|Martin Shakespeare, Puritan|
|Written by Douglas Wilson|
|Wednesday, 14 October 2009 16:28|
Background and Introduction
In 1583, John Whitgift was appointed as the Archbishop of Canterbury, and this marked the start of a push against those “Puritans” who wanted the Church of England to adopt a Presbyterian form of government. As C.S. Lewis notes somewhere, the controversy was over the nature of ecclesiastical government, and not fussiness over personal legalisms so often attributed falsely to Puritans. “Bishops, not beer, were their special aversion.” And neither were the differences arcane or insignificant on a practical level. Under Whitgift the practice of censorship in ecclesiastical debate was ramped up, and in 1586 the infamous Star Chamber gave the archbishop the power to license and control all publications for the entire country. The situation was volatile, and something was bound to blow. In 1588 and 1589, a series of seven tracts appeared, anonymously written and printed—clean contrary to the edict of the Star Chamber. The author of the tracts was a courageous gentleman named to the public as “Martin Marprelate,” and in the tracts he roundly attacked the bishops for the form of ecclesiastical tyranny they were in the process of establishing, and argued the Puritan cause with enthusiasm, humor, high spirits, and profound learning. Irritated by this, the bishops hired writers like Thomas Nashe and Robert Greene to write counterblasts. Just to keep things interesting, Marprelate also published attacks on himself to keep his pursuers guessing. In August 1589, a press was seized in Manchester along with the manuscript of another Marprelate tract. The next month, Marprelate published his last piece called Protestation. In the years since, there has been a great deal of speculation about the true identity of Martin Marprelate. Who was this man?
Queen Elizabeth had come to the throne thirty years prior in 1558, and she reigned until her death in 1603. Her reign encompassed one of the greatest periods of English history, a golden era of letters, plays, and poetry, an age of exploration, with the New World opening up to all the great European powers. The Reformation was in full swing, and theological and ecclesiastical controversies were right in the center of the public square. Issues of church and state were not tidily separated—indeed they were not separated at all. One of the greatest Catholic powers of that era, the Spanish Empire, launched the Armada against Protestant England in 1588—the same year in which the Marprelate tracts had begun to appear. Just five years later, William Shakespeare began to publish, his first work being a lengthy poem called Venus and Adonis. In the years following, the plays began to appear, some of them with Shakespeare’s name attached, and some without. In the centuries that have followed, many have speculated about the true identity of William Shakespeare.
My desire here is to see if these mysteries about the true identities of two writers can’t be woven into one single story.
A Précis of the Argument
So please bear with me as I argue toward what will seem to some as an outrageous conclusion: is it possible that Shakespeare, for a brief time at least, was a Puritan? Each step toward that conclusion, considered in itself, is one that has been taken by a number of scholars and thinkers over the years (all clearly clothed and in their right mind). Putting these particular steps together (and there are only two of them) appears to be a unique combination.
But that is just the first step in the argument. The second part of the argument is that at one point in his life Edward de Vere also used his considerable polemical talents in writing the Martin Marprelate tracts. Marprelate weighed in heavily on the side of the Puritans in one of the central ecclesiastical controversies of that time, but did so in a fashion markedly unlike most of the theological combatants (on both sides). The writer of these tracts was highly educated, funny, acerbic, witty, and had apparently known a number of his theological foes at college. C.S. Lewis says this of him:
“Martin himself had of course a serious intention and must, for all his motley, be regarded as a heroic figure. Nor have I any sympathy with those who make prim mouths at him for introducing scurrility into a theological debate, for debate was precisely what the bishops had suppressed. Those who refuse to let their opponents dispute have no right to complain if they hear instead lewd catcalls in the streets; in a sense, it is what they have chosen. But Martin was speedily disowned by the graver members of his own party . . .”
The sanity of Lewis’ evaluation is in stark contrast with that of others. Martin Marprelate is easy to dismiss, and making prim mouths at him comes readily to a certain kind of writer. “A group of young and uncontrollable extremists led by John Penry, Giles Wiggington, John Udall, and others gave vent to their disappointment and impatient wrath in the scurrilous Martin Marprelate tracts.” The tracts are forceful, effective, and have a great deal of substance to them. It is simply wrong to dismiss them as scurrilous abuse. And if my thesis is correct, and the author of the Shakespeare plays was also the author of these tracts, this would place all these writings together in a different context entirely. If the same pen produced Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, and Hay Any Work for Cooper (one of the Marprelate tracts), this would place all of them in a different light. So what I would like to do here is weave all this into a coherent narrative and then leave the question for the reader to pursue further. (Unless of course, the reader is a young professor of English without tenure at a cow college somewhere. If that is the unfortunate circumstance, I would suggest the best course of action would be to stop reading now.)
The policies governing debate over this issue in English departments have many similarities with the policies pursued by Archbishop Whitgift.
A Brief Timeline
Edward de Vere was born in 1550. He was enrolled at Queen’s College at Cambridge in 1558, and no, that date is not a typo. His father John de Vere died in 1562, when Edward was twelve, and he thereupon became the 17th Earl of Oxford. But with his father’s passing, de Vere came under the guardianship of Sir William Cecil, a principal councilor to the Queen, which meant that de Vere moved to London. He received his bachelor’s degree from Cambridge in 1564, and his M.A. from Oxford two years later. It was likely that both degrees were earned without extensive time at these colleges, but he was nevertheless connected to them both.
He married Anne Cecil, his guardian’s daughter, in 1571, was very closely connected to the court, and in 1573 there was a rumor that he had become Queen Elizabeth’s lover. Between the spring of 1575 and 1576, Edward de Vere traveled throughout Italy and other parts of Europe, becoming well acquainted with Venice. In April of 1576, de Vere went back to England in a rage, having heard rumors of his wife’s infidelity. That summer his daughter Elizabeth was born. A few years later in 1580, Edward de Vere had an affair with Anne Vavasour, a beauty at the court. Also in 1580, in a move very significant in this discussion, Edward de Vere turned in three Catholic traitors, men who had been companions of his previously. They in turn spread slanderous libels about de Vere. After Anne Vavasour gave birth to their illegitimate child (Edward Veer), Queen Elizabeth threw both father and mother into the Tower in 1581, after which time de Vere was exiled from court. The queen was peeved.
By the spring of 1583, de Veer was back in good graces at court, and reconciled to his wife. He had a legitimate son who died, and the next year his daughter Bridget was born. In 1586, Mary Queen of Scots was tried for treason, and Edward de Vere sat on her jury. In 1587, de Vere’s daughter Susan was born. In 1588, the Spanish Armada engaged with England’s forces and was thwarted and ultimately destroyed by the hand of God on their return trip. The Martin Marprelate tracts were published and circulated in 1588-9. It is important to note that these tracts were published in the midst of a time of great national crisis and deliverance. The attacks on the bishops in the pamphlets for their “popery” were not a mere denominational squabble—these were issues of national survival, and feelings ran high.
In 1601 the earls of Essex and Southampton rebelled against Elizabeth. Both men were condemned for treason, and Essex was beheaded. Southhampton was imprisoned in the Tower, and he was not released until after the accession of James I in 1603. Edward de Vere died the next year in 1604. His daughter Susan de Vere married Philip Herbert, the earl of Montgomery in 1605. Ten years later, the earl of Pembroke was appointed as Lord Chamberlain to King James. This earl was brother to the Earl of Montgomery, and therefore brother-in-law to Susan de Vere. This meant that the two brother earls shared control over the future of the Shakespeare plays. In 1616, the Stratford Shakespeare died, and his tomb in Trinity Church there in Stratford was for some reason decorated with some doggerel poetry.
A review of Edward de Vere’s life shows him to have been brilliant, passionate, educated, athletic, well-read, cosmopolitan, sincere in his religious commitments, wayward in his sins, a prodigal spendthrift, hot-headed, patriotic, literary, and fully capable of seeing and owning his own faults. He was a man who lived large.
The Case for Edward de Vere As Shakespeare
The case for Edward de Vere begins with the case against Will of Stratford. If the traditional ascription of authorship easily satisfied all reasonable questions that could arise, then we almost certainly wouldn’t be in this position. But there are a host of problems with the traditional view. For a small sampling, apart from the evidence of the plays and poems (which are the things in dispute) the Stratford Shakespeare gives us no reason to suppose that he received any significant education at all; he had no contact with the law and the plays are teeming with legal expertise; he never traveled abroad, and yet the plays demonstrate significant and detailed acquaintance with the geography of Italy; he was a commoner, and the plays exhibit an aristocratic outlook throughout; his death in Stratford went unremarked by the literati of his day; his last will and testament left no books or manuscripts at all, and so on. What we do know about the Stratford Shakespeare is that he appears—through his quarrels, lawsuits, and business practices—to have been a singularly petty-minded bourgois merchant. Mark Twain identifies, in his characteristic fashion, the problem with this. “We are The Reasoning Race, and when we find a vague file of chipmunk-tracks stringing through the dust of Stratford village, we know by our reasoning powers that Hercules has been along there.”
How a man with limited education and resources, a man like Shakespeare of Stratford, would be capable of producing the towering works of genius that the plays representconstitutes a real problem. If we reverse the question, and ask if a man like de Vere would be capable of such a feat, the question answers itself. Of course. The problems we have with de Vere as the author are not of the same nature. With the Shakespeare of Stratford we are left wondering how water can rise above its own level, and the answer is that it can’t. With de Vere, we are presented with a different kind of problem entirely. For example, de Vere died in 1604, and plays continued to be published for years after that date. But of course, posthumous publication is not a logical problem, but a practical one. If a prolific writer had a number of plays in stacks and piles on his desk when he died, there would be no problem at all with others bringing them to the public afterwards. And it is worth noting that no sources for the plays were published after the death of de Vere. Another representative problem is the fact that the plays, beginning in earnest with the publication of the First Folio, are attributed to Shakespeare. There is that little matter of the name on the cover. I think that Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice because the cover says so. Why start a big argument over it?
First, if de Vere wrote the poems and plays, why would he not want the credit for it? Why all the effort to keep it hidden? There are several reasons. The first is that in the culture of the time, the work of a playwright was plainly beneath the station of an aristocrat. You would as soon expect to find de Vere out in the shop making his own candles, or in the yard slaughtering his own chickens for dinner. An earl like Oxford would bring his office into disgrace by sullying his hands with such work. Plays were for the amusement of the aristocracy, including the queen, but were not to be performed by the nobility. Aristocrats commonly maintained a troop of actors (as de Vere’s father did, and as Edward de Vere continued to do), and the pressure for a talented nobleman to try his hand would have been great, and the pressure to not let it get out would also have been great.
Another reason has to do with the content of some of the work. The sonnets had some dicey passages in them of a sexual nature, and the family of de Vere would have had good reason to not want some of that to get around. The play Richard II had been put on by Essex and Southhampton as part of their attempt to revolt against the queen, and Elizabeth was furious with the play as it was presented. The play is about a monarch being removed from office. This idea was appalling to de Vere, but the play as it was staged could be taken as seditious, as it in fact was. In short, it was an era when keeping your head down was commonly the course of wisdom.
Once we ponder the situation enough to agree that the question is at least worth asking, the assumption of an Oxfordian authorship illuminates the plays themselves. The plays and Oxford’s life overlap in countless ways. Edward de Vere knew Venice like the back of his hand, the Stratfordian Shakespeare never left England, and the author of the plays knew Venice . . . like the back of his hand. The author of the plays was clearly immersed in the legal profession. Legal terms and arcane arguments come out of his pores. The Stratfordian Shakespeare had no connection to legal training of any kind. But de Vere had studied the law at Gray’s Inn in 1567. We know a great deal about the details of de Vere’s life, and next to nothing about the Stratford man. And what we know about de Vere’s life lines up in uncanny ways with numerous incidents in the plays. For a small sampling (and there are many more than these), Hamlet was captured in the Channel once by pirates, and dumped on the beach by them. The same thing happened to de Vere. Othello believed a false accusation against his wife Desdemona, as did de Vere. William Cecil, de Vere’s father-in-law, was a ponderous fellow and very much involved with the intrigues of the Elizabethan court. He was the model for his counterpart Polonius at the court of Denmark.
Arthur Golding, de Vere’s uncle, was likely involved in tutoring de Vere when he was a boy. Golding was an ardent Calvinist and a classically-educated humanist. He was the man who introduced the form of what is now known as the Shakespearean sonnet to England. Golding translated Ovid’s Metamorphoses into English, a source that de Vere leaned on heavily in the writing of the plays. Golding also translated Calvin’s commentary on the Psalms into English, dedicating that work to Edward de Vere.
Another clue to de Vere’s connection to both the plays of Shakespeare and the Marprelate tracts is his copy of the Geneva Bible. The Authorized Version was commissioned by King James in 1611 because it had clearly become impossible to avoid having an English Bible. There was a deep antipathy within the religious establishment to the version of the Bible preferred by the Puritans, the Geneva Bible. This was the English Bible that came out of the English-speaking congregation in Geneva, gathered there during the persecutions of Mary Tudor, known appropriately as Bloody Mary. She had reigned for five short years (1553-1558), and during that time the Geneva congregation of English exiles contained some of the giants of literary humanism. The church was pastored by John Knox, and contained such worthies as John Foxe (author of the Book of Martyrs) and Thomas Bodley, the man who founded the Bodleian library at Oxford. The Geneva Bible came from that congregation and was the Bible of choice for the Puritans of England. We have Edward de Vere’s heavily marked up version of his Geneva Bible, and a study has been done comparing the verses that he marked there, and the verses quoted in the plays of Shakespeare, and the results are quite telling. The quotations tie de Vere’s Bible to the plays, and the fact that it was a Geneva Bible helps to tie de Vere with the same world that produced the Marprelate tracts.
The Case for Edward de Vere As Martin Marprelate
Nina Green writes, “The Marprelate tracts are among the most interesting anonymous works of the Elizabethan period. The identity of their author has always been a mystery. However, internal evidence in the tracts (including a slip in the Protestation in which Martin speaks of himself ‘and other great men’) renders it almost certain that he was Edward De Vere (1550-1604), 17th Earl of Oxford.” This is a judgment that I find hard to resist. But if de Vere was also Shakespeare, another judgment I find hard to resist, the result is quite a big deal.
In these pamphlets, Martin Marprelate was in a battle with the bishops, and one of the things that comes through again and again is that he knew them on a personal level, not to mention that he appears to have had recollections of them from their college days, which always tends to reduce someone’s episcopal authority. This is a particular point made quite powerfully once by P.G. Wodehouse.
“The vicar’s eyes glittered furiously. ‘Is that so?’ he said. ‘Well, I won’t, so there! And it’s like your cheek coming here and trying to high-hat me. You seem to have forgotten that I knew you when you were an inky-faced kid at school, and that, if I like, I could tell the world one to two things about you which would probably amuse it.’ ‘My past is an open book.’ ‘Is it?’ The vicar laughed malevolently. ‘Who put the white mouse in the French master’s desk?’ The bishop started. ‘Who put jam in the dormitory prefect’s bed?’ he retorted. ‘Who couldn’t keep his collar clean?’ ‘Who used to wear a dickey?’ The bishop’s wonderful organ-like voice, whose softest whisper could be heard throughout a vast cathedral, rang out in tones of thunder. ‘Who was sick at the house supper?’ The vicar quivered from head to foot. His rubicund face turned a deeper crimson. ‘You know jolly well, he said, in shaking accents, ‘that there was something wrong with the turkey. Might have upset anyone.’ ‘The only thing wrong with the turkey was that you ate too much of it. If you had paid as much attention to developing your soul as you did to developing your tummy, you might by now,’ said the bishop, ‘have risen to my own eminence.’”
Compare this to what Marprelate himself says. “For I have heard some clergymen say that Mr. Bridges was a very patch and a dunce when he was in Cambridge.” Marprelate adds in another place, “for I know them so well.” As already noted, Edward de Vere had degrees from both Cambridge (1564) and Oxford (1566). He traveled in the same circles as the bishops of the Church of England, and he did not like what they were doing at all. In various ways, it appears he also had grown up with a number of them.
In my mind, the most decisive argument for making this connection is the question of the timbre of a writer’s “voice.” Martin Marprelate was a very colorful writer, but the colors were those of an educated man. His wit is razor-sharp, and he overflows in much the same way that Shakespeare does in his plays. Here is a brief and representative assemblage from the pamphlet, a florilegium: “parsons, vicars, and curates that have learnt their Catechisms and are past grace”, “printed . . . within two furlongs of a Bouncing priest”, “like a lewd swag”, a set at a flat non plus”, “popelings”, “sauceboxes”, “for I have read something in my days”, “by this lusty syllogism of my own making”, “your books seem to proceed from the brains of a woodcock”, “there be periods in this book of great reason, though altogether without sense”, “being far better than were John with his Canterburyness”, “he may wear as brave a satin gown as my Lord of Winchester wears, and be as choleric as he”, “I marvel whether he was not hatched in a goose nest”, “he can, now and then, without any noise, allege an author clean against himself, and I warrant you, wipe his mouth cleanly and look another way, as though it had not been he”, “he will do little contrary to law for fear of a praemunire, unless it be at a dead lift to deprive a puritan preacher”, “massmonger”, “atheistical dolts”, “nothing but sores and blisters”, “will lie as fast as a dog can trot”, “beetleheaded ignorance”, “abbey lubber”, “style as smooth as a crabtree cudgel”, “there be not 3 whole periods for every page in the book that is not graced with a very fair and visible solecism”, “a saucy title”, “by a convex axiom”, “as for your godliness, I might carry it in mine eye, and see never a [b]it the worse”, “I was never so afraid in my life that I should not come to an end till I had been windless. Do you not see how I pant?”, “Can you tell your brother Marprelate, with all your learning, how to decline what is Latin for a goose?”, “should trudge for them”, “you have crossed yourself over the custard”, “I see a bishopric cooled your courage”, “and hang him against the Sun a’drying”, “leaden-headed”, “a pretty matter”, “some of our bishops are very great break-pulpits”, “to his neverlasting fame”, “beeble babble, beeble babble”, “Tubtrimmer of Winchester”, “to the reverend Bishops, counselling them, if they will needs be barrelled up for fear of smelling in the nostrils of her Majesty and the State”, “out of all scotch and notch”, “in fathering upon the puritans the offspring of your own blockheads”, “favouredly thwacked”, “good spoonmeat”, “trunchfiddle”, “hold my cloak there somebody, that I may go roundly to work”, “you should be thumped for defending bishops”, “such dry soups”, “Like you any of these nuts, John Canterbury?”, “every dunstical logician”, “wicked crew of ungodly bishops”, “sodden-headed ass”, “or else his cloister shall smoke for it”, “one of dumb John’s boozing mates”, “caperclawed”, “so well thwacked”, “bedeaconed and beminstrelled”, “many flim flam tales”, “choked him with a fat prebend or two”, “kennel rakers, and scullions”, “nunckle Canterbury”, “setting their heads together and whispering under their cloaks”, “these hot preachers”, “did once be-bless the people thus”, “brothel-beast”, “then I am sure you will confess with me that this bastard pentameter verse has a fine sweet loose at the latter end, with a draught of Derby ale”, “you might easily have given the holy religion of God the slip 20 years ago”, “it would do me good at heart to see a dozen of good and honest lord bishops dance at my wedding, saving that . . . it is not possible naturally there should be any good and honest lord bishop”, and “conferring and disputing hotly about the third declension, the churching of women, or such like matters of life and death.”
What follows is a short summary of the case for Edward de Vere being Martin Marprelate. Like Shakespeare, Martin Marprelate had a teeming brain. His writing overflows with metaphors, many of which bear the mark of a truly unique way of looking at the world. He, like Shakespeare, is fluid with his neologisms. He falls easily into Latin, and then out again, and is speaking at a personal level with bishops that he clearly knows very well . . . personally. But he is not just acquainted with Latin -- he also knows Greek and Hebrew, and the modern languages of Italian and French. He is clearly an aristocrat, speaking to the bishops, not as an upstart commoner railing at the bishops above him, but rather as one looking down on the bishops as intruders. He identifies himself, in an apparent slip, as numbered among “other great men,” meaning that he was one of the nobility. In another striking comparison to Shakespeare, he is well-versed in the law and in legal terminology. As already noted, Shakespeare’s facile and common use of abstruse legal terms is one of the more effective arguments against the Stratfordian authorship. The Marprelate tracts, like the plays of Shakespeare, are stuffed with legal references. And in 1588, the year the tracts started coming out, Edward de Vere was 38 years old, about the age of the anonymous writer, as we may gather from various allusions in the tracts. As though remembering them, he refers readily to events of twenty years before, and he identifies one man as “old” in a way that indicated he was not of that age. He was likely between the ages of 35 and 45.
Strikingly, we also have reasons for making a connection between Marprelate and de Vere because of personal connections. “Finally, Oxford was connected by marriage with all the wealthy individuals in whose homes the Marprelate tracts were printed—Mistress Crane (Elizabeth Hussey), Sir Richard Knightley, John Hales and Roger Wigston—and is linked to John Penry through his relative, Edward Dunn Lee.” The significance of this is that at this time the Puritan case against the bishops was being mounted from within the ranks of some of England’s wealthy families. John Penry, the printer of these tracts, set up his press in houses of well-to-do people—this was not an effort conducted from a back alley in London somewhere.
Elizabethan English was noted for its color, but the immense range of Shakespeare’s use of expression was foremost in a generation of giants. The vocabulary of the tracts is in the same league with Shakespeare. The writer of the Marprelate tracts was not like a fishmonger’s wife—he did not descend into mere scurrility. He was witty, funny, educated, intelligent, pointed, acerbic, and was clearly having a very good time, even though what he was doing was at the risk of his life. They weren’t playing bean bag in these days—the printer of the tracts, John Penry, was hanged by Elizabeth’s government in 1593, and one of the chief targets in the tracts, John Whitgift, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was the first name to sign Penry’s death warrant.
“To summarize: Oxford was Martin’s age, knew the individuals mentioned in the tracts, had Martin’s educational background, was possessed of the literary ability and sense of humour which are the hallmarks of Martin’s style, and was connected with all the individuals who allowed the tracts to be printed in their homes.”
There is also internal evidence from the tracts themselves. Edward de Vere was fiercely loyal to the queen’s government, but was also a partisan when it came to some of the politics surrounding her court. Throughout the tracts, one of the central arguments that is made for the Puritan form of church government is that it does not challenge Elizabeth, the way the bishops would do. For example: “I shall take you for no better than an enemy to her Majesty’s supremacy”; “have you not shewed yourself thankful unto her Majesty in overthrowing her supremacy”; “but also enemies unto her Majesty”; “Are you able, for your lives, to answer any part of the former syllogism, whereby you are concluded to be the greatest enemies unto her Majesty and the State? You dare not attempt it I know”; “though I had no fear of God before my eyes and had no hope of a better life, yet the love that I owe as a natural man unto her Majesty and the state would enforce me to write against you”; “Her Majesty’s prerogative in ecclesiastical causes should not be a whit diminished, but rather greatly strengthened by Christ’s government”; “Doctor Bancroft . . . preached treason against her Majesty’s royal crown and dignity”; “And further it should appear that they are not a few and of small reputation, but in a manner the strength of our land and the sinew of her Majesty’s royal government, which our bishops do falsely note with the names of Puritans.” This is fully consistent with what we know of Edward de Vere’s temperament, politics, outlook, and position.
Despite the title of this article, “Martin Shakespeare, Puritan,” there is still some basis for making a few qualifications to that claim. My basic claim here is that Edward de Vere, the true author of the plays commonly attributed to Shakespeare, made common cause with the Elizabethan Puritans in the late 1580s by writing the Martin Marprelate tracts. His printer, John Penry, lost his life a few years later as a result of his ongoing conflict with John Whitgift and the other bishops. Martin Marprelate’s theology of church government (the grist for the controversy in the tracts) was the same as that of the Puritans, while his theology on other matters was that of a staunch and well-educated Elizabethan Protestant. His primary motive in writing was political, as noted above, because he opposed the power that the bishops were gathering as a result of the Elizabethan settlement. But his vantage point from which he expressed this opposition was that of an aristocratic nobleman. All of this is fully consistent with what we know of Edward de Vere’s religious life, political convictions, and personal tempestuous nature.
So there is a sense in which the writer of these tracts was a Puritan, and a sense in which he was not. We should let Marprelate himself describe his relations to the other Puritans. But as we do this, we should remember that his work was being printed by John Penry, who was a Puritan. Before Penry was hanged in 1593, he was denied the privilege of seeing his wife Eleanor and four daughters—the names of those daughters being Deliverance, Comfort, Safety and Sure-Hope. As noted, the first man to sign the death warrant was John Whitgift, Marprelate’s old adversary. And this kind of thing represents one of the central complaints against the bishops, as Marprelate put it—“the bishops ought to have no prisons.”
Marprelate describes himself as being on the Puritans’ side, but acknowledges that they have some difficulty with his support. “The Puritans are angry with me, I mean the puritan preachers. And why? Because I am too open.” “I know I am disliked of many which are your enemies, that is of many which you call puritans.” In other words, Marprelate had a bit too much of a rambunctious nature to fit easily among the saints. “The bishops and their train, though they stumble at the cause, yet especially mislike my manner of writing. Those whom foolishly men call Puritans, like of the matter I have handled but the form they cannot brook. So that herein I have them both for my adversaries.” But though he didn’t fit in easily with them, he still fought alongside them, at the risk of his life. But even though he honored and admired the Puritans, he was not without complaint against them. “I would have had some other manner of accusations against our Puritans for their slackness than wherewith you have charged them, as presently I will declare.” He wishes that the Puritans had been more forceful in their opposition to the bishops. This is how he summarizes his relationship with them.
“After this, I had a fling at these puritans, concerning whom my desire is that wherein I am faulty, you puritans would set me down the particulars. It is odds-on, I shall some way or other hear of it. For albeit there have been some jars of unkindness between us, yet I would have you know that I take the worst of you, in regard of his calling, to be an honester man than the best lord bishop in Christendom. The report goes, that some of you have preached against me, and I believe it in part. Well look to it, for I may happen to be even with you in this manner. I will not rest till I have learned what it is you have said of me, and if I find it to be a just reproof I will mend my fault, be as angry as you will; if unjust, trust unto it I will hold on my course. And there is one rap more than you looked for.”
Even though there is some sort of distance between de Vere and the Puritans, there is also clear identification with their cause throughout the tracts. For example: “have but a free disputation with the puritans . . . unless you grant the puritans a free disputation”; “whom men commonly call puritans and precisians”; “which falsely men call puritanism”; “those whom they call puritans”; “Why, the puritans hold no such points as you lay to their charge”; “mark how the case stands between these wretches, and those whom they call puritans”; “the puritans (falsely so called)”.
Although de Vere was writing anonymously, and though he was making accusations anonymously, it was still honestly done. There is a vast difference between the anonymity of a contemporary slander-meister on the Internet, and publication of the truth in societies under the shadow of Gulags or Star Chambers. Under these persecuting bishops, why he was writing anonymously was no mystery. “I love not the air of the Clink.” The Clink was a notorious jail in the England of that day, and hence our gratitude to them in having yet one more slang term for chokey, the big house, the hoosegow, and the slammer.
In addition, he was not making private accusations based on private knowledge. He was appealing to the public record. As he put it, “Nay, I have published not one of your secret faults, what you have not blushed to commit in the face of the sun, and in the justifying whereof you yet stand, these things only have I published.” He clearly sought to write with a clear conscience. “I am called Martin Marprelate. There be many that greatly dislike of my doings. I may have my wants, I know, for I am a man, but my course I know to be ordinary and lawful.”
At the same time, because he wrote so colorfully, he had to defend his use of it—a certain kind of religious mind wants all religious disputes in black and white, meaning that phrase in two ways. “Aye, for jesting is lawful by circumstances, even in the greatest matters. The circumstances of time, place and persons urged me thereunto. I never profaned the word in jest. Other mirth I used as a covert, where I would bring the truth into light. The Lord being the author both of mirth and gravity, is it not lawful in itself, for the truth to use either of these ways when the circumstances do make it lawful.”
But despite his jesting and mirth, he was engaged in what he knew to be deadly serious business. The more the events of this time period are considered, echoing the sentiment of Lewis expressed earlier, the more brother Martin comes off as a truly heroic figure. And if we also consider the possibility that this heroism came from the same one who described heroism so powerfully in his plays, we realize that the wisdom found in the plays of Shakespeare was not a bookish kind of wisdom.
“You cannot lightly be ignorant, good reader, of that which has lately fallen unto some things of mine, which were to be printed, or in printing: the press, letters, workmen and all, apprehended and carried as malefactors before the magistrate, whose authority I reverence and whose sword I would fear, were I as wicked as our bishops are. These events I confess do strike me and give me just cause to enter more narrowly into myself, to see whether I be at peace with God or no.”
And even though he wrote anonymously, he clearly set out the conditions under which he would be willing to appear and make his name known. They seem to me to be most reasonable.
“I do therefore by this my protestation, make it known to the whole church of England, especially unto our magistrates, more especially unto our gracious sovereign, and unto all posterity to come, that I who do now go under the name of Martin Marprelate, do offer personally to appear, and there to make myself known in open disputation, upon the danger, not only of my liberty but also of my life, to maintain against all our bishops, or any else whosoever that shall dare in any Scholastical manner, to take their parts, the cause of church government, which is now in controversy between me and our prelates, so that I may have this condition following inviolably kept and observed, viz. That for appearing, or for anything that I have either published or caused to be published in this cause, I be not dealt with or molested except they overthrow me by the word of God, which if they do, confusion be upon me if I do not yield.”
There are obviously more than just a couple objections to all this, but I would like to interact with at least two possible counterarguments. And while it may seem that I am overstating the first half of my argument, the objections I would like to address have to do with Edward de Vere as Martin Marprelate. The reason for this, in all honesty, is that I consider the arguments for de Vere’s authorship of the Shakespeare plays to be conclusive. I simply do not see how the Stratfordian authorship of the plays can be sustained in the long run, not with the level of research that is now being conducted.
The first objection to Edward de Vere as Marprelate is that he says very plainly, on two occasions, that he is not married. He is writing anonymously, and if the writer is in fact de Vere, this would appear to mean that he is lying unnecessarily. In his words, he says, “without all fraud and ambiguity, I was never as yet married in my life.” De Vere was married in 1571, and by 1589 he had been married for almost twenty years. This is a strong objection, in my view, and can only be answered by saying that de Vere was here trying to throw the persecutors off the scent. These references to him being not married come in the last of the tracts, and this last one is his Protestation, after “the press, letters, workmen and all, [were] apprehended and carried as malefactors before the magistrate.” In other words, it appears that the pursuers were getting close, and he wanted to give them a red herring to chase. This is a pointed and reasonable objection, answered briefly.
The second objection has to be dealt with a more detailed way. It has to do with Shakespeare’s very common use of bawdy or ribald humor. How is this consistent with a detailed and robust argument with the bishops over the form of church government in England? And how would it fit with the writer’s clear admiration for the Puritans, and the fact that he worked closely together with some of them to put out the Marprelate tracts? Before addressing this objection, I need to take a moment to explain just how ribald Shakespeare actually was, which was, by contemporary Christian standards, pretty far out there. Entire books have been devoted to this, and sometimes they read too much into it. As Freud said once, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But reading innuendo into the plays is not the usual problem—usually it goes the other way. Modern Christians revere Shakespeare in much the same way that ancient Greeks revered Homer. And because much of the Elizabethan language is not really understood, this means that we have the advantage of not really getting the coarser jokes. I remember one time watching a very fine high school production of Much Ado About Nothing and having the strange experience of watching a sweet young Christian girl say something at the high end of bawdy, and then realizing that nobody appeared to have gotten it. If they had, she might have been expelled. But the whole thing sounded kind of King Jamesy and isn’t classical Christian education grand? I will here reassure the reader that I am not going to overdo the point, but I will provide three quick examples. First, Much Ado About Nothing is a play that contains a pun about women’s private parts in the title—for the Elizabethans, women had “no thing.” Second, in Henry V, when Queen Catherine is learning her English, that very funny scene descends quickly into bawdy, on account of her French accent. She says, at one point in her English lesson (in French), “O Lord God, those are very bad words, people could misconstrue them, they are vulgar and naughty, and not for respectable ladies to use. I wouldn’t speak those words in front of French gentlemen for all the world. Ugh! de foot and de cown! Still, I shall recite my entire lesson one more time. D’hand, de fingre, de nails, d’arma, d’elbow, de nick, de foot, de cown.” The reason she responds this way is that she had asked her maid Alice what the words for foot and robe were, and was told that they are foot and cown (gown). Foot sounds like the French foutre, which is an f-word in their language too. And cown with her accent would sound like another obscenity in French, which explains Catherine’s shocked reaction to both words. And for a third example, in Much Ado, Hero invites Beatrice to smell some perfumed gloves. Beatrice says, “I am stuft, cousin; I cannot smell,” Margaret then says, “A maid, and stuft! there’s goodly catching of cold.” These are just three examples. But it is not extreme to say that other examples of this kind of thing in Shakespeare are common; there are hundreds of them.
So how is this consistent coming from a man of settled and clearly sincere Christian convictions? How could this come from a man who risked his life to fight shoulder to shoulder with some Puritans against the bishops over matters of church government? The answer to this objection is threefold. First, the entire Elizabethan era (and everybody in it) happened, as it turned out, before the Victorian era, and this means everyone back then was a lot freer with colorful expressions for bodily functions than we are now. If dirty jokes or coarse references have a center of gravity, that center was a lot farther to the left than it is today. For just one obvious example, the King James Version of the Bible (1611) was a project that included a number of Puritans in it, and it contains passages like this: “Therefore, behold, I will bring evil upon the house of Jeroboam, and will cut off from Jeroboam him that pisseth against the wall, and him that is shut up and left in Israel, and will take away the remnant of the house of Jeroboam, as a man taketh away dung, till it be all gone” (1 Kings 14:10).
Second, the fashions of that entire culture shaped a different way of speaking. This can be seen in the observation of one foreign visitor to the court of Queen Elizabeth, that her “bosom was uncovered, as all the English ladies have it till they marry.” Further, neither men nor women wore underwear, and the women had openings in their dresses (called plackets) that could provide access of a sexual nature. Edward, in King Lear (3.4), warns men to keep their hands “out of plackets.” But whether the woman was wanton or not, that is just the way all the dresses were. A modest Christian woman today, with a skirt just above her knees, would have been taken by the Elizabethans as someone utterly abandoned to all that is decent, just as we would take the bare-breasted fashion for unmarried women the same way.
And third, once we have made allowances for these sorts of differences, and shifted the boundaries somewhat, it may then be granted that Edward de Vere was more rambunctious in this way than the other Puritans would have been. But we have already seen this tendency in his description of the reason why some of the Puritans had preached against him. In short, far from this colorful exuberance being an argument against de Vere being Martin Marprelate, I am inclined to consider it an additional argument in favor of the thesis. De Vere really believed in the Christian faith, he really studied his Geneva Bible, he really got Anne Vavasour pregnant and went to the Tower for it, and he really wrote plays like this.
So it is not my intention to claim that Edward de Vere was a lifelong Puritan, grave and sober in all his ways. Even a passing acquaintance with the life of Edward de Vere would shatter that assertion immediately. This is the case even if we take care to avoid the popular caricature of the Puritans, particularly the Puritans of the Elizabethan era. The distance between the exuberant de Vere and the exuberant Puritans was significant, but not nearly so great as that distance would be if the Puritans really were the prune-suckers they are so often made out to be. C.S. Lewis:
“But there is no understanding the period of the Reformation in England until we have grasped the fact that the quarrel between the Puritans and the Papists was not primarily a quarrel between rigorism and indulgence, and that, in so far as it was, the rigorism was on the Roman side. On many questions, and specially in their view of the marriage bed, the Puritans were the indulgent party; if we may without disrespect so use the name of a great Roman Catholic, a great writer, and a great man, they were much more Chestertonian than their adversaries.”
But even so, Martin Marprelate was a bit too much of a good thing, however cheerful the Puritans really were. So my claim is that in this particular battle between the bishops and the Puritans in the latter years of the 1580s, Edward de Vere was an enthusiastic combatant on the side of the Puritans. This fits with what we know of de Vere’s political and religious sympathies (that is, religious sympathies, politically speaking), and it certainly fits with his mercurial temperament. None of this is inconsistent with Shakespeare’s clear insight into what might happen when the “puritanical” mindset went to seed. Peter Leithart makes this important point:
“Reflecting on Simmons’s stimulating article on Malvolio: He points out that by the 1590s, Sabbatarianism had become what Christopher Hill characterized as a shibboleth of Puritanism. Yet, at the time of Shakespeare’s play, Puritanism had also become popularly associated with hostility to jollity and festivity. Make all necessary allowances for the distortions of popular opinion and for the genuine evils of Elizabethan entertainments, and yet one is struck by the fact that a movement known for Sabbath observance could be characterized as joyless. Shakespeare captures the contradiction neatly, with a reference that associates the blackness of Egypt with the dark house of Malvolio. Shakespeare depicts the Puritan as a Pharaoh who places a heavy yoke on the underlings of the house—in the name of Sabbath.”
But one of the things I like to do is stick up for Puritans. If there is ever a contest for “most misrepresented” groups within the history of Christendom, the Puritans will certainly be in the final four, and would probably win the championship. Caricatured as stuffy, priggish, censorious, prim, prudish, and more, the Puritans have long been type-cast as the sour brethren. In other settings I have written at length on how wrong this stereotype is, particularly when we are considering the early Elizabethan Puritans. At the same time, the caricature was not manufactured out of whole cloth—from Shakespeare’s Malvolio to Hawthorne’s Rev. Dimmesdale, the caricature was aimed at something. What was that something?
Here is a tentative suggestion for those who are willing to work with me for a bit. There are many parallels between the Puritans and the Pharisees, down to what their names originally meant. The Puritans wanted to purify the Church of England of its remaining popish tendencies. The word Pharisee comes from the Hebrew word that means to “set apart” or to “separate.” Even to this day, strict evangelical churches teach and insist on a “separated life.” The names of both groups therefore indicated their deep desire for holiness. Both started as reform movements that were desperately needed in their time. The first Pharisee was probably Ezra, and, if so, this means that they had a long and honored history before they got themselves all tangled up in their scruples. The Puritans were the same -- at the beginning, their work was genuinely liberating, a breath of fresh air. But after a generation or so, something bad began to happen. That “bad” development was seized on by the Puritans’ enemies to provide material to taunt them with, and seized by certain Puritans within who decided to embrace the caricature.
This is related to another point, which is that one of the central aims of the Pharisees was the goal of getting all Israelites to live in accordance with the requirements of the law for priests. One of the central aims of the Puritans was to take the consecration of the monastery and extend it to the entire commonwealth. The Pharisees wanted every Israelite to be as holy as the priests. The Puritans wanted every Englishman to be as holy as the monks . . . much holier than the monks, in fact. Think of the Puritan settlements in America as attempts to build monastic communities where sex was encouraged and permitted. But the problem is that where there is sex, there are children, and where there are children, there are subsequent generations. The old style monastery perpetuated itself by means of recruits, which meant that there was much slower organic development over time. But children accelerate the process of change. The Puritan project here was audacious, and for my money, they got farther with this ambitious aim than any other group in church history. But still, something bad happened.
What is caricatured as the “Puritan” mentality is actually a mentality that can be found in the church of all ages. You can find this mindset in some of the early fathers, you can find it with Syrian ascetics, you can find it in medieval monasteries, and you can find it (after the first generation or so) among the Puritans. This religious type translates every serious call to holiness into terms it can understand, which is that of being stuffy, priggish, censorious, prim, prudish and more. Not only does it translate every serious call to holiness into this legalistic straitjacket, but it is attracted to every serious call to holiness—with the intention of burying it under a rock pile of rules. If God raises up someone to call the Church back to serious devotion to Him in a particular area, and this call is characterized by all those things that ought always to characterize such a call—joy, peace, love, contentment, laughter, feasting, and more joy—then it can be guaranteed that the joy, peace, love books will be published and distributed, and within a very short period of time, the mirthless will show up prepared to take the whole thing to what they honestly believe to be the next level.
This is what happened to the Puritans. The first Puritans really were liberated. They were seriously joyful, which is a form of being serious, I suppose. And because they wanted their whole nation to experience this joy, and they were total Christians, they brought the words of Christ to bear on everything. Their joy was infectious, their talents prodigious, and their logic unanswerable. They carried everything before them, and before you could blink, they found themselves being represented by the first Puritans who were recognizable in the popular caricature. By the end of the 16th century, there were two kinds of Puritans, a mixed multitude. There were the free men and there were the gnat-stranglers. But the gnat-stranglers were not the Puritans’ unique contribution to the history of religious pathologies—rather, they were a garden variety religious weed that eventually began growing in the Puritans’ garden, just as they had grown in every Christian garden up to that point.
This is as good a place as any to end the discussion. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, as we say, and our caricature of the Puritans enables us to see what some Puritans became. But at the time, the lines of demarcation were not so clear. C.S. Lewis identifies a certain man as the first Puritan who fits the general stereotype. “In Cartwright we meet at last the ‘puritan’ of popular tradition and satire.” The reference is to Thomas Cartwright, one of the Puritan firebrands of that generation. Lewis tags him as the first Puritan killjoy—“Hatred so massive as his, so completely reconciled to the conscience, leaves no room for fun.” And in retrospect, this may well be correct. But at the time, there was a Puritan cavalier who was having (as Lewis recognizes) as much fun as anybody, and that would be Martin Marprelate. And Martin thought that Thomas Cartwright was peculiarly adept at kicking episcopal hineys. If they ever set up a debate between Cartwright and any one of the bishops, Martin wanted to come and get a seat right at ringside. Being an earl, he probably could have easily arranged for one.
|Last Updated on Wednesday, 14 October 2009 17:12|