A response to two of Jonathan Bate’s attempts to explain Shakespeare’s “anonymous death."
In Mike Rubbo’s documentary Much Ado About Something, Jonathan Bate explains, “The writers who die and immediately elegies come rolling off the presses, tend to be writers who die in mid-career." He adds that Shakespeare completed his career and returned quietly to Stratford, thereby creating the conditions where there wasn’t much interest at the time that he died: “He wasn’t hot news, he died in Stratford, he didn’t die in London and news tended not to travel at that time; there was no news media." In Shakespeare’s Face (2007) by Stephanie Nolen, Bate seems to be asserting that playwright Francis Beaumont’s death took the attention away from Shakespeare when the Stratford man died. After all, "theatre is a fickle business," he argues, and Shakespeare at the time of Beaumont's death was "yesterday's man."
First, I will be fair to Bate in that, despite his comments in Rubbo's documentary justifying the lack of reaction to Shakespeare’s death, it seems, from Shakespeare’s Face, that Bate intended to explain news "delay" rather than "non-delivery." I can accept a delay of some sort, but the actors Heminges, Condell and Burbage would have soon learned of Shakespeare’s demise when receiving his bequests.
Before we blindly accept Bate’s claim that Beaumont died “in the prime of his writing," we must expand slightly on the final period of his career, in order to make a reasonable assessment of Bate’s assertion. Beaumont starts writing for The King’s Men around 1609, whilst Shakespeare is presumably still involved with the company. Beaumont marries a wealthy heiress, has a stroke and all but retires to Sundridge, Kent in 1613. He produces his final poem soon after his stroke, an elegy to Lady Penelope Clifton, in 1613. His successful Masque of the Inner Temple and Grayes Inne, performed February 1613, was subsequently inserted into The Two Noble Kinsmen, supposed to be by Shakespeare and Fletcher. We have no record of Beaumont writing any drama after February 1613. That said, I believe he may have been revising The Scornful Lady (predominantly Fletcher’s work) until as late as May 1615. According to an elegy on Beaumont by a fellow Leicestershire native, Thomas Pestell, "Death … hire[d] an apoplexe to shend his brain," and he lived on in a melancholic state with “frequent wishes” for death for three years. Bishop Corbet, in his "On Mr. Francis Beaumont (then newly dead)," may allude to the same condition in the line: “Beaumont is dead; by whose sole death appears, Wit's a disease consumes men in few years."
In any event, whilst we may debate whether this is “retirement” or not, I see no grounds for the suggestion that he was at his height in 1616. The fact that Beaumont was in Westminster when he died may be creating a false impression of his currency. Charles Gayley, in Beaumont, the Dramatist: A Portrait (1914),writes: “We must conclude that from 1613 he lived as a country gentleman. …the probabilities all point to the manor house in Kent as the scene of Beaumont's closing years. Sundridge Place…in which, we may presume, Beaumont and Ursula lived, and where his children were born…” This opinion seems to paint a very different picture to the working poet, living amongst his peers in London and dying in mid-career. It appears correct that Beaumont died in London, but does that really tell the full story of the man’s last three years? I feel it somewhat reassuring that in Shakespeare's Face, Bate himself provides his support for this view. He writes of Beaumont’s correspondence to Jonson, “Beaumont wrote two verse epistles from the country…One of them is nostalgic for literary company and ‘full Mermaid wine’." Therefore, Bate highlights both points for us: that Beaumont was in the "country" and that he was not in "literary company." Moreover, the fact that he is "nostalgic" for it suggests he had been away for some time. Beaumont dies March 6,1616, and three days later on March 9 is interred in Westminster Abbey next to Chaucer and Spenser.
Both Beaumont and Shakespeare "retired" around 1613 and Bate’s assertion (that Shakespeare did not die in mid-career) applies almost equally to Beaumont. Some claim that Shakespeare was substantially out of London from around 1610. However, we must not overlook that Stratfordians believe Shakespeare co-wrote The Two Noble Kinsmen (containing Beaumont’s Masque) in 1613-14 with Fletcher, Beaumont’s writing partner. This was later than any known Beaumont plays. Furthermore, we know Shakespeare purchased a home in the Blackfriars (putting him in London and in the same circles) in 1613. Perhaps even more significantly, Thomasina Ostler (daughter of Shakespeare’s friend, Heminges), seems to believe he is still a sharer in the Globe Theatre in May 1615. It is hard to reconcile these facts with Bate’s assertion that Shakespeare was “yesterday’s news." In fact, given all that we see here, it seems difficult to make any dramatic distinctions between their two situations except for the age difference – unless we allow for the possibility that Beaumont was a highly regarded poet/playwright and Shakespeare of Stratford was not.
I believe even the least perceptive of readers would expect some reaction from Burbage, Heminges and Condell on hearing of their friend’s death. Surely, they would be moved to comment on this cruel twist of fate. The fact that they had (supposedly) lost two of their most significant playwrights, within the space of 48 days, would surely be worthy of a public outpouring of grief, even more so than the death of either individual alone. It is a truism that noteworthy events, particularly tragedies, heighten our awareness to similar ones that occur in the following weeks and months. Following the tragic and untimely death of the wonderful Natasha Richardson, I am sure that, if any skiing accidents or deaths from epidural haematomas occur over the next few months, we will see them appearing as news items. It would be bizarre if this was not to happen and, significantly, such cases will be highlighted irrespective of whether or not any later victims are famous.
Bate asserts that people considered Beaumont dying a far bigger loss than Shakespeare was at that time. Does this sound reasonable based on the details of Beaumont’s final years outlined above? It sounds reasonable to me, since I see Shakespeare of Stratford as a bit-part player in Elizabethan theatre. It does not sound reasonable for a famous poet to be dismissed so easily. Beaumont’s death would be the more upsetting, since he was far younger than Shakespeare was, and that is always tragic; but surely not so much as to obliterate any mention of Shakespeare by his “friends," as Bate calls them.
Theatre owners and producers in Jacobean England were not simpletons. With a stock of 36 plays, they would take the opportunity to bring Shakespeare’s death to public attention, if for no other reason than as a cynical publicity stunt and to cash-in. Modern TV executives do that constantly, and I think it is a folly to assume that Burbage, Heminges and Condell would not have done exactly the same thing, if they had even the remotest sense that the audience would swallow it.
Bate argues that Shakespeare the author was so famous that publishers would forge his name on plays to encourage sales. Stratfordians claim this practice was still occurring in 1619. This author has supposedly written several celebrated poems, 154 Sonnets published in 1609, and around 37 plays (the last possibly as late as 1614). Burbage owes his career to the roles this author created for him and has grown wealthy through these works. We must also assume his co-sharers would have done likewise, due in no small part to this same author. Then, when the Stratford commodity trader dies in 1616, Bate claims this author died too, since they were the same man. We see no reaction whatsoever from anyone whose life the author touched, not a diary entry, not a sonnet, not a thank-you note. We are asked to believe that the reason for this is that, not only had Beaumont died 48 days earlier, but also that Shakespeare died out-of-town and that Jacobean theatrical-types were fickle. In fact, so fickle that, because a man (who co-wrote perhaps five plays for them over seven years) had died seven weeks earlier, they would completely ignore the death of a friend who had sustained them for over 20 years.
Is this really the only logical explanation for the absence of any reaction to the death of Shakespeare, “the soul of the age”? Isn’t it far more logical to assume that, when the Stratford merchant died in April 1616, there was no reaction to the author’s death because no one believed the author had died?
© Anthony Kellett, April 2009
Also by Anthony Kellett: "William Shakespeare, Businessman - Forgotten Genius" and "Shakespeare Scholars: A Lament"
Click here for the blog's home page and recent content. branagh, emmerich, jacobi, jude law