The first scene of The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, such as was published in 1598, with the introduction of Sir John Oldcastle, Lord Cobham, may be telling us why Shakespeare chose to inspire his Falstaff - one of his wittiest, best beloved characters - in a Kentish1 Lord accused of heresy2 and immorality,3 eventually burned at the stake by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1417. From the Knights Templar to Giordano Bruno, accusations of heresy were often accompanied by accusations of immorality; neither Sir John nor Kit Marlowe were exceptions to this rule.
Henry IV Part One (1HIV) is generally believed to have been written in 1596, and it may be relevant that also in 1596, after the death of Lord Hunsdon on July 23, William Brooke, Lord Cobham, was appointed Lord Chamberlain. The new Lord Chamberlain seems to have been no friend of the players for some unknown reason,4 but he died in March 1597 and on February 25, 1598, 1HIV - Falstaff included - was entered into the Stationer’s Register prior to publication the same year. Also in that year, Thomas Creed printed The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, an anonymous play5 that however had been licensed for publication since May 14, 1594.
Evidence points to 1586 for the date of composition of Famous Victories. We do know that Derrick, the clown character, was originally played by Richard Tarlton, the Queen’s favourite jester who died on September 3, 1588, and we also know from Tarlton’s Jests 6 that the play was performed in London some months before March 1588. The presumption that William Shakespeare was the author of 1HIV has, naturally, prevented scholars from accepting that Famous Victories could have been written by the same man; in 1586-8 William Shakespeare was nowhere on the theatrical or literary scene.
In his book The Case for Shakespeare’s Authorship of The Famous Victories, Professor Seymour M. Pitcher,7 while agreeing on 1586 as the probable date of composition of the original play, argues that Kit Marlowe could not be its author because the play contains comic scenes.8 My own view of Famous Victories is that Marlowe is dropping hints like hailstones, at least in the revised version that includes Oldcastle.
The play introduces Sir John in the very first scene, line 15. Immediately the stage direction changes Oldcastle’s name to Iockey, a diminutive of John. However, there may be other reasons for this nickname. The Jockey is one of the figures in the French pack of cards that circulated in Europe from the late fifteenth century. The Jockey card, which is understood to derive from the Fool in the Tarot pack, has no value in itself but is used to suit the interest of the player. Likewise, the Oldcastle character in the revised play doesn’t seem to fill any special role that might justify its addition. As to why Marlowe would turn Sir John into Jockey Falstaff, we might find the answer in Saxo Grammaticus's Amblett9 and its offspring, Hamlet, two characters that choose the role of Fool for self-protection.
According to the opening stage direction, the action of this first scene takes place on the Eve of St John the Baptist, 1410, so seven years before Sir John was burnt at the stake. And here is an uncanny coincidence: 1586 + 7 = 1593. Needless to say, if the date of the action were meant to be a clue, it would have been added after 1593; in Stow’s Chronicles we read that “Upon the eve of St John the Baptist (1410) the King’s son (was) in Eastcheap…”10
Pitcher makes a convincing case that the character of Oldcastle was not present in the original version, and also that the play shows internal evidence of having been revised, perhaps more than once. It may be that the character of Oldcastle was introduced at the time when the play was licensed for publication in 1594, and that he was part of the new (possibly meaning “revised”), harey v mentioned in Henslowe’s Diary as being performed several times by the Admiral’s Men in 1595 and 1596.
Contrary to Stratfordian theory, the main point of the revision of Famous Victories introducing Sir John might have been to strengthen a connection between the heretic Oldcastle and the Clown Falstaff, in which case it could be the very reason for Lord Cobham’s hostility. For what it’s worth, Cobham’s son and heir, Henry Brooke, is understood to have been an enemy of the Earl of Essex.11 In any case, the Stratfordian proposal that the name of Oldcastle was changed to Falstaff to please the Brookes does not explain why in The Merry Wives of Windsor, the author gives the names of “Ford” and “Brooke” to a foolishly jealous husband.
As I have said, Sir John Oldcastle is introduced to us in scene 1:
Hen.5: But sirs, I marvel that sir John Old-castle comes not away: Sounds!
See where he comes.
How now Jockey, what news with thee?
Jockey: Faith my Lord, such news as passeth! For the Towne of Deptford is risen with hue and crie after your man, which parted from us the last night and has set upon, and hath robed a poor Carrier.
Sownes! The villain that was wont to spy out our booties.
I my Lord; even the very same.
Since one contemporary anti-Lollard song referred to Sir John as “a robber,”13 these lines could be read to say that the thief who has escaped from Deptford, the villain that was wont to spy (our booties), is even the very same as Sir John.14 A parallelism is hereby created between Jockey Oldcastle and Christopher Marlowe, a heretic and a spy that had escaped from Deptford.
Immediately after this exchange, three commoners arrive on the scene, one of which is called John Cobler.15 Scenes 7 and 10 take place outside his house, and we are introduced to Mrs Cobler, a shrewish, quick-witted woman (one is tempted to surmise that her Christian name is Katherine).16 Since the Queen’s Men had been performing in Faversham in 1586, 1588 and 1591, the author may well have had recent occasion to be reminded of Mrs Cobbler’s lashing tongue.
Later, scenes 16 and 17 raise an important matter of language. In scene 16, in the battlefield in France, John Cobler and his companions are told that they must speak French if they want to save their lives. John shows his knowledge of French with the words: Commodevales, Monsieur? On another part of the battlefield, in scene 17, a French soldier who has taken Derrick prisoner calls him villiago.
These words provide us with some interesting information. It would seem that the author had either been in contact with Spaniards, perhaps in the Netherlands, at any time before he wrote this play, or these two scenes were added later.
The word Comodevales seems to be a corruption of the Spanish salutation: Como le va? (How are you doing?). The French alternative would be: Comment allez vous? The word villiago appears to be a mixed corruption of two Spanish words: bellaco and villano. Shakespeare uses villago in 2 Henry VI (IV, 8, 42), possibly written in 1591.17
Notwithstanding the fact that we are supposed to be in the battlefields of France (hence the obvious Monsieur), these verbal exchanges place the author either in Spain or in Flanders. So we must face the question as to where and when did Marlowe, or indeed young Shakespeare, hear the common salutation ¿Cómo le va? as well as the familiar bellaco. It seems that the word bellaco was a favourite insult among the Spanish soldiers in Flanders, but it would also have been used everywhere in Spain.
Here is a short digression about the historical background and relevant dates: In October/November 1585, The Earl of Leicester had been appointed Commander-in-Chief of Her Majesty’s Forces in the Netherlands following a treaty signed between the Queen and Count Maurice of Nassau,18 by which the English were to provide support of troops and money to the rebels, against Spain. To guarantee this agreement, the English would have the government (and revenues) of two towns, Flushing and Brill. Sir Philip Sidney, Secretary Walsingham’s son-in-law, was appointed Governor of Flushing and Sir Thomas Cecil, eldest son of Lord Burghley, was appointed Governor of Brill.
By this treaty the Queen was actively declaring unprovoked war on Spain, allegedly in the cause of religious freedom, a freedom that was far from existing in her own country. Philip II was of course outraged, and started preparing for retaliation.
Sidney arrived in Flushing in late November, and in December Leicester travelled to The Hague. On September 22, 1586, in the Battle of Zuphten, the Spanish troops, led by Alexander Farnese, Prince of Parma, confronted the allied English and Dutch forces, led by the Earl of Leicester. Sir Philip Sidney was wounded and died twenty-six days later. The Earl of Essex, Leicester’s stepson, was also present. Within the next four years Leicester and Sir Francis Walsingham were also dead and Essex had married Sidney’s widow, Lady Frances Walsingham.
This is the (broad) historical background that brings us to 1591/2 and Marlowe’s intriguing visit to Flushing, where Robert Sidney had succeeded his brother Philip as Governor.
So, had Kit Marlowe been sent on some errand either to Flanders or to Spain, between 1586 and 1591?
One thing is clear, these pseudo-words, comparteve and villiago, must have been heard, either by him or whoever repeated them to him, as they would not have appeared in any written text.
Then, on February 26, 1592, approximately one month after Marlowe had been sent back from Flushing accused of forging English coins,19 The Lord Stranges Men gave the first performance of The Jew of Malta. It seems Kit’s command of Spanish had greatly improved by now if we are to judge by Barabas’s comments: Hermoso el placer de los dineros (“Wonderful is the pleasure of monies”)20 and: Bueno para todos mi ganado no era21 (which might be oddly translated as “My earnings were not good for everyone,” or – absurdly - “My cattle was not good for everyone”). Neither of these phrases is good Spanish, not even good sixteenth-century Spanish, particularly when you read them in the first (1633) edition of The Jew, where the abominable spelling may have been due to an unclear MS. Nevertheless, Barabas’s comments are a far cry from comodevales.
This suggests that sometime between composition of Famous Victories and 1591/2, Marlowe had been among Spaniards long enough to improve his knowledge of the language. There is also Ithamore’s preference for the Spanish wine of Rivadavia: Rivo Castiliano!,22 later claimed by Prince Hal, who quotes Ithamore when he cries: Rivo, says the drunkard! (IHIV II, 4, 109).23
While a short visit to Spain may explain the Ribadavia, had Marlowe been Arbella Stuart’s “Morley,”24“ a lengthy absence between 1586 and 1591 seems impossible. Alternatively, given the imperfect syntax of Barabas’s phrases, he may have been improving his Spanish by reading.
Sarah Gristwood,25 describing Arbella’s life at Hardwick Old Hall in the early 1590s, writes: “Here Arbella studied Hebrew and Spanish, reading Virgil and Plutarch as well as the Bible.”
And it so happens that the Bibliotheca Hispanica, by Richard Percyvall and Dr D'Oylie, was published in 1591; it contained a grammar with dictionaries in Spanish, English and Latin.26 And although that does not explain where the author of Famous Victories heard the words commodevales and villiago in 1586, it seems that by 1591 he had the necessary tools to make progress in the language.
Perhaps thanks to Bibliotheca Hispanica Marlowe was later able to read Jorge de Montemayor’s Diana Enamorada,27 the main source for The Two Gentlemen of Verona.28
Which I find reassuring; we are used to the idea that William Shakespeare obtained “the gift of tongues” directly from the Holy Ghost, but I’d rather not be tempted to imagine that Marlowe had been similarly blessed.
© Isabel Gortázar, February 2011
Isabel Gortázar is an independent scholar, specializing in Shakespeare and Marlowe studies. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the Marlowe Society (UK) and a founding member of the International Marlowe Society. She divides her time between London and Bilbao, Spain.
1Though born in Herefordshire, Sir John had married in 1408 the heiress of the Cobham estates, which made him one of the most important landlords in Kent.
2Sir John was a Lollard, a follower of John Wycliffe’s doctrine.
3For the controversy on Sir John’s character, see Bullough, Geoffrey. 1966. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. Vol. 4, pgs. 168-171.
4Bullough. Op. cit. Vol. 4, pg 171.
5The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth: Containing the Honourable Batell of Agin-court: As it was plaide by the Queenes Majesties Players. LONDON - Printed by Thomas Creede, 1598.6Tarlton’s Jests and News Out of Purgatory. Ed. Halliwell-Phillips, pg 24.
7Pitcher, Seymour M. The Case for Shakespeare’s Authorship of The Famous Victories. Alvin Redman: London, 1962.
8On the subject of Marlowe and Comedy, see Ros Barber's "Marlowe and Comedy."
9The story of Amblett occupies part of the third and fourth books of Grammaticus's Gesta Danorum (c.1185).
10Stow, John. 1580. The Chronicles of England, from Brute until this present year of Christ. pg. 573. Ref Pitcher: Op. cit. pg. 200.
11Bullough. Op.cit. Vol. 4, pg 156.
12 I.e., Oldcastle.
13Bullough; Op. cit. Vol. 4, pg 169.
14Modern editions give this line as Ay, my Lord, even the very same. I am quoting from a facsimile of the original 1598 edition.
15John Marlowe was a cobbler.
16Marlowe’s mother’s maiden name was Katherine.
17A third word, Comparteve, used by Derrick also in scene 17 has no obvious explanation.
18Count Maurice was the second living son of the assassinated (July, 1584) William the Silent, Prince of Orange.
19Robert Sidney’s letter was dated January 26, but documents from the Continent were usually dated according to the Gregorian calendar year, so Marlowe might have left Flushing on January 16.
20Jew of Malta (II, 1, 67).
21Jew of Malta (II, 1, 39).
22Jew of Malta (IV, 446): Hey, Rivo Castiliano! A man’s a man!
23Rivo is probably a reference to a white wine of Ribadavia, in Galicia, Spain, mentioned also by Cervantes. The word riva, derives from the Latin ripa, riverside.
24“One Morley” was, on and off, tutor to Arbella Stuart from approx. 1587 until September 1592. During the time that Marlowe was in Flushing, Arbella had been staying in London.
25Gristwood, Sarah. 2003. Arbella: England’s Lost Queen. Bantam: 2003, pg.120.
26Percyvall, Richard. Bibliotheca hispanica. Containing a grammar, with a dictionarie in Spanish, English, and Latine gathered out of divers good Authors: very profitable for the studious of the Spanish toong [...] Imprinted at London by John Jackson for Richard Watkins, 1591.
27Published in Valencia in 1559. Although the author was Portuguese, the text was written in Spanish. The first English translation appeared in 1598 and there was a French translation, (1578, 1587). Ref: Boullough. Op. cit. Vol. 1, pg. 206.
28Two Gentlemen of Verona, first published in 1623, is one of the plays mentioned by Francis Meres in Palladis Tamia (1598).