Anthony Burgess in his Chiswick home

During the years 1963 to 1968 Anthony Burgess was living in Chiswick, West London. He moved there with his first wife Lynne the year after A Clockwork Orange was published, and stayed there for five years, writing 6 novels, 3 books of criticism and several translations. A few months after Lynne’s death in March 1968, Burgess left West London and England for good.

This period was a time of great creativity for Burgess. He wrote several novels, including his biographical novel about Shakespeare Nothing Like the Sun[1], thriller Tremor of Intent and the comic sequel Enderby Outside. He was also composing piano music at this time, and in 1968 he wrote the script, lyrics and music for an unmade Hollywood musical about Shakespeare, under the working title ‘The Bawdy Bard’.  

1964 was the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth in 1564, and Burgess’s major contribution was the publication of his novel Nothing Like the Sun. He’d rushed to finish it the previous autumn it so it could be published in April 1964 to coincide with the Shakespeare anniversary; and he wanted to be in London to promote the novel.  

Nothing Like the Sun is a fictional biography of Shakespeare. So its plot derives from the known historical facts about Shakespeare’s life and work: his Stratford social and family context; his parentage, marriage and children; his success as a poet and playwright; his connection with the Earl of Southampton; his participation in the business side of the London theatres; his death in Stratford in 1616. In his autobiography Burgess wrote:

I had been reading pretty widely, ever since my student days, in books about Shakespeare, in Elizabethan documents, in scholarly background history. I had taken a lot of notes feverishly, making a chronological table which related the known facts of Shakespearean biography to the wider events of the time.[2] 

But you can’t make a novel with this set of facts. So Burgess used invention, speculation, imagination, fantasy and a biographical interpretation of Shakespeare’s own works to fill out a fictional life for him, partly by providing answers to all the questions thrown up by the facts. Why are there two names in the records of Shakespeare’s marriage? Why did a 17th century anecdote claim that Shakespeare had been ‘a schoolmaster in the country’? How did Shakespeare find his way from Stratford to London, and enter the theatre as a professional writer? Burgess weaves stories to account for the problems in the documentary record, in much the same way as Shakespeare’s biographers do. Because the facts don’t make sense unless you embroider them.

The main source for the story of Shakespeare’s life in Nothing Like the Sun is however Shakespeare’s own writing, his plays and poems, especially the Sonnets, which do seem to tell a story about the poet’s love affairs, first with a man, the ‘fair friend’, then with a woman, the ‘dark lady’. In the novel Shakespeare has a full-blown affair with the Earl of Southampton, and is infected with syphilis by the ‘Dark Lady’, who is a black woman from Malaya, named Fatimah. Shakespeare encounters her first in a Bristol brothel, and then later as a London lady. On a visit home to Stratford Shakespeare finds that his wife is having an affair with his brother.  In this scenario much of Shakespeare’s work becomes autobiographical: the ‘fair friend;’ and ‘dark lady’ of the Sonnets are identified; all the emotions in the Sonnets, lust and love, heterosexual and homosexual, sexual disgust, jealousy, are explained; and even the story of sexual betrayal in Hamlet becomes Shakespeare’s own story (as it is in James Joyce’s Ulysses).  Of course there’s no real evidence for any of this; but it makes good fiction.

Burgess is doing two things here. He’s writing a historical novel about Shakespeare’s life, though its one that’s full of invention, speculation, imagination as well as historical fact. In other words, it’s a historical novel. He’s also writing a Shakespeare biography, but from the inside out: searching out the inner truth of experience that can attempt to explain the documentary facts.

In 1970 Burgess published an illustrated biography, Shakespeare, that simply inverted the novel, working from the outside in, foregrounding documentary and historical records and pushing interpretation into the same fictional territory as that explored in the novel.[3] In one sense Burgess’s literary biography and his novel mirror one another, since in Shakespeare the life illustrates the plays and poems, while in Nothing Like the Sun the plays and poems illuminate the life. Burgess distinguished between the two texts by calling the novel ‘deliberate invention’ by contrast with the ‘painfully amassed factuality’ of the biography. In my view, not so you’d notice. But then ‘deliberate invention’ has always been the business of Shakespeare biography, though its practitioners tend to deny it, and claim the authority of historical record. By starting with factual fiction and moving on to fictionalised fact, Burgess really blew the lid off the whole Shakespeare biography enterprise.

In between the novel and the biography there lies another work, this time one that was never published or performed. In early 1968, Burgess flew to Hollywood to discuss what he hoped would be a film script for his first major motion picture.  Nothing Like the Sun had been noticed in Hollywood, and this project was to be an offshoot of that, a life of Shakespeare that would also be a film musical. From its inception, the project had two titles, Will!, the title Burgess preferred, and The Bawdy Bard, the title preferred by Hollywood. 

1960’s Hollywood was riding a wave of very successful British musicals, like My Fair Lady and Camelot, and historical blockbusters like A Lion in Winter and A Man for All Seasons. Warner Brothers Seven Arts was eager to create a similar success with Burgess’s Shakespeare. In You’ve Had Your Time, Burgess describes how he warmed to former actor, now producer William Conrad, who, he noted, was ‘a true actor, in that he knew Shakespeare’ (143), and they became friends. Burgess was however amused but put off by Conrad’s improvisation of a song for the movie that began To be or not to be in love with you,/ To spend my life hand in glove with you (143). This pretty much sums up his experience of this project.

The film was to be a major studio project involving millions of dollars.[4] A successful film would make Burgess’s name as a marketable Hollywood script writer, a valuable credential since he was also working on a script for a film production of Enderby, and hoped to see other books become film projects. (YHYT 185)  He wrote about twenty songs (both music and lyrics) that were recorded with full orchestration by Warner Brothers, but he was nevertheless concerned that the story was damaged by the songs, that Shakespeare’s genius was diminished by the imposition of the standard lyrics of the 1960’s musical, no matter how good the lyrics and music might be. Later he described the whole enterprise as ‘ghastly.

The film was to be directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who had directed All about Eve, a film Burgess ‘considered a masterpiece’ (YHYT 186). Mankiewicz had directed the acclaimed Julius Caesar with Marlon Brando as well as a film version of Guys and Dolls. Mankiewicz needed a big successful movie after the flop of Cleopatra. He’d had already made some casting decisions – Maggie Smith as Anne, her husband Robert Stephens as Will, James Mason as Philip Henslowe, Peter Ustinov as Ben Jonson, Jessica Tandy as Queen Elizabeth. No decision was made about the Dark Lady, although Burgess somewhat facetiously suggested Diana Ross (YHYT 157)

There is only one manuscript of Burgess’s screenplay of Will or the Bawdy Bard, Burgess’s papers at the Harry Ransom Research Center at the University of Texas. The manuscript  includes all the lyrics that were later cut when Mankiewicz decided, somewhat to Burgess’s relief, that the film was not to be a musical (YHYT 185).  Burgess’s doubts about the screenplay and the project in general were reinforced by a growing sense he had that the film would never be made. ‘Desperately trying to finish the script, I yet knew that it was not going to reach the screen’ (YHYT 190). His premonition proved correct: Warner Brothers was being sold and even though studio executives supported the project, all existing enterprises were scrapped when the new regime started’, as Burgess explained in an interview.  In 1969, Burgess  contracted to write the ‘brief biography of Shakespeare which should be sumptuously illustrated’ so that he would not waste the research he had done for the film (YHYT 109). This is his ‘coffee table’ book, called simply Shakespeare, published in 1970.

Would Will! have been as successful as Shakespeare in Love if it had been made? Who knows. In any case the screenplay eventually found a home in Burgess’s final Enderby novel, Enderby’s Dark Lady, or No End to Enderby.[5] This is a hilarious satire in which Mr Enderby, who has published a short story about  Shakespeare, the Gunpowder Plot and the King James Bible – the story appears at the beginning of the novel – is travelling to Indiana to produce a stage musical on the life of Shakespeare. Burgess recycles the whole process of his involvement in the unmade film. The lyrics and the plot of the musical that Enderby creates in Indiana are all straight from Will!, and the story of the stage production satirises Burgess’s own experience in Hollywood and with Americans. But there’s also a love story for Enderby as he falls for April Elgar, a black singer rather like Diana Ross, who is to play the Dark Lady in this stage production.  

You get a sense from all this of what an innovative writer Burgess was. Between 1963 and 1968 he revolutionised Shakespeare biography, bringing together fact and fiction as no-one else had ever done. He made a significant contribution to the historical novel, opening the way for that double perspective, simultaneously ancient and modern, that characterises the form today. And he wrote a musical version of Shakespeare’s life, unluckily never produced, that was a precursor of the hugely successful and influential Shakespeare in Love.

I’ve found Burgess’s work on Shakespeare immensely inspiring and influential. In my Nine Lives of William Shakespeare I was able to bring together fact and fiction in a similarly original way.[6] Nine Lives of William Shakespeare accepts that Shakespeare’s lives are multiple and discontinuous, and yet are facets of a single life. It speculates freely about Shakespeare’s life, but admits that the exercise is one of speculation. Half of the book deals in historical facts, showing how much and how little we know about Shakespeare; and showing how these facts have been interpreted and embroidered by biographers. The other half is fiction. Each chapter gives the facts and their interpretation, then adds a fictional component. Some are historical stories; some reflect on Shakespeare’s ‘afterlife’: his reputation, his mythology.  Other fictions quit the territory of biography proper, in those cases where the historical record  actually contains very little evidence. I’ve followed Burgess in resorting to fiction to write about the legends of ‘Shakespeare in love’ with the Earl of Southampton and the ‘Dark Lady of the Sonnets’, since there is virtually no evidence at all. Hence it seems legitimate for a fictional commentary to take the form of invention. Which is why people might be surprised to find in the book characters like Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, Ernest Hemingway and so on. Roger Lewis, another biographer of Burgess, reviewing the book in the Daily Mail, called Nine Lives ‘the best and most enjoyably imaginative book based on Shakespeare since Anthony Burgess’s Nothing Like the Sun’.

And my novel Black and Deep Desires: William Shakespeare Vampire Hunter[7] begins with what is virtually a plagiarism of Anthony Burgess’s work. I mentioned the short story on Shakespeare and the Gunpowder Plot that appears at the beginning of Enderby’s Dark Lady: it’s supposed to be the work that gets him noticed in America, just as Nothing Like the Sun got Burgess noticed in Hollywood. In Burgess’s fantasy it’s actually Ben Jonson who pretends to be part of the Plot, but he’s really acting as a government informer. I’ve taken the germ of the story and played it quite differently, with Shakespeare himself becoming one of the key conspirators in the Plot, indeed its architect. Some of my scenes, such as Shakespeare meeting with Robert Cecil, are stolen from Burgess.  Roger Lewis wrote of this book: ‘It’s as if Hilary Mantel, Anthony Burgess and Bram Stoker got together at a diabolical writers’ conference and after a few too many bottles in the witching hours came up with the rollicking manuscript’.

Making Shakespeare a vampire hunter isn’t perhaps the sort of thing that Anthony Burgess himself would have thought of attempting. But who knows? Enderby’s Dark Lady concludes with another, loosely related, short story called ‘The Muse’. The mode of this tale is science fiction. It’s the 23rd century, and people can travel round in time and space, navigating by the use of musical instruments. But Time is ‘plastic’ and ‘curved’ and ‘warped’, there are innumerable parallel universes, and you can’t be sure where you’re going to end up. A literary historian called Paley is trying to get to Shakespeare’s time, taking a copy of the First Folio with him. He finds Shakespeare writing, laboriously and painfully, plays we’ve never heard of. Paley is then arrested as a madman, and Shakespeare left with the book, which he starts to copy out:

            The Merchant of Venice. A Comedy

            Then on he went, not blotting a line.

Apparently all Shakespeare’s good plays have been smuggled from the future in the same way. So here Burgess uses sci-fi fantasy to explore the intricate and complex ways in which we reach out to history and to the writing of the past. How do we engage with the past without taking our own baggage with us? Do we not, when reading literature of the past, make up a lot of what we supposedly find?  

[1] Anthony Burgess, Nothing Like the Sun: a story of Shakespeare’s Love Life (London: Heinemann, 1964).

[2]  ‘Genesis and Headache’, in Afterwords: Novelists on their Novels, edited by Thomas M. McCormack (NY: Harper, 1968), 28-47.

[3] Anthony Burgess, Shakespeare (London: Jonathan Cape, 1970. New edition London: Folio Society, 2015).  

[4] See Kay Smith, ‘Burgess and Will!: Anthony Burgess’s Cinematic Presentation of Shakespearean Biography’, Anthony Burgess Newsletter 4 (August 2001), 32-53.

[5] Anthony Burgess, Enderby’s Dark Lady: or, No End to Enderby (London: Hutchinson, 1984).

[6] Graham Holderness, Nine Lives of William Shakespeare (Bloomsbury/Arden Shakespeare, 2011).

[7] Graham Holderness, Black and Deep Desires: William Shakespeare Vampire Hunter (London: Top Hat Books, 2015).

Preached at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, on 23 April 2018

Today we celebrate two things: William Shakespeare’s Birthday, and the feast of St George. We don’t know for sure that Shakespeare was born on 23 April, only that he was baptized on the 26th April, 1564, here in this church. But it’s a useful coincidence that juxtaposes, on the same day, the birthday of our national poet with the feast day of our patron saint.

But St George is of course the national saint of a nation that doesn’t exist, and has perhaps never existed: England. Before the English had formed anything like a national state or government, they had already started colonizing other nations – Wales, Scotland, Ireland – so Britain came into being before England. England was an empire before it became a nation, always looking outwards, always expanding, never looking inwards, never reflecting on its own identity. Now England co-exists in the United Kingdom with other nations that have their own government and parliament and national culture, while England has none of these. Our nationality is British; our passports are issued by the United Kingdom. We belong to a church, the Church of England, the national church of a nation that doesn’t exist.

So who was St George, this national saint without a nation? He came from Cappadocia, which is now in Turkey, and was martyred in Palestine in the early 4th century AD.  We don’t even know what he did, except that as a Christian he defied the Roman state during the persecution of Diocletian, and was beheaded. By the 11th century he had become in Eastern Europe the dragon-slayer, and a warrior saint. As such he was adopted by Western crusaders. By the fourteenth century the cross of St George had become a sort of uniform for English soldiers and sailors, and St George’s Chapel in Windsor was a spiritual home for English chivalry. On April 23rd the flag of St George flies proudly from the roofs of our parish churches because, in 1416, the year after the Battle of Agincourt, St George’s Day was made a great feast in the calendar of the Church of England. ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more’, says Shakespeare’s Henry V: ‘Cry “God for Harry, England, and Saint George!”’ Harry, England, St George; king, country, church. Monarchy, patriotism and faith, a little late in the day defining the national identity of the ‘noblest English’.

This year, 2018, we are commemorating the final stages of the First World War. This year the celebration of the Armistice on 11 November will be 100 years since the first Armistice. A celebration of peace, not war; a commemoration of loss, not victory. Remembrance Day was of course founded shortly after the First World War, and the poppies we wear in November invoke the flowers of Flanders Fields.

But let’s go back a bit further, to the same region, but to a different time in history: to 1415, to the Battle of Agincourt, where an English army of just over 2000 men defeated a French army of 50,000 in an astonishing against-all-odds victory.

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

That of course is Shakespeare’s dramatized Henry V, addressing his men before the battle. The words of this speech in Shakespeare’s 1599 play have become inseparable not only from our historical memory of Agincourt, but from other wartime emergencies in which this nation has stood and fought alone against insuperable odds. In 1940 Winston Churchill echoed Henry V when he celebrated the airmen who won the Battle of Britain –Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few’. ‘The few’ – another moment in history where the British military defended the nation with extraordinary courage and heroism. Laurence Olivier’s great film of Henry V was released in 1944, and dedicated to the soldiers, sailors and airmen who took part in the D-Day landings.

Now most of that great speech in the play, when you look at it more closely, is not about the present moment, the moment on the battle-field where you’re facing the enemy: but about future commemoration. Shakespeare’s Henry V is virtually inventing Remembrance Day long before its time. Shakespeare looked back across nearly two centuries to Agincourt, and imagined Henry V looking forward to a future in which Agincourt is remembered as a great historical victory, an annual Remembrance Day. Those who fight and survive will remember the day with pride, recall their deeds, show their wounds (just as today we wear the poppies that symbolise a wound). But Agincourt will live not just in the memory of the soldiers who fought there, but as a permanent festival in the national memory:

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d …

And the battle won’t endure in memory just as a military victory. Henry sets out to transform a feast of French Catholic martyrdom – the feast of Saints Crispin and Crispian – into an anniversary of English national triumph. In future this annual ‘vigil’ will memorialise not the wounds of the executed martyrs, but wounds acquired in the course of achieving an English victory. The litany will not enumerate the names of saints, but the names of the heroic English, which also happen to be English place-names: ‘Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,/Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester’ (4.3.53-55) shall all in our ‘flowing cups’ be ‘freshly remembered.’ The link between ‘flowing cups’ of wine and commemoration inevitably suggests Holy Communion. But in this ritual the ‘host’, the consecrated body of Christ, will be replaced by a new sacrament in which the ‘host’ (4.3.34) of heroic English soldiers will be ‘familiar in [the] mouth’ (4.3.52) of each communicant. This narrative will be repeated until the end of the world, like the narrative of the Passion that informs the Eucharist in the Book of Common Prayer – ‘a perpetual memory of his precious death, until his coming again’.  Like the Passion, Agincourt will seal itself into sacramental remembrance by the shedding of blood: ‘For he today that sheds his blood with me/Shall be my brother’ (4.3.61-62).  This image of the royal blood commingling with that of his followers indicates that Henry is not offering himself as a martyr-leader to replace the Catholic saints, but rather insisting that the whole English army can collectively achieve such status by their willingness to shed blood for their country.  Shakespeare’s Henry V is a very Protestant king; but he’s also a very theatrical one: since the play itself is one of the ways in which the ritual of commemoration is kept.

Now people will tell you this is all jingoistic, and xenophobic, and Henry had no business to be in France anyway. But this is not just about war. It’s really about the nation, and the unity of the nation. The band of brothers we see on the battle-field, or the troupe of actors we see on the stage, stand for the nation as a whole.

And it’s also about the Church of England. The language Henry uses about the need for unity on the battlefield is largely drawn from the Book of Common Prayer, where it works to exhort the people to participate in the Eucharist, and in doing so to set aside all social differences and community divisions, and to become one in Christ. So this kind of Remembrance concerns the nation, and the need for the nation to remember together, to share memories, to meet on common ground. It also politically concerns the Church of England, and the way in which the church binds its community together, not by dogma, but by common action; not by doctrine, but by common worship. But Remembrance is also universal: since it concerns that sacrifice made once for all upon the Cross for all humanity.

Agincourt is any moment in history when the nation needs to stand together, speak with one voice, act with one purpose – the crisis of the Spanish Armada; Waterloo; the Battle of Britain. And today we still commemorate those soldiers and sailors and airmen because they did, and do, risk their lives to defend the nation, to defend its culture (including its church, its religion), to defend its freedom.  In November wear our poppies with pride in honour of those who shed their blood, of those who can show their wounds: because such sacrifice lies at the heart of our faith. As Jesus himself said: ‘Greater love hath no man than this: that he lay down his life for a friend’.

As long as Britain was a warlike, imperial power, colonizing other nations, Henry V, victor of Agincourt, was an unproblematical hero, and St George fitted the bill as a patron saint: the mediaeval knight, the crusader, dragon slayer, chivalric rescuer of maidens. St George was Britain, the dragon anyone we didn’t like, the maiden anyone we wanted to rescue or liberate. Today, in a Britain paralyzed by guilt about the Empire, conflicted about military virtues, and convinced that women should be saving themselves, he is more often a source of embarrassment. He’s marginalized in official culture, and tends to be taken up by minority groups of little Englanders opposed to immigration. His flag is often flown as an act of defiance.

But this really should not be so. In New York there is a wonderful statue of St George outside the United Nations building by the East River. St George is transfixing the dragon with his lance, and the dragon’s body is made from the casing of a German V2 rocket left over from the 2nd World War. Here St George is peace conquering war; the strong nations uniting to defend the weak against aggression; the savior binding the dragon of violence, as in the Book of Revelation. This international symbol of St George is one we as a nation should be able to relate to. Strength used to help the helpless; power employed to save. In this emblem of sacrifice, deliverance, redemption, St George the martyr and St George the warrior are re-united. This is not St George the logo of the British Empire, but St George the soldier of Christ, who bears the cross of Christ on his breast, and who bravely stands up to violence and injustice to save the weak and oppressed who need his help. As poet Edmund Spenser put it, describing his version of St George, Redcross:

For on his breast, a bloody cross he bore,

The dear remembrance of his dying lord

For whose sweet sake that glorious badge he wore

And dead, as living, ever him adored.

Was William Shakespeare a Metropolitan Intellectual or a Provincial Butcher Boy?

Shakespeare the Deer-stealer

Announcing his discovery as to the exact location of Shakespeare’s tenure in Bishopsgate, historian Geoffrey Marsh depicts him as part of an Elizabethan Notting Hill set.

“Within a few years of migrating to London from Stratford, he was living in one of the wealthiest parishes in the city, alongside powerful public figures, wealthy international merchants, society doctors and expert musicians. The merchants had connections across Europe and the doctors were linked to the latest progressive thinking in universities in Italy and Germany. Living in what was one of the power locales of London would have also enhanced Shakespeare’s status as he developed his career, sought a family coat of arms and planned to buy an impressive and expensive house in Stratford. It’s the equivalent of today’s Notting Hill businessmen, living alongside artists, particularly musicians”.

At the time Shakespeare was a tenant of the Company of Leathersellers. Many early biographical traditions about Shakespeare, such as the famous deer-stealing legend, identity him as a boy from an agricultural trading family, who worked with livestock; who turned up in London looking for a job; and who set to work applying the skills he had learned in the management of domestic animals. In a later book, The Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland (1753), it was asserted that ‘Shakespear, driven to the last necessity, went to the playhouse door, and pick’d up a little money by taking care of the gentlemens’ horses who came to the play’. The author traced this story back to William D’Avenant, who claimed he was Shakespeare’s godson (and even perhaps his illegitimate son). Shakespeare is described as prospering in this business and expanding it, and so coming to the notice of the company, whose bosses brought him in as actor, and then writer.

Shakespeare’s first biographer Nicholas Rowe also has Shakespeare arriving in London’s theatre land as a poor young man.

It is at this Time, and upon this Accident, that he is said to have made his first Acquaintance in the Play-house. He was receiv’d into the Company then in being, at first in a very mean Rank; But his admirable Wit, and the natural Turn of it to the Stage, soon distinguished him, if not as an extraordinary Actor, yet as an excellent Writer. (Some Account of the Life of Mr William Shakespeare, 1709).

The story is further corroborated from another source. It appears in a letter of 1693, written by a Mr. Dowdall, who had visited Stratford, and was told by the elderly parish clerk that ‘this Shakespeare was formerly in this town bound apprentice to a butcher; but that he ran from his master to London, and then was received into the playhouse as a serviture, and by this means had the opportunity to be what he afterwards proved’.

The idea that John Shakespeare was a butcher, and that his son worked in the business, assisting in the slaughtering of animals, was set out in John Aubrey’s Lives of Eminent Men (1696), the source of many Shakespearean biographical traditions.  According to Aubrey’s notes, John Shakespeare was a butcher, and his son a butcher’s boy: ‘I have been told heretofore by some of the neighbours that when he was a boy he exercised his father’s trade … When he killed a calf, he would doe it in a high style and make a speech. There was at that time another butcher’s son in this towne, that was held not at all inferior to him for a naturall wit, his acquaintance, and coetanean, but dyed young.’

Scholars have dismissed as impossible to believe the image of the young Shakespeare practising rhetoric while slaughtering livestock. Poetry and butchering? Literary greatness in a slaughterhouse? The great scholar Samuel Schoenbaum (William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life, OUP, 1977), for instance insisted that John Shakespeare could not possibly have been a butcher, because he was a glover who ‘served out his apprenticeship’, and indeed probably ‘undertook an apprenticeship of at least seven years’. His son William would also have served the same seven-year apprenticeship. Nor could he have mixed trades that were legally kept separate: ‘stringent regulations governing the wholesomeness of meat kept the two occupations separate’.(p. 14) ‘Glovers, as we have seen, were restrained from looking after their own slaughter­ing’. (p. 60) John Shakespeare is certainly mentioned in various historical records as a glover: when he was sued for £8 in 1556; and when he set his mark on a bond in 1592. An early piece of tradition, dating to c. 1657, places John Shakespeare in his glover’s shop, a ‘merry-cheeked old man’ who spoke jovially of his famous son as someone he could always crack a joke with. (Schoenbaum, pp. 30-1)

Here Schoenbaum appears to be placing a barrier of solid historical facts between ‘Shakespeare and Son’, and the unpleasant trade of butchering. Clearly for him it is preferable to think of Shakespeare’s father as a respectable tradesman who served his apprenticeship and then worked in fine leather, a craftsman or artisan, rather than a mere tradesman, or even worse a slaughterman who slit the throats of squealing pigs and bleating calves. That merry-cheeked old man, standing in a provincial shop full of fine leather gloves, provides a safe and respectable haven for Shakespeare’s youth. As we have seen, Schoenbaum claims as fact what turns out to be more like prejudice. While claiming to disperse the gossip and rumour of tradition, and replace it with hard solid fact, he in fact weaves the facts together with inventions of his own. He does this with the confidence of academic authority, convinced that his critical and sceptical analysis of the historical records is much more substantial than some of the records he is analysing.

In fact, however, there is no evidence whatsoever that either John or William served any kind of apprenticeship; and much evidence that John Shakespeare did not restrict himself to one trade. Schoenbaum does not quote the regulations he cites as keeping trades separate, but refers to an old Shakespeare biography, Shakespeare’s Family and Friends (1911) as a reliable source of historical evidence. This earlier book mentions 16th century legislation that sought to maintain divisions of labour between trades such as skinning, butchery, tanning and working in leather. The existence of laws on the statute book is taken as evidence that they were scrupulously adhered to. Yet those laws existed precisely because people worked across different trades, resulting in a long history of competition and mutual recrimination between the craft guilds.

John Shakespeare was fairly typical of his time in having a finger in a number of economic pies. The historical records shows that he was a glover, but also a farmer (‘agricola’), a dealer in wool, and a tanner.  He is described in records of 1573 and 1578 as a ‘whyttawer’, one who prepared the hides of deer, calves and sheep to make white leather. (Schoenbaum p. 30) A man who made his living from farming, and from processing and selling animal skins and wool, might also have slaughtered and skinned and fleeced animals he himself reared. For his eldest son to assist him in his work would have been the most natural thing in the world. And if John Shakespeare had scrupulously adhered to the laws of the land, he would have stuck to his trade of glove-making, and not dealt in wool, or lent money at interest, and get into trouble with the law quite so often.

This analysis points us towards a particular view of William Shakespeare’s origins, which is that they were rural and bucolic, having to do with field and cattle-market; and that they involved the rearing and exploitation of animals, which were slaughtered for their meat and for their skins. It places him in a peasant environment, where agricultural divisions of labour were not yet well established. It locates him in a context of hard and unpleasant labour that entailed what many people today would think of as extreme cruelty to animals.

So little credence is given to the story of Shakespeare reciting poetry while slaughtering, not in my view because it is inherently improbable, but because academic critics and biographers simply cannot imagine so close an intimacy between intellectual and physical labours. Speaking of the memorial bust of Shakespeare in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford, editor and critic John Dover Wilson insisted that he could not have looked like this: ‘This might suit well enough with an affluent and retired butcher, but does gross wrong to the dead poet’ (John Dover Wilson, The Essential Shakespeare: a Biographical Adventure, CUP 1932). It seems to have slipped Wilson’s mind that Shakespeare might well in his later years have resembled his father, who very likely was an ‘affluent and retired butcher’.

Yet this plebeian background is what produced the greatest dramatists of the age, butcher-boy Shakespeare and bricklayer’s son Ben Jonson. Closer to home in Stratford, John Shakespeare traded with a tanner called Henry Field, and took him to court for the price of some barley. Field’s son Richard was apprenticed to a London stationer, and then a printer, whose business he took over (together with his French wife) when his master died. This was the Richard Field who published Shakespeare’s poem Venus and Adonis. The stink of tanning that surrounded these country boys in their youth, did not stop them from making these substantial and complementary contributions to the literature of the Renaissance. And although, as writer and printer, they worked of course in paper, it could be more than coincidental that their fathers’ trade backgrounds might also have included the manufacture of vellum and parchment from animal skins.

From Graham Holderness, Nine Lives of William Shakespeare (Bloomsbury 2011). For more adventures in the skin trade, see Graham Holderness, Meat, Murder, Malfeasance, Medicine and Martyrdom: Smithfield Stories (Edward Everett Root, 2019).

This week Sgt Alexander Blackman, late of the Royal Marines, publishes his memoir Marine A (Mirror Books, 2019). Blackman achieved notoriety as the soldier who fired a bullet into the body of his Taliban captive while quoting Hamlet. He was the first British soldier to be convicted of murder on a foreign battlefield. Read here about the deeper links between Marine A’s experience and Shakespeare’s tragedy of Hamlet, in an extract from an article ‘Hamlet in Helmand’ by Graham Holderness and Bryan Loughrey. The full article is published in Critical Insights: Hamlet, edited by Robert C. Evans (NY: Salem Press, 2019).

Image: Robert F. Carter

Hamlet in Helmand: Wild Justice (EXTRACT)

Graham Holderness and Bryan Loughrey

“Shuffle off this mortal coil you c***.

It’s nothing you wouldn’t do to us.”[1]

This is a quotation from the recorded speech of Sergeant Alexander Blackman of the British Royal Marines as he fired a bullet into the body of a captured Afghan insurgent in Helmand Province in September 2011.

Inside that quotation lies another much more familiar quotation, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil

Must give us pause. (3.1.67-9)

Sgt Blackman was identified not as a soldier who killed his prisoner, but as a soldier who quoted Shakespeare while doing so.

In September 2011 Sgt Blackman was on patrol in Helmand Province with 42 Commando Royal Marines, and came across a Taliban insurgent who, in the course of attacking a British forward post, had been mortally wounded by an Apache helicopter. MP Richard Drax, introducing a Parliamentary Debate in 16 September 2015, said:

Sergeant Blackman and his patrol were directed to an insurgent who had been fatally wounded by gunfire from an Apache helicopter. Horribly exposed in a known hotspot for enemy activity, they knew that other insurgents were in the area. They dragged the fatally wounded man to cover.[2] 

The Apache is equipped with the M230 chain gun, which fires six-hundred-and-twenty-five 30 mm rounds, each capable of piercing an armoured vehicle, a minute. Blackman and his comrades pulled the fatally wounded (or dead) man out of sight of a surveillance balloon. The whole operation was filmed via a helmet camera worn by one of the Marines who accompanied Sgt Blackman. The audio component of the video recording (the former was publicly released in 2013, the latter in 2017), shows clearly that the Marines debated whether or not to administer first aid, and tried to keep their actions shielded from the sight and surveillance of other army personnel. They also show that Blackman shot the insurgent with a 9mm pistol, admitted that he had “just broke the Geneva Convention”, and enjoined secrecy on his comrades – “obviously this doesn’t go anywhere, fellas.”

A year later, five Marines were charged with murder. Charges were dropped against two, and proceeded with against three, including Blackman. A court-martial found Blackman alone guilty of murder. He was sentenced to life imprisonment (minimum ten years) and discharged in disgrace from the Marines. He lost his appeal, though his sentence was reduced from ten years to eight. He was the first British serviceman to be convicted of the murder of an enemy combatant on a foreign battlefield.

Following Blackman’s conviction, support for the Marine sprang up from various quarters, both within the military and the general public, producing a press campaign, social media support groups and petitions to have him released, or his sentence reduced. In 2017 Blackman’s conviction was reduced from murder to manslaughter with diminished responsibility, the “disgrace” stigma was removed from his dismissal, and he was released from prison.   

There are two interpretations of this complex and difficult case. The court-martial convicted Blackman of murder, a verdict supported by senior military officers, the court-martial judicial system, the Ministry of Defence, and implicitly the House of Commons. Within this perspective Blackman acted both illegally and dishonourably, since it was his duty under the Geneva Convention to protect the wounded prisoner.  

The opposing argument, which is one of mitigation rather than defence, was the basis for the campaign of public support for Blackman. At his trial Blackman admitted that he had shot the man, but claimed that he believed him to be already dead. In the audio recording, several of the soldiers offer the opinion that he was already dead, supporting Blackman’s contention. He had tried to take out his anger on a corpse, he claimed, and felt deeply ashamed of his actions.  

There is however a third way of interpreting this incident, via the Shakespeare play alluded to in Blackman’s battlefield citation. The context of the quotation is of course Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy, and the prince’s meditations on suicide. Hamlet, however, is not a play about eschatology, but a play about revenge and justice: in particular about whether they can ever be the same thing. We can infer that this aspect of Hamlet was very much in Sgt Blackman’s mind from his subsequent remark, addressed to the dead or dying prisoner: “It’s nothing you wouldn’t do to us.”

This follow-up remark is not of course a quotation from Shakespeare, but it certainly operates as a citation, by irresistibly invoking Hamlet’s prior justification, confided to Horatio, for killing Claudius:

Does it not, think’st thee, stand me now upon
He that hath killed my king and whored my mother,
Popped in between th’election and my hopes,
Thrown out his angle for my proper life,
And with such cozenage – is’t not perfect conscience
To quit him with this arm? And is’t not to be damned
To let this canker of our nature come
In further evil? (5.2.64-71)

Horatio implicitly agrees: “Why, what a king is this!” In the same vein one of Sgt Blackman’s comrades endorses the validity of his talionic assertion – “It’s nothing more than you would do to us” – with the laconic “I know.”

Nothing you wouldn’t do to us. “In Afghanistan”, observed Richard Drax in the Parliamentary Debate, “the enemy were clever, motivated, difficult to identify, ruthless and cruel. Torture and death faced those who fell into their hands”. (Hansard Column 339WH)  Hamlet’s list of charges against Claudius amounts to an insistent protestation that in this case revenge and justice are perfectly aligned: “is’t not perfect conscience / To quit him?” (5.2.70) The Royal Marines might well have been engaged in a very similar effort of self-justification.

“Revenge,” wrote Francis Bacon, “is a kind of wild justice.” (Bacon 9). Revenge is no more a part of the modern judicial system than it was in Shakespeare’s day. But it remains, over 2000 years after the Sermon on the Mount, an obstinately enduring element of popular culture.

Hamlet is sent by his father’s ghost on a mission of revenge; but he interprets it as one of justice. Most analysts of the play have agreed with him. Sgt Blackman was also sent, it could be argued, by his political leaders, on a mission of revenge, for the atrocity of 9/11. The 2001 invasion by the Anglo-American coalition was triggered by the Taliban government’s refusal to surrender Osama Bin Laden and other terrorists, and expel Al-Qaeda from their territory. The coalition was joined in due course by NATO and United Nations forces. But notwithstanding the political motivation of the war, in common with all other military personnel involved in this campaign, Sgt Blackman was expected to operate within the parameters of British and international justice. As Colonel Bob Stewart, former UN Commander in Bosnia, said in the Parliamentary Debate:

… the law is clear. Servicemen and women have a duty and a right to kill the enemy, until that enemy comes under their control—de facto, a prisoner. Once the enemy is under control, they have a responsibility to care for that person. In this case, clearly, Marine A did wrong by killing, or assuming he was killing, someone. That is against the law of armed conflict and the Geneva convention. (Hansard Column 355WH)

There was no space then within this sphere of responsibility for the kind of “wild justice” permissible in Hamlet, and indeed advocated by the revenge-based plot of thousands of popular films.

Filming the event via a helmet-mounted camera made it a form of theatre. Quoting Shakespeare inside such a theatrical environment renders the action a kind of performance. Clearly the Marine who did the filming never expected his little play to gain an audience; rather it was staged for his own private satisfaction. But once the film was released – fully in audio and partially in video – it became nothing less than a revenge tragedy played out among the cornfields of Helmand.

In legal terms, the distinction between drama and real life is absolute. In real life you cannot “poison in jest” (3.2.220): murder is murder. In the initial trial, according to the army, the courts and the MOD, Sgt Blackman murdered a man he should have saved. To Blackman’s supporters, a soldier who had been pushed beyond the limit by the terrible circumstances into which we ordered him made a vindictive but justifiable error of judgement. They stood on the principle that on occasion that which belongs inside the theatre may, even should, be permitted to operate outside it. In the event the law was found to concur with this principle of poetic justice.

Works Cited

Bacon, Francis. “Revenge”. The Essays of Francis Bacon. London: George Sawbridge, 1696.

House of Commons Hansard, 16 September 2015. [Available at] [Accessed 20 September 2018)

[1] From transcript of the ‘Helmand Province Incident’ audio recording, published by The Guardian, 25 October 2013. [Available at] [Accessed 20 September 2018]. The video recording was released in 2017 and is accessible on Youtube. [Available at] [Accessed 20 September 2018].

[2] Richard Drax, MP. House of Commons Hansard, 16 September 2015. Column 339WH.

This highly original new book by a leading Shakespeare expert and cultural critic argues controversially that the ‘samurai Shakespeare’ of the Japanese cinematic and theatrical masterpiece-makers Akira Kurosawa and Yukio Ninagawa represents the greatest achievement of Japanese Shakespeare reproduction. Holderness argues that ‘samurai Shakespeare’ is both consistent with our own western engagement with Japan, and true to the spirit of Japanese culture. 

Shakespeare was an exact contemporary of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Yet when he was first imported into Japan, in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, the plays were performed in contemporary dress, not in the conventional British historical styles, and received as the modern counterpart of Ibsen and Shaw, Gorky and Chekhov.

Today in Japan the Edo past is lovingly preserved, reproduced and displayed. Almost 30 million international tourists enter Japan each year to visit the old capitals of Kyoto and Nara, drawn by the magic of Edo castles, ancient temples, swords and samurai, geishas and sumo, maple leaves and cherry blossom. At the same time Japan represents itself as a society of ultra-modernity, free from the burdens of the past. This book examines why and how early Japanese Shakespeare was assimilated to the modernising and westernising tendencies of the Meiji regime, and kept well away from that very recent but dangerous feudal past of Edo Japan to which at least some of the plays should surely have been seen to belong.  

When Shakespeare was finally integrated with the Edo past, it was to a contradictory mixture of acclaim and condemnation. In 1957 Akira Kurosawa released his great film Kumonosujo, known in the west as Throne of Blood, where the plot of Macbeth, without Shakespeare’s language, is brilliantly relocated to feudal Japan, and which has been described variously as ‘the most complete translation of Shakespeare into film’ and as ‘not really Shakespeare at all’. Kurosawa followed Kumonosujo much later in 1985 with his samurai version of King Lear, Ran. In the theatre Yukio Ninagawa staged in 1980 what is perhaps the greatest ever Japanese production of Shakespeare, his Macbeth set in mediaeval Japan. Ninagawa produced The Tempest in an equally traditional style, as ‘A Rehearsal of a Noh Play on the Island of Sado’ (the island to which Zeami, the great playwright of Noh, was exiled). Across a period of 30 years (1957-1987) these great theatre and cinema artists finally resolved the conflicts between Shakespeare and Japan by setting the plays back into their own beloved but disputed past. These ‘Samurai Shakespeare’ productions were initially received in the west and in Japan with enthusiasm, though not without some critical reflection on the dangers of ‘exoticism’ and ‘orientalism.’

However, after this great florescence of ‘samurai Shakespeare’ (1957-1987), the theatre in Japan returned to its Shingeki roots, preferring modernity to tradition. The phenomenon of Edo Shakespeare became a definitive cultural moment, and many subsequent productions allude or pay homage to the work of Fukuda, Kurosawa and Ninagawa. However ultra-modern a Japanese Shakespeare production may be, it has had the facility to acknowledge the country’s own past as one of Shakespeare’s multiple global histories. At the same time ‘Samurai Shakespeare’ can be found alive and well in other Japanese media, especially Manga.

This is an important study of the complexity and contradictions of crucial cultural and historical moments in Japanese history, and in the relations between Japan and the West.


Introduction: Shakespeare and Japan

1          ‘Show me a samurai’: western admiration of Edo culture, 1890-1900.

2          Modernity and tradition in Japanese theatre 1900-1957.

3          Tsuneari Fukuda

4          Akira Kurosawa

5          Yukio Ninagawa

6          ‘Samurai Shakespeare’ in Japanese theatre 1980-2000.

7          Conclusion: Manga Shakespeare.

c. 256 pp. 12 illustrations, six of which in colour.