I Haue Not Deseru’d This

An incident on the afternoon of Tuesday 29 June 1613 threw all of Shakespeare’s plans into confusion. The King’s Men were playing All Is True at the Globe, a play concerning the marital affairs of King Henry VIII upon which Shakespeare collaborated with Fletcher. It was a new play, having been performed only two or three times previously. The courtier, Sir Henry Wotton, has left a complete account of the disaster that ensued. “Now,” he wrote:

King Henry making a masque at the Cardinal Wolsey’s house, and certain cannons being shot off at his entry, some of the paper, or other stuff, wherewith one of them was stopped, did light on the thatch, where being thought at first but an idle smoke, and their eyes more attentive to the show, it kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very grounds. This was the fatal period of that virtuous fabric, wherein yet nothing did perish but wood and straw, and a few forsaken cloaks; only one man had his breeches set on fire, that would perhaps have broiled him, if he had not by the benefit of a provident wit put it out with bottle ale.1

Another observer of less sardonic temper noted that “the fire catch’d & fastened upon the thatch of the house, and there burned so furiously as it consumed the whole house, & all in lesse than two houres (the people having enough to doe to save themselves).”2 A third account confirmed that all of the spectators escaped without injury “except one man who was scalded with the fire by adventuring in to save a child which otherwise had been burnt.”3

It was a disaster for the King’s Men, who had been deprived of a venue and an investment in one swift action. It might have been an enactment of Prospero’s words that “the great Globe it selfe” shall “dissolue” and “Leaue not a racke behinde.”

There was of course the immediate matter of rebuilding. Shakespeare owned a fourteenth part of the theatre’s shares, and was therefore liable for one fourteenth of the cost; this amounted to something like £50 or £60. He still owed £60 for the mortgage on the Blackfriars gatehouse, to be paid back within six months. Even for an affluent country landowner, these were large sums of ready money. Since there is no mention of the Globe shares in his will, it is possible that he sold them as a consequence of the fire. The Globe rose again within a year, but without Shakespeare as part owner. On this, or a later, date he also sold his shares in the Blackfriars playhouse. His financial interest in the theatre had come to an end. It is possible that he gave up play-writing when he gave up his shares, a practical end to a thoroughly pragmatic career.

There was a further, private, anxiety concerning his daughter Susannah. In the summer of this year she had brought an action of defamation against a neighbour, John Lane, who had claimed that she had “the running of the raynes & had bin naught with Rafe Smith”—that she had had sexual intercourse with Rafe Smith, in other words, and had contracted gonorrhoea. In the small enclosed community of Stratford, these were controversial allegations indeed against the wife of a prominent doctor and daughter of a local eminence. The case was heard in the bishop’s Consistory Court at Worcester Cathedral, a measure of the seriousness with which the affair was taken, but John Lane did not appear for questioning. The case brought by Susannah Shakespeare was proved, and John Lane was excommunicated.

In the latter part of 1613, in the absence of the Globe and the now almost predictable closure of Blackfriars from July to December, the King’s Men toured in the late summer and autumn in Folkestone, Oxford, Shrewsbury and Stratford itself. They played fourteen times at court, and among the court performances were the two plays jointly written by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher. All Is True and The Two Noble Kinsmen were the last fruit of Shakespeare’s association with the King’s Men, and as such have the curious status of all last things. It is likely that Shakespeare was himself at court to receive the congratulations and thanks of his sovereign. All Is True was performed at the Globe, unhappily as it turned out, but it was equally well suited to the private circumstances of court performance and preeminently to the indoors playhouse at Blackfriars. In one of those rare moments of dramatic enchantment, some of the events depicted in the play actually occurred in the same great chamber of the Blackfriars where the performance was being held. The re-enactment was so astonishingly complete that there must have been a somewhat eerie feeling of historical déjà vu about the whole performance. The scene in question concerns the appearance of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon in a consistory court, before the papal legate, to determine whether their marriage was legal or not. It was not a divorce court, as some have alleged; if there had been no marriage, there could be no divorce. It was a solemn and sacred occasion none the less, and in All Is True it is imparted with a weight of dramatic spectacle and rhetoric.

This is in keeping with a play which is freighted with historical allusions, to a period only just out of reach, and which is bounded by the notion of historical majesty. Sir Henry Wotton, in his report on the fire, had noted that the play “was set forth with many extraordinary circumstances of pomp and majesty.” Wotton disliked this aspect of the drama, since then the theatre seemed to become a second court. In the play there are spectacles and masques, processions and trumpeters, with elaborate stage-directions in one scene for the appearance of “short siluer wands … the great Seale … a Siluer Crosse … a Siluer Mace … two great Siluer Pillers.” There were scenes in which at least twenty-three players had to be accommodated upon the stage. The whole thing must have been performed very rapidly indeed to be encompassed within the “two short hours” promised by the Prologue.

How much of this is Shakespeare’s devising, and how much Fletcher’s, is open to guess. Before we ascribe the excessive theatricality to the younger man, however, it should be remembered that in his earliest plays Shakespeare had a pronounced and definite taste for spectacle. This is a period when English history plays were once more becoming fashionable, and Shakespeare always had an eye for fashion. All Is True also gave him the opportunity of exploring the nature and character of Wolsey, and it should come as no surprise that Shakespeare should illuminate him from within and thus avoid overt partisanship or prejudice; he wonders at his magnificence, but pities him in his fall. At a time when King James was seeking peace with Spain it was natural that the Spanish queen in the play, the aggrieved Katherine, is conceived in the form of suffering virtue.

It is generally agreed that Shakespeare wrote the first two scenes of the first act, involving court intrigue as well as the appearance of the king and the cardinal. He then went on to write the first two scenes of the next two acts, sketching out the main lines for his collaborator or collaborators to follow. He also wrote the great set scene of the Consistory Court, as well as the more intimate and lubricious dialogue between Anne Boleyn and an “old lady”; these are, in a sense, his specialities. The court scene is in fact largely transcribed from his main source, Holinshed’s Chronicles, and perhaps lacks the quick alchemy of his earlier borrowings; but the verse is forceful and supple enough to suggest no lessening of dramatic power. He wrote the scene in which Wolsey contemplates his fall, another great transition that Shakespeare had mastered in the early history plays; whenever any man fails, Shakespeare’s sympathy envelops him. He also wrote the first scene of the last act which sets up the denouement. He gave a structure, and a tone, to the whole production. He may also have gone over the finished playscript, adding phrases or images here and there. There may even have been a third collaborator, the elusive Beaumount, but at this point speculation becomes useless.

There seems to be no doubt, however, that The Two Noble Kinsmen was the next collaboration between William Shakespeare and John Fletcher. On the title page of the first edition, published in quarto form in 1634, it is described as being “presented at the Blackfriers by the Kings Maiestie servants, with great applause: Written by the memorable Worthies of their time: Mr. John Fletcher, and Mr. William Shakspeare. Gent.” It is worth noting that Fletcher’s name is mentioned first.

Shakespeare once more established the essential structure of the play, by writing the whole of the first act and parts of the final three acts; he may also have gone over the completed work, rephrasing and augmenting as he saw fit. It is a reworking of “The Knight’s Tale” from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales; characteristically Shakespeare takes a more ritualistic, and Fletcher a more naturalistic, attitude towards the original source. The fact that it was not included in the Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays may suggest that it was considered to be a company, rather than an individual, play. All Is True had escaped that fate by being the culmination of a long sequence of history plays already accredited to Shakespeare.

Two of Shakespeare’s most alert and astute interpreters, however, found the signs that he had inhabited Two Noble Kinsmen all but overwhelming. Charles Lamb noted of its Shakespearian passages that he “mingles everything, he runs line into line, embarrasses sentences and metaphors: before one idea has burst its shell, another is hatched and clamorous for discourse.”4 Schlegel, writing on the same play, considered its “brevity and fullness of thought bordering on obscurity.”5 There are occasions when meaning seems to run away from him, losing itself among a plethora of rich phrases, and there are occasions when the language is pushed to extremity (I.i.129-31):

But touch the ground for us no longer time
Then a Doves motion, when the head’s pluckt off:
Tell him if he i’th blood cizd field, lay swolne
Showing the Sun his Teeth; grinning at the Moone
What you would doe.

There are lines that seem purely Shakespearian, as when one queen speaks of her humble suit as (I.i. 184-5):

Wrinching our holy begging in our eyes
To make petition cleere.

There are times when the syntax is very complicated indeed, seeming to express the concept of difficulty itself. And there are occasions when Shakespeare seems to rebuke his own contorted prolixity. He had forged so supple and subtle a medium that, effectively, he could do as he liked with it. So it is perhaps worth quoting the last lines of the play, delivered as customary by the most well-born of the remaining characters on the stage. They are the words of Theseus, Duke of Athens, and they have some claim to being the last that Shakespeare ever wrote for the stage (2780-6):

O you heavenly Charmers,
What things you make of us? For what we lacke
We laugh, for what we have, are sorry, still
Are children in some kind. Let us be thankefull
For that which is, and with you leave dispute
That are above our question: Let’s goe off,
And beare us like the time.

In retrospect this may seem a fitting epitaph for Shakespeare’s career, with its resolution and its stoicism, its subdued gaiety and its sense of transcendence.

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