Monday, November 24, 2008

"Shake-scene" and shattering the Shakespeare myth: a question for authors Samuel Blumenfeld and Daryl Pinksen

Q: Elizabethan playwright Robert Greene's 1592 deathbed pamphlet entitled Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit is largely famous for the appearance of one hyphenated word: "Shake-scene."

Stratfordians have long maintained that "Shake-scene" is the first mention of Shakespeare as a writer as early as 1591. Now I understand their desire to show that Shakespeare was already established in London circa 1591. They need to establish this, after all, since they maintain that Shakespeare wrote the very intricate (and dare I say very Marlovian) Henry VI, Part I--his first play--circa 1589. Pretty impressive work by a novice. Yet is this the best Stratfordians can do? No "other" mention of a theatrical Shakespeare exists at this time, and so all we have to go with is Robert Greene's "Shake-scene" amid a bitter rant about how theatre owners and actor-managers exploited him and other writers (Greene was debt-ridden, by the way).

Sam: Yes, Carlo, one of the historical resources Stratfordians use to prove that Shakespeare was a known actor and playwright before 1592 is Robert Greene’s pamphlet, Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, Bought with a Million of Repentence.

Greene, born in 1560, had been at Cambridge from 1575 to 1583, thus overlapping the years when Marlowe had been there. Marlowe, born in 1564, had entered in 1580. Thus, both men, who became aspiring playwrights, were well acquainted with each other. In fact, later, Greene was so impressed with Marlowe’s Tamburlaine that he wrote a play, Alphonsus King of Aragon, in imitation of Marlowe’s style. But it was a flop, and in 1588 he attacked Marlowe in a pamphlet, Perimedes the Blacksmith.

In 1592, Greene, down and out and suffering from a fatal disease, wrote a largely autobiographical pamphlet, Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, which was published posthumously. In it he lashed out at those in the theater business who had used him and then left him to die in poverty. Obviously, he was referring to Edward Alleyn, who had acted in his plays, and Philip Henslowe who had produced them (ed. note: see 6/12/08 post on Henslowe's Diary). He wrote:

Is it not strange, that I, to whom they all have been beholding: is it not like that you, to whom they all have been beholding, shall (were ye in that case as I am now) be both at once of them forsaken? Yes trust them not: for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country. O that I might entreat your rare wits to be employed in more profitable courses: & let those Apes imitate your past excellence, and never more acquaint them with your admired inventions.

It is obvious that Greene was trying to warn his fellow playwrights about the predatory practices of actors and producers, namely Alleyn, the well-known "Shake-scene," and Henslowe, his father-in-law theater owner. Alleyn became so wealthy that he was able to endow Dulwich College as a depository for Henslowe’s archives.

Greene’s pamphlet would have been largely forgotten had it not been read in 1778 by a classical scholar named Thomas Tyrwhitt (1730-1786), who was convinced he had made a significant discovery. He wrote: “There can be no doubt, I think, that Shake-scene alludes to Shakespeare.” He also observed that the reference to the “tyger’s heart” was taken from Henry VI, Part III, the authorship of which in 1778 was still questioned. We can be sure that Greene knew who wrote it!

Of course, in 1778 very little was known about Shakespeare, and the authorship question had not even arisen. But now that we know much more, it is obvious that "Shake-scene" refers to Edward Alleyn and not William Shakespeare, who was a totally unknown entity in 1592. Indeed, Shakespeare's name first appears in print on the dedication page of the poem Venus and Adonis in 1593, after Marlowe’s supposed demise. His name does not appear on the title of a play until 1598, when it appears on Love’s Labour’s Lost, “newly corrected and augmented by W. Shakespere.” That play had to be written by a university wit, and not a country bumpkin with no documented education of any kind.

Yet, Stratfordians have used Greene’s pamphlet as proof that Shakespeare was a well-recognized actor and playwright before 1592. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the Stratfordian claim has made it difficult to accurately date the plays written before 1593 or designate their true authorship.

Stratfordians have written all of their biographies on the dubious foundation of Greene’s pamphlet, never questioning Tyrwhitt’s assumption. Indeed, Stephen Greenblatt, in his much acclaimed biography of the Bard, Will in the World, goes so far in his book as to remove the hyphen in "Shake-scene," thus giving the impression that "Shakescene" is indisputably Shakespeare. In doing so, he not only violated his profession as a scholar, but also perpetuated a gross historical error. Greene would have never used "Shake-scene" to refer to the name of an actual individual, since nowhere in the pamphlet does he refer to anyone by name.

Daryl: Thanks, Carlo. Sam Blumenfeld is quite right in pointing out just how crucial the "Shake-scene" reference is to the Shakespeare industry. Assuming it to be a reference to the Stratford man, it would verify that he was firmly established in the London theater world as of 1592. It would link him to a known Shakespeare play, Henry VI, and place him in contact with Lord Strange's Men at a time when Christopher Marlowe was writing for them. For Shakespeare biographers this is a goldmine, for it allows them to address what is arguably the most salient feature of the works of Shakespeare--the overwhelming debt the plays owe to Christopher Marlowe. By locating both Shakespeare and Marlowe in the company of Lord Strange's Men at the same time, biographers can imagine a close working relationship, perhaps even a personal one, between the two playwrights. Nearly all Shakespeare biographies devote ample speculation to this relationship, a relationship inferred entirely from the "Shake-scene" reference. Greene's reference is so important, so interwoven into the mythos of Shakespeare, that it has become indispensible. It simply cannot be abandoned, for if it were, it would be tantamount to erasing huge chunks of dozens of Shakespeare biographies.

The case for the "Shake-scene" referring to Shakespeare is strong; Greene's use of the prefix "Shake" and the fact that Green alludes to a Shakespeare play, Henry VI, both carry weight. But an alternative explanation, that "Shake-scene" was actually aimed at the premier actor of the age, Edward Alleyn, is even stronger. Greene tells us that the "Shake-scene" was a "player," i.e. an actor, and had a "tyger's hart," a line taken from Shakespeare's Henry VI. We know that Edward Alleyn spoke those words on stage; he was the lead actor for Lord Strange's Men in 1592 when Henry VI was performed. And a "Shake-scene" does sound like an egocentric ham splitting the rafters with bombastic speech. But the most important piece of evidence pointing to Alleyn as the "Shake-scene" is that Greene had already documented his dislike for Alleyn two years earlier. In 1590, Robert Greene had written this passage:

Why Roscius, art thou proud with Aesop's crow, being pranct with the glory of other's feathers? Of thyself thou canst say nothing, and if the Cobbler hath taught thee to say Ave Caesar, disdain not thy tutor because thou Pratest in a King's Chamber. (Robert Greene, Francesco's Fortunes, 1590)

The similarities to Greene's 1592 "Shake-scene" reference are striking. "Roscius," the name of a famous Roman actor, is Edward Alleyn. Ben Jonson also referred to Alleyn as "Roscius" in a 1616 poem he wrote, titled "To Edward Alleyn." The "Cobbler" was a common nickname for Marlowe, and a reminder of his humble origins as the son of a cobbler. In 1590 Greene told Alleyn that he was merely an actor mouthing words that others, like Greene and Marlowe, had written for him. Alleyn was "proud with Aesop's crow, being pranct with the glory of other's feathers." Then, in 1592, Greene claims that someone he calls a "Shake-scene" is "an upstart crow beautified with our [playwrights'] feathers." This sounds like it could be a continuation of Greene's attack on Alleyn. There would seem to be enough evidence to, at the very least, call the "Shake-scene" reference into question. But to hear Shakespeare's biographers tell it, there is no question, for the Shakespeare conclusion is regarded as unimpeachable. Let us assume for a moment that the argument here is academic, how should we decide what to believe? My answer is that we must ask ourselves would Edward Alleyn have assumed that Greene was referring to him in the "Shake-scene" reference. Given the similarity to the 1590 insult, and the fact that Alleyn had spoken the "tyger's hart" line on stage, how could he have assumed that the insult was not aimed at him? If Alleyn assumed that he was the "Shake-scene" being insulted (again) by Greene, then we must assume that he was "Shake-scene" as well.

Here is why the debate is not academic: if we were to assume that "Shake-scene" was Edward Alleyn, then Shakespeare--the writer Shakespeare--would not exist before Marlowe's disappearance in 1593. Beyond that, it would link Christopher Marlowe to Edward Alleyn's performance of Henry VI, a play which scholars have long noted sounds like a deliberate emulation of Marlowe's style by Shakespeare. The line between the works of Marlowe and Shakespeare is already blurred; replace Shakespeare with Edward Alleyn as the "Shake-scene," and the line is effectively erased.

© The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection, November 2008

Click here for Daryl Pinksen's "Was Robert Greene's 'upstart crow' the Actor Edward Alleyn?"

Click here to purchase Samuel Blumenfeld's The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection.

Click here to purchase Daryl Pinksen's Marlowe's Ghost.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

On Marlovian research and "Mr. W.H.": a question for 2007 Hoffman Prize winner Peter Farey

Peter Farey's Marlowe Page is the gold standard for Marlovian research, and we are honored that Peter has taken a few moments to chat with MSC. By the way, you can catch Peter in Mike Rubbo's film, Much Ado About Something.

Q: Peter, your essay "Hoffman and the Authorship," joint winner of the 2007 Hoffman Prize and available on your website, is truly a brilliant piece of scholarship, and I encourage all those interested in the Shakespeare authorship question to read your meticulous and compelling work and to spend time on your exceptional Marlowe Page. Your essay certainly makes the case that there is, to quote you, "sufficient reason" to conclude that Marlowe could have authored the Shakespeare works.

What's one piece of evidence that you're still on the hunt for? Obviously, there are many, but is there one in particular that really fascinates you? Is it Marlowe in Italy, for example, after his alleged "murder"/the Deptford incident?

Peter: Thanks for your kind remarks about the website, Carlo. I'm very flattered, and if they don't get more people visiting it I don't know what will!

Your question is an interesting one since it raises the issue of what is, for me, the main difference between my own approach and that of most other anti-Stratfordians. Whereas the norm is indeed for people to go off in search of evidence to support their theory, as your question implies, I much prefer to adopt what is the (rather more scientific?) approach of trying to prove it, or bits of it, wrong. This is why other Marlovians tend to find me as severe a critic of their ideas as I am those of any other authorship candidate's proponents.

So where does any new stuff come from? It usually arises as the result of my exploring those things which orthodox scholars themselves find puzzling. For example, it was my trying to find a sensible interpretation of the poem on Shakespeare's Stratford monument, about which there is no scholarly consensus, that resulted in my stumbling upon it really being a riddle telling us that Marlowe is "in" the monument with Shakespeare. Similarly, it was by reframing the contentious biographical question of just how Marlowe came to be killed at Deptford—to asking instead what the most probable reason was for those people to have met there that day—that I discovered that it had to be to arrange a faked death for him whether he continued as a poet/dramatist or not. A third example: scholarly uncertainty about just which "canopy" Sonnet 125 referred to led to my finding a completely different meaning for the poem, one that in fact shows the author to have been an atheist.

But how did I try to prove myself wrong, as I claim that I do? Mainly by posting my ideas on the internet long before I had really worked them out in detail. For the past ten years or so every single idea that I have eventually posted on my website has been subjected to the most rigorous challenge by newsgroup opponents, some of whom are very knowledgable indeed, and very capable of ripping apart any theory which is not based upon accurate information and logical reasoning. I can assure you that the arguments I present on my website would have been very different indeed if I hadn't exposed them to this examination first. In fact I wish that all of our Marlovian colleagues would follow a similar path, whether publicly or in private, before publishing!

So where does this leave us in terms of your initial question? Is there something I am "still on the hunt for" in particular? I think it would be in pursuit of an answer to the scholars' perennial problem of just who the "Mr W.H." mentioned in the dedicatory epistle of "Shakespeare's Sonnets" really was. As I explain in my essay "Hoffman and the Authorship," I'm sure Don Foster is right in saying that contemporary usage means that it must have been the poet himself. Given in addition that Ben Jonson's eulogy in the First Folio seems to indicate that the poet (if Marlowe) was still alive when it was published ("though thou had'st small Latin and less Greek"), and that the Avon referred to may well have been the one next to which the two dedicatees of the First Folio lived rather than the Stratford one, was there a "Mr. W.H."—other than William Herbert himself, of course—living at Wilton, seat of the Earl of Pembroke, at the time? If there were, I'd put my shirt on his really being a surviving Christopher Marlowe!

© The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection, November 2008

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Monday, November 3, 2008

Who was Robert Poley? A question for Daryl Pinksen, author of Marlowe's Ghost

Q: Daryl, as I was reading your recent work, Marlowe's Ghost: The Blacklisting of the Man Who Was Shakespeare, I was struck by your description of Robert Poley, one of the three men who was with Marlowe the day of his alleged death. The other two were Nicholas Skeres and Ingram Frizer. Frizer was Thomas Walsingham's servant (ed. note: see 6/19 post on Walsinghams) and probably a low-level intelligence operative; Skeres, you suggest, might have been an operative in the Earl of Essex's intelligence network. And then there's Poley, someone with a very interesting intelligence background and a fairly experienced agent. Please elaborate.

Daryl: Thanks, Carlo. The fact that Robert Poley was at the Deptford meeting is remarkable. It's commonplace to hear people refer to the 1593 Deptford incident as a "tavern brawl." Far from it. The four men who gathered there were, as Charles Nicholl called them, scoundrels, Marlowe included, and all four were involved in shady dealings, linked in some way to the Elizabethan underworld. But Poley's presence at the meeting makes it an exceptional event.

Marlowe, Skeres, and Frizer were lightweights, minor cogs in the Walsingham/Burghley-led intelligence machine (ed. note: see 6/23 post on Cecils). Robert Poley was in a different league entirely; in 1586 he had been instrumental in exposing the Babington Plot, which led to the execution of Queen Elizabeth's cousin, Mary Queen of Scots. In The Reckoning, Nicholl's meticulous exploration of Marlowe's demise, he tells us that in the months leading up to Deptford, Poley was engaged in high-level diplomatic liaisons between The Hague, England, and Scotland. Here's where the story takes a turn - Nicholl's research reveals that for ten days following the Deptford meeting, Poley's whereabouts are inexplicably unknown. Where was he? Nicholl has no idea, but circumstances suggest that Poley may have been in Scotland, as Marlowe's escort. Years earlier, Poley had been recommended as an agent who knew "the best ways to pass into Scotland." And Marlowe, in his last conversation with Thomas Kyd (a playwright Marlowe had once shared a room with) said he was determined to go to Scotland, and mentioned that another of his literary friends, Matthew Roydon, had already gone. Marlowe urged Kyd to join them.

If Marlowe did survive the Deptford meeting, it may have been because Robert Poley was there to help Marlowe "pass into Scotland," a safe haven for freethinkers trying to escape the religious oppression then sweeping England. Thomas Kyd should have listened to Marlowe's advice; after his arrest he was imprisoned and tortured, and died within months of his release.

© The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection, November 2008  Burgess Sam Riley
Daryl Pinksen, a regular MSC contributor, is the author of Marlowe's Ghost, Grand Prize Winner of the 17th Annual Writer's Digest International Self-Published Book Awards.

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