Shakespeare's play on a day of reckoning
CULTURE SHOCK:Shakespeare lived in a nasty state, and dealt with dangerous matters of the day, from murder to mayhem, with ingenious theatrical subterfuge
IT IS STRANGE that it is in a comedy that Shakespeare makes his most direct reference to the terror of his times and that he puts it in the mouth of a jester. Or perhaps not: perhaps an absurd joke was the only safe way to refer to dangerous matters.
In As You Like It, which the Globe Theatre has brought to the Kilkenny Arts Festival this week – there are performances tonight and tomorrow – he introduces an explosive subject: the murder of his great contemporary, Christopher Marlowe. The references are coded, but would have been easily understood by clued-in playgoers.
In act three, scene three, the clown Touchstone, who functions throughout the play as a kind of sardonic commentator on the action, bemoans the fact that Audrey, the rustic girl with whom he has fallen in love, cannot understand his poetry: “When a man’s verses cannot be understood, nor a man’s good wit seconded with the forward child understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.” Nothing much there, on the surface, for spies and censors to worry about.
Except that the image of a man being struck “more dead than a great reckoning in a little room” is not a natural one. It makes no sense on its own. But it makes complete sense to the many in the audience who remembered a “little room” in an inn in Deptford and the mysterious incident in 1593 when Marlowe was stabbed above the right eye with his own knife. The only witnesses were those who had killed him, and they explained to the inquest that he had attacked them in a row over “the reckoning” (the bill).
Some of those in the original audience for As You Like It would have known that the three men involved in Marlowe’s death – Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley – were not just dodgy characters but government intelligence agents. (Their careers are brilliantly unearthed in Charles Nicholl’s book The Reckoning.) They would have been justly sceptical of the official verdict that Marlowe was essentially the author of his own death. Some may have suspected that Marlowe was murdered on the orders of the government.
These clued-in people would have recognised “a little room” as a reference to Marlowe. It echoes his phrase in The Jew of Malta, “infinite riches in a little room”. And just in case this slipped by, Shakespeare returns to his great predecessor. Two scenes later, Phebe has the lines “Dead shepherd, now I find thy saw of might:/ ‘Who ever lov’d that lov’d not at first sight?’ ” This direct quotation is unusual in Shakespeare, a remarkable tribute to its author, who is, of course, Marlowe (from his mythological poem Hero and Leander). It is a spine-tingling moment, Shakespeare allowing one of his characters to address directly a real and contemporary person, the tenderly evoked dead shepherd.
And later still, there is yet another echo of Marlowe’s death. Rosalind discusses sceptically the idea of people dying for love and talks specifically of Hero and Leander. But she then, in a killer line, dismisses its romanticism: “But these are all lies: men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.” Together this chain of allusions suggests a train of thought: that Marlowe may have been killed because his verses were “not understood”; that stories about why he died may be “all lies”.