Darby Mitchell, Arse Poetica
Publisher: Castle Publishing, 2007
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I first knew I had a huge job in front of me, one that would probably take me the rest of my life to complete, if I ever could complete it, when I was teaching an honors English class at a downstate Michigan high school.
My students were bright, ambitious. They trusted me. After reading and discussing a few Shakespeare plays, my students asked me about the man William Shakespeare. At first, I told them what nearly everybody knew, which wasn’t much. But that weekend I studied Sir Henry Lee’s biography on Shakespeare. Though he used enough words to fill up a rather thick book, I realized that he didn’t know much at all, though he had certainly picked around in the dust bin.
I duly reported back that Shakespeare:
- Was born (His birth is in the record book at Trinity Church, Stratford).
- He maybe went to school, because there was a school (for males) there, but there are no records.
- He married Ann Hathaway — probably a shotgun wedding. She was significantly older than he was.
- He fathered three children, two daughters and a son, Hamnet, who dies when still a child. Shakespeare does NOT educate his daughters.
- Seven missing years. He is at no college. He is not listed as a soldier anywhere. No indication that he traveled abroad. He’s not in any traveling actors’ troupe. No letters. No record of him anywhere. No education beyond the basics.
- After seven blank years, he appears in London, theatre district, Shoreditch, where, if we can believe legend, he held the horses for the patrons. This would NOT put him in the theatre, but it would put him NEAR the theatre.
- In 1592 he first comes to public notice when the playwright Robert Greene accuses him in print of stealing plays.
- During his entire period in London, he moves frequently, apparently to avoid the tax man.
- In 1593 he signs a dedication of Hero & Leander that is published with the poem. His name is not on the poem as author, and his name is not registered as author at the Stationer’s Register. For about five years, plays we accept as Shakespeare’s were printed with no author’s name. Eventually, the plays were printed with the name Shakespeare. No one ever contested this.
During this period (about 1600-1612), the man Shakespeare was a partner at the Globe theatre and a minor actor in plays. Well before 1616, when he died, he retired from London back to Stratford where he was basically anti-social. He hoarded grain. He sued the village for having had to give a priest or minister a single glass of wine. He left no books, wrote no letters, said nothing to anyone about writing, or anything else, for that matter.
In 1616 he died. In 1622 his wife died. Immediately after her death the Shakespeare First Folio was published in London. This book contains the only known ‘portrait’ of the writer Shakespeare: a strange engraving, malformed. In the verse facing the engraving, the reader is told to not look at the portrait.
About 1630 somebody put up a tombstone that indicated the body was not to be moved. This is generally thought to mean the bones were not to be dug up and moved to the bone (charnel) house. But it may have meant the body was not to be removed to Westminster Abbey, where the great poets are buried. Why not?
Back in the classroom now, I remember the long pause that came over the classroom when I’d finished telling my students what I’d found. Up to that moment, they had trusted me. My students just sat silent, looking at me, slight frowns on their faces, as if I had just dropped a slug into a slot machine and was waiting for the jackpot. Even at their age they could see that what was missing from that biography was the soul of a writer.
In that very long moment I moved back against the blackboard. They looked at me, I looked at them. I knew in that moment that I had a long hard job ahead of me. What I had told them was all that was known about the PERSON Shakespeare.
I realized that behind the PERSON Shakespeare there was going to be the WRITER Shakespeare. And I had to find the WRITER Shakespeare, I had to. And — very strange to say — I knew I had to do it so much, that I would do it.
What we know about the WRITER Shakespeare
Okay, what could we start with? If we draw from the Shakespeare writings, the plays, the sonnets, we know that the WRITER Shakespeare was:
When, about this time, I entered graduate school, Shakespeare imagery was offered as a subject. Imagery clusters (linked metaphors) are to authorship what DNA is to physical identity. By studying imagery for a year or two, I became all but certain that the germs of the Shakespeare images were in the work of Christopher Marlowe.
What we know about Marlowe.
Marlowe was born the same year as Shakespeare, in Canterbury, the son of a shoemaker. He was admitted to King’s School, Canterbury on a scholarship, then admitted to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. The scholarship was meant to train him for the Episcopal priesthood.
He earned a B.A., then an M.A. He got into trouble translating sexy Greek literature. He was often absent. He seemed to have an independent income. He wrote and produced a play while at Cambridge — that bombed. When he came up for graduation, Cambridge balked — they wrote to the Queen’s Privy Council that they thought Marlowe was off in France, studying for the Catholic priesthood. The Queen’s Privy Council wrote back that Cambridge WOULD give Marlowe the M.A. — that he had been in the service of his country. Cambridge gave Marlowe the degree, but in the Masters’ Lodge they turned his portrait to the wall. This is the portrait.
Marlowe went to London, wrote plays that are still famous today. He became a member of Sir Walter Raleigh’s ‘think tank’ — the School of Night. He made wild statements, seemed to be what today we would call a Unitarian or a Quaker, the problem being that in those days there were no Unitarians or Quakers. He was accused of blasphemy.
Immediately after the publication of Venus & Adonis, in 1593, Marlowe was arrested — perhaps for blasphemy — by the highest court in England, the Star Chamber. He was apparently held briefly then let go on condition that he report back daily.
After a week or so of this, he was supposedly killed during a quarrel over the bill in Deptford, a port suburb of London. The inquest report was found in the 1950s — and it lacks credibility. If you act it out, you realize that Marlowe could not have died of the knife into the forehead wound he was said to have had.
The body was buried in the graveyard in Deptford. The grave was never marked. The Marlowe family never said a word about his death. They made no attempt to recover the body,
Research and more research
End of trail. Except that the Marlowe plots, themes, images, word habits are in the Shakespeare plays written from this period. My question was, where did Marlowe go? Who helped him? What deal did he make with the man Shakespeare? Are the details of Marlowe’s life in the Shakespeare plays? I read English literature, English history, much, much biography. I kept reading. I wanted to give it up, but every time I did, someone would say something like “that horrible Marlowe. Rake-hell. Atheist. Degenerate” — and I would be back at it. Where did he go?
I lost out on two PhD’s. I learned that Shakespeare authorship was a forbidden subject. I should only believe what my professors believed. There was no freedom in academia. I kept at it. I told myself I was crazy, that I had ruined a marriage and lost two degrees because I loved a man who’d been dead for hundreds of years.
And did HE care? Apparently not. He left a trail — there was a lot of stuff in the Shakespeare plays about Marlowe, but he didn’t leave a KEY that would enable me to read the trail. Well, I’d given it up for the umpteenth time, and was in my bed, asleep, in Escanaba, when all at once I woke as if in a dream — but awake, face down, flat, about two feet above my body.
Superimposed on my own head, below me on the pillow, was the Shakespeare’s Folio engraving — the Shakespeare head with the bulge on the forehead. And out of the mouth of the engraving was coming a banner like a long red snake’s forked tongue. And at the same time, inside my head I heard the voice of the Folio engraving. It said two words: “Follow Raleigh.”
Well, my God, yes! Marlowe had been part of Raleigh’s ‘think tank’ back before he got the knife through the forehead. Marlowe had written a love to Raleigh.
Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods or steepy mountain yields.
You know it.
Raleigh wrote a coy response to Marlowe’s poem, to the effect that, ‘No, I won’t, fella. You just don’t have enough money!’
Well, I was back in my body and out of that bed like that! And climbing the stairs out of my basement and reaching the encyclopedia in the living room, and, quick — Raleigh: R-A-L-Here was stuff everyone knew: the quarrels of Queen Elizabeth and Raleigh, Raleigh getting Elizabeth’s maid of honor pregnant, Raleigh’s finding a gold mine in Guiana, Raleigh arrested for treason (?) by King James when Elizabeth died. Raleigh imprisoned in the Tower of London for 16 years. Raleigh going back to Guiana when James needed gold. Raleigh getting his head cut off because the Spanish got him before he could get the gold.
But I followed Raleigh. What Raleigh was SUPPOSED to do was raise a fleet and set sail straight back to Guiana for the gold. But the great Raleigh, WITH the entire English fleet, ran into a storm just off the coast of Ireland. And so Raleigh — AND the entire English fleet became the guests of someone I had never heard of; for two months they were his guests. Because Raleigh was waiting for the storm to wear itself out. Big storm!
The person Raleigh and the fleet were visiting was a person I had never heard of. Richard Boyle. Sir Richard Boyle. Baron Richard Boyle. Boyle who owned a lot of Ireland, because about 1603, Raleigh had sold all his lands in Ireland to Boyle for 9 cents an acre. Should we believe that?
While the fleet was at Youghal, Boyle re-outfitted it — whiskey, beef, money — and waved good-bye. Raleigh, on his return from Guiana, defeated, his son killed, his captain dead, was again blown off course by a storm. Again. In the same place. And from the ship off shore, Raleigh sent a note to Boyle that Boyle carried with him for the rest of his life. Then Raleigh went home and got his head cut off.
After forty years of research, I had been given the key — the diary of Richard Boyle — that enabled me to read the trail laid out by the writer Shakespeare in the Shakespeare works. In a dream!
If you want the whole story, you’ll have to get a copy of my book. The on-line bookstores will have it. The title is And thereby hangs a tale, the Memoirs of an Arse Poetica. The book is not “historical fiction. I have taken no liberties with the material.
But it IS a wild story. An adventure story. It’s primarily a love story — and that love is the reason the writer Shakespeare went to his grave without revealing his identity.
Copyright © 2008 by Darby Mitchell