Shakespeare in Love: The True Story

by Stephanie Hopkins Hughes

The movie Shakespeare in Love has been hauling in the audiences and the ticket sales just as its subject, the play Romeo and Juliet, did so long ago, and still does, whenever it is played. This movie is delightful, but as everyone knows, it is not the truth. It is a good story, but it is not the true story of Shakespeare in love.

You see, if we're to see a movie about Shakespeare in love, it has to be a fantasy, it cannot be the truth, because the man that everyone has thought for four hundred years was Shakespeare the great playwright, was not a playwright. This man had very little to do with the theater but pull down a small pension for the use of his name. He has left no story worth telling, while the man who really did write the plays has a marvelous story, a story which until recently, has remained untold.

Should it surprise us that the true story, like the movie, does involve the writing of Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's most romantic play? What follows is what may well be the true story, about half fact, half best guess, pieced together from contemporary documents, the works of historians, of literary historians and commentators, of Shakespeare experts, some orthodox, some necessarily radical, and the plays themselves. And if we add some spice in the telling, who's to say us nay? Certainly not Shakespeare.

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This is the story of a lonely teenager; an ordinary boy in many ways, much like Romeo in fact, a boy with the same goals, desires, hopes and fears of all youth; but this boy was also extraordinary; in fact, he was far more extraordinary than he was ordinary. This boy was born with a gift so powerful that in many ways it would prove to be a curse, a gift of language, of memory, of intellectual and imaginative power, a gift that would place him on the level of few individuals over the course of history, individuals such as Alexander the Great, Jesus Christ, Leonardo da Vinci, Sir Isaac Newton, Mozart, Bach, Benjamin Franklin, and Albert Einstein; individuals who molded history, who created culture with their insights, discoveries and creations.

Not only was he brilliant, he was handsome, with the red gold hair so prized by his race and class, and although he was on the small side, he had as well the strength and physique of an athlete, a tennis player and a fencer. He was also born into the highest levels of the English nobility, the heir to the second oldest Earldom in the nation. Had he been born in Italy he would have been regarded as a Prince, for there, unlike England, the nobility still retained complete control over their medieval demesnes, which we call principalities. His rank, although in some respects a marvelous gift, was also a curse, for although it gave him a great deal more economic freedom than most men of his age, it also tied him to a prescribed and highly restrictive role in the life of his community, a role he could escape only in the theatre or in the pages of a book; ultimately it demanded the sacrifice of his identity as a writer.

Because of his social position the boy was educated by the greatest scholars of his day. For several years between the ages of eight and twelve he remained under the tutelage of one of the most respected Greek scholars in the nation, who held the chair at Cambridge University in Civil Law and wrote the book that most strongly influenced government officials in determining policy. From age twelve to thirteen or fourteen he was tutored by one of the greatest antiquarians of the time, an Anglican prelate whose name can be found penned on the back of the oldest literary document claimed by England, perhaps the most famous document in our literary heritage, that of the Old English epic, Beowulf, together with the date "1562, " a year when it is known that the boy was with him.

As you can see, a tremendous amount of love and hope rested on this boy. Yet despite this loving care, he was a lonely child right from the start. He had no brothers, and although he had a sister close to his own age, it is doubtful they ever actually lived together, even in their infancy and childhood. It is likely that he received a great deal of love from his nursemaid in childhood, and probably from all the retainers on his fathers estate, but if he was like most children of the nobility, as it seems that he was, his parents would have been too busy with affairs of State and their own social lives to see him except at holidays like Michaelmass and Shrovetide, when the Court community gathered at one of the great palaces or houses of the nobility for Christmas or May games, the only time he was able to play with other children like himself. The rest of the time he spent with his tutors or hanging about with servants, from whom he absorbed the rich oral culture of folklore, the tales and superstitions, the holiday rituals and folk remedies, still alive and flourishing among the unlettered servants and rural folk of 16th-century England.

The lonely lad kept himself company with books, at first the adventure stories that were so popular, King Arthur and his knights of the Roundtable, in French or Italian, languages he picked up easily as he had been reading Latin since he was five or six. His first tutor intoduced him to the Greek classics, and his second tutor to the Saxon languages. His brilliant mind swept aside the difficulties of each new language in its eager pursuit of stories, sure that like the bean in the holiday pudding, some important message about the meaning of life could be found in each new plot, each variation on an ending.

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His life changed suddenly in his twelfth summer with the death of his father; overnight all previous plans for his future were rendered null and void. As an underage peer of the realm he became a ward of the Crown and was sent to London to live with the man that was probably the most important figure in England, equal to if not surpassing the brilliant Queen herself, her Principle Secretary, William Cecil, not yet forty, and with some way yet to go before he reached the apex of his career as the Lord Treasurer, a post he would hold for the rest of his long life.

The boy was lonely at Cecil House, but then he was used to being lonely, and there at least there was a great library of books to explore, an immense garden filled with every sort of plant, while around the dinner table was heard the conversation of the most influential people of the time, foreign ambassadors and agents, lawyers with important cases to discuss, the good, the bad, the brilliant, the beautiful, speaking French, Italian, Spanish, German, Polish, Russian; all fascinating. The following year his cousin, the young Earl of Rutland, only a year older than himself and also ward of the Crown, joined him at Cecil House. For the first time he knew what it meant to have the close companionship of a boy his own age. They went to all the great Court and holiday functions together.

Other boys joined them at Cecil House from time to time, boys of high rank whose parents saw the value in having their sons spend time in the Lord Treasurer's household where they formed a little academy. We must set aside our class prejudices about such a group, and not regard it as we might today, as nothing more than a sort of junior country club for upper class twits. Class division was part and parcel of the life of the times; these boys were looked to to bear the burden of governing the State in their mature years; for them, privilege was more than balanced by the pressures of grave responsibility.

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His mother had married again, to the man who had been Captain of his father's Horse. Although she continued to be referred to as the Dowager Countess, as she had no claim to nobility other than her marriage to his father, she was now as far beneath him in the social scale as she had been above him as a child, lost to him forever across a great divide of class and rank. He saw her occasionally at those Court functions where everyone was welcome. Still only in her early thirties, still beautiful, how was he to treat this woman, at once so central to his being and yet so distant? It was always hard for him to speak when his heart was overcome with feeling. He would assume a cool expression, speaking abruptly to hide the loneliness and confusion that any thought or sight of her provoked and to conquer the tears that never failed to rise at any thoughts of bygone days. When he felt secure enough to look for her again, she was gone.

Only Rutland knew his sensitivity; all others found him either brilliant and witty or sullen and silent; but his heart he hid from all but his friend, and even he never knew it all. Nurtured on the French romances that were the boyhood reading of his day, he dreamed of attaining the love that he had yearned for in secret since he was pryed screaming from his nurse's arms at the age of five, and set to learning Latin with a pious young uncle. He spent his quiet hours dreaming of a romance of the sort he read about in the tales of Sir Lancelot and Prince Orlando, fated, overwhelming. She would be beautiful, graceful, a good dancer. They would make love. His imagination, always powerful, and now coupled with a teenage boy's libido, made it as real as though it had already happened. Well, almost as real.

He and Rutland attended the wedding of the Earl of Warwick as pages. Either there or at another similar Court function he fell in love with one of the Queen's young Maids of Honor, a beauty two or three years older than himelf. Despite his attractive looks he was still only a child in her eyes. She was far too interested in the young men that surrounded her.

Although it was clear she wasn't interested, the poor kid couldn't get her out of his mind. To his surprise this love he had read so much about was no fun at all! Actually it was torture! He tried to ease his heart by writing poems in the popular Petrarchan style. Reams of juvenile poems, the ink all splattered with tears, failed to bring him relief. What use was it to write her poems when she wouldn't even speak to him?! Unable to hide his misery, or his poetry, his heartless friends teased him mercilessly. The following Christmas, her presence at the holiday masques offered them rich opportunities for his humiliation. Loving her, hating her, hating them, he did his best to conquer his heart, to suffer in silence. If this was what love was all about, he wished never to experience it again!

Then he met another girl. Her name was Mary Browne. She was 13-years-old, newly arrived at Court to serve as Maid of Honor. She was everything he had dreamed of, beautiful, sweet, and also, and this he had not expected, intelligent and witty! She was not only good to look at, she was fun to talk to. He forgot the other girl and dreamed only of Mary. Did she love him also? We'll probably never know for sure, although it seems fair to guess that she did, although perhaps a kiss or two, some romantic whispers, some burning poems and a cartload of melting glances were probably the only contact they ever had.

In any case, the romance of his dreams was not to be, for Mary's family were Catholic, and she was pledged to a Catholic peer, the second Earl of Southampton. Mary was only thirteen while Southampton was an aged twenty-one! The boy was outraged, miserable. It wasn't fair. Yet he knew, of course, that as long as his life was controlled by the Lord Treasurer, a leader of the Protestant faction at Court and in Parliament, he would never be allowed to marry a Catholic, which left out at least eighty percent of the girls in his traditional social circle. He hated Southampton and wanted to kill him. He hated his guardian for his attitude towards Catholics. His terrible lifelong loneliness and the normal physical desires of a teenage boy combined with hatred for those who stood between himself and the beautiful Mary.

All of his life, one of his greatest problems would be the tempestuous emotions that threatened to swamp him at important junctures. Finally, desperate to escape his own thoughts and feelings, he sought escape in his ancient refuge, a French anthology of romance tales. One of the stories reminded him of his present dilemma. It was the tale of two teenaged lovers, separated by cruel Fate. The plot was good, but the story was unsatisfying as it was told. It was way too short, for one thing. A good story demanded a full, well-dramatised telling. He shared his opinion with Rutland.

Grateful that his miserable friend, whom he despaired of ever seeing smile again, had finally taken him back into his confidence, Rutland urged him to use his poetic talents to make it into a better story. Hardly had the words entered his mind but lines began forming in the jog-trot meter of the day:

There is beyond the Alps, a town of ancient fame
Whose bright renown yet shineth clear, Verona men it name,
Built in an happy time, built on a fertile soil,
Maintained by the heavenly fates, and by the townish toil.
The fruitful hills above, the pleasant vales below,
The silver stream with channel deep, that through the town doth flow,
The store of springs that serve for use, and eke for ease
And other more commodities which profit may and please,
Eke many certain signs of things betide of old,
To fill the hungry eyes of those that curiously behold
Do make this town to be preferred above the rest.
Of Lombard towns, or at the least comparéd with the best.

The meter and syntax may sound awkward to us today, but educated poets were trained in Latin, the model for all great poetry it was thought, and Latin, especially Latin poetry, allows just about any word order, while the meter was the standard choice for long story in verse. And long indeed it was, for by the time he finished, and got his friend to write an introduction, it was well over 30,000 words.

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In the original tale, the two young lovers were separated, not by their religion, but by an ancient feud between their families. He kept the feud, as his own problem of religion was too personal and too politically sensitive to include, and he kept the locale, as well, Italy being for him, as for most of his friends, the center of all European culture, the source of everything new and exciting. He also kept the original names of the feuding families, the Capaletti and the Monteschi, but he couldn't resist changing Monteschi to Montague, since Mary's father, Anthony Browne, was also known as Viscount Montague. The name of the town, Verona, had to remain as well, as it was an excellent pun on his own name. Since he couldn't sign his work, all his life he would leave a similar trail of names through his plays and poems as clues to his friends that the work was his. Not all these clues surived rewrites and editing, but luckily for us, many did.

As he labored over his poem, gradually the excitement of creation began to replace the emotions that had been tormenting him. Although it was hardly a sufficient replacement for the real thing, that yearned-for night of sexual bliss, the consummation of both his physical desires and the pure yet intimate love for which his lonely heart yearned, the satisfaction that he derived from depicting it almost made up for the fact that it was no more than a figment of his imagination. Hear him as he expresses his diffidence at having to rely on his imagination to describe something that he himself has not yet experienced:

I grant that I envy the bliss they livéd in.
Oh that I might have found the like, I wish it for no sin.
But that I might as well with pen their joys depaint,
As heretofore I have displayed their secret hidden plaint.
Of shivering care and dread, I have felt many a fit,
But Fortune such delight as theirs did never grant me yet.
By proof no certain truth can I unhappy write,
But what I guess by likelihood, that dare I to indite.

He has no such problem when it comes to describing Friar Lawrence, the mentor to whom Romeo turns for help, as the boy has more than enough experience with his own mentors, the tutors with whom he lived and studied as a child, taking the name of one, Lawrence, and the qualities and credentials of the other.

For he of Francis order was, a friar as I read,
Not as the most was he, a gross unlearnéd fool,
But doctor of divinity proceeded he in school.

Here we see his most recent tutor, Sir Lawrence Nowell, a protestant devine and Dean of Lichfield, the equivalent in his own time of the celibate Franciscan, a teaching order.

The secrets eke he knew, in natures works that lurk,
By magic's art most men suppos'd that he could wonders work.
Ne doth it ill beseem divines those skills to know
If on no harmful deed they do such skillfulness bestow.
For justly of no art can men condemn the use
But right and reasoned lore cry out against the lewd abuse.

We don't know whether Sir Lawrence dabbled in alchemy, what we call chemistry now, but we do know that it was one of the great interests of the tutor of his younger years, Sir Thomas Smith, who was renowned for his personal laboratory, where he experimented with distilling the juices of plants into medicines that he used to doctor himself and his friends. This endeavor was misunderstood by the ignorant, and labelled sorcery, which may explain the poet's defensive tone. He continues:

The bounty of the friar and wisdom hath so won
The townsfolk's hearts, that well nigh all to Friar Lawrence run
To shrive themself the old, the young, the great and small.
Of all he is belovéd well, and honor'd much of all.

The boy lived with Sir Thomas at his home, Hill Hall, in the countryside of Essex County, where Smith was indeed, respected and perhaps loved by all his neighbors, both for his importance and for his efforts to beautify and raise the standard of living in his community.

And for he did the rest in wisdom far exceed,
The prince by him (his counsel craved) was help'd at time of need.
Between the Capulets and him great friendship grew:
A secret and assuréd friend unto the Montague.

Sir Thomas was indeed turned to for his counsel by the Prince, in this case, the Queen and her chief counselor, the poet's own guardian; and at the moment his former pupil was writing about him, Smith was serving the present Queen as her ambassador to France. An expert in English Civil Law, he was often called upon to advise the Privy Council on legal matters, and later would serve for a time as Her Majesty's Principal Secretary.

Loved of this young man more than any other guest,
The friar eke of Verona youth aye likéd Romeus best,
For whom he ever hath, in time of his distress,
(As erst you heard) by skillful lore, found out his harm's redress.

So we see the young poet making use of his art to thank his former tutor, and to put into words the love and gratitude for his attention that might otherwise never have been expressed.

Rutland, as ever, was astonished at his friend's accomplishment, and insisted that they get it published. His Lady Love would see it, read it, and know it was his. What could be a better gift?

They turned it over to an intermediary who arranged to have the same man, Richard Tottel, print it that had printed his uncle Surrey's poetry some years earlier. They put the name on it of a young student of Magdalen College at Oxford who had recently died in a shipwreck. They also backdated the date on the title page to 1562, to further confuse the curious. Thus was created a pattern that would repeat itself until his death, each new work demanding a new tactic to get published, until the mature poet would leave behind a trail of pen names, pseudonyms, and standins, to finish finally with the pun Will Shake-spear.

Unable to admit to any but his closest friends that it was his own work, when the dinner table conversation turned to the poem, and praise for its lively style filled his ears, it was almost enough to catch Rutland's eye and bask in the light of amusement and admiration that he saw there. Of course it bothered him that he couldn't admit to being its author, but already he knew that it was far better to have the freedom to write and publish than to take the credit and be told he was not to do it again. For no matter what he was told, he knew he would do it again.

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But wait! This isn't the end of the tale. Like all good stories it has a sequel. Some fifteen years later, as a mature man of the world in his early thirties and a much-published writer, though still pseudononymous, and an unofficial Court impresario who was looked to to provide the plays and musical events needed for holidays and important weddings; once again he fell in love with one of the Maids of Honor, another teenaged beauty whose wit and intelligence were as much a source of attraction as her looks.

This time the barrier to marriage was his own marriage, for he had been married at age twenty-one to his guardian's young daughter, a girl with whom he had little in common apart from being raised in the same household for a few years. This time, unfortunately, he was not denied his nights of love. Unfortunately, we say, since the poor girl got pregnant and had a child, which caused the furious Queen to throw all three of them, father, mother and baby, in the Tower, the prison where the nobility were incarcerated when they got into trouble.

Although he was released from the Tower after a few weeks, he remained unwelcome at Court for three years, while the girl and her child were permanently banished from Court, and he and she were forbidden to see each other. Her uncle, a hotheaded young man, newly risen at Court and eager to win his spurs in battle with the recently displaced Royal favorite, challenged him in scornful terms to a duel. The Queen put a stop to that, but bad blood developed between the two parties, his and her uncle's, resulting in the same sort of bloody brawls in the streets of London that rang in the streets of his early poem between the Capulets and the Montagues. Men were killed on both sides over a period of two years until strict injunctions by the Queen to desist, with warnings of hell to pay if they did not, finally brought the turmoil to an end. He himself was seriously wounded in one street fight.

Laid up while he mended, he dwelt on the girl he'd lost. The separation did little to stem his passion; indeed, it made him yearn for her all the more. He felt guilty about her loss of honor, for he knew, of course, that now she would never make the important marriage her family had hoped for in sending her to Court. The only justification for his behavior had to be the depth of his passion. Somehow he had to demonstrate it. Strictly forbidden any access to her, once more the play would be "the thing." He would rewrite his old poem, the one he wrote when he was in love with Mary Browne. He had the stage now at Blackfriar's. Surely someone would inform her of it, and she would come to see it. The Court was off limits to her, but Blackfriar's was a private theater, and anyone was welcome who could pay. Adept at reading the language of love through symbols and metaphors, as were all his community, she would see it and understand that he still loved her. On the night she came, would he dare ask the actor that played Romeo to turn and direct towards her his speech about the Queen, the one that goes:

But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!
Arise fair sun, and kill the envious moon (everyone would know he meant the Queen),
who is already sick and pale with grief,
that thou her maid art far more fair than she. (Take that, you envious old crow!)
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
her vestal livery is but sick and green (of course, the Queen's livery was green and white.)
and none but fools do wear it; cast it off!

It was, after all, the least he could do.

_____

Finding that as a thirty-year-old with much experience of romantic and sexual matters he could no longer fully identify with the attractive but naive Romeo, he amplified the role of Mercutio, giving him his own whimsical speech and attitudes, putting into his mouth as he fell from Tybalt's sword, his own thoughts as he had fallen himself in the street brawl with Knyvett's men. He also trimmed down the month of wedded bliss that he had allotted the lovers in his teens to a single night, perhaps a reflection of the all-too-brief delights of his present romance. With Mercutio suborned to reflect himself, he added Benvolio as the friend that Rutland had been to him then, and perhaps was still.

Did she see the play? Did she understand? Surely she did.

_____

Nor is this yet the end of the story, for some ten years later, when the great playwright was in his early forties, the poor sap fell in love again (oh, those poets!); this time with a boy, a youth very much like himself when he was teenager. Like himself, this boy was an Earl and a ward of the Crown, having, like himself again, lost his father as a child, and who therefore had come under the guardianship of his own former guardian and present father-in-law. Like himself at that age, the boy was intelligent, loved books, and yearned for a military career. And like himself he was good-looking, too good-looking perhaps for his own welfare, as the many highly-charged poems dedicated to him at the time suggest. Was it his wit, his intelligence, his beauty, the similarity of circumstance to his own early life, that made the poet love the youth?

Or was it the fact that the young Earl of Southampton was the son of that same Mary Browne, the teenaged girl that he had loved with all the innocent passion of first love when he was the age that this boy was now; the girl for whom he had written his first original work? Was it perhaps the thought that this boy might have been his own son had Fate vouchsafed himself and Mary Browne the single night of love that he allowed them in his great play?

He wrote sonnets to the boy, urging him to marry, most likely to marry his own daughter, a marriage that, like his own, was being pressed upon the young ward by his guardian. But the many references to mothers in the early sonnets, to parents, to marrying, to having children in order to pass along his beauty through them, suggest that the loss of Mary, of the dreams that she aroused in him, dreams of eternal love, married happiness and beautiful children, had never died, but slept, waiting to be reborn in these sonnets to her son.

When the poet wrote in Sonnet III:

Thou art thy mother's glass, and she in thee'
Calls back the lovely April of her prime:

was he merely echoing a convention, as some say, or did he mean, quite literally, that he saw the mother's girlish face, the face of the thirteen-year-old Mary Browne, whenever he looked at her son?

_____

Southampton grew to manhood and, unlike the poet, was able to fulfill his dreams of military glory. He married, though not the poet's daughter, and himself had a son, in whom perhaps he saw reflected his own youthful beauty, as the poet had predicted. Called back to military action in France in his early fifties after a long period of peace, he died of a fever near the battlefield, five days after the death of his nineteen-year-old son. One can't help but wonder if, tormented by the loss of his son and the approach of the deadly fever, he recalled lines written for him by one long dead who'd loved him long ago. Did he remember as he lay dying:

Or I shall live your epitaph to make
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten;
from hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone to all the world must die;
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombéd in men's eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o'er read;
And tongues to be, your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead,
You still shall live, such virtue hath my pen,
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.

© Stephanie Hopkins Hughes, 1999. All rights reserved.


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