TEN LINES THAT SHAKE THE WORLD

(deusche Fassung)

John Davies of Hereford ( c. 1565-1618) wrote epigrams and other poems; besides he was a writing master. He was close to the brothers William and Philip Herbert, Earls of Pembroke and Montgomery respectively, to whom he dedicated several poems. The Herbert brothers were also the dedicacees of Shakespeare's First Folio. John Davies also knew the Earl of Southampton. In The Scourge of Folly (1611), a collection of epigrams, he dedicates epigrams to contemporaries, among them Ben Jonson, George Chapman and Samuel Daniel; and Shakespeare too.

            In Contested Will James Shapiro mentions John Davies of Hereford only once. He refers to an article by Jonathan Bate in the Times of 20 April 2009. A year before Bate had published a work on Shakespeare, Soul of the Age. In that work he identified Davis of Hereford as the rival poet of Shakespeare's Sonnets. In his article in the Times he revoked that. In a previous work, The Genius of Shakespeare (1997), he had identified John Florio's wife as the "Dark Lady". For this identification there was a scintilla of evidence. Florio was Southampton's Italian teacher. It is not implausible that Southampton and Florio's wife might have met; it is, though, not very plausible they must, because they met or might have met, also have had a love affair. Anyway, meanwhile Bate has acknowledged that not Southampton and Mylady Florio went too far but Bate's own imagination. He revoked that too. In his article in the Times Bate seems to argue: because I, Jonathan Bate, made two capital mistakes, I for ever renounce this kind of biographical speculation... follow me, all. Shapiro applauds of course.

            But otherwise Shapiro does not mention John Davies of Hereford, despite the fact that Davies must have known Shakespeare well. He dedicated one of his epigrams to him and probably remembered him in another poem (see below).  Given his contacts to the Herbert brothers and to Southampton, the literary insider John Davies knew Shakespeare better than the innumerous Londoners to whom, according to Shapiro, Shakespeare would have been a familiar figure. "As an actor, playwright and sharer in the most popular playing company in the land - which performed before as many as three thousand spectators at a time in the large outdoor theatres - he was also one of the most familiar faces in town and at court."[1] But Davies' epigram tells us quite another tale. And these ten lines, title lines included, shake the orthodox Shakespeare world nearly as thoroughly as the ten days shook the world in 1917 when the Czarist regime was swept away in Russia. For these ten lines sweep away the Stratford regime.

To our English Terence, Mr. Will.
                Shake-speare.
Some say (good Will) which I, in sport do sing,
Had'st thou not plaid some Kingly parts in sport,
Thou hadst bin a companion for a King;
And, beene a King among the meaner sort.
Some others raile: raile as they thinke fit,
Thou hast no rayling, but, a raigning Wit.
            And honesty thou sow'st, which they do reape;
            So, to increase their Stocke which they do keepe.

It is worthwile factorizing the first four lines. We should start asking what "a companion for a king" could mean. A companion for a king is one who regularly accompanies the king. Where does the king reside? The king resides at court. In order to be a companion for a king one had to be regularly at court. He had to be a courtier. This is what Davies tells us. Shakespeare could have been a courtier; his social rank could have entitled him regularly to attend the king.

            The statement is doubly absurd when applied to Shakespeare of Stratford. Some orthodox scholars naively point to his profession as actor. But would Shakespeare of Stratford have been entitled to attend the king, to be "a companion for a king", had he not been an actor? Certainly not, for he was also a tradesman. Trading was regarded on as a base occupation.  "Active personal occupation in a trade or profession was generally thought to be humiliating. The man of business was inferior to the gentleman of leisure who lived off his rents, for, as Edward Chamberlayne bluntly stated in 1669 'Tradesmen in All Ages and Nations have been reputed ignoble'."[2] Orthodox scholars seem always to lose sight of that.

If Shakespeare had been entitled to be a "companion for a king" but actually was not, this can only mean that he was banished from court. Davies gives the reason: he had played "kingly roles". The adjective "kingly" should perhaps not be construed too strictly. Davies, here and elsewhere, is infatuated with antitheses, parallelisms and counterpoints:  "some say", "some parts"; "companion for a king", "king among the meaner sort"; "in sport I sing", "plaid in sport"; "raile", "rayling", "raigning". In sonnet 111 Shakespeare confirms Davies' information:  he was compelled to live off "public means" and "Thence comes it that my name receives a brand." Nothing autobiographical there?

E.K. Chambers has qualified those four lines as "cryptic". In fact, they are crystal clear. But for sure, if applied to Shakespeare of Stratford they are not only cryptic, they are, as said, outright absurd.

No document exists that unequivocally proves Shakespeare of Stratford to be the author of the Shakespearian works. But at least one document exists that unequivocally refutes his authorship: this epigram.

Lines 5-8: Honesty

            Except for the word "honesty", these lines does not seem to present any difficulties. What does it mean that Shakespeare would have "sown honesty" which the players would have reaped? "Honesty" and "honest" could mean many things in the 16th and 17th centuries. In his French-English dictionary (1611) William Cotgrave lists no less than seventeen possible meanings of the French adjective honneste: honest, good, vertuous; just, upright, sincere; gentle, civill, courteous, worthy, noble, honorable, of good reputation, comelic, seemelic, handsome, wellbefitting.

            Sir Thomas Elyot, in The Boke named the Governour (1531), was possibly the first to use the terms "honesty" and "honest". By "governor" we have to understand "political leader" or "member of the ruling elite". Elyot's book was an educational handbook for the aristocracy. To Elyot only an aristocrat could be a political leader. Yet, simply to be an aristocrat was not sufficient. A "governor" had first to be learned, which at the time Elyot wrote was not self-evident for a member of the aristocracy, the majority of which might still have been hostile to "clerky" learning. He had also to be honest. Elyot uses the adjective in connection with learning (geometry, grammar, music and other arts) and recreation (hawking, dancing, other sports). But he also applies the quality of honesty to speech: "Yet is majesty not always in haughty and fierce countenance, nor in speech outrageous or arrogant, but in honourable and sober demeanour, deliberate and grave pronunciation, words clean and facile, void of rudeness and dishonesty, without vain or inordinate jangling [wrangling, quarelling] with such an excellent temperance that he, among an infinite number of other persons, by his majesty [worthy countenance] may be espied for a governor." [3] Language "void of rudeness and dishonesty" was "honest". So "honest" could be used as a quality of language. Other adjectives were en vogue to positively characterize language: smoothness, sweetness, refinement, filedness, silver-tongued, honey-tongued. In his dedicatory verses to Lord Buckhurst prefacing The Faerie Queene, Spenser calls his own verses "rude" and expresses the hope that Buckhurst's "dainty pen" might "file his gross defaults". In the verses to Sir Walter Ralegh he calls his own rime "unsavoury" and Ralegh's verses "sweet", which in these two cases is not an actual judgment on poetic quality but merely a social convention. In Robert Greene's pastoral novel Menaphon, Samela, after having heard Melicertus sing "so superfine" - which is, by the way, the pastoral name given to Shakespeare in Henry Chettle's England's Mourning Garment -  "as if Ephœbus had learned him to refine his mother tongue."[4] Ephoebus is Euphues' teacher.

            In all likelihood, by writing that Shakespeare "sowed honesty", Davies of Hereford meant that he had refined his mothertongue, of which the theatre, the players reaped the benefit.   

Nobility and honesty

             "The assertion in the sixteenth century that the aristocrat has a special claim on office is, of course, nothing new. On the contrary, what is new is an overt recognition on the part of some nobles that the claim is not indefeasible and absolute."[5]  More than sixty years before Elyot a nobleman at the Burgundian court of Philip the Good formulated what J.H. Hexter calls "the heart of the matter". "The nobility must become learned that they may perform well their duty of service to their prince in council, in embassies, and in the governance of the commonwealth."[6] Over thirty years after Elyot the humanist Roger Ascham, in a book on the education of the aristocratic youth possibly written at Lord Burghley's suggestion, will reiterate the claim: "The fault is in yourselves, you noble men's sons, and therefore you deserve the greater blame, that commonly the mean men's children come to be the wisest councillors and greatest doers in the weighty affairs of the Realm."[7]

            Elyot mentions another general criterion to which an aristocrat had to conform to be deemed a worthy "governor": good manners, honest manners. This criterion, too, will be forcefully restated by Ascham: "Take heed therefore, you great ones in the Court, yea, though you be the greatest of all, take heed what you do, take heed how you live, for as you great ones use to do, so all mean men love to do. You be indeed makers or marrers of manners within the Realm. For though God has placed you to be chief in making of laws, to bear  greatest authority, all your commandments do not half so much with mean men, as does your example and manner of living."[8] One example of dishonest behaviour of an aristocrat Elyot stresses is to practise arts - which like Baldesar Castiglione in The Book of the Courtier he calls "sciences - in public. If an aristocratic child shows a peculiar talent for music, his tutor should remind him in time his state, "which makes him exempt from the liberty of using this science in every time and place: that is to say, that it only serves for recreation after tedious or laborious affairs, and to show him that a gentleman, playing or singing in a common audience, impairs his estimation: the people forgetting reverence, when they behold him in the similitude of a common servant or minstrel."[9] Similarly, when painting or carving he should avoid presenting himself "openly stained or imbrued with sundry colors or powdered with the dust of stones". [10] That is, an aristocrat who exposes himself to the common people in so abasing a posture, like to that of a commoner, puts at risk the commoners' reverence for him and the whole aristocratic class, because the "exposition of majesty" is a key requirement for the aristocratic claim on "governorship". "In a governor or man having in the public weal some great authority, the fountain of all excellent manners is majesty; which is the whole proportion and figure of noble estate, and is properly a beauty or comeliness in his countenance, language and gesture apt to his dignity,... which, like as the sun doth his beams, so doth it cast on the beholders and hearers a pleasant and terrible reverence. Insomuch as the words or countenances of a noble man shoul be in the stead of a firm and stable law to his inferiors."[11]  

            The first quatrain of Shakespeare's sonnet 110 reads as if he regret having done just that, to have exposed himself to the public view. Helen Vendler writes: "One senses from subsequent lines that the speaker has been reviling himself inwardly with accusations quite different from the one of self-exposure voiced by the young man."[12] But according to her the reproach made by the young aristocrat would have been to have "made himself a motley to the view", the sort of exposure an aristocrat, according to Elyot, needed to shun. Indeed, the lines read as an answer to such a reproach:

Alas 'tis true, I have gone here and there,
And made my self a motley to the view,
Gored mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear,
Made old offences of affections new.

That an aristocrat would reproach another aristocrat what was from the viewpoint of the aristocratic ideology a serious misdemeanour is only too understandable. Replace the aristocratic poet by the professional actor William Shakespeare... and there we are back again in Twaddleland. And: nothing autobiographical here?

            Historians are well aware that titled aristocracy and aristocratic elite are not perfectly congruent. "A true aristocracy is far from easy to define, and sixteenth-century conceptions of it were in many ways loose and elastic. A title was one warrant, an estate might be a better one."[13] A comparable observation is made for sixteenth-century France: "Nobility, in sixteenth-century France, was only in part a legal condition. It was, above all, a social condition that rested on a person's style and his state of mind."[14] Yet, Sir Thomas Elyot and Roger Ascham inform us that learning and "honest living" or, as it was alternately termed, "civility", were two other essential criteria.  

            Who had the authority to decide whether an aristocrat was behaving honestly or dishonestly? Elyot's proposition offers us a glimpse: with such an excellent temperance that he, among an infinite number of other persons, by his majesty [worthy countenance] may be espied for a governor." Among an infinite number of other persons he is "espied" as a worthy governor by... others. In his classic study The Court Society Norbert Elias calls these "others" the "good company".  Ascham at one place has "honest company".[15]  A century later, a French moralist is more explicit: "In Nicole's view, civilité, is one of those 'simple laws of decorum, whose authority originates in a consensus among people who have agreed to condemn those who do not obey them... This is why we owe to those around us the civilities laid down by the honnêtes gens, even though they may not be governed by clearly stated laws."[16] The others who decide whether a conduct is honest or dishonest do not form a legal body or a court, but they are none the less judges, moral judges. He whose conduct they judge dishonest is not put on formal trial and can neither be formally condemned nor sent into prison, for there is no written law to judge by. It  is an informal group of people who have agreed on a set of rules that permits them to condemn morally. But differently from a legal action the defendant is in this case without defence and without appeal. The penalty is not imprisonment, it is marginalization, that is imprisonment in isolation, loneliness.  A marginalized aristocrat, one judged to have behaved in breach of the aristocratic code of behavior and therefore unworthy in the eyes of his peers, the "honest company", did not lose his title. He was still an aritocrat. But, at least temporarily, he was considered "unworthy" of being a member of the elite, just as in the case of an aristocrat compelled to ply a trade for lack of other income sources. As long as he had to rely on trade for income, he was factually an outcast. His aristocratic status was dormant.  It is the state to which the opening lines of Shakespeare's sonnet 29 apply:

When in disgrace with Fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,

Shakespeare, in sonnet 121,  clearly rebelled against the ethics of the courtly society, the ethics of "others' seeing" in the name of (aesthetic) individualism:

'Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed,
When not to be, receives reproach of being,
And the just pleasure lost, which is so deemed,
Not by our feeling, but by others' seeing.
For why should others' false adulterate eyes
Give salutation to my sportive blood?
Or on my frailties why are frailer spies,
Which in their wills count bad what I think good?

Nothing autobiographical here, signora Florio?

I knew a Man

            In his edition of Davies of Hereford's complete works Alexander B. Grosart points to some stanzas in Davies' long poem "Speculum Proditori" ("Mirror of traitors") of 383 lines.[17] Lines 200 to 239 draw a comparison between a real king and a man who played the role of a king. This part concludes that a king on the stage is happier than a real king because he has not really to fear treason:

Then who had better Raigns, judge all of sense,
Either a king indeed, or in pretence.

It was the first stanza (200-207) that arrested Grosart's attention:

I knew a Man, unworthy as I am,
And yet too worthie for a counterfeit,
Made once a king; who though it were in game,
Yet was it there where Lords and Ladyes met;
Who honor'd him, as hee had been the same,
And no subjective dutie did forget;
    When to him-selfe he smil'd, and said, lo here
    I have for nought, what Kings doe buy so deere.

It is, Grosart writes "a very noticeable bit of one who acted just thus 'Kingly parts in sport'... and I like to think that this 'man' was Shakespeare and that therein we have a designed supplement to the Epigram... That is, the 'brand' of low social status, through being an 'actor' (i.e. a vagabond) might have been overcome even at Court; but within that was some report of 'sport' in and of 'Kingly parts'. "

            However, a member of the Chamberlain's Men or of a theater troupe under the patronage of a nobleman did not fall under the Act for the Punishment of Vagabonds of 1572. Grosart, of course, does not consider a moment that Shakespeare may not be Shakespeare of Stratford. But he is probably right in assuming that we have a "designed supplement" of Davies' epigram "To our English Terence".  Line 210 suggests that the staging took place during the twelve days between Christmas and Twelfth Night:" Was but twelue gamesome daies to king it so;".

            The text presents some difficulties. On the one hand, the man is as "unworthy" as Davies himself; on the other hand he must be a lord, for the lords and ladies honoured him "as he had been the same". In the preceding section, though, we have seen that this is no contradiction in the case of a lord fallen from favor and marginalized upon the social condemnation of his peers for having acted on the stage. A lord could not lose his title, but he could lose his social status; even as a disgraced lord, he remained a lord and too worthy to act on the stage. So far we are in presence of the same statement as in the epigram. "Too worthy for a counterfeit" seems only to make sense if we interpret "counterfeit" as a synonym for "actor". The meanings the OED gives for the noun "counterfeit" are: 1) Made in imitation of that which is genuine; imitated, forged; 2) Made to a pattern; fashioned, wrought; 3) Transformed in appearance, disguised; 4) Represented by a picture or image.  An actor imitates a person. Shakespeare himself uses "counterfeit" a couple of times in a sense which comes close to "playing a role". "The knave counterfeits well," says Sir Toby Belch of the clown posing as a learned man (Twelfth Night, IV.ii.20). "Why stand we like soft-hearted women here,/And look upon, as if the tragedy/Were played in jest by counterfeiting actors?" Warwick asks (3 Henry VI, II.iii.26-28).

            The "darkness" of John Davis of Hereford's language is the result of modern ignorance of how a court society functioned socially. Neither Jonathan Bate nor James Shapiro concern themselves with this problem. They rely on eloquence. The consequence is that their comments are more eloquent than thoughtful, sometimes more loquacious than eloquent; and sometimes they are doing what according to the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann academics are always doing when they are at a loss to understand, let alone to explain something: they move to the virtual sixth Latin case, the "blahblahtive".

            All in all: Grosart had probably the right insight that the stanza is a duplicate of the epigram. He was also right in commenting on the epigram: "There seem to me here two distinct statements (a) That if he he had not been an 'actor', he might have been a fit companion for a king; (b) That he had somehow given offence in 'high places' by acting 'kingly parts in sport'." But he was not right in asking no further. For instance, why should William Shakespeare have given offence in high places for playing kingly roles and not Richard Burbage? If the "high places" are the court and the aristocracy, why should they have taken issue with an actor doing what as an actor he had to do, acting?

            The answer is obvious when the author Shakespeare is an aristocrat. Then... sonnet 29 gives us the answer, he would have been in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes.

© Robert Detobel, 2011
Translated and revised chapter from Robert Detobel: "Will - Wunsch und Wirklichkeit, James Shapiros Contested Will"(Buchholz bei Hamburg, 2010).

(deusche Fassung hier)


[1] Shapiro, James, Contested Will, London 2010, p. 254.
[2] Stone, Lawrence, The Crisis of the Aristocracy 1558-1640, Oxford, 1965, pp. 39-40.
[3] Elyot, Tomas, Sir, The Boke named the Governour, Book II.ii.
[4] Robert Greene, Life and Complete Works of, edited by Alexander B. Grosart, Vol. 6,  p. 82.
[5] Hexter, J.H., „The Education of the Aristocracy in the Renaissance" in The Journal of Modern History, Volume XXII, March 1959, Number 1, p. 16.
[6] Ibid., p. 14.
[7] Ascham, Roger, The Scholemaster, London 1570, p. 14r.
[8] Ibid., p. 22r.
[9] Elyot, I.vii.
[10] Ibid., I.viii.
[11] Ibid., II.ii
[12] Vendler, Helen, The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets, Cambridge, MA, and London, 1999, p. 467.
[13] Kiernan, Victor G., The duel in European history: honour and the reign of aristocracy, Oxford, 1988, p. 50)
[14] Huppert, George, Les Bourgeois Gentilshommes, Chicago, 1977, p. 89.
[15] Ascham, p. 22r.
[16] Pierre Nicole (1625-1695).  Quoted from Stanton, Domna C. The Aristocrat as Art. A Study of the Honnête Homme and the Dandy in Seventeenth- and Nineteenth-Century French Literature. New York, 1980, p. 131.
[17] Davies of Hereford, John, The Complete Works, edited by Alexander B. Grosart, New York 1967 (first edition London 1875-8), Vol. I, pp. liv-lv.