Shakespeare's play on a day of reckoning
In itself, this chain of references is fascinating, but does it tell us much about the nature of Shakespeare’s writing in general? It could be argued, after all, that what it tells us is that he is an extremely cautious man. He knew Marlowe personally – they probably collaborated on Henry VI – and as the “dead shepherd” reference suggests, admired him greatly. Marlowe’s murder must have affected Shakespeare deeply. Yet, the tributes to his memory and the hints at “lies” about his murder appear in As You Like It six years after the event.
It’s striking, indeed, that As You Like It also contains a fantasy of free expression. The mordant and melancholy Jaques puts in a plea for the power and value of uncensored satire: “Give me leave/ To speak my mind, and I will through and through/ Cleanse the foul body of th’ infected world.” But in the context of the Marlowe theme, this plea is obviously desperate: misunderstood writers don’t get to speak their minds, they get stabbed in the eye.
There is no free expression: writers get killed – or as good as killed, as in the case of Thomas Kyd, the playwright who got caught up in the same court intrigue as Marlowe and was so severely tortured that he died shortly afterwards. As You Like It opens a window on a police state. Once you’ve peeked through that window you start to see, for example, just how often torture is mentioned in Shakespeare; there are at least 40 references. (Henry VI: “They will by violence tear him from your palace/ And torture him with grievous lingering death.”) You recall how often private conversations are overheard. You remember the terror, so common in a police state, that you be might be swooped on because of a rumour. (Titus Andronicus: “Tribunes with their tongues doom men to death”.) But there is also an uncomfortable truth in all of this. It is, in part at least, the danger that makes Shakespeare so potent beyond his own times.
In As You Like It, Jaques asks for “as large a charter as the wind/ To blow on whom I please . . .”. What if Shakespeare had had such a charter? What if he had been free to blow on the corrupt courtiers, cruel torturers and vicious oppressors of his day? Would he have blown himself out in raging at the evils of his England? We cannot know, but what we do know is that he lived in such a nasty state that he was forced to devise strategies, to exploit ambiguities and to elaborate rich metaphors, to hide himself in plays where truth is always slippery and in a language that contains multitudes of meanings because it does not do to be stuck with one. The reckoning that killed Marlowe helped to give birth to Shakespeare.
Fintan O’Toole will discuss Shakespeare with the acclaimed director Deborah Shaw of the World Shakespeare Festival at the Parade Tower in Kilkenny at 1pm tomorrow