who dismiss the idea that Shakespeare wrote the plays.  And every step scholars have taken toward embracing such readings has encouraged their adversaries to make even more speculative claims.  The recent publication of Hank Whittemore’s Oxfordian reading of the Sonnets, The Monument, offers a glimpse of where things may be heading…

“In November 2008, I joined ninety or so people gathered at London’s Globe Theatre to hear Whittemore share his work.  It turned out to be an elegant revival of the Prince Tudor theory….”

Here he offers a concise (and accurate) summary of the story of the Sonnets as set forth in The Monument and dramatized in Shake-speare’s Treason, which I performed at the Globe at the invitation of the Shakespearean Authorship Trust led by the brilliant actor Mark Rylance, who had been the Globe’s artistic director for a decade.

“It was a spellbinding performance,” Shapiro writes, “as perfect a marriage of conspiratorial history and autobiographical analysis as one could imagine.”

Conspiratorial?  You mean the way President Kennedy privately hosted Marilyn Monroe in the swimming pool of the White House and no agent, no aide, no one at all, ever told about it?  Hmmm, just think of all the people who had to be “in on it” and who had to “agree to be silent.”  Hmmm.

In both the book and the show (co-written with director Ted Story), I simply put together the heretofore separate tracks of the literature and the history.  I show how the central 100-verse sequence of the Sonnets fits within the context of the Essex Rebellion of 1601 and its aftermath, that is, with the ordeal of the Earl of Southampton in the Tower until the death of Queen Elizabeth and the accession of James.  There’s no need to alter either the sonnets or the recorded events of contemporary history; instead, they are brought together in this framework for the first time, where they fit without any trouble, yielding a third dimension – the true story of why Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford agreed to the obliteration of his identity as Shakespeare even after his death, as he states:

My name be buried where my body is – Sonnet 72

I, once gone, to all the world must die – Sonnet 81

What bothers Shapiro most may be that Oxfordians – in this case, specifically The Monument & Shake-speare’s Treason – unfold a better story than even the most fantasy-driven biographies of the Stratfordians:

“If the enthusiastic response of the audience that evening was any indication, Oxfordian concerns about the riskiness of Whittemore’s approach were misplaced.  I looked around the room and saw the same kind of people – middle-aged, sensibly dressed, middle-class – who regularly attend lectures about Shakespeare, nodding their heads in agreement and laughing aloud at the funny parts.  I found it all both impressive and demoralizing…”

Does he sound a tad defeated here?  Well, not yet.  At this stopping point, I’ll let him have the last word:

“I found it all both impressive and demoralizing, a vision of a world in which a collective comfort with conspiracy theory, spurious history, and construing fiction as autobiographical fact had passed a new threshold.”

Well, that’s one way to put it!

In Part Two we dig a little deeper…

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