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”.

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.

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